Music News

The Soundies of Yesteryear

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An Iowa native who moved to Chicago in 1987, Parks, who goes by the cheeky pseudonym Jellystone, practiced copyright and intellectual-property law for nearly fifteen years. Along the way, he also became a rabid roots-music fan, and in the early Nineties, he created a cable-access show to spotlight some of his faves, including Bloodshot Records' Robbie Fulks and Moonshine Willy. He had so much fun with the production that he began trying to figure out a way to combine his legal expertise and his love of music. Soundies was his answer. "You have to think about due diligence on projects like these--who you need to talk to and who you don't need to talk to," he says. "Strangely enough, I enjoy doing those kinds of things. And because I can do them myself instead of hiring a legal department to do them for me, it makes it very economical. But the most important thing is that I get to be around all of this great music."

Soundies isn't exclusively devoted to assembling items from Bill Cook's archives: On top of Pete Kelly's Blues, Parks, with the assistance of a distribution arm of BMG, has issued the soundtrack to Kimberly Jim, an obscure 1965 film co-starring the late country vocalist Jim Reeves, and Mario Lanza in Hollywood, a CD with ditties from two movies, 1949's That Midnight Kiss and 1950's The Toast of New Orleans. But he's gotten far more attention for the two discs he's put out in association with Bloodshot, which bring out the best in a pair of outstanding C&W performers, Spade Cooley and Rex Allen.

Cooley, a gifted fiddler and bandleader who was prone to violent mood swings, is a cult figure thanks to his wild life, which is itself worthy of a country song. In 1961, he beat his wife to death in front of their teenage daughter, who later testified against him in court. Although he was eventually sentenced to life in prison for the crime, he became such a model inmate that the parole board agreed to consider his release and gave him permission to perform at a 1970 sheriff's benefit in Oakland, California. By all accounts, Cooley wowed the crowd--but when he went backstage after the concert, he suffered a heart attack and died. Shame on You, a Soundies offering credited to "Spade Cooley & the Western Swing Dance Gang, featuring Vocals by Tex Williams!" dates from an earlier period--1944 and 1945, when Cooley was at the height of his powers. The disc is 25 previously unreleased tracks strong, with spritely instrumentals ("Steel Guitar Rag"), fabulous cross-cultural blends ("Yodeling Polka") and romantic corn ("Forgive Me One More Time") supplementing the cool-as-ice title track and some charming vocal inserts. In one, a perky Cooley invites fans to come see him play at a ballroom on the Santa Monica pier--"and if you don't, shame, shame on you."

Equally enjoyable is The Last of the Great Singing Cowboys, by Rex Allen, a performer who is known for work in several different mediums. Between 1950 and 1954, Allen made nineteen musical Westerns for Republic, a B-movie specialist; his sidekicks included Slim Pickens and Buddy Ebsen. He also earned hit singles well into the Sixties, starred in the TV series Frontier Doctor, and served as the narrator for many of Walt Disney's popular nature films; he's known to generations as the warm-voiced fellow describing the antics of Charlie, the lonesome cougar. The Soundies disc catches him in the late Forties, when he was the focus of Barn Dance, a program on Chicago's WLS radio that served as a career launching pad for Gene Autrey and Red Foley. The relaxed tenor exhibited on these previously unreleased M.M. Cole transcriptions fuels nostalgia fests like "Out Where the West Winds Blow," "Headin' for the Open Range" and the finger-popping "Tyin' Knots in the Devil's Tail," and his songwriting is illuminated on "Gonna Marry Me a Cowboy," crooned by his wife, the former Bonnie Linder.

Unlike Cooley, Allen is still in the land of the living; he resides in his hometown of Willcox, Arizona, just down the street from the Rex Allen Arizona Cowboy Museum and Cowboy Hall of Fame. Parks consulted Allen, who's 78, on the project, and the liner notes include a testimonial from the man himself. It reads, in part, "I am so pleased that some of that early material is getting released on Soundies' Last of the Great Singing Cowboys project. These western tunes never do go out of style, and if I do say so myself, the singing holds up too!" During a recent interview, Allen is considerably less effusive. After revealing that "we probably did twenty of 'em in a day--one take, and then you'd move on to the next one," he describes them as "passable--although some people like 'em real good."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts