"Something's Got to Happen"
Rockabilly pioneer Eddie Bond tells it like it used-to-was, and how it ought to be.
By Chris Davis
MAY 8, 2000: The first time I call Eddie Bond he answers the telephone on the second ring. He sounds tired and edgy. His resonant bass trembles and cracks, dissipating finally into a raspy whisper as morbid declarations, more true than not, slip out without provocation.
"I'm about the last one of the early [rockabillys] that's still living," he pines. Dead air follows. The silence is tense, and out of character for this proto-rocker, long-time KWAM radio jock, and typically boisterous self-promoter. In previous conversations he has seemed not only content but thrilled with the simple country lifestyle he has chosen and also with his modest share of fame. He has just returned from a huge Rockabilly Hall of Fame show in Las Vegas, and though he boasts that, "It was just wonderful," something is eating him.
The native Memphian witnessed and actively participated in two major cultural phenomena. (Three, if you count his involvement with professional wrestling -- Jerry Lawler got his start working for Bond and then-partner Jackie Fargo.) Bond's 1956 Mercury recordings "Rocking Daddy" and "Flip-Flopping Mama" are rocket-powered gems right on par with "Flying Saucer Rock-and-Roll," and just a notch or two down from the often-covered "Red Hot" and the seminal "Rocket 88."
Bond has shared spotlights with Grand Ole Opry giants such as Webb Pierce (deceased). Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, and Charlie Feathers (may their sainted heads all rest in peace) have backed him on guitar. Eddie Bond even rocked his hillbilly heart out on the back of a flatbed truck at the grand opening of Memphis' first Katz drugstore. That particular bill also included a gyrating teen who would be king: Elvis Presley (likewise interred, or so they say).
His folky ballads chronicling the hyper-violent life of Sheriff Buford Pusser inspired a series of best-selling biographies as well as Hollywood's successful Walking Tall trilogy. The McNairy County lawman became an international hero almost overnight.
In spite of these accomplishments, Bond has fallen into relative obscurity in America.
The rockin' daddy coughs, clears his throat, and gravely lists several of his remaining peers, making note of their ages and ailments. "There's Johnny Cash, and he's about on death's door," Bond says, punctuating the sentence with a grunt, "and Jerry Lee [Lewis], he isn't in very good shape at all." Bond asks, his voice swelling with awe and admiration, how a man like Lewis, who has lived so hard and who has to be helped out onto the stage, can still infect a crowd with the shaking-crazies each and every time his fingers hit the keys. He declares his undying affection, and changes the subject to Carl Perkins' funeral.
After enduring an extended recital of dire circumstances and rock-and-roll obituaries, I'm forced to reiterate that the purpose of my call today is to set up an interview, not to conduct one. Bond laughs out loud, and the phone fairly shakes in my hand. "You just tell me what time you want to call and I'll be there and we can talk as long as you want to talk, about whatever you want to talk about," he says, the familiar enthusiasm returning to his booming voice. "I'll tell you whatever you want to know."
When I call back the next morning Bond is outside working in the yard, and I can hear someone yelling for him over the deafening roar of the lawn mower. When he finally picks up the phone he's a little bit out of breath, but in much higher spirits than the day before. He talks about a life in the music industry, Elvis Presley, and the tragedy of American radio. He brags about his country-music television show on Fox 13, and spends half of the interview plugging Eddie Bond's Country Club, his cavernous country music venue on Big Hill Pond in McNairy County, about a dozen miles south of Selmer. I knew right away that he must be feeling better.
Bond on the Early Days of Rock-and-Roll:Well, we thought we were playing rock-and-roll. It was really just fast country, I guess. People used to call it hillbilly, and we'd play it fast, you know. I guess that's where they get "rockabilly," but we thought it was rock-and-roll. Whatever it was, it was real fun back then.
Johnny Cash might be playing in Bono, Arkansas, and I might be playing in Jonesboro. We would be playing that close together, playing on the top of those drive-in movies. It might be me, Charlie Feathers, Carl Perkins. We played outside on top of the concession stands, you see. That's where we swallowed all of them bugs. There was a running joke about that, you know. We'd be up there playing and somebody would kind of go [hiccup], "Oh no, I've swallowed a bug." Somebody else would ask, "Well, do you want a drink of Coke." And you would say, "Naw, let him walk down. I ain't giving him a ride."
Everybody had a chance back then. I don't know how in the world you get a chance these days. And a singer is only as good as his last record. I'm telling you something has got to change. When I first started out, if I was driving from Jackson to Memphis, I could at least hit three radio stations that would just welcome me in and play my record while I was standing there and I would talk to the deejay.
I kinda feel like things have got to go back to that somehow.
Bond on the Radio:It's got to the point where you can't talk to a deejay anymore. He don't tell his listeners the name of the song he's playing. He'll tell you "50 minutes of records" -- and that's horrible for the sponsor. Because when they go to commercial, you know it's going to be at least five minutes. That sponsor is just wasting his money because if you know there's going to be five minutes of commercials you are going to change the station.
Back when I was on the radio I'd say, "We've got a brand-new record and it's so good," and I'd lead them on right up to it, then I'd say, "right after this," and go to commercial. I'd slip that commercial right in on them because, like it or not, you don't have no radio without them commercials. Somebody's got to pay the bills and that was great for the artist and the sponsor.
Radio was good to me. I was on the radio in Memphis for 17 years, and I've owned two stations. Back then, me or Dewey Phillips or ol' Sleepy Eyed John, we would get on the radio and say, "IT'S A HIT!" And we'd play a record two or three times and everybody kind of thought it was a hit, you know? Back then, we would push a record we liked and make it go.
Something has got to happen. Used to be each little old town had its disc jockeys, and they would book all of the acts that came to town, and back then we used to play everywhere. Nowadays the deejay ain't even there. The radio station in Bolivar is programed out of somewhere -- Atlanta, I guess.
On the Urban Myth that Bond Told Elvis To Give Up Music and Keep Driving a Truck:That never happened. Not like that, anyway. There was this place out on Highway 61 called the Hi-Hat, and the people who run it were uppity people -- you can just imagine with a name like Hi-Hat. And it was nice, I guess. It had carpet and all. It had a really beautiful bandstand.
Well, I had a piano player and a sax, and I was leaning just a little toward pop music. Well, I wanted Elvis so bad because he could sing pop, and I couldn't. Never wanted to, never did. Well, Elvis came down, and he sang with us for a while and he just did a great job for us and gave us a lot of variety. So what it was, he was dressed in those black pants with a pink stripe and Rose Oil Hair Tonic running down his neck in the back. So this lady at the Hi-Hat, she sat up there looking down her nose at us, and she come up and said, "If you don't get that slimy looking man off of that stage, I'm going to fire you and the whole band."
Well, I needed that job real bad. I hated to tell Elvis. We got in the car and went down to this place called the Airways Club out near the airport. I tried my best to get him a job out there, but to make a long story short, I couldn't get him a job anywhere. So I essentially fired him, and that's how that whole business about telling him to go back to driving a truck got started.
Three weeks later ol' Sam [Phillips] recorded "That's All Right," and it just went crazy. Dewey Phillips would play it 10 times a night. Well, that lady out there at the Hi-Hat, she says to me, "What about that fella you used to have singing with you, hasn't he got a record or something?" and I said, "Yes he has," and she said, "Well, can you get him back?" and I told her I could for $500. And that was a lot of money back then, so she said, "That's the silliest thing I ever heard."
Today Eddie Bond lives in Bolivar, Tennessee, where he claims to be in semi-retirement. In addition to playing at his club on the third Saturday of every month, he operates a bargain store in Middleton, cuts radio voice-overs, stars in local commercials, and films his weekly television shows. A definitive collection of his work has been released on the Bear Family label.
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