ALL GREASED UP Charlie Feathers

The original rock ‘n’ roll wildman gets real
reborn.

 

BY
REV. KEITH GORDON

 

It’s
been ten years since the death of Charlie Feathers – the biggest, baddest, and
most highly rockin’ of the ’50s-era greasers – and rockabilly fans are still trying to digest the enormous legacy and wealth of recorded material left
behind by this prolific and underrated musician. Born in Mississippi in a
farming community, Feathers landed in Memphis in 1950 and, after a short
hospital stay where he was exposed to the radical new sounds coming out of the
radio, the illiterate son of a sharecropper decided to become a rock ‘n roll
star.

 

Feathers
talked his way into Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios, working as a studio musician on
demos and sessions, eventually recording a few songs of his own for Phillips’
Sun Records. Phillips was never convinced of Feathers’ rockin’ future, however,
believing him to be a pure hillbilly crooner. Feathers had the rock ‘n’ roll in
his soul, however, and writing with lyricist Quentin Claunch, Feathers would
bring a melody and vocal direction to songs, the two delivering a handful of
minor rockabilly hits for labels like Meteor and King Records during the
late-50s.

 

Feathers
continued recording and performing well into the ’90s, even laying down songs
on tape in the back room of his house when no studio was available or label
interested. He recorded for European niche labels, American indies, and even
had a major label deal late in life. Throughout it all, Feathers pursued a
unique vision of what his music should be…which, simply put, is an eclectic mix
of ’50s rock, hillbilly twang, country blues, and bluegrass, with echoes of
doo-wop and ’60s-styled pop music.

 

Norton
Records (www.nortonrecords.com)  has done an admirable job of preserving the
Charlie Feathers legacy, the independent label releasing two well-received
collections of Feathers’ music back in the early ‘90s. With the release of
three new volumes, though – Wild Side Of Life, Honky Tonk Kind and Long Time Ago – Norton has created an exhaustive document of
Feathers’ career, the 50 songs collected by these albums comprising rare
B-sides, home demos, live tracks, and other obscurities that showcase the
talents of this natural born singer, skilled songwriter, and pretty-darn-good
rhythm guitarist.

 

All
three of these albums include lengthy, informative liner notes as well as audio
interviews with Feathers. Although some songs are included on more than a
single album, the versions are so wildly different that they merit inclusion,
if only to show the wide range of Feathers’ musical vision. The sound across
these 50 tracks is inconsistent, given the many varied source recordings, but
none of the songs ever fails to raise the roof.

 

The
first volume of the three, Wild Side Of Life, kicks off with a seemingly
live version of the rockin’ title track, a thrill-a-minute roller-coaster ride
with Feathers’ trademark hiccupped vocals, a throbbing bassline, and
bang-twangin’ rhythm guitar. The wonderful “Am I That Easy to Forget”
is provided a deep baritone vocal performance, dressed in pathos and
accompanied by a lone, lonesome six-string strum. One of Feathers’ many
collaborations with Claunch, “Wedding Gown Of White,” is a real head-turner
with divine vocal harmonies, a great tearjerk country storyline, fiery
guitarwork, and Feathers’ smooth-as-silk lead vocals. 
     

 

Feathers
was a long-time blues music fan, and Wild Side of Life includes a
phenomenal duet with North Mississippi Hill Country blues great Junior
Kimbrough. “Please Release Me,” with Kimbrough’s mesmerizing vocals
up front and Feathers’ steady guitar behind, is a minimalist pairing of
rockabilly roots and lonesome blues spirit. Feathers is remembered as a strong
arranger and performer of other writer’s songs as well, and one spin of his
reading of Roy Acuff’s “Mound Of Clay” is proof enough of the
singer’s ability to grab a song and make it his own.

 

Honky
Tonk Kind
opens with the energetic “One Good Gal,” a classic
rockabilly romp with a driving beat and Feathers’ spry vocals. The tear-jerkin’
Feathers original, “Honky Tonk Kind,” benefits from some fine weeping
steel guitar and the singer’s equally mournful vocals. “I Can’t Seem To
Remember To Forget” is one of Feathers’ signature songs, a country classic
gem that is ripe for remake, while “Feel Good Again,” another great
collaboration with Junior Kimbrough, masterfully blends Feathers’ Memphis twang
with Kimbrough’s hypnotic juke-joint stomp.

 

Further
proving Feathers’ undeniable skills as an interpreter, his cover of Hank
Locklin’s “Send Me The Pillow You Dream On” features the singer’s
lofty, ethereal vocals soaring above an earthbound, bass-heavy beat. A reading
of the Hank Williams’ treasure “Cold Cold Heart” is slower-paced and
more deliberate than the original, but no less powerful, the song’s sparse
arrangement featuring a loping rhythm and Feathers’ breathless, understated,
nearly trembling vocals. “Dinky John,” one of Feathers’ minor hits
and another collaboration with Claunch, is a near-perfect slice of vintage ’60s
country heaven, a tragic tale told above a slight western beat and featuring a
transcendent vocal performance. 

 

Feathers
wasn’t afraid of doing some good ole-fashioned hillbilly wailing, either, as
evidenced by the unreleased “Frankie And Johnny” from Long Time
Ago
. Above a scratched-out guitar strum and slap-a-billy bassline, Feathers
tells the tale of these tragic lovers with a half-yodeled vocal that would do
any West Virginny moonshiner proud. Feathers’ version of “That’s All
Right” may not feature the sneering vocals of The King’s better-known hit,
but it’s more soulful, with whoopin’-and-a-hollerin’ a plenty, a raucous
soundtrack and scattin’, boppin’, speaking-in-tongues vocal delivery.

 

The
bouncy Buddy Holly dancing pop of “Why Don’t You” is simply
infectious, with Feathers yelping up a storm and the band laying down one mean
locomotive rhythm. The strangely-strange “Jungle Fever” has a
slightly funky undercurrent, a completely wired (and manic) guitar breakdown by
Charlie’s son Bubba, and odd manipulated vocals. His cover of the Johnny Cash
gem “Folsom Prison Blues” shakes, rattles and rolls with a
desperation and yearning that even the great Man In Black would have to admire.

 

No
matter your musical tastes, the truth is that either you get this stuff, or you
don’t (in which case, it’s your loss, bunkie!). Three volumes of often lo-fi
demo recordings and rare 45rpm tracks from an obscure rockabilly artist may
seem like overkill, but I promise you that somewhere…whether it’s in London, or Tokyo, maybe
even Lawrence, Kansas…some young musician is absorbing
Charlie Feathers’ unique sound with an eye towards stardom. I think that
Charlie would be proud….

 

 

 

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