Editor’s note: This is the second of Johnny Sumrall’s two-part series on early Rock and Roll bands in Mississippi. His comprehensive book, Classic Magnolia Rock—History of Original Mississippi Rock and Roll 1952-1970, is available in our on-line store.
Among the huge crowds drawn by Andy Anderson and The Rolling Stones in Jackson at the American Legion Hut, Jackson Country Club and The National Guard Armory were Tim Whitsett, Cliff Thomas and a host of other future rock stars standing in awe of their role models. Their performances in those heady days inspired Tim Whitsett, at the tender age of 16, to launch his career in 1957.
He had written a couple of songs and was dying to make a record. His problem was that he didn’t have a band. He heard about a recording studio on the coast and gave them a call. He talked with Prof. Marion Carpenter of Singing River Studios who had told him that for $100 he could rent the studio and make a master tape. That was a lot of money for a 16-year-old in 1957, but undaunted, Tim earned the money selling Christmas cards and put his first band together—The Imperial Show Band composed of Lane Cameron, lead guitar, Buddy Meyers, drums, Lee Graham, bass, Chuck Stapleton, piano and Tim, trumpet.
They talked Lane’s mother into driving them the 200 miles to the coast to make the tape. Out of this recording session came “Jive Harp” and “Pipe Dreams”. The next step was to find someone to put up the money to have the record pressed. Luckily, Tim heard that a local jeweler, George Trebotich, might be interested in getting into the record business. George agreed to have the record pressed using the Trebco label and it became an instant hit on the local scene. The record was also released on the Imperial label, which recorded greats like Rick Nelson and Fats Domino.
Tim went on to record many more songs and to write and produce songs for other local artists. On one song, “Lovers’ Holiday”, recorded by Peggy Scott and Jo Jo Benson and which sold a million copies. Tim played the trumpet and hit a wrong note at the end of the song. He begged the producer, Bob McRee, to redo the song, but Bob told him not to worry, that nobody would notice it. But every time Tim hears the song, he hears the wrong note.
Tim’s most amusing recollection of his career in rock and roll was his effort to get his songs played on a certain radio station here in Jackson, MS. He kept taking his new releases to the Program Director of the radio station, who, in turn, kept telling Tim that he liked the song and would play it. Tim kept listening, but he never heard any of his songs played. After several times of this, Tim finally asked the man why he wasn’t playing his songs, the man told him, “You have to be nice to me”. Tim thought to himself, “I thought I was being nice. I’m polite and well mannered”. But then the light came on in his head—payola! But he didn’t have the $50 or $75 the record promoters were paying to get their songs on the air. So he thought of the next best thing. He went across the river to the bootlegger (The State of Mississippi was dry during this period—no liquor sold) purchased a fifth of Ezra Brooks and took it to the Program Director. His current release, then “Mashville”, ironically became the opening and closing song for each show with numerous dedications in between to Ezra Brooks.
The next names to take their place in Mississippi’s rock and roll history were Cliff Thomas, his brother Ed and his sister Barbara, who emerged on the Jackson music scene in 1958. On one of his trips home from college, Ed got an idea for a song. Cliff and Barbara liked it and they decided to take it to Memphis. At the Sun Recording Studios, they met Sam Phillips, who liked the song and released it on his Phillips International label. With Ed on piano, Cliff on guitar and Barbara as back-up singer, “I’m On My Way Home” became an instant hit and landed the group on American Bandstand. This group became the first Mississippians to appear on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand.
Later Cliff and Ed along with Bob McRee, a local record producer, formed The Grits and Gravy Recording Studio in Clinton, MS. They bought the old Hill Top Movie Theater and converted it into a recording studio with the help of Huey Meaux, a record producer from New Orleans. There they wrote and recorded many artists from across the country. The first big hit to come out of this studio was the million seller “Lovers’ Holiday” by Peggy Scott and Jo Jo Benson. Peggy and Jo Jo went on to record a song written by Cliff, Ed and Bob, “Pickin’ Wild Mountain Berries”, which earned them a Grammy nomination.
Doing the research for my book Classic Magnolia Rock-History of Original Mississippi Rock and Roll 1953-1970 brought back a lot of memories. Other popular groups and singers of the day included: Buddy Rogers, Murray Kellum, Bubba Jordan and Mary Ann Mobley just to name a few. You can find out more in my book “Classic Magnolia Rock-History of Original Mississippi Rock and Roll 1953-1970”.