Rock's Roles

Hardrock Gunter: From rockabilly pioneer to insurance agent to rock-and-roll legend.

Sidney Louie Gunter settles into an overstuffed chair in the living room of his spectacular Golden home and stakes his claim to pop-cultural immortality. "On my new CD we're saying that I'm the man who named the music rock and roll, and I really believe I am," he purrs in a voice that still echoes his Alabama birthplace. "I don't think anyone has a better argument than I do, because I can conclusively prove to you that I was calling it rock and roll in 1950."

Today Gunter, who was nicknamed Hardrock at 14 and now goes by the moniker Rock, doesn't look like anybody's idea of a pop-music phrase-maker. He wears his age well (he turned 71 on February 27), but he's short of stature and even shorter of hair, with a generous waistline and taste in clothes that runs toward conservative slacks and collared knit shirts. He looks more like late super-agent Swifty Lazar than he does an early hip-swiveler, and that suits him fine. After all, he no longer spends his nights in honky tonks, churning out dance tunes for duck-tailed daddy-os and poodle-skirted lasses. Far from it. Since 1960 he's devoted the majority of his time to his work as a life-insurance agent and retirement planner. He's semi-retired himself now, but his achievements in the insurance field still fill him with pride. One wall of his living room is devoted to honors he's earned as a policy peddler, including a plaque commemorating his membership in the Million Dollar Round Table.

Of course, an even larger wall is crammed with photos from his show-biz days--autographed glossies from the likes of Eddy Arnold, Merle Travis, Grandpa Jones and his close friend Minnie Pearl. ("She's had a stroke, you know, but we still stay in touch with her husband," Rock says.) When he's sitting before this display, the eyes of celebrities past and present gleaming down upon him, he grows as lively and invigorated as he must have been during the days when he was a singer, songwriter, comedian, bandleader, master of ceremonies, television star, signee to Sun Records (the company that launched Elvis Presley) and all-purpose ham. "For a while there I was hot," he remembers, smiling. "Really hot."

Rock didn't stay that way, and he admits to a few regrets about that. "I would have liked to have been a star, but I wasn't a star," he concedes. "I don't know what I was. I kind of sizzled, but I never really burst into flame." Still, he's warmed by the continuing interest in his recordings from music collectors, particularly in Europe, where Gonna Rock 'n' Roll, Gonna Dance All Night, a lovingly assembled CD anthology of his tunes, was recently released by Rollercoaster Records. And he's quietly thrilled that after decades of almost total obscurity, he's suddenly an in-demand concert figure with a rock-and-roll gala staged last year in Munich, Germany, behind him, a slot at an upcoming Denver rockabilly bash ensconced on his schedule, and a gig at England's Hemsby Festival (the planet's most prestigious rockabilly event) on the horizon. "They've made inquiries," he notes about the Hemsby planners. "I might go this year or possibly in 1997, if I'm still alive--which I plan to be."

So how has a septuagenarian who's hardly played in public since Lyndon Johnson's administration suddenly become so fashionable?

The legend of Hardrock Gunter has been told before, and by one of the most critically acclaimed music writers: Nick Tosches, author of the recent Dean Martin biography Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams. In a previous tome, Unsung Heroes of Rock 'n' Roll: The Birth of Rock in the Wild Years Before Elvis, Tosches devoted an entire chapter to Rock; he dubbed it "Hardrock Gunter: The Mysterious Pig-Iron Man." Gunter was flattered by this recognition, but he says he would have been more impressed had Tosches's portrait shared more in common with reality.

"I don't know where he got his information," he grumbles. "He had me born at the wrong time, he had me quitting high school the year I started. And I didn't quit at all--I was the president of my class."

Tosches also wrote, "All those men and boys who, like Sid Gunter, worked with pickaxes were referred to as hardrock miners, or, simply, as hardrocks. In 1939, when Gunter quit the mines and took a job as a singing disc-jockey at Birmingham's oldest radio station, WAPI ("The Voice of Alabama"), he carried that nickname with him and came to be known then, if not quite forevermore, as Hardrock Gunter." This passage earns a howl from Rock, who insists, "I've never been in a damn coal mine in my life. The whole thing was just a story, a made-up story.

"I wrote him a letter mentioning that, and he wrote back and said, 'Nice to hear from you. Do you have any glossy pictures you could send me?'" He chuckles. "I haven't gotten around to it yet, but I might. I only got the letter four years ago."

As Rock tells it, he was born in Birmingham in 1925, the first of three children by Sidney Sr., a longtime employee of the Birmingham Gas Company, and Ola Mae, his stay-at-home wife. The Gunters weren't particularly musical--neither of Rock's parents played an instrument--but they owned a radio that young Sidney took a cotton to. His first discovery, at around age eight, was Gobal Leon Reeves, better known as the Texas Drifter. "He called himself a hobo," Rock remembers, "but he was not really what you'd call a hillbilly entertainer. He did 'Big Rock Candy Mountain' and a lot of the folk songs, but he did a lot of Irving Berlin songs, too." The variety of the Drifter's song list appealed to Rock, who in later years stubbornly refused to categorize his material. "I played people-music," he declares. "Whatever people wanted to hear, that's what I'd play."

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