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Rock's Roles

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."

Before long, Rock had convinced his folks to spend $3.98 on a guitar from the Sears catalog. "It was a real cheapo," he says. "It had Gene Autry throwing a rope on it and plastic tuning keys." Nevertheless, Rock loved that guitar, and thanks to constant practicing, he learned to strum along with the Drifter and his most important musical role model, multifaceted entertainer Hank Penny. "I heard him on the radio, too," Rock recalls. "I was listening one day and all of a sudden I found a hillbilly band that wasn't a hillbilly band. They had instruments like a hillbilly band, but they were playing dance music like I'd never heard before. It was Western swing, and Hank Penny brought it to the southeastern part of the country."

At thirteen, with these influences buzzing in his head, Rock joined the musicians' union, effectively putting his amateur days behind him. He played guitar with numerous area big bands, but when the groups' money ran short, he was always the first to be let go: Since his guitar wasn't amplified, no one could hear him playing anyhow. Meanwhile, he put together his first group, the Hoot Owl Ramblers (named for the Hoot Owl section of Birmingham, where he was living at the time). The lineup consisted of several of Rock's schoolmates, who backed him up during songs and comedy bits lifted directly from the Hank Penny canon. "I stole his act," Rock says about Penny, who later became a close friend. "I didn't know I wasn't supposed to do that, so that's what I did. Hank got old vaudeville joke books and rewrote them for country comedy, and I stole every one of them."

It was good stuff, and even after the breakup of the Ramblers (forced by the Gunters' move to another part of town), Rock kept using it. Billing himself as Goofy Sid, he blacked out one of his teeth, obtained a suitably preposterous costume and began appearing as a solo act at a weekly talent show in the Birmingham suburb of Irondale. After winning the competition thirteen weeks in a row, Goofy Sid captured the attention of the show's promoter, Mrs. Si Wages, who promoted him from contestant to "special attraction." And when Happy Wilson--a Birmingham native who'd just returned from Hollywood, where he had been featured in several cowboy pictures with Ray Corrigan and the Three Mesquiteers--told Mrs. Wages that he was recruiting talent for his new band, the Golden River Boys, she recommended Rock.

Sid took about two seconds to accept Wilson's invitation to join him and his confederates for a pair of dates in Atlanta, Georgia. At 2 a.m. on the day of the first engagement, the musicians arrived at the Gunter home to pick up their young sideman. Ten minutes later, Sidney had a new handle.

"The trunk lid of their car was open and I put my guitar inside, then turned to the boys and said, 'Hand me that banjo,'" Rock recalls. "And just as I went to pick up the banjo, the trunk-lid prop slipped and the lid whacked me in the back of the head. So I just pushed it back up and said, 'You going to give me the banjo?' And Happy started laughing. He said, 'Hey, boy, didn't you notice that trunk lid hit you in the head?' And I said, 'I noticed it. So what?' And Happy said, 'My God, your head is hard as a rock.' And that's what they started calling me: Hardrock. It didn't have anything to do with any coal mine. It was that trunk lid--and from that time to this day, my real name finally just vanished."

 

In 1939, Hardrock became a full-time Golden River Boy. When he wasn't attending high school, he did his Goofy Sid shtick and played the occasional banjo solo at dances, in addition to the band's regular radio appearances on WAPI. But all that came to an end in late 1941, when America entered World War II. Wilson was drafted shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the Golden River Boys went their separate ways. Rock spent the next two years emceeing radio shows and playing odd jobs with other Birmingham acts. He reached draft age in 1943 and by December of that year, he was in the 106th Infantry.

Gunter's tour of duty wasn't an easy one. In December 1944, his entire unit was captured during what became known as the Battle of the Bulge and spent the rest of his war in prison camps. "I was in for 104 days and I lost 80 pounds," he says. "I started out at 182."

Shortly after being liberated by Patton's troops in March 1945, Rock was discharged and found his way back to Birmingham. Wilson survived the war, too, and as soon as he was a civilian again, he reassembled the Golden River Boys and went right back to work at WAPI. Rock stayed with him until 1948, when he took his first stab at the insurance business.

This career change was not so sudden as it seems at first blush. Rock had been musing on the idea of getting into the insurance game since 1943, when he met a fellow soldier named Charlie Karsch. "Charlie was in insurance, and he'd been after me for a while," Rock says. "First time he saw me, he said, 'You should be an insurance agent.' I don't know why. God bless his bones, he must have been an idiot. Man, I was 18 years old and all I wanted to do was pick a guitar. Who in their right mind would think someone like that would make a good insurance agent?"

A few years later Rock was more receptive to Karsch's suggestion, in large part because he had additional responsibilities to consider. He'd gotten married in 1945 to a woman whom he refuses to either name or discuss: "You put pleasant things up front and unpleasant things behind you," he explains politely but firmly. He acknowledges, though, that the products of their union--sons Alan (currently an architect in Birmingham) and John (a certified public accountant in Dallas)--were very much on his mind around then. And in that post-war era, selling insurance seemed like a more reliable way to keep their mouths full and their bottoms diapered than did strumming a guitar or cracking wise.

So Rock relocated to Indiana and began working for Charlie Karsch. He caught on quickly ("I led the company nationally in sales," he crows), but he missed performing, and he was homesick for Birmingham. When he returned to Alabama for Thanksgiving that year he looked up Happy, and when Wilson offered to let him manage the Golden River Boys, he gladly traded in his respectable suits and ties for his old cowboy boots. Within a year or so he was managing and booking a number of local combos in addition to the Boys, performing on two half-hour radio programs (one focusing on hillbilly music, the other on popular tunes), and hosting a couple of showcases on WAPI-TV, the first Birmingham television station with its own cameras. "At night Happy Wilson and I did a music show called The Happiness Hour," he says. "And at noon I did Hardrock's Roundup Time, which was a puppet show for kids. And I'm not going to boast about this--I'm just going to tell you a fact. The mail was so strong, because it was the only station in town, that they packed canvas bags at the post office with my fan mail. Sometimes I'd get more than one bag a day."

At the same time, Rock recalls, "I entertained five nights a week at the Beverly Lounge, doing pop and novelty and a little risqu stuff now and again--the kind of things you'd hear on party records by Ruth Brown or Redd Foxx. Then, on Saturday nights, I led the house band at the Jewish country club, and on Sundays, I led dances at the Greek church. I never slept. And then in 1950, I started my recording career."

The first song that Rock put his name on was "Birmingham Bounce," a rollicking number of his own composition that occupies the ground between country & western and rhythm & blues that Elvis would make his own in a few years. In the book What Was the First Rock 'N' Roll Record?, authors Jim Dawson and Steve Propes acknowledge the cut's historical importance by naming it as one of fifty songs that may be the answer to the question they posed. The music on "Bounce," credited to Hardrock Gunter and the Pebbles, provides one of the keys to their argument: "Because the fiddler and steel-guitar player laid down what were essentially up-tempo horn lines, the record was an early hint at rockabilly, which was still four years off in the future," they wrote. But just as important in the view of Dawson and Propes are Hardrock's lyrics, which include frequent mentions of the word "rockin'" (for example, "Now everybody's dancin' and jumpin' too/While the music's rockin', nobody's blue"). In 1950, the term was commonly employed in R&B circles as a synonym for sex. But "Birmingham Bounce" was certainly among the first tunes targeted at a primarily white audience that used it in a musical context.

 

In their essay, Dawson and Propes also cite another Hardrock single from 1950, originally called "(Gonna Rock 'n' Roll) Gonna Dance All Night." Rock's even more prominent use of what became, thanks to disc jockey Alan Freed, commonplace terminology in 1954 sparked little notice at the time of its release because of two factors: its middling commercial performance and a fateful decision made by Manley Pearson, whose Bama Records label issued both "Bounce" and "Dance."

"Manley was very religious. He used the money he made at Bama to tithe his church," Rock says. "And because 'rock 'n' roll' had a sexual connotation--it basically meant 'screwing'--he was scared to death to release it under that title. He thought it would kill the record, and it might have. I still believed in the record and insisted he put it out under the other name. But if I'd stuck to my guns, who knows what might have happened."

Although "Birmingham Bounce" enjoyed a more pleasant fate than did "Gonna Dance All Night," it didn't do as much for Rock as he had hoped. Again, he thinks that Pearson deserves the blame. When "Bounce" started selling well, a much larger record company, Decca, offered to lease the master and distribute the tune nationally--a common practice in those days. But Pearson, who saw "Bounce" as a way to build his label, refused Decca's increasingly generous offers. Frustrated, Decca execs finally decided to have the company's biggest country artist, Red Foley, do a cover version of the ditty. "And when the distributors heard that Red Foley was going to come out with 'Birmingham Bounce,' it was like turning off a faucet," Rock allows. "My record sales just stopped, and the dealers started returning my record. It broke poor Manley."

At least Rock got something out of "Bounce." Foley's version of the number became the year's ninth most popular country song and earned gold status (more than 500,000 copies sold). And while Rock didn't make as much from royalties as he would have preferred--like so many artists, he unwisely signed a contract that stripped him of many of his rights--he earned a reputation as an up-and-coming songwriter. He also won the respect of Decca, which signed Rock as soon as he got free from his Bama contract. Rock cut sixteen sides with Decca over the next couple of years, including some genuine oddities--foremost among them the Dominoes' lascivious smash "Sixty Minute Man," done as a duet with vocalist Roberta Lee. But none of the singles performed well saleswise, in part because Rock was unable to tour in support of them. When the Korean War heated up, he was called to active duty again. He remained stateside this time, but as he points out, "You can't do too many personal appearances in a lieutenant's uniform."

In late 1952, after being cut loose from both the military and Decca, Rock moved to Wheeling, West Virginia, and served as emcee and leader of the house band on flagship station WWVA. The following year he cut four tunes for MGM that went nowhere, then returned to Birmingham and took a post at WJLD, a tiny radio outlet. Jim Connally, WJLD's program director, subsequently introduced Rock to his brother-in-law, the owner of a small record label in Memphis, Tennessee. His name was Sam Phillips.

At the time, Phillips was best known for recording bluesy masterworks--back then they were called race records--by Howlin' Wolf, Little Junior Parker and many other blues legends. But he was also on the lookout for white artists who might be able to render the passion of R&B. Thinking that Rock might be the man for the job, Phillips agreed to release a re-recording of "Gonna Dance All Night" backed with "Fallen Angel." The catalog number for the single was Sun 201; Elvis's debut on the imprint was Sun 209. Arguably, then, the first rock-and-roll record on Sun came not from Presley, but from Hardrock Gunter.

 

"Gonna Dance All Night" went down as a footnote in history instead of history itself because, to put it simply, the song didn't sell. Phillips saw promise in Rock, however, and invited him to come to Memphis, where they could work together on developing a new sound. Rock, to his eternal chagrin, turned him down. "I never went to Sun and I never met any of those boys down there because I didn't have time to do it," he says. "I had to make a living playing at the American Legion. So I stayed in Birmingham, and everyone else who came out on Sun--Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins--became a star."

In spite of this turn of events, Phillips stayed in touch with Rock even after the Elvis phenomenon struck full-force and released another pair of Gunter tunes--"Jukebox Help Me Find My Baby" and "Fiddle Bop"--in 1956. As before, this was a leasing agreement rather than a full-scale collaboration with Phillips. Rock had recorded "Jukebox" at WWVA, to which he'd returned in 1954, with no help from anyone. "I really thought I had a hit with that," he contends. "Man, I put every trick in it that I knew. I played a bass line with my mouth--boom-ba-da-boom-ba-da-boom--and then later I added a half a measure in one place like it was a mistake. And I uttered the word bay-bee! like it was a mistake, too. I just put in all these little gimmicks, things the kids could listen for."

The kids thought "Jukebox" was all right, especially at first. The tune received regional airplay in the South but really began to take off once Cleveland DJ Bill Randall got behind it. Randall's enthusiasm attracted Phillips, who obtained the rights to the track. But, according to Rock, old Sam couldn't leave well enough alone.

"Sam Phillips is an absolute genius, but he made a mistake this time," he says. "He took his scissors and razors and splicing tape and he took out the bass part I did with my mouth, because he thought the record was too long, and he took out the half measure that I threw in there, and he took out the bay-bee! I uttered, too. He cut the hit right out of the record."

The bad luck didn't dissipate. Rock was becoming an institution at WWVA's Jamboree program, on which he served as producer, master of ceremonies and bandleader, but the songs he cut for a variety of labels--Essgee, Gee Gee, Bronjo and Emperor among them--didn't find many supporters. When 1960 rolled around, he knew it was time for a change.

"Now, I've got to tell you one thing about me," he begins. "I don't know if it's a character flaw or a plus, but if I can't be the absolute best at what I'm doing, I ain't going to play. And so I had decided that I would stay in the music business until I was 35 years of age, and if I didn't make major stardom by that time, I'd quit and go into the insurance business. And that's what I did."

The break was not as complete as Rock implies. Although he left WWVA in 1960, he continued to lead the band for the next four years. He also kept busy in the studio, self-releasing albums such as 1961's Hardrock Gunter and His Town & Country Music Play Popcorn Dancing for the Social Set. Other tunes from these years failed to gain release, but are part of the Rollercoaster Records CD. Rock loves the disc, but he's under no delusions concerning the quality of his early Sixties work. "A lot of those songs I did then aren't good--they're bad," he admits. "They're just a lot of gimmicks. I was trying to find a sound, something that would get people's attention. And it didn't always work."

Finally, in 1964, Rock got fed up with Wheeling, a place he'd never liked much in the first place: "It took me ten years to make enough money there to move by UPS," he jokes. So he packed his bags and headed for Denver, a place he'd enjoyed visiting several years earlier. He saw Colorado as rich insurance territory, and he turned out to be right. Over the course of thirty-plus years in the business, he earned the kind of money that had previously eluded him. He also married again: He met Sheila, his wife since the mid-Seventies, after hiring her to run a small wax museum in Estes Park that he owned for a time. The two of them have matching Lincoln Town Cars and a hyperactive black poodle named Rambo and live in a hillside estate built around a central fireplace that contains, Rock proudly states, "32 tons of rock."

 

The home also sports a small music room where Rock plays on occasion. He recorded a few things there, including an instrumental album of Hank Williams songs, in the early Seventies, but he otherwise restricted his performances to the Roundup Riders Blister Bottom Orchestra, associated with a horseback-riding organization, and the Will Back Orchestra, which plays at debutante balls and other formal and semiformal dances. He also gives seminars on insurance, passing out pamphlets emblazoned with the query "WHO IS ROCK GUNTER" to attendees. The focus of the booklets is insurance, not entertainment. Nowhere in its text does it mention that he was once known as "That Bouncin' Man From Alabam."

But Europeans haven't forgotten Hardrock. In 1984, Charly Records, a well-regarded reissue company, put out Boogie Woogie on a Saturday Night, an LP that contains all of Rock's Decca recordings. And around the same time that Rollercoaster was readying Gonna Rock 'n' Roll for release, organizers of July's International Rockabilly Rock & Roll Meeting '95 in Munich reached Rock and asked him to perform just before the evening's headliner, Wanda Jackson. Rock agreed, and Rollercoaster's John Beecher, who also released a Hardrock single in 1982, assembled a suggested set list. Rock retaught himself how to play his own songs, then jetted to Germany and huddled with the Ranch Girls & the Ragtime Wranglers, an act from the Netherlands that had eagerly agreed to serve as his band for the evening. He thought he was ready for whatever might come his way when he hit the stage. He wasn't.

"As I started into my second song, all of a sudden it hit me," he says. "This was the first time I'd sung a lot of these songs in public, and yet all these kids in the crowd were singing with me. They knew every word. And that grabbed me. It choked me up, I don't mind telling you. I'm not ashamed of it--I almost didn't make it through that set, it meant so much to me. That was one of the highlights of my life."

There may be more moments like this one for Rock. This July he's set to close the Denver Rock N' Rhythm-Billy Weekend at the Regency Hotel; it should be a good warmup for the Hemsby Festival. In the meantime, Rock's son John, who has published five books on accounting, is shopping to publishers a manuscript called Hardrock Gunter: Did I Tell You AboutE, a collection of typical Rock anecdotes about his encounters with Ernest Tubb, George Jones, Roy Rogers, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton and many others. One of the more amusing sketches was first discovered by the readers of Colin Escott's book Hank Williams: The Biography. As Rock tells it, the year was 1949 and Williams had just had a hit with "Lovesick Blues," a record Rock had loaned him. A grateful Hank asked Rock to act as his manager, telling him, "You know, we'll get rich."

"I know we will," Rock replied, "but I couldn't spend my part of the money in prison."

"What do you mean, prison?" Williams wondered aloud.
"If I become your manager and we have a deal, but you can't be found because you're off on your ass drunk," Rock answered, "I would kill you."

Those days are as long gone as Hank Sr. Rock says he doesn't keep in touch with many people from his show-business years anymore, mainly because "most of them have left me, through what I'd call an involuntary departure. They died dead."

Rock seems a long way from following them into the grave. In fact, the sudden resurgence of interest in his music seems to have revitalized him. "I'm an entertainer, so when I'm not doing that, I have withdrawals," he says. "I miss the musicians, I miss the jam sessions. So it's nice to have a chance to do it again. And to tell you the truth, I think it feels better now than it did the first time around.


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