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(L to R) Michael B. Smith, Bill Kirchen, Bob Timmers, and Bobby Lowell.
A Rockabilly Rebel with a Cause
by Michael B. Smith
as appeared in the January 14, 2000 - Vol. 26, No. 1 issue of Goldmine Magazine
If you go to Macon, Georgia, everyone has a story about The Allman
Brothers Band. In Spartanburg, S.C., it's The Marshall Tucker Band, The
Sparkletones or Hank "Sugarfoot" Garland, and in Memphis, Tennessee,
it's...well, you know. But in Lincoln, Nebraska, the one name you hear
more than all others combined is Bobby Lowell.
Lowell scored a big hit back in 1956 with "Um Baby Baby," and has been
rocking ever since.
"It all started during World War II," says Lowell, in a personal
interview at The Zoo Bar in Lincoln. "Back in those days, prejudice was
non-existent, because everybody was just trying to survive.
Consequently, there were a whole lot of black kids selling newspapers,
and they always had the best corners. I got along good with them, and I
noticed some of those guys were singing on the street corner, and people
would throw them money. A couple of them would hand-bone, and maybe play
a harmonica. So I learned a couple of them songs. One night I sang a few
tunes on the corner, and made about twenty or thirty cents. At the time,
this very bar, The Zoo Bar, was an old cowboy bar. There was a guy in
there this one night who was mad because the jukebox was broken, and
wouldn't play the song he wanted to hear. (sings) "Put your arms around
me baby hold me tight." Well, I knew the song, and my Aunt asked if I
would sing it. So I did. A whole bunch of ladies that were in there with
these soldiers loved it. And it wasn't nickel;s they were throwing, it
was quarters and fifty-cent pieces. One of them soldiers reached over
and stuck two dollars in my pocket. I don't have to tell you the rest of
that story. I was in that cowboy bar every night, and sang every song I
thought they'd like. This black guy I was hanging out with had some Etta
James and Little Walter records, and he played the piano. So I'd go over
to his house and he'd help me with these tunes I was trying to learn.
That's how I got interested in rhythm and blues. It had a real nice
sound to it."
When Bobby turned ten, his Grandmother presented him with an expensive
chromatic harmonica, which he didn't like at all. Lowell traded it at a
local music store, Dietze Music House for a black ukulele. He had the
four strings tuned like four of the strings on the guitars the blacks
were playing blues on, using small, round ham bones as a slide.
"I made it work by putting steel "E" strings on the bass uke and
learned some Delta blues songs I could belt out on the streets at
night," recalls Lowell. "Now I was getting much more than just change
dropped in the hat, and at least half of the tips were coming from black
ladies, who thought this young white boy singing the blues was cute."
By 1949 at the age of 12, Lowell was already 6'1" and 198 pounds. In a
single row button suit, black suede shoes and a "Mr. B" shirt, he looked
much older than his 12 years. With his long hair combed in a "duck
tail", he landed a Wednesday and Sunday night gig singing R&B in a black
key club called "The Railroad Man's Black Only Club" on North 9th in
Lincoln, NE. During that time, Bobby worked and hung out at the club,
meeting Little Walter, Gatemouth Brown, Count Davis and Charlie Bonds.
By 17, he had met Carl Perkins became good enough friends that when
Carl was playing in Lincoln or Omaha, he was always invited to hang out
with the band and always on the guest list. At age 18 in December of
1955, Bobby was asked to do a few tunes on a TV special fund raiser for
M.S., playing with a country band called "Tex Lindamon's Band" and
singing a few songs.
"We played a tune I wrote called "Um Baby Baby" that was the first
time I combined country and R&B into a sound we now call Rockabilly. The
M.S. Fund Raiser was a national TV fund raiser, featuring Ferlin Husky,
Sonny James and other singers. This was a real break for me and when I
sang my song "Um Baby Baby" the phone lights went nuts and I was asked
to sing it four or five times before leaving the stage. As I walked off
stage, a very heavy set man with long black wavy hair and a big smile
grabbed my arm and said "Hi I'm Lee Ash Williams," I own Ash Williams
recording studio. I don't have any money, and I'll bet you don't have
much either, but I've got a recording studio and you have a song and a
voice - let's do it. I said why not? As time went by, I learned Ash
Williams was a real fine man and a true friend."
The studio turned out to be a kind of a shabby little place where Ash
cranked out a living recording things for a "Back to the Bible
Broadcast" and now and then for the University of Nebraska. Bobby moved
into the studio and formed a band called "Bobby Lowell and the
Rock-A-Boogie Boys." They put the corrugated dividers in egg cases on
the walls for sound.
"It took us weeks, but we came up with a studio about like the first
Sun Recording Studio," recalls Lowell. "The only pay we got was a lot of
15-cent hamburgers and a chance."
By May of 1956, the studio was ready. Lowell and his band put down the
first tracks to "Um-Baby Baby," along with the back side "What You Do To
Me." The lead guitarist was 16 year old Jimmy Akin, Vern Boosinger was
on bass and Willie Vanover was on drums. Lowell played rhythm. For the
time, it was hot. Sample cuts were passed on to local radio stations,
and they received enough financing for the first one hundred 45s to be
cut and pressed.
About 10 days after the master had been sent off for pressing, there
was not much to do other than hang out at the studio.
"I became very bored and wanting a malt walked five doors down the
street to Lincoln's biggest malt shop of the 50's, called 'Smitty's',"
recalls Lowell. "I went in and sat at the long marble counter - and
noted that there were advertising signs over the back bar. Right over
all the ice cream containers was a large sign advertising ROTO-ROOTER
PLUMBING SERVICE. I thought, Wow, what a sign to hang over the ice
cream, let alone have in a malt shop. I said "Hey Smitty, why Roto?
Smitty replied "because it goes round and round."
That had a profound effect on Bobby, and as fate would have it, the
naming of his recording studio.
"About that time a guy from the recording studio stuck his head in the
door and said, ėthere is a guy on the phone from where they are pressing
the records, they need a name for the label now!' There's also a guy
from 'Back to the Bible Broadcast' in the office picking up some tapes
who says if Ash uses his label name on your record, they will drop their
account. We need a name now.' I said "ROTO! We will call it ROTO."
"Why Roto, they asked?"
"Because it goes round and round."
This was the birth of Nebraska's first rock label "ROTO" - not only a
start for me, but a few years later it also became the starting place
for "Box Car Willie" who says until he did his Roto release, was known
by the name Marty Martin. Roto changed it all for him and gave him a
boost and a fresh start."
By this time Bobby Lowell was on a roll. Roto had sold over 1,500
copies of his single, and was going for another 1,000 copies. "Um Baby,
Baby" had reached #10 on the Bill board charts and was still selling,
and the gigs were building up. Then a Lincoln newspaper compared Lowell
to Elvis and they started calling him "Lincoln's own Elvis."
" I was more than a little bit upset, since I had spent most of my life
working on my music, and now I was being called an "Elvis wanna be", no
In an attempt to stop the Lincoln's own Elvis thing, Lowell changed
his hair style, his clothing style, and went back to his roots, singing
more Blues and R&B, but this time it was not the same. The black power
movement was starting to get underway and the black support he once had
was no longer there. The whites were not that much into R&B or the Blues
at that time. Things were starting to lean more toward the Mod look.
Lowell decided to stop fighting it and volunteered for the draft.
"After doing two years in the Army, I bought an old W.W. II Harley 45
motorcycle, and spent the next 22 years roaming around West Texas and
Mexico. During that time I got married and fathered five children. In
1981, my mother passed away and my wife split, I got custody of four of
my kids and came back to Lincoln. After three years back in Lincoln I
was talked into singing again. Upon my return I had made some real good
friends of a motorcycle club called The Tribesmen M.C. They were and
still are true and loyal friends and supported me 100% on his return to
music. I put out several songs on Roto 45's; "Ice Cold Heart," "Take Me
Back," "Iron Pony", "It's Been So Long," "I'm So In Love With You," "I'm
The Fool," a remake of "Um Baby Baby" and "Sixteen Chicks." Then
after picking up four awards in 1986 I stopped again, then for the next
twelve years, I didn't sing a note."
In mid August 1998, Lowell received a letter from the Nebraska Rock and
Roll Hall of Fame saying he was to be inducted on August 29, 1998 at
the "Nebraska Rocks Concert" held at the Royal Grove in Lincoln, Ne.
Lowell performed two songs for the first time since 1986, backed by the
Hall of Fame All-Star Band. The songs were "Um Baby-Baby and "Sixteen
Chicks," and the performance was recorded on video.
"I sent a copy to my long time friend Mac Bouvrie who owns Mac Records
in Belgium," says Lowell. "Mac has been producing the best roots
Rockabilly records in Europe since 1971. After viewing the video, Mac
called me and we put a record deal together for Mac Records and what a
deal it was. Mac wanted original songs recorded in mono using only 50's
equipment and instruments. It had to be clean, clear, 100% Rockin' 50's
music - and hey, he came to the right rocker because Rockabilly is my
It took Lowell only a week or so to reform the Rock-A-Boogie Boys,
gathering long time faithful friends Bo Rose on drums, Larry "Cocktail
Shorty" Boehmer on bass, Mike "Pinky" Semrad on rhythm/lead guitar
trading leads with George Bryan on guitar/piano.
"The big boost came when my long time friend and soul brother, the
original 1956 leader of the Rock-A-Boogie Boys, the legendary Jimmy Akin
came to the studio and helped put it all together and played lead piano
on "Cadillac Man" and "I'm Cryin,'" and we really rocked the studio. It
was the best sounds we ever put down. These records are now available on
Mac Records, which is owned by my friend Mac Boubrie. He's kind of the
Sun Records of Europe."
Recently, Bobby Lowell recorded a brand new CD for The Rockabilly Hall
of Fame label, "Rockaboogie, Rockabilly Just Won't Stop," which has
received favorable reviews from Goldmine and other national
Sean Benjamin, who plays guitar with Bobby, has played with or hung out
with a veritable who's who of rock and roll, from Gram Parsons and
Clarence White to John Lennon, and John Mayall, spoke with Goldmine
about his friend.
"Bobby wanted to recapture the fifties sound. If there was an analog
studio around with old equipment, he would have wanted to record there.
But when Bobby and I got together, I just felt like he wasn't getting
his deserved recognition. This guy has done everything, he's played
ukulele with Jerry Van Dyke, he's made great records. I think the people
were more concerned with the current sound of the day or something."
Dean Taylor of Rosewood Productions has also been instrumental in
helping promote the music of Bobby Lowell.
"Bobby Lowell has probably got the biggest heart in the business," says
Taylor. "He's helped more people, and a lot of the people he's helped
just turned right around and stabbed him in the back. One thing that
I've done, and Randy, Joanne; we have made some money in different
business, and I've seen people like this before. I've been a fan of
Bobby Lowell since the beginning, since "Um Baby Baby." My era is the
fifties. Then in the eighties, when Bobby came back and did "Iron Pony,"
"Independence Man," and I invested a little money in "Racing with the
Reaper," which he got screwed on. We got together again and we talked,
and I said, let's get the guys together and make a CD. Well, that's how
it started. Then things mushroomed and we're into MP3. Then we did a 45
that's over in Europe now. We made another one which we don't have yet,
featuring Little Jimmy Valentine with Bobby, singing "Shake Rattle and
Roll," and the b-side is "Rip it Up." This is going to be an ass kicker.
Zeke (President of The Tribesmen M.C.) is in on that. We're 50/50
partners on that."
Bobby Lowell's Website
Bobby Lowell's Photo Page
Bobby's RaB HoF CD Available Here
"ROCKABILLY 2000" MP3
Michael B. Smith's "Hot Grits" Site
Michael B. Smith's RaB HoF Page
Zeke Sieck's Website
700 E. State St.
Iola, Wisconsin 54990-0001
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