This month's column features the superb instrumental skills of a truly
outstanding group of players. This versatile group of musicians regularly
handled an amazing eclectic repertoire. From pop-flavored ballads like
"Blue Raindrops" and "Tweedle O' Twill," to western
songs like "Skyball Paint" and "Prairie Echoes,"
to cool bluesy tunes like "Trouble, Trouble" and "Hard
Life Blues," to folk/country classics like "Arkansas Traveler"
and "Alabamy Bound," and of course great jazz/big band instrumentals
like "Air Mail Special," "Eager Beaver," and "On
The Alamo" - these folks could handle it with ease! If outstanding
close harmony-style vocal groups, like the Hi-Los or The Manhattan Transfer
were also virtuoso stringed instrumentalists, you'd have a group like
the subjects of this month's "Spotlight."
In the late 1930s, Roy Lanhm (a future country-jazz guitar genius)
was a budding teen-aged guitarist. At the tender age of 16 or so, Roy
joined comedian Archie Campbell's group (known at that time as Grandpappy
And His Gang) and began playing on WNOX radio in Knoxville, Tennessee.
At WNOX, Roy met "Homer" Haynes and "Jethro" Burns
of The Stringdusters. The Stringdusters creative blend of pop/swing
and Django Reinhardt-style jazz captivated young Roy.
In 1940, Roy formed the precursor to The Whippoorwills - The Fidgety
Four. And interestingly enough, The Fidgety Four began as a trio. The
original three members in The fidgety Four included founder Roy Lanham
(leader/guitar/vocal), Bynum Geouge (pronounced "googe" as
in scrooge - on guitar/vocal) and Doug Dalton (mandolin/vocal). Future
Whippoorwill member Dusty Rhodes told me the reason the Four were fidgety
was because they were constantly looking for a fourth member.
And that original fourth member was bassist/guitarist Red Wootten,
who was added when Roy, Bynum and Doug moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee
to work on WDOD radio.
When The Fidgety Four began working with singer Gene Austin and his
revue, he christened them "The Whippoorwills" after the memorable
like "When the whippoorwills call..." from Gene's huge circa
1927 hit "My Blue Heaven." World War II interrupted The Fidgety
Four/Whippoorwills career. During of the 1940s, Roy played jazz in Atlanta
(where he met his idol, George Barnes) and later performed on WLW radio
in Cincinnati, as a staff guitarist. While at WLW, he met many country
players/performers that would go on to stardom, including Merle Travis,
Joe Maphis and Hank Penny. He also got his first taste of studio work,
appearing on many King Records sides, including most of the classic
Delmore Brothers "boogie" songs. About this time he recorded
at least one record for London Records with a group called The Tennessee
In late 1947, Roy moved to Dayton, Ohio and reorganized The Whippoorwills.
Bassist/vocalist Donald "Dusty" Rhoads, vocalist Juanita Vastine
(known as "Sweet Georgia Brown") and rhythm guitarist/ vocalist
Gene Monbeck joined Roy and Doug Dalton to form the classic Whippoorwills
lineup, whose members were all Ohio and Kentucky natives. This lineup
remained intact until the late 1950s.
In 1950, Roy's friend, and fellow WLW alum, Merle Travis (who had really
hit it big in Los Angeles) convinced The Whippoorwills to come west.
This marked the start of a very active phase for the band. The Whippoorwills
recorded at l east two records co-billed with Merle: "Trouble,
Trouble"/"El Reno" (recorded in July, 1950, and originally
issued on Capitol 45 F1241) and: "Hunky-Dory"/"If You
Want IT, I've got it" (issued on Capitol 45 F3247). They also backed
Merle on a number of other sides as well. They performed as regular
cast members on Smiley Burnette's pre-recorded radio show.
IN 1952, The band "subbed" for The Sons of the Pioneers on
the Lucky U radio show (heard on ABC radio), which earned them a lot
of exposure. Unfortunately, despite significant exposure, a loyal group
of fans and an extremely high level of musicianship, the group (who
recorded at least one single, "Blue Raindrops" / "I Must
Have Holes In My Head" on Vita Records #1005) never caught on in
a big way and by the late- '50s The Whippoorwills disbanded.
This month's "Spotlight" LP is an exceptional all-instrumental
effort. Recorded circa 1958 in a "demo studio" in Los Angeles,
Sizzling Strings features some top notch playing by The Whippoorwills
- which at this time included Roy Lanham (guitar), Doug Dalton (mandolin),
Dusty Rhoads (bass) and Jimmie Widener (who replaced Gene Monbeck on
rhythm guitar.) This was an impressive lineup.
As noted earlier, Roy Lanham (who passed away in 1991) was one of the
finest country-jazz guitarists ever. Doug Dalton picked a very swingin').
And the rock solid rhythm section of Dusty Rhoads and Jimmie Widener
had a superb playing credentials. Like Roy, both Dusty and Jimmie were
active studio players. Dusty was a guitar player first (he owned/used
a Stromberg) and like Roy Lanham, was a huge fan of George Barnes. Dusty
also sang with Merle Travis on Merle's Capitol Records hit "Re-Enlistment
Blues" (from the classic movie From Here To Eternity), and at one
time roomed with country/jazz guitar/fiddle giant Jimmy Bryant.
As a bass player, Dusty would go on to work with jazz/studio guitar
giants Barney Kessel and Howard Roberts on numerous recording dates.
And Jimmie Widener's background is no less impressive. Starting in 1942,
he spent seven years with Bob Wills, a year or so with Spade Cooley
and eight years with Tex Williams. And Jimmie had quite a career in
the southern California recording studios. He and Bill Strange were
two of the most in-demand rhythm guitarists of the late 1040s and '50s.
Jimmie worked numerous sessions for Columbia, RCA and Capitol Records
- including backing Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant on killer tunes like
"The Night Rider" and "Shuffleboard Rag."
By the time Sizzling Strings was recorded, The Whippoorwills had been
playing many of the songs on this LP for years. And it shows in the
quality of the [Performances. All of the material on this wonderful
LP features sterling arrangements with effective use of dynamics, main
melodies (whether solo or close harmony) that are impeccably played,
solo segments that are traded effortlessly and a rhythm section that
both anchors and powers these tunes right along. As far as string bands
go, I can't imagine it getting much better than this, unless of course,
Homer and Jethro sat in with Roy, Doug, Dusty and Jimmie.
"Summit Ridge Drive" opens Sizzling Strings and it's cool
bluesy number. Close harmony melody work from Roy and Doug, combined
with the tight rhythm work of Dusty (a huge pulsing bass line), and
Jimmie (his "fours" function like a snare drum at times) make
for some very fine listening. And Roy's trademark four-part harmony
chord backing is very cool. "Stomping At The Savoy" starts
with a bit of a hoedown intro and then switches to a tasty, swinging
hillbilly jazz number. Doug handles the lead line while Jimmie strums
some big time fours all the way through. Near the end of this one, there's
some nice mandolin/guitar close harmony work. "Sophisticated Swing"
is relaxed and oh-so-tasty. Jimmie's big percussive rhythm guitar work
(played on an Epiphone Emperor bought for him in 1946 by Bob Wills)
and the sparse and tasty mandolin and guitar solos make this one I could
listen to all day long.
An exceptional version of Les Paul's often-covered "Lover"
features some mind-blowing tempo changes recorded with out special tape
effects. The band marches through a standard tempo, then a double-time
segment, and then takes the double-time tempo and pushes it to a dizzying
speed. In fact, Jimmie told me that they had some problem with the final
ultra up-tempo segment, so they took a break and went out for a few
drinks. When they came back the engineer queued the tape and they nailed
it. (in fact, Jimmie told me that the rhythm parts on his LP were some
of the most demanding he's ever played. So demanding that his wrists
"TeaForTwo" is totally swinging! Doug takes the lead line
with some fine chord comping from Roy. And they join up for some tasty
close harmony work on the bridge. And of course there's a big time rhythm
section push. "Air Mail Special" gets a first-rate, rousing
rendition. This one is loaded with cool picking, energy and drive. There's
fine close harmony work stunning solo work and Dusty and Jimmie powering
everything along. "If I Had You" is a real favorite of mine.
This tasty ballad is a very fine melody. And the ending on this one
is cool - a series of descending chords courtesy of Jimmie and his Epiphone.
Very, very fine!
"Slipped Disc" is another song with a very catchy melody.
More close harmony work from Roy and Doug gives way to some neat solo
trading. Doug's solo is especially tasty. Stan Kenton's "Eager
Beaver" gets a superb toe tappin' treatment. Doug's lead line and
solo work is as sparse and tasty as it gets. And Dusty's "bubbling"
bass line applies just the right amount of rhythmic push.
Here's an update on several members of The Whippoorwills who are still
Dusty Rhoads is very active and always pickin'. He's still a working bassist
(primarily a jazz player, until 1994 he played with the late jazz guitar great
Lloyd Ellis) and he constantly performs in the New Orleans/Mobile/Pensacola music
circuit. Doug Dalton has battled some serious health problems but is still alive
and pickin'. He's retired and occasionally picks that mandolin of his with groups
in the Dayton, Ohio area. Juanita "Sweet Georgia Brown" Vastine(what
a wonderfully smooth/sweet voice) is nearly 80 now. She lives in Ohio. Jimmie
Widener (who's also had some health problems) is retired on a 40-acre ranch in
Oklahoma. He still plays with The Texas Playboys. Original Fidgety Four member
Red Wootten lives in California.
For more information on Roy Lanham see my "Spotlight" in
the June '94 issue of VG.
Sizzling Strings is available (in MONO) on NRC Records LP LPA-6.
The author listens to a wide range of musical styles, but his special
interests are in the instrumental jazz, "cowboy jazz," and
country vien. Steel guitar, too. Some of Jim's favorite artists include
Speedy West & Jimmy Bryant, Hank Garland, The Collins Kids, Jerry
Byrd, Duane Eddy, George Benson, Marty Stuart, Leon Rhodes and Buddy
Charleton, Joe Maphis, Jimmy Bruno, Roy Lanham, Howard Roberts, Buddie
Emmons, Gary Potter and others in the jazz and country styles. If any
of these artists interests you, or if you're interested in guitar music
in general, feel free to write to
7903 18th Ave SW,
Seattle, Wa. 98106