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Now Dig This, May 2012

Phil Everly, Billy Harlan, Tommy Payne and Don Everly - 1949
By Dominique "Imperial" ANGLARES

Billy Harland, real name William Charles Harlan, was born on March 24, 1937 at Martwick Mulhenberg County Kentucky. His folks, Williams Guy and Ida Mae Blades, as well as his uncle Jack and aunt Nina, all musicians, set the musical background for him. His Dad was the choir leader at Cleaton Baptist Church. From Mulhenberg came also the first Everly Brothers (Ike, Charlie and Leonard), Kennedy Jones (The thumb picking father and composer of "Cannon Ball Rag"), Mose Rager and legendary Merle Travis.

Like all the childs around, Billy was clothed with overall and wore them until the upper part was skinny as strings. Soon his was nicknamed "Kraut" and that stuck until now. In 1944, his Daddy, a coal miner and an electrician at the Evansville (In) Shipyard during World War II, passed at 47 years old. Buddy will team with Tommy "Red Top" Payne under the name of "The Green River Valley Boys" et will perform on various amateur shows set at the Central City's State Theater by the WFMW radio. There they shared often the stage show with Don and Phil Everly, the sons of Ike Everly and himself a great guitarist. From time to time, he will join Dave Rich's band, The Melody Hands, taking care of the double bass. In 1953, Billy will have his own show on Russellville (Ky) WRUS radio but without wheels, he had to stop. He was not only a musician but also one of the best baseball players at the Drakesboro High School.

In 1954, Billy joined Dave Rich who had left Les Smithhart and his Super X Cowboys. Dave was playing in that band since three years with his older brother, James "Spider" Rich, a great guitarist and a friend of Chet Atkins. Dave's band, "The Melody Ranch Hands", featured Billy Harlan (bass), Royce Morgan (gtr) and later Archie Shanks (fdl), Clarence Hanks (stl gtr) and Stonewall Jackson (drums). In January 1955, they will play on the just born WNES radio, in Central City, where Dave was DJ too. Central City, a town with only 4500 people, will have two radio stations. Even if several local performers will play on both stations, WNES and WMTA will fight hard for announcers and sponsors.

Early 1955, Hawkshaw Hawkins and Jean Shepard were on tour in Kentucky when them touring bus broke after a concert in Owensboro. Buddy Killen, them bass man, had to be back in Nashville quickly working also for Jack Stapp's Tree Publishing. Buddy Killen, who knew Dave through his brother Spider, called him to ask about help for the trip back. Dave, having a car but unable to leave home, offered to Billy Harlan to drive Buddy in Nashville. On the way, both musicians started to talk and Buddy offered to Billy some jobs he can't handle no more. He had hard time to handle his touring schedules and his work for Tree. So, Billy started to work for a while with Ray Price and joined The Cherokee Cowboys.

On October 18, 1955, Billy Harlan, Dave and Buddy Killen backed Jerry Reed for his first recording session for "Capitol" set in Nashville. Billy remembers Ken Nelson giving some hard time to Buddy during that session. Nevertheless, Buddy was an excellent dog house bass player having played with George Morgan, Ray Price or Hank Williams. Few weeks later at the Nashville DJ Convention, on November 10, 1955, Buddy Killen played a song demo to Bob Neal, then Elvis manager. That demo sung by Glen Reeves was "Heartbreak Hotel", a song written by Mae Boren Axton who had meet Elvis earlier in Florida. Elvis will agree to meet Mae Boren and a contract between Elvis and Tree was signed on November 16, 1955. Elvis became co-author and "Heartbreak Hotel" was recorded on his first RCA session set on January 10, 1956.

Late 1955/early 1956, Hawkshaw Hawkins recorded a song co-writing by Billy Harlan and Dave Rich titled "My Fate IS In Your Hands" (RCA 47-6716). It would be his next single after his excellent cover of "It Would Be A Doggone Lie", first recorded by Autry Imman for Decca. Billy will soon wed Jane Wester and them son will be christened Philip Don to please his long time friends Don and Phil Everly. Later, Billy would wed Pam Baker and they will have two sons, Damon and Nathan.

Talking about The Everly Brothers, they will have them contract with "Cadence" in February 1957 after Dave Rich had menaced his manager, Hal Smith, to leave if he don't give them a helping hand. Those brothers, after them "Columbia" short lived contract, were down on them luck and ready to leave Nashville and to forget about being singers.

In 1956, with Dave Rich, Billy will play often at the Roller Rink (Rockport Indiana) and at the Hillside Hoedown (WHET-TV Evansville Indiana) sharing the stage with Joe Penny. Joe Penny, who played with Hank Williams and lefty Frizzell, his mostly know for his rockin' sides cut for "Federal" in 1958: "Bip A Little, Bop A Lot" and "Mercy, Mercy Percy".

On June 19, 1956, Billy will play on Dave Rich's second session in Nashville. That session will produce four titles and "Ain't It Fine"/"Your Pretty Blue Eyes" will be coupled on the single RCA 6595. That great waxing showing Dave unusual vocal possibilities bring him the nickname of "The man with a pedal steel in throat". Many singers, among the best, would think about a technical gimmick until Dave had to show them live his vocal range. For various reasons, Billy was not used on other sessions but had steady work with Dave on the road. They were together at the "Merle Travis Day" on June 29, 1956 sponsorized by WMTA radio. A honouring stone was set in Ebenezer with Merle, Gene Autry, Chet Atkins and Ken Nelson with a crowd over 10 000 people. Those people from Kentucky wanted to Thanks Merle for his coal miners songs and his fabulous talent. In "Sixteen Tons", a song cut in 1947, Merle used as line for the chorus "another day older and deeper in debt", a phrase often used by his father, a coalminer himself. He was one of them and they knew that. "Sixteen Tons" was then riding high in the charts after being covered by Tennessee Ernie Ford for "Capitol" records in 1955.

Since 1955, WMTA radio showcased every Saturday night a live show named "The Saturday Jamboree". Among the performers can be find Eddie Gaines (Summit 45-101 Be Bop Battlin' Ball), Billy Harlan, Tag and Effie Willoughby (Done Flubbed Your Dub With Me), Royce Morgan, Jimmy Piper (Summit 45-108 Don't Play Around). All the Summit records recordings were done in WMTA studio and, later, Royce Morgan will handle the "Royce" record label.

Billy played with Dave at the Wisconsin State Fair, from 18 to 28 August 1956, and shared the stage there with Jimmy and Johnny (in fact, Jimmy Lee and Lynn Fautheree), Jim Reeves, Betty Foley and a new RCA teenage act Janis Martin. Late 1956, Dave was riding high on his musical career when he got a call from God and a revelation. He soon choice to join school to become a preacher and to give his life to God. Chet Atkins tried to keep him in the musical business and several recording sessions were set but Dave disbanded his group. For a while, Billy moved to Chicago but, two weeks later, he got a call from Buddy Killen for a three day job with Jim Reeves.

In 1957, he became permanent member of Jim's band "The Wagonmasters" with Leo Jackson (gtr), Louis Dunn(dms) and Bobby Garrett (stl gtr). In April 1957, Jim and his band will fly to Europe for an USO tour in Germany. For 22 days, they backed on stage all the artists: Janis Martin, The Browns, Del Wood and Hank Locklin. It was a RCA and grand Ole Opry casting and everything went fine. Billy Harlan remembers flying in London with Mary Reeves and enjoying a sightseeing tour including London Tower, Westminster Abbey, Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace, Big Ben There was few pictures of prior that tour left published in various country magazines like Rustic Rhythm but those taken in Europe were all in the Jim Reeves estate. They are now in the hand of a collector and few were used for a CD issued by Bear Family titled "5000 miles away from Home". That CD offer several recording done on that tour like "I'm Walking" (Janis Martin) or "Have I told Lately That I Love You" (Jim Reeves).

On March 31, 1958, thanks to Buddy Killen, Billy Harlan will record two songs published by Tree. The record session was set in Nashville with the support of Royce Morgan (gtr), Buddy Harmon (dms) and probably Pig Robbins (pno). "I Wanna Bop" and "School House Rock", two great rockin' songs, were issued on Brunswick 55066 and reviewed in The Billboard with the following mention "the talent show some promise". Those songs were bootlegged on LP Collector 1009 "Rock'n'Roll Vol 2" in the 70's and were legally issued, in 1978, on LP MCFM 2833 "Rare Rockabilly Vol 3".

In April 1958, when Leo Jackson was drafted in the US Army, Billy Harlan asked Jim Reeves to bring Royce Morgan in The Blue Boys. Then were in the band Jimmy Day (stl gtr), Doug Kershaw (fdl), Peewee Kershaw (dms), Billy Harlan (bs) and Royce Morgan (gtr).

Buddy Killen will also set a deal for Donny Young (aka Johnny Paycheck) with "Decca". Two singles were issued and "Shaking The Blues" (Decca 30887), a great rockin' side written by Georges Jones, was also on the "Rare Rockabilly" LP's set.

Billy wrote "One Soda Pop and Two Straws" for the Everly Brothers. That song should have been used, in July 1958, as B-side for "Bird Dog" (Cadence 1350) but for some unknown reason Archie Blayer chose to use "Devoted to You". Another of his song, "Never Been Kissed" copyrighted on Tree, was recorded on RCA by Martin Green while "Two Dollar Date" came between the hands of teenage idol Fabian but was not recorded.

Late 1958, Jim Reeves give the leave to his band and Billy Harlan joined The Wilburn Brothers while Royce Morgan moved to Red Sovine's band until fall 1959. Royce will also take care of "Royce" records and will produce 8 singles. Among the classic cuts in that label are "Bonfire" (Jimmy Piper Royce 0001) and "Long Black Shiny Car" (Mike Page Royce 0005).

On April 29, 1959, Billy will cut two songs for RCA that will stay for years in the basement. On the first song, "Teen Jean Jive", Billy is supported by The Everly Brothers (gtr), Pig Robbins (pno), Jimmy Day (stl gtr) and Jackie Moffitt (dms). On the second song, "Lonely Man", we find the same musicians except The Everly Brothers. On that song, Chet Atkins took care of the guitar. Those two songs were issued on Bear Family records "The Drugstore's rockin' Vol 1 and 2". By August 1959, Billy exhausted by the work on the road, put an end on his career. In the late 50's, he also worked as Disc Jockey on WMTA and WNES.

Since Billy had composed some songs like "Natural Woman" recorded in 1972 by Johnny Russell and used as B-side of his hit recording "Red Necks, White Socks and Blue Ribbon Beer". He also wrote an "Opera" and serve as Chairman of the board of the Merle Travis Music Center and Executive Director of the National Thumb Pickers Hall of Fame board. At the Merle travis Music Center, he is involed with promoting Mulhenberg County activities that include all musical events from country and western to symphony orchestra concerts. He also offer a CD titled "Remember Them" with a patriotic, social & gospel tone with songs like "My Dad Was a Miner", "Sweet William" or "Holly Spirit Blues". He still perfom and even created an alter-ego named "Eldes". Under that alias he use to sing old Elvis songs with new lyrics making "Heartbreak Hotel" under his new title "My Hips Ain't What They Used To Be" He's still in touch with Dave Rich and Royce Morgan and they played recently together in Central City. Those three old friends got a nice feature in Bobby Anderson's book "That Mulhenberg Sound" and, without Dave Rich own copy, I will never be able to explore that Kentucky Rockabilly music.

You can visit Billy web site at

Story first published in french in Rock and Roll Revue n 47 (2008)
Posted here: July 25, 2009

Posted July, 2009 - Rockabilly Hall of Fame