Rockabilly Days

LARRY DONN writes for Now Dig This

In the early '60s, I was playing bass with The Spyders, consisting of Bobby Tucker on lead guitar, Dan Rains on piano, Sammy Creason on drums and lead vocalist Bill English. When I quit to re-organise my own band, Fred Crook took my place on the bass, and the band eventually toured their first US tour. Shortly after I left, they changed the name to The Tarantulas and had a modest hit called, of all things, 'Tarantula'. It must have taken many hours of discussion, research and Budweiser to come up with that title. It was an instrumental, and that's about all I remember of it, except the fact it was recorded at Fernwood sudio in Memphis in 1960. All the guys but me were students at Arkansas State University, which was Arkansas State College in those days, and I don't recall how I got into the band. It was probably because, though I was a high school "kick-out", they wanted me around so they could benefit from my great wisdom, but maybe not. There's always the slim possibility that the bandleader, Tucker, as he is known to his friends, liked the way I played.

Somewhere in that era, Tucker called and asked me to play with them at a talent contest at the college. The drummer that day was Oliver Warren, who was also a student, and I'm not sure if Sammy had quit and Ollie was the new drummer, or if this was before Sammy started with the band. I do know he played with the band for a while, and I know Sammy played on the Beatles tour, so I assume Ollie was the drummer before Sam.

He also played with Sonny Burgess and me at a college near Pine Bluff, Arkansas, which was probably in late '63, as I owned a red '63 Volkswagon, I picked him up at the dormitory where he lived, and discovered he had a whole herd of drums, The packing job we did was a work of art. In fact, I think there is a bronze plaque on that spot in the parking lot commemorating the event. I won't go into details, but the only place in the car that a drum didn't occupy was my lap. None of them would fit between my belly and the steering wheel. Somehow we made the 150 mile trip played the show and got back to the dorm by daylight without any exciting traffic incidents.

I think those were the only two times we played in the same band, but something in the back of my mind keeps whispering "C&R Club", so he may have played there with Sonny and me, as the club was only 15 miles from the school. All this happened long before he became The Big O to Roy Orbison.

A few days ago, I visited Ollie at his recording studio at 506 North Missouri in West Memphis, Arkansas. I didn't take a tape recorder to record our conversation, and I'm glad I didn't as we talked steadily from 2:30 to 9:20 pm. Brenda, Ollie's "significant other" (as he put it) joined us about 5:00, and with all three of us talking, I would have had to run the story in serial form for the next year or two to get it all told.

I found the man of the day leaning against a cabinet in the kitchen area, watching Joe Beasley and Jared Houck glue sound-absorbing foam panels onto the wall of a new sound isolation room. After inspecting the wall, Ollie and I found chairs in the mastering room and began our marathon conversation.

When we stopped to catch a breath, he played me some recent tracks from an album he is doing for Bill Haney, whose Elvis act was quite well known in the late '70s and early '80s.

"So tell me again... how did Roy Orbison come to call you The Big O?"

"Some people called him that, and he didn't much like it. He started using it on me as a joke."

"Which of his records did you play on?"

"Several of them... 'Oh, Pretty Woman', 'Candy Man', 'Crying'..."

"I want to find out who you had to bribe to get a job playing drums with Roy Orbison, and there's the story about your first meeting with Elvis, but first, tell me about the studio."

"I was almost totaly out of music from '70 to '93. I got involved in electronics, and after working for other companies for a few years, I started my own business building computers. In the early '90s, it was doing well and I had some free time and some extra room in this building, so I decided to put in a small recording studio. The studio has done so well, I'm phasing out the computer business."

We were surrounded by machines with lots of knobs, dials and meters, and I was a bit uneasy until I spotted the familiar words, "bass" and "treble". I mean this guy builds computers, has a small beard and is a musician... he could easily fit into the "mad scientist" mold. With the push of a button, he could possibly send me back to the fourteenth century or somewhere else without air conditioning. However, having seen several science-fiction movies, I knew that time machines do not have bass and treble controls, so I relaxed a bit.

"Now you can tell me about the first time you met Elvis."

"Well, I had heard of him... he'd been playing some of the clubs around the area. The girls liked him, but we made jokes about him. We were clean cut, 'ivy-league' types, and we though we were cool, but the girls liked him better. One night, he was playing on a flatbed trailor at the Mustang football field when I was in high school at Forest City. We had just finished band practice and descided to walk over to the football field to see what was going on."

"Yoy mean you actually took lessons?"

"I played the baritone horn in the school band."

"So, Elvis was wailing and y'all went to see him."

"No, we didn't really go to see him... we were just curious, I guess. We saw a Ford Crown Victoria... I think it was a '55... parked behind the flat bed. As we stood there admiring it, the field lights were reflecting off the windows and we couldn't see inside, so I put my face up to the window to shield it from the light. Gladys was looking at me from the other isde. She rolled the window down and said, 'Honey, can I help you?'. I told her I was just admiring the car. She told us Elvis was her son and asked if we'd ever met him. We said we hadn't, and she invited us to sit in the back seat until he finished his set and said she'd introduce us to him. In a few minutes, he showed up. We talked for a while, he autographed a picture for me, and then he headed back for the next set. Gladys hugged us and invited us to visit them in Memphis."

"Do you still have the picture?"

"I gave it to my girlfriend and got another hug."

"Did you ever take Gladys up on the offer?"

"No, but later, I went to Graceland a few times with Roy. Their birthdays must have been close totgether or something... there for a few years, they semed to be having birthday parties at the same time."

"You didn't play baritone horn with Roy... not that I know about, anyway... so how did you get from there to drums?"

"My high school band director had a country club type band... I guess you could call it jazz band... and I played drums with him on weekends. I met a fellow named Boone Kenyon while I was in high school. His father moved up to Forrest City from Baton Rouge, Louisiana to work on the St. Francis River Levee project. I found out Boone could sing, and we started talking about putting a band together."

A bass player named Jesse Tharp had been doing some recording at Conway Twitty's studio in Marianna (about 20 miles south of Forrest City), and one day they needed a drummer for a session. Jesse had heard Ollie play somewhere or other, so he gave him a call. Other sessions followed, and Ollie said he met Sonny Burgess there and played on Sonny's first album, though neither of us could remember which album was his first. Ollie, Boone and Jesse started a band called The Spinners, but, as you may already know, it wasn't the famous group of the same name. They hired a guitar player, whose name isn't necessary for full enjoyment of the story, and decided to hold a weekend dance at the National Guard armory. Then the guitar player got himself arrested and thrown in jail on Wednesday. Ollie had a Thursday night session at the studio with Fred Carter Jr. and Robbie Robertson, who played lead guitar and bass in Ronnie Hawkins' band. He mentioned to Fred about the guitar player being in jail and the dance on the weekend, and Fred and Robbie offered to play with them. They did, and made twenty dollars each.

Who else had Ollie played with?

"I played with Charlie Rich a few times, and at The Silver Moon at Newport with Jerry Lee Lewis. We had a lot of wild times back then. We were playing at The Rebel Club one time and I fell completely out of the club."

"That must have taken some practice."

"No, I got it right the very first time. The bandstand was a couple of sheets of plywood on top of wooden Coke bottle cases stacked about a foot high. The most logical place to put it in the room just happened to be against the back door. When sitting at my drums, my back was directly in front of and only a few inches away from the door. Some people were arguing at the front of the bandstand and somebody got shoved against my drums, which in turn, pushed me out the door. I landed on my back on the gravel parking lot behind the club, and the door closed behind me. It all happened so fast... I was a little dazed and it was pitch black outside, and for a few seconds I didn't know where I was. When I figured it out, I got up and found the door was locked. The band was still playing, apparently thinking I would come back in shortly. I went around the front door and the doorkeeper didn't know who I was, and wanted me to pay the admission charge to get back in. I told him I was in the band, and he told me I couldn't be in the band because the band was on the bandstand playing at the time, I yelled for the manager, who told the doorkeeper who I was, and I made it back to the bandstand before the band finished the song."

So how did he become Roy Orbison's drummer?

"It's a long story", he said. "Conway Twitty had been trying to help Fred get going as a solo artist, and had helped him get an agent who had booked a tour. For some reason or another, the drummer was unable to finish the tour, so Fred called me. I quit school and put myself and my drums on a bus for Lorain, Ohio. After the tour, we wound up in Nashville and decided to stay awhile. We rented a house on Finn Street and lived on bologna and Kool-Aid (a sweet drink mix) for a couple of months, and ate many free meals at Tootsie's Orchid Lounge on Broadway. Tootsie liked musicians and I guess she felt sorry for us, so she let us eat there several times without paying. We couldn't find a job, and Fred borrowed $500 from Conway to keep us going until we could make some money. Then he met Mel Tillis, who was working for a publishing company, and Mel said he would try to get the band some work. He wanted to hear us, so we auditioned at the publishing company's office. A couple of weeks later, he called and said he liked the way we played, and he was sending this guy out to our house to listen to us. He said, 'If he likes you, you'll get some really good work', but he wouldn't tell us who it was. Fred pestered Mel about it until Mel told him it was Roy Orbison. I have to admit we got a little worried. We had four hours before Roy was due at our house, so we rehearsed every Orbison song we could think of during that time. When Roy arived, he told us, 'I'm looking for a band to tour with me that can also record with me'. Naturally, I was worried that he wouldn't like my playing, because everybody picks on drummers. Well, Roy did about an hours worth of songs and told us 'I don't know who you guys are, but your hired'. Our first tour was two weeks later, and for the next two-and-a-half years, it was ninety days on tour, thirty days off. When we weren't on tour, we sometimes recorded, and occasionally played the Bel Air Lounge in Hobbs, New Mexico."

By this time, Fred Carter was producing Roy's recordings, and the band was doing sessions with other artists when not on tour with Roy. Ollie became acquainted with Patsy Cline, Marty Robbins, Jim Reeves, Pete Drake and several others in these sesions, and knew Willie Nelson when he was just a songwriter.

Ollie said Roy threatened to fire him, but only once. They were playing for a crowd of 25,000, and it was the first time he had played for more than about 200.

"It was one of those songs that start with the drums, and I was suposed to do the kick-off, but I was too busy looking at the girls around the stage. Fred saw what was happening and did the intro on the guitar. After the show, Roy told me, 'Son, if that ever happens again, you're gone', and it never happened again. Roy was a really nice guy, but he was verry strict about what happened on-stage. He wanted it to be right for the fans. I just got caught up in the 'star' thing, and forgot to do my job."

"The few times I met him, he seemed to be quite a nice and friendly fellow."

"He was. He was one of the nicest people I've ever known. I feel privileged to have played with him because those three or four years were when he was the hottest thing going. I remember one time when the audience came onto the stage and started grabbing things. They grabbed my drumsticks and my tie and almost choked me. Finally the police came and rescued us."

"We've all heard stories about why Roy wore sunglasses. When I first met him, he had blonde hair and wore regular glasses. The last time, he had black hair and wore sunglasses. I asked him why, and he told me he had problems with his eyes... they were weak, he said, and the stage lights were very bright and caused him a lot of discomfort."

"That's right. He started wearing them in Europe. He was going to tour with The Beatles and left his regular glasses on the plane. He had a pair of sunglasses, so he wore them on-stage, and the fans thought it was cool, so he kept wearing them. But he did have an eye disease, and the stage lights hurt his eyes."

"Why did you quit playing with him?"

"We were off for about six months because he wasn't touring. We were living in the house in Nashville and playing around town once in a while, but it just wasn't enough. Jesse was the first to leave, then Fred got married and wanted to use the house, so Rany and I (Randy Minci, the rhythm guitar player) moved out and rented another place. Fred wanted to spend more time writing songs and doing sessions instead of touring, and I was so worn out from being on the road for so long, I decided to quit. I went to work for the Arkansas Highway Department as a flag man, standing on the highway all day with a red flag, contolling the flow of traffic at constructions sites."

"That must have been quite a shock, going from playing with one of the biggest stars in the business to waving a flag on the motorway."

"Yeah, there was a definite difference, but it didn't last long. I started playing drums for Bill Lafferty, who was a student at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, and played some that summer with Charlie Rich."

"You mentioned playing with Jerry Lee at The Silver Moon in Newport..."

"Yeah, I had quit school to finish the tour with Fred, so I went back to Arkansas State to finish my education, and played occasionally with Roy, Charlie Rich and several local bands. Jerry Lee had a night booked at The Silver Moon and didn't have a drummer, so he offered me twenty-five dollars to do it. I arrived a little early, and the club manager, Charlie Watson, told me Jerry Lee and some others had gone down to Porky's Rooftop Club to have a few drinks before the show. Nine o'clock came and they weren't there. after a while, they showed up, and it turned out that Jerry Lee thought his first show was at ten. Charlie had just bought a new white grand piano for the club and was so picky about it, he even warned me to not set up to close to the piano because the drums might scratch it. when Jerry Lee kicked the bench over, Charlie came running up to complain. Every time Charlie complained, Jerry Lee got worse. He threw the bench on top of the piano, causing the lid to fall and break off the support rod that held it up. At breaktime, we went outside and fifteen minutes later when I went back in, Jerry Lee was gone. after about forty-five minutes, I asked Charlie where he was. Charlie said, 'I ran him off! He was tearing my piano up!' I never did get my twenty-five dollars."

My notes stop at this point, but the conversation continued. Ollie went on to the computer and "accessed" the Internet to show me his "website", "webpage" or whatever it's called. You can see it too, at And when you get there, you'll see a list of people he has worked with. Down near the bottom is my name. If you put your little thingamabob (doohicky, whatchamacallit...) on my name and punch the button you'll be immediately transported to where you are right now.

As we moseyed down the hall and into the main studio, Ollie mentioned that we should write a book, "You know, rock n roll came from right here... within about fifty miles of Memphis", he said. (Make that sixty-five miles, Ollie. That's how far it is from Memphis to my house.) "We could tell the backstage stories. We've heard all the 'star' stories... we should tell the stories of the musicians behind the stars. They know the real stories."

Eventually, we made it out the back door into the parking lot, but by this time my brain was turning to jelly from the nicotine of about thirty cigarettes, and I don't remember much of the twenty minutes we talked after he locked the place up.

Incidentally, Fred Carter Jr. is the father of current country star Deana Carter, and has written, produced and played on many hit records, but for some reason, I can't think of a single one right now, except Simon & Garfunkel's 'Bridge Over Troubled Water', wich he produced and played on.

Don't hold your breath waiting for this book we're going to write. It's a good idea, and one that arouses my interest, but finding the time to do the research and interviews could be a major problem maybe we can get it finished in time for the fiftieth birthday of rock n roll in 2004.

Larry Donn's Delta Musicians Page

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