Sunday, September 5, 2010

Tommy Blake: $F-Oldin' Money$

The Rhythm Rebels. Carl Adams on the left. Note Adams' mangled pickin' claw and upside-down telecaster.

Tommy Blake: bastard child, juvenile delinquent, radio personality, gifted songwriter, drinker, and born loser: in his corpus gathered all the ingredients for great rockabilly.

Born Thomas LeVan Givens in Shreveport, LA--or was it Dallas? No one seems to know for sure--in 1931, the illegitimate son of an uncaring mother, Blake, as a youngster, took up the guitar, inspired by his love of country music. He quit school and joined the Marine Corps. He quickly left the Marine Corps. He then became a musician and itinerant radio personality, a career path usually overlooked by High School job fairs. Blake landed a regular spot on KRUS of Ruston, LA. Here Blake convinced rhythm guitarist Ed Dettenheim and another tragic talent, guitar wiz Carl Adams, together known as the Rhythm Rebels, to back him. Adams, it turned out, was oddly claw-fingered after a childhood shotgun accident. Said deformity, along with a love of amplifier volume, lent to Adams’ playing a certain craziness which had already been utilized by another Shreveport rocker, Dale Hawkins. Tommy Blake and the Rhythm Rebels were up and running, and made the rounds on the weekly live country & western radio broadcasts like the Louisiana Hayride and Hill Country Hoe-Down. Meanwhile Blake honed his songwriting skills, churning out nuggets like “Honky Tonk Mind” and “Ballad of a Broken Heart” which eventually became hits for Johnnies Horton and Cash, respectively.

All of these sparks caught the attention of Nashville bigwigs Owen Bradley and Chet Atkins, who helped the Rhythm Rebels get signed to a deal with RCA records. In 1957 Bradley and Atkins took the boys into the newly constructed Studio B to cut a few sides. Success hovered before them, almost within reach, when it was discovered that Blake had a nasty habit of selling songs all around town. Blake practically gave his songs away if he couldn’t sell them immediately upon writing them. RCA learned that Johnny Horton would also be releasing “Honky Tonk Mind,” and releasing it first, on Columbia Records. Soon after this, RCA dropped the Rhythm Rebels.

Blake, center, flanked by Chet "Countrypolitan" Atkins and Ed Dettenheim.

Bitterly disappointed by the RCA fiasco, Carl and Ed nevertheless hung with the Rhythm Rebels long enough to enter their Sun Records phase. At 706 Union Ave., they cut “Flat Foot Sam” and its B-side, the incredible “Lordy Hoody,” which probably best documents Carl Adams’ “screaming guitar” stylings. But the record sold modestly, at best. Carl and Ed soon packed it in for good. Blake returned to the Sun studio and cut “Ballad of a Broken Heart.” Sam Phillips sat on the song, and probably bought it from a cash-strapped Blake for a pittance, then let Johnny Cash cut his hit version, the sort of syrupy “Story of a Broken Heart.” Songwriting credits on that one go to Sam Phillips.

Finally Blake would cut his last great rockin’ side, “$F-Oldin’ Money$” in 1959 for the Recco label. With its hard luck lyrics about getting close enough to the big score to almost touch it, but losing out in the end, is damn near biographical. Sure, the song’s details aren’t the same as those of Blake’s own life--Blake never had no rich Aunt Bunnie who left behind a sack full of F-Oldin’ Money--but the singer puts a sack full of his own loser-hood into his delivery. When it came to shooting himself in the foot, Tommy Blake knew his subject.

After “$F-Oldin’ Money$” Blake would cut many more records, mostly dismal duds like the 1962 single “Three Cheers for the Red, White, and Blue” for the 4-Star label. None packed the heat of “Lordy Hoody” or “$F-Oldin’ Money$.” Finally, on Christmas Eve of 1985, Blank drunkenly attacked his wife Samantha in their Bossier City, LA, home. Remorseful after the attack, Blake apparently went out and bought his wife some jewelry to try and patch things up. When he approached her again, holding a jewel box behind his back, she took out a pistol and shot him through the heart.

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