Tracy Pendarvis

TrackSingle / MP3
One Of These DaysScott 1202
It Don't PayScott 1202
A Thousand GuitarsSun 335
Is It Too LateSun 335
Is It MeSun 345
Uh Huh, Oh YeahRockabilly Classics
Beat ItRockabilly Classics
HypnotizedRockabilly Classics
I Feel A TeardropDesCant 1234

 

Tracy Pendarvis photo

 

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Contributor: Dave Stephens

One record.

That’s very largely what this is about.

And it wasn’t a hit. Nor did it get close.

So this isn’t another essay on a One Hit Wonder who just happened to have an exotic name. We might even have to invent a new category: Didn’t-Make-It – with or without hyphens.

Even if you’re nearly as old as the hills, like me, you won’t remember this one from first time around. Although surprisingly for a totally unknown Sun artist with no track record anywhere, it saw release in the UK. It didn’t get any airplay. I was an avid Luxembourg listener at the time and don’t think I’d have forgotten.

However, it’s not beyond the realms of probability that you’ve come across the record in more recent times, possibly tucked away in one of those trillions of Sun compilations, or those rockabilly comps, or collections of 50s and early 60s music.

The record is A Thousand Guitars from Tracy Pendarvis (and The Swampers).

I came across it in, I think, 2013. I had started tweeting records from the London American label, working through them sequentially but being selective rather than posting everything. With added text and some editing, the result of this activity eventually emerged as “London Rocks”. In relation to this record, which was released in February 1960, I tweeted the following:

Welcome to the London Friday evening session where the time machine is back in February 1960
Getting us going is a Sun release and an obscure one at that. Tracy Pendarvis with “A Thousand Guitars”
Try to describe that & all I come up with is teen pop and rockaballad, neither of which do any justice to a great record
And Pendarvis seems like one of those made up names but it’s not – Tracy was born in a place called Shamrock in Florida
He was one of many who ended up on Sam Phillips’ doorstep desperate for fame
The flip from Tracy Pendarvis (and the Swampers) was the doom & gloom ballad “Is It Too Late”
Another one that could be a cult classic if sufficient people heard it

I didn’t quite rave about the disc but the reader should bear in mind that a lot of magnificent records, by household names and others, were released by London in the period I was covering. I had to eke out my “awesomes” and “fantastics” in order not to bore the potential reader with repetition.

What I did wonder at the time was, how did this unknown guy with an odd name manage to get his Sun debut record released on London, when Sonny Burgess, Billy Lee Riley and Warren Smith, all accredited rockabilly heroes and local big sellers in the Memphis area, had had one release between them on the label.

Even the great Charlie Rich, who’d had some success with Lonely Weekends, only had two discs released on London in his Sun days. What it did strongly suggest was that Sam Phillips, or whoever he had doing the liaison, was so convinced of the record’s potential that he really sold it hard to the London rep, who might have been the redoubtable Mimi Trepel, the lady who almost single-handedly set up the Decca/London operation in the US. Or there’s still the possibility that said London rep absolutely fell for the record. Who knows? He/she/they could have been right.

For anyone not aware I should explain that London, or London American, was a subsidiary of Decca which selected and distributed records from American independent labels to the UK and other countries. The indies with which they signed agreements included Sun, Chess, Atlantic, Stax, Imperial (Domino), Specialty (Little Richard), Cadence (The Everlys) and many more. I say “selected” because London didn’t take everything released by an indie; they exercised discretion, or to put it more succinctly, they did some hit or miss predicting.

He was born, Tracy Rexford Pendarvis, on February 8th 1936 in Shamrock, Florida, and died of cancer on January 25th 1997. In between, he learned guitar, formed a group with lead guitar man Johnny Gibson, played teen dances in the immediate area, signed a recording contract with Scott Records of Miami, cut a couple of records at radio station WDYH, made the trek to Memphis in order to get some of that Sun stardust, passed his audition and made three records, the first of which was A Thousand Guitars, made a couple more records for DesCant Records of Atlanta, a company he had started, and then he largely moved out of front line performing but managed to sell some of his songs and also set up a recording studio (in 1990).

And in relation to that name, there’s a saying: “By Tre, Pol and Pen, shall ye know all Cornishmen”. While I can’t prove a direct link, it’s more than likely that one of the ancestors of Tracy came from Cornwall (what is facetiously known these days as the Poldark connection). Years ago, mines in Cornwall and Devon provided most of the tin, copper and arsenic for the UK. However, towards the end of the nineteenth century, competition from other countries depressed prices forcing mines in Cornwall to close. This caused miners from the county to leave home and seek work in the “new world” which of course included, North and South America (and I can’t resist the totally truthful aside that Mexican pasty makers really, really exist). Wiki tells us that in the first 6 months of 1875, over 10,000 miners left Cornwall to work overseas. There’s also a BBC report zeroing in on those Cornish miners aiming to get to Michigan who went down with the Titanic. There has been phosphate mining in Florida since 1883 and it’s not unlikely that some of those Cornish miners found their way there. Pendarvis is not an unusual name in the state. I might be putting 2 and 2 together and making 5 but you never know.

Back to the plot.

Tracy’s discography was small but perfectly formed, peaking somewhere near the middle with A Thousand Guitars and its follow-up, Is It Me. It’s brevity was such that I felt it was worth including in toto:

Jan 58 – Scott 1202 – One of These Days / It Don’t Pay
Mar 58 – Scott 1203 – Give Me Some Lovin’ / All You Gotta Do
Jan 60 – Sun 335 – A Thousand Guitars / Is It Too Late
Aug 60 – Sun 345 – Is It Me / South Bound Line
Apr 61 – Sun 359 – Belle Of The Suwannee / Eternally
Jan 62 – DesCant 1234 – I Feel A Teardrop / First Love
1963 – DesCant 1235 – Philadelphia Filly / Don’t Wait On Love

Let’s take them from the top. A Thousand Guitars is head and shoulders above the rest, and head and shoulders above a lot of stuff that came out of Sun in 1960. I stand by my words “teen pop and rockaballad” but they don’t give a feel for the presentation of the song (which was written by TP as were almost all of his tracks). Three things stand out: those shimmering guitars aurally reinforcing the title line; a whacking great beat letting you know that this was Sun not just any old label; and the Pendarvis vocal, cool as a mountain stream if you’re old enough to remember a certain cigarette ad.

This wasn’t explicit rockabilly, country or blues but you sensed that the guys in the studio understood such music. In an interview with Tracy contained in Top Shelf Oldies he states that regular Sun session guitarist (and Jerry Lee’s support man) Roland Janes was present at the session and those cascading notes could well have come from him. However, I’d caution this isn’t confirmed by the usual fount of all Sun knowledge, 706 Union Avenue.

The flipside, Is It Too Late, couldn’t have been more different. The tone is somewhere between teen tragedy and blues with a deep resonant guitar riff à la Duane or Link plus a femme chorus, echoing an anguished Tracy vocal. The whole thing threatens to go totally overboard in the middle eight when the chorus go into near gospel call and response mode and the over-miked drums hit the listener with booms from Spector-ville. Notwithstanding the more OTT aspects of the side it’s still a fascinating mood piece.

Sun 335, A Thousand Guitars / Is It Too Late was the first Sun single of the sixties. Optimism was rampant in the studio when it was cut, but the anticipated sales didn’t materialise. Perhaps if they had, things might have been different for Sun; perhaps the decline that had already started might have been arrested.

But that single wasn’t the last great Sun record from Tracy Pendarvis. The follow-up, Is It Me, wasn’t quite as good as its predecessor but if they were intending to produce a teen pop single with a bit of bite, they did it very well. Catchy melody, good hook, it was all there. Maybe they were attempting to recreate a New York Holly-soundalike with strings, only the pizzicato sound came from guitar(s) not violins. Oodles of charm and rather puts me in mind of Adam Faith with John Barry. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, you thrill me so”. The YouTube uploader of this one comments “1960 Rockabilly” but that could be wishful thinking.

If you wanted rockabilly, then both sides of single #1 did their best to supply. One Of These Days owed a debt to Elvis but then so did at least 80% of rockabilly wannabes. The gaps between the vocal lines and a busy rhythm section were somewhat reminiscent of El’s Milkcow Blues Boogie. Come to think of it, both numbers shared a slow intro so maybe Tracy’s schooling had been based on a study of Presley Sun records. The side had a satisfying rawness though which has gone down well with those fans of the genre who’ve discovered it.

The flip. It Don’t Pay was slightly more sophisticated rockabilly with some Florida Jordanaires slotting in behind Tracy who pitches his approach midway between Buddy and the Pres. A fierce guitar break ensures there’s no softening of the overall atmosphere.

The first pairing post Sun was different again. Both sides were more akin to that mix of teen pop and doo wop that was largely ruling the charts – this was 1962 remember – although both sides were redeemed by prominent guitar. I do wonder whether this was Tracy himself playing or possibly Johnny Gibson who’d been with him at Sun. According to Gary Myers in his feature on Tracy in Top Shelf Oldies, the backing singers were Joe South, Jerry Reed and Ray Stevens who “just happened to be in the studio”.

I should add that Tracy was involved with all these guys in a production/engineering capacity at DesCant. One of those gents lets rip with a falsetto “Ya Ya Ya Ya” a couple of times which livens up First Love though otherwise it’s a relatively standard example of the doo wop progression. There’s no trace of hilarity on the other side, I Feel A Teardrop, indeed restraint is the word that first comes to mind re the backing, and words like sobriety and sensitivity are applicable to the overall arrangement. While there’s nothing unusual about the production, to my mind Tracy had done something that wasn’t that common: he’d blended country – there’s even a Floyd Cramer style piano – and teen ballad in a very satisfying manner.

Moving on to unreleased material, or unreleased at the time to be more precise, Tracy recorded a number of alternates in his first session at Sun in early Summer 1959. While he has stated that “the cuts were simply demos that were played live in the studio for Phillips” (source: 706 Union Avenue) and, indeed, there aren’t any hidden masterpieces included, they’re worth a listen, and the warts-and-all, non-worked-up state, if anything, adds to the attraction. The compiler of the 3xCD Charly compilation Rockabilly Meltdown – highly recommended if you don’t have it – certainly thought so since he included several of them. And I’ve included three in my list: the Hollyish Uh Huh, Oh Yeah with guitar work which almost defines the word ‘driving’; Beat It, a two chord rhythm romp with manic piano – a possible competitor to Who Do You Love if it was given more focused production (was this one autobiographic?); and Hypnotized on which our man tries on several voices and the drummer tries on Bo Diddley. Maybe the last might have been a candidate for a Coasters record. It goes astray somewhat, halfway through, leaving you with thoughts of valiant triers down at the village hall. But that’s all part of the charm of all these single take efforts.

I should interject to say that we’re very lucky in that most of Tracy’s oeuvre is present on two albums, Thousand Guitars and Rockabilly Classics, the second of which is on Spotify. Both contain the singles, the Sun outtakes plus a few extras recorded later but not previously released.

And finally, a couple of curios. As already noted, Sun single #3 coupled Belle Of The Suwannee – and that was the correct spelling for a river that’s often referred to as the Swanee – with Eternally. The A-side is not a version of the Florida state song Old Folks At Home, also known as Way Down Upon The Swanee River. However, the record kicks off with “Way down south, deep in Dixie” which suggests a resemblance between the two. Maybe Tracy wrote it as a tribute. Things get curiouser with the treatment which is very much in the Carl Mann, rock-up-the-oldies style. Maybe Sam had prompted the approach on the basis that it had worked, albeit only for a spell, with Carl.

The flip, Eternally, had a string section dominating the action. Not something you expected from Sun. Maybe this was going the whole hog down the Holly New York route, though to be fair, Tracy made no attempt to sound like Bud.

The production has that early fifties sound about it and I keep waiting for this song to really resonate in my brain the way that those Holly numbers did, after I got over my initial negativity about the presence of the strings.

It’s never going to replace A Thousand Guitars though.

A thousand guitars, a million stars
Were singin’ the night that we met
Oh, what a night, you held me tight
And said we’d never forget
Young love, our love, so true

 

Tracy Pendarvis (1936-1997)

 

Tracy Pendarvis – Rockabilly Hall of Fame

Tracy Pendarvis at 45cat

Tracy Pendarvis biography

Dave Stephens had a long career in IT – programming, consultancy, management etc. – before retiring in 2007. After spending time on the usual retiree type activities he eventually got round to writing on one of his favourite subjects, popular music, particularly, but not only, the sort that was around in his youth. He gained experience at ‘the writing thing’ by placing CD reviews on Amazon. This led to his first book “RocknRoll” which was published for Kindle in 2015. He followed this up with “London Rocks” in July 2016. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

TopperPost #667

1 Comment

  1. Andrew Shields
    Oct 22, 2017

    Thanks for this Dave and what a fine record ‘A Thousand Guitars’ is. A unique sound, too – cant think of any other song of the period that really resembles it. Thanks again….

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