Site Update, August, 2006
BILL FLAGG leads music at
Agawam Baptist Church
Bill Flagg lead the music for the Sunday worship at the Agawam Baptist church on Main Street in Agawam on July 30.
Flagg, whose residence in Granville is a remote and private place, is one of music's "great might have been" mysteries.
His legacy is small. His hit records, Guitar Rock and Go Cat Go, promised fame and fortune, but although his potential in Rock and Country music was limitless, he chose domestic obscurity to get off the road and to be with his family in Hartford. However, his influence is profound in Rockabilly circles. He is the originator of Rockabilly music, and in musician circles it is said, "He laid the egg that Elvis hatched." He was inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame in 2000.
When he made his start at the age of 17 he played with the likes of Jody Gibson, Eddie Reed, John Sligar and Frank Kennedy. They supplied the musical coloration and many ideas, but he was the leader, he supplied the vision.
In songs, such as Guitar Rock, he and Jody Gibson devised a peculiar but exciting way of mixing classic Hillbilly with Rock and Roll and although even some of their musical colleagues refused to play with them when they were being so avant-garde, they made it okay for a white man to jump around and be impulsive and fun. Guitar Rock seemed to be a collection of chords strummed at random and with much energy. Bill wrote it. It has been performed by many artists but it was Bill's rendition which went into the charts. It is a demanding piece that caught the imagination of the young as well as the curiosity of other musicians in 1956.
Bill appeared on Bandstand several times, performed on the WWVA Jamboree in Wheeling, West Virginia, and has a history of radio shows and appearances, which include WHAY and WKNB in New Britain, Connecticut, WKOV and WLMJ in Ohio and WPEN in Pittsburgh, to name a few. But his heart was home with his ailing dad who was a horse trader and ran a livery ranch in Keney Park when it was in its heyday. Bill hated the travel and grit of being on the road, and he chose to play local nightclubs such as Shonty's in Windsor Locks where he was the main entertainer for 12 years.
Although his contributions to music were great and illuminated by flashes of musical genius with chord combination and song phrasing, he spent his time in domestic privacy. His music continues to inspire young ones who try to combine the chords with the apparent ease Bill developed.
It is fascinating to speculate about what would have been had Bill remained on the road. Movies were beckoning from the arena of Alan Freed. Bill had signed contracts with both MGM and Tetra Records. He was a brilliant innovator and songwriter and a fascinating guitarist. Although he opted to withdraw into family life, as opposed to the usual tragic rock and roll histories of his colleagues whose lives ended in early death and family chaos, his unfulfilled potential musically ranks with the greats like Elvis and Buddy Holly.
Flagg is married to The Rev. Jenny Flagg. She will lead the worship July 30.
From article in the Agawam Advertiser News.
Flagg to Revisit Rockabilly Sound
Column in Central Maine Newspaper "On Music by Lucky Clark"
Friday, February 18, 2005
Musician Bill Flagg, who along with John Sligar, is credited as the co-creator of "rockabilly" music in 1954, will be returning to central Maine for a show at the Unity Centre for the Performing Arts on Saturday night.
Born and raised in Waterville, Flagg had a couple of hits on the Tetra Records label back in the 1950s titled "Go Cat Go" and "Guitar Rock" when he and his band combined "hillbilly" music with a new genre called "rock 'n' roll." Flagg has had several successful shows in central Maine over the past few years, but this will be his first time at UPCA.
"I'm bringing half a band with me and their supplying the other half," he explained during a telephone interview from his home in Granby, CT. "It's going to be a combination of rockabilly and country and bluegrass." That's a blend of styles that Flagg's been using in Connecticut for a while now -- and it has been very successful for him.
"It's been going over really well," Flagg said. "I get a lot of older people who remember all that stuff."
On Saturday he'll have a five-string banjo player, John Rough, with him as well as Brian Sherette, who is a noted dobro player.
"I'm really lucky I got these two guys to play with me," the singer-guitarist explained. "And my son, Bob Flagg, will also be part of that group. Doug Wainoris, who's well known in the Waterville area, will be the lead guitar player -- he does an excellent job on rockabilly. He's also going to supply me with a drummer and a bass player."
With those three genres being tapped, it would seem that there will be a lot of material for Flagg and his band to draw upon.
"And as I said, people who are coming to the shows really like it," he said. "We're getting some young people because of the bluegrass and a lot of old people because of the rockabilly and country, so we're getting a really good mixture of people to the show, and one of the last (ones) we cleared an area and they were dancing!
"I was impressed with the turnout and the way the people liked that combination of music," Flagg said. "That's probably what I'd like to (emphasize) -- it's a working combination -- and it's good!"
Lucky Clark lives and writes in Sweden, Maine.
Site Update, August, 2003
Rockabilly music creator comes to Waterville
Central Maine Newspapers - Friday, July 18, 2003
By Lucky Clark
"It's been a dream come true for me to play Waterville, my old home town," said Bill Flagg in a recent telephone interview from Granby, Conn., his current home and the base of operations of Banner Records, his own recording label. He was referring to a concert that has been planned for Wednesday evening, July 23, On The Green.
Flagg is the originator of rockabilly music - the unique blend of rock'n'roll and "hillbilly" music that had it's heyday quite a few decades ago (the Stray Cats brought it back in the 80's with several hits like "Stray Cat Strut"). This will be the guitarist's first ever performance in Maine.
"All the places that I have played, I've never played Waterville," he said, "which is my home town. I might be doing something later on in the Opera House, too, which would be another dream come true."
He was born on the Oakland Road (now Kennedy Memorial Drive) in 1934. His grandfather had a milk truck and drove the school bus.
"He had one of the first school buses - that was horse-drawn - in Waterville," Flagg continued. "My family goes back a long, long way."
When he first started making his special music, he was in Connecticut ("we moved down here just before the war") though he did go back every summer to stay with his aunt and uncle in Waterville.
"I developed rockabilly music and Tetra Records in New York offered me the contract, which I took, and so all of my jobs (were) from New York on to South. I never got up to the Northeastern part of the U.S. - never got up to Maine. So, I'm anxious to do that. My CDs are selling pretty good up there, too."
Flagg was recently inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, a tribute that means a lot to the musician/songwriter, even more so due to the fact that he got so fed up with the music business that he quit performing and recording. "My son talked me into playing again," he said.
"They made me a member which I'm very glad of," Flagg said. "I'm supposed to go to Las Vegas some time this coming winter - they're going to do a television special in one of the big nightclubs. They're all about rockabilly music and they want me there."
BILL FLAGG, "Guitar Rock" CD
Bill recently re-recorded his original Tetra material. A combination of Bill's bluegrass background and his rockabilly creativity is strongly displayed on this exciting 14-track disc. The title track, "Guitar Rock," was ground-breaking song as rockabilly music came into being. This CD is proudly featured on the Rockabilly Hall of Fame label. Order your copy here.
Bill Flagg Speaks ...
What a pleasure it is having a page here and what an honor to be inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. When I departed MGM, I never expected all these wonderful things that have happened to me to take place after all these years.
My dispute with MGM was with producer Morty Craft, who "doctored" my recordings to make then "sound better." I simply felt it was not true Rockabilly. Then a popular DJ named Jim Flaherty, a good friend, called one day to play a record over the phone by this kid from Sun Records who was playing Bill Flagg music, he said. This young man from Memphis was turning out some good recordings while I was being pushed into the pop market.
Morty Craft, Monty Bruce and Dave Miller were partners in a small label called Bruce Records of New York City. They broke up when Dave Miller discovered Bill Haley and released the first "Rock & Roll Records, Rock Around the Clock."
Morty Craft went with MGM as A&R man and Monty Bruce started his own label, Tetra Records. He signed Jody Gibson (Joe D. Gibson) who told him about the music I was playing in Hartford and the big crowds we were drawing with it. At that time I called it "Rockbilly."
Monty offered me a contract naming himself as manager of my affairs. This was a ploy utilized by many small label owners in those days. He was also the son-in-law of famous DJ Alan Freed, who, as you know, named Rock & Roll. Freed was amused at my referring to this sound as "Rockbilly", and I think it was he who talked Monty into eventually changing it to "Rockabillie," so it wouldn't sound so hillbilly
We went to Bell Sound in New York and recorded "Doin' My Time" - "Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms" - "Can't You Hear Me Calling" and "Six White Horses." This was the music I was playing back in Hartford that was commanding such a big following. After the session Bruce wanted information on all these wonderful songs I had written and when I told him none of them were mine he nearly fainted, exclaiming he would not release anything but original material. So at 3-AM that morning I was sent into a back room to write four original songs to be recorded then and there. I had never written a song in my life, and obviously Mister Bruce was no A&R man.
After both recordings, "Go Cat Go" and "Guitar Rock" went into the Billboard charts, Bruce told me he was selling my contract to MGM and would retain the position as my manager. After what Craft did to "I Will Always Love You" and "Doing My Time." I decided to seek another label. At that time my father suffered a heart attack and I decided to remain at home and help in his business of buying and selling saddle horses.
As time went by I abandoned the idea or recording for I came to think I'd never get to put down the true Rockabilly sound. By this time Elvis was already overwhelming the market. I played the same club for the next ten years keeping a rather low profile. During that time my dad passed away and I finally gave up music to pursue other interests.
My son Bob had joined a Bluegrass band and was plying festivals regularly. I wrote a few originals for them and every now and then I sat in on a recording session or a rehearsal. Several times they offered me a guest spot with them, but playing festivals miles from home was not a top priority on my list of fun things.
They booked a festival in Stafford Springs, about an hours drive from where I lived, so I decided to play it with them. The response was overwhelming. The people seemed to enjoy the music of an old has-been. The entertainment director for the town of East Hartland, Jennifer Abalan, offered me the opportunity to produce a Bluegrass festival for the town. The festival was a great success from the start and this led to a CD by popular demand. People wanted recordings of my songs.
A popular DJ in Springfield, Dave Helman, played "The Great American Special" and the thing took off, not only selling here in the USA bit reaching foreign markets as well. It was strange, but a great deal of my correspondence from overseas was inquiring if I was the same Bill Flagg who recorded Rockabilly music back in the fifties.
My next recording project, health permitting, will be to do Rockabilly the way I should have done it in the first place, just for the satisfaction of getting it down the way I intended it to be.
Whether or not I am recognized as the originator matters little to me now, for I never thought of myself as doing anything more than giving this great music a name.
It's just an honor to be accepted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame and if I had the opportunity I would not hesitate to do it all again. I didn't make money, but I played the places the ordinary beer-joint entertainer could never dream of playing, and met people I new would have met otherwise.
Bill Flagg, "Hobo Bill"
Bill Flagg's CDBorn and raised in Waterville, Maine, Bill is veteran of some fifty years as a professional entertainer. Starting in radio as a cowboy singer, he was known as the "The Lone Pine Cowboy." In 1954, he and John Sligar combined what was then referred to as "Hillbilly music" with a new beat called "Rock and Roll" and called it "ROCKABILLIE." This new sound gained such local popularity that Tetra Records of New York offered him a contract. Accompanied by Cat Gibson and Ted Barton, it was recorded for the first time in 1956.
At that Bill was the only one calling his music Rockabillie. Bill Haley, Elvis, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis were referred to as Rock & Roll. Elvis was called the King of Rock.
Bill's early recordings were "Go Cat Go" (George Jones, Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes) and "Guitar Rock," both of which went into the Billboard charts. MGM dropped the name Rockabillie because it sounded too "corny."
At the urging of his son Bob, Bill came back to the music scene after a 27 year lay-off to form a Bluegrass known as "Hobo Bill & The Last Ride." Bill Flagg is a writer who prefers doing his own music, much of which is about New England, especially the state of Maine.
Bill's Bluegrass CD (pictured here) is available from: Banner Recordings, 34 Zimmer Road, Granby, CT 06035. Phone 860-653-0447. Bill does the vocals, plays guitar, bass and harp.
MORE ABOUT BILL FLAGG by ROBERT W. BANNER:
In 1953 ...
in an apartment on Sargeant Street in Hartford, Connecticut, three young musicians got together for a rehearsal. John Sligar 25, on lead guitar, Swanee Rivers 31, on bass and Bill Flagg 19, on vocals and rhythm guitar.
The Music of Flatt & Scruggs and Bill Monroe was virtually unknown in the Northeast in the early fifties, but young Flagg was greatly impressed with this music and longed to feature some of it with his country dance band, The Prairie Drifters. But his followers objected, complaining it was not danceable. The jitter-bug and fox-trot being the popular dances of the time.
During a lull in the rehearsal, Flagg started playing a little Flatt & Scruggs and Sligar, who was half heartily trying to copy Chet Atkins, began finger picking. Swanee started pounding out a heavy rhythm on the bass and they soon realized they had something that sounded different. They were playing a hillbilly song to a rock and roll beat.
So on a Thursday night in January of 1953 at the Deerfield Restaurant in Hartford, Connecticut, Flagg stepped up to the microphone, raised his guitar and started the beat to Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms. Thus was born Rockabilly music.
Though he eventually lost his old following, they were soon replaced by a much younger crowd who loved what they were hearing and soon lined the sidewalk waiting for a seat.
He began calling his music Rockbilly at first because it was half rock and roll and half hillbilly. (See the Tetra label of Go Cat Go). There was no such thing as country music back then, for it was called hillbilly. Within a short time the name Prairie Drifters no longer seemed fitting so it was changed to Bill Flagg & The Rockbillys.
Monte Bruce of Tetra Records heard of this new sound and the crowds it was drawing and made a special trip to Hartford where he immediately offered Flagg a contact. In the studios of Bell Sound, 149 W. 48th Street in New York City, they recorded, Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms," "Doing My Time," "Salty Dog Blues," and several others on that first session.
However, upon learning that these songs were not originals, Monte Bruce demanded that Flagg do only songs he himself had written and so he returned to Hartford and wrote four songs for the next session. Two in the Flatt & Scruggs mode and two in the Bill Haley mode. Within a week they were back in the studio to record "Go Cat Go" and "Guitar Rock." The hillbilly songs were rejected by Bruce, but he immediately released "Go Cat Go" on a 78 rpm. The song went nowhere. He he released "Guitar Rock" but again it was the same story. No sales.
Bruce called back all the 78s and the following year re-released "Go Cat Go" on the new 45 rpm speed. He then went to his father-in-law, Alan Fred, a world famous rock and roll DJ on WINS in New York and though Freed was unimpressed with Flagg's music but agreed to play it. Much it Freed's surprise, the record began climbing the charts.
Freed did not like the name Rockbilly. He insisted it was rock and roll and should be referred to as that. Flagg disagreed but changed it to Rockabilly. However, Mr. Freed, still not satisfied, suggested Bruce should either drop the name or at least change the spelling to Rockabillie. "It sounds like hick music," he said. The label on "Guitar Rock" indicates this name change.
With the help of Alan Freed, "Go Cat Go" and "Guitar Rock" racked up impressive sales and by this time Flagg had written a song, I Will Always Love You. Bruce was certain this was going to be a big pop hit and presented it to Morty Craft of MGM Records who not only agreed, but promptly signed Flagg.
Craft didn't like the name Rockabillie either and insisted it not be used on the MGM label. "It sounds too corny," he said. Flagg was fast becoming disillusioned with the record business, but at Bruce's urging, agreed to record.
When the MGM record was released, Flagg heard it for the first time on Alan Freed's show and that's when he decided he had had enough. The record had been doctored with dubbed voices and instruments to make it sound like a pop song, now commonly known as do-wop." Craft's excuse being that Flag's instrumentation sounded too much like Elvis.
By this time it was 1956 and Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee, Gene Vincent and others were all being called rock and rock. None of them or their music were ever referred to as rockabilly until the 1970's. Elvis was often called The King of Rock & Roll.
Flagg left MGM and the recording business and returned to the clubs where he played his music to standing room only crowds for the next twelve years before leaving for a career in real-estate.
He maintained a low profile for the next twenty seven years when his son, Bob, a bluegrass musician, convinced him to play again. He agreed to record a bluegrass/country album for Banner to be followed with an album of Rockabilly music the same way be first played it as the Deerfield Restaurant in Hartford in 1963.
Some of the tapes he had saved from Tetra had been damaged in a basement flood years ago, but enough of the sound was salvaged so that Banner Records was able was able to duplicate it almost exactly. -Robert W. Banner
ANOTHER ARTICLE ON BILL ...
Originator of "Rockabillie" States His View
by Charles McGillis
Bill Flagg, the self proclaimed originator of Rockabillie music says, "I was there at the start and I think there's a lot of things people don't know or have simple forgotten.
Rock & Roll was introduced by Dave Miller owner of Essex Records when he released a recording by Bill Haley & The Comets. Haley had a cowboy band called Bill Haley & The Saddlemen, when he was discovered by Miller.
Miller urged him to record "Rock Around the Clock," a move he had serious doubts about until the record sold more than a hundred thousand copies in the first few months. It went to Billboard's top 100 and catapulted Haley to fame, if not fortune. Haley had to sue for his rightful share of royalties.
You hear about Elvis as the one who started Rock & Roll, but the truth is, it was started in New York City by Bill Haley and named by popular D.J. Alan Freed, of radio station WINS, in 1954.
Now for Rockabillie. In 1950 I had a country dance band known as Bill Flagg & The Prairie Drifters. In 1953, I was introduced to the "hillbilly music" of Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scuggs; there being no such as Bluegrass back then. I fell in love with this music but my following rejected it because they could not dance to it. Never-the-less, I interjected such songs as "Can't You Hear Me Calling," Doing My Time," "Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms." etc.
Not until I heard the beat of Bill Haley did I find a solution to my dilemma. I combined this beat with the hillbilly music of Monroe and called it "Rockbilly" at first. It was not only accepted by my following, but gained such popularity with the younger crowd that it attracted the attention of Monty Bruce of Tetra Records.
Bruce thought the spelling should be changed to "Rockabillie" to add a bit of "class." In 1955, MGM offered me a contract and decided to drop the name because it sound to "corny."
It's too bad the music world seems to have forgotten that Bill Haley & The Comets were the first to record Rock & Roll.
As for Rockabillie, I may have not invented a new kind of music as Haley did, but I certainly put a name on it. There was no one back then calling themselves or the music "Rockbilly," "Rockabilly" or "Rockabillie." Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and others were referred to as Rock & Roll. Remember, Elvis was called the "King of Rock & Roll."
CD Reviews for "Guitar Rock" 2003
BILL FLAGG - "Guitar Rock"
Rockabilly Hall Of Fame RABHOF CD115-NB
Total Playing Time: 47 minutes 18 sec.
Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms/Sally's Salty Dog/Don't That Road Look Rough & Rocky/Sittin' On Top Of The World/Goodbye Blues/Dark Moon/The Burglar Man/Six White Horses/Rockabilly Music/Rattle Snakin' Daddy/Go Cat Go/Sweetchile'/Guitar Rock/Narrative.
One of the major records in the early days of the rockabilly revival was 'Guitar Rock' by Bill Flagg but it has taken quite a few years for this overview of Bill's recordings for the Tetra label cut in New York between 1954 and 1956 to finally reach us. The sub title to this CD is 'A Rockabilly/Bluegrass Blend of Music' and that amply sums up the contents.
The first two tracks, 'Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms' and 'Sally's Salty Dog' are basic good quality bluegrass but it is with the third track, 'Don't That Road Look Rough & Rocky' that rockabilly guitar picking mixed with a bluegrass song and other accompaniment becomes more pronounced. This is a delightful mid tempo shuffler whereas 'Sittin' On Top Of The World' is more of the same but at a faster tempo. I can just imagine couples strutting their stuff at a country-dance to this one.
'Goodbye Blues' is a great chugger on which the vocals are shared between Bill and Annette Paige and is a real catchy song. One of the highlights of this CD for myself is Bill's treatment of Ned Miller's ballad 'Dark Moon', an appealing tale of lost love with spot on accompaniment. On this the bluegrass element is substantially reduced to almost non-existent and this is also the case with 'Six White Horses'. On the last mentioned, we basically have arrived at Bill's rockabilly sound, apart from the guitar break that reeks of traditional country music of that era. 'The Burglar Man' is basically a talking blues, the sort of number that Charlie Ryan performs so well.
It is only a short jump to 'Rockabilly Music', which has to be one of the earliest mentions of rockabilly in the title. This is a mid tempo number with a lovely rockabilly style guitar picking and a boom chicka beat. More of the same is evident in 'Rattle Snakin' Daddy' with Bill slurring the words out in a real menacing style. The cult classic 'Go Cat Go' with it toe tappin' tempo, rock 'n' roll lyrics and great guitar sounds varying from electric to acoustic is a masterpiece. 'Sweetchile' has a boppin' hambone style beat that Leon Smith took to new limits with his 'Little 40 Ford'. This leaves us with the title song 'Guitar Rock', another cult classic. This is the most out and out rockabilly come rock 'n' roll tune of the whole set and boy does it bop. The CD closes out with a discussion in the studio between Bill and his brother Bob with Dave Lincoln and Brian Charette which is interesting and informative but obviously will not take repeated listenings.
Bill's vocals are spot on and in crystal clear sound with the same applicable to the backing musicians. A good CD that is worthy of adding to the collection. Visit the web site www.rockabillyhall.com/BillFlagg.html for more information.
© Tony Wilkinson
Montgomery Bruce Eisenkrantz
By Bill Flagg
Monty Bruce called me on the phone one day back in 1954 and said he heard about a new sound I was playing from a recording arist named Jody Gibson. He invited me to meet him at Bell Sound Studio in New York where he liked what he heard and offered me a recording contract on the spot. I had named my new music "Rockbilly" but Mister Bruce changed it to "Rockabilly" and Alan Freed changed it again to "Rockabillie". So I guess Monty Bruce should get the credit for the name "Rockabilly".
I recorded "Go Cat Go" for Tetra and it was released first on 78 RPM and then re-released on 45 RPM. It went into the billboard charts and Monty called me back to record "Guitar Rock" which also went into the charts. though he had a bit of help from Alan Freed, his father in-law, actually Monty did ninety percent of the work in promoting it.
I appeared on one of Dick Clark's first bandstand shows, if not the first. It was called Philadelphia Bandstand at that time and shortly after was changed to American Bandstand where I made two other appearances, plus we played a few "record hops" for Dick Clark.
I believe Monty spent more money on me than he made but I might be wrong. In any case I have absolutely no regrets concerning my association with him. I considered myself a Honky Tonk entertainer and probably would have remained one the rest of my life if it had not been for Mr. Bruce.
I met people in show business the likes of Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, Sam "The Man" Taylor, Cozy Cole, Al Hibbler, Jimmie Rogers, George Hamilton IV, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Dean Martin, Patsy Cline, Wilma Lee Cooper, and many others. I also played some of the biggest clubs and the biggest resorts in the USA as well as appearing on some of the most popular radio and television shows. I also recorded for the MGM record label and even had a tour of the famed "Tin Pan Alley", 1615 Broadway, New York.
Many years later in 1999, I was asked to produce The Harland Hollow Bluegrass Festival in East Hartland, CT and I called on the promotional experience I learned from Monty to make it a success from the very first performance. Later that same year I was inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
I have what is now called a "cult following" and I find it all amazing after all these years that many people still remember and recognize me as the originator of "Rockabilly Music". None of this would have been possible without Monty Bruce and Monty; wherever you might be, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.
© Rockabilly Hall of Fame ®>