JOE THERRIEN, JR.
The Story That's Never Been ToldBy Jungle Jim Arslanian
Back in 1956 and living in the northeast, as a boy of eleven, I was just starting to listen to Rock and Roll on the radio. The music that caught my ear the most was the sounds such as "Blue Suede Shoes" by Carl Perkins and "That's All Right Mama" by Elvis Presley. I was buying all kinds of 45 rpm records with that sound. Around 1957 a record played quite a bit in my area was "Come Back To Me Darling" and the flip, "Hey Babe! Let's Go Downtown" by an artist named Joe Therrien, Jr. and The Rockets. This was one of the first Rockabilly records recorded in the northeast and man this cat could really rock!
As the years went by and I got more and more into collecting records and working as a dj at a local radio station, besides doing my real forty-hour-a-week thing, (a police officer), I decided to try and find Joe Therrien, Jr. Well, it took me close to ten years to find him...but I did! About a month ago a friend called me and said he thought he had found Joe and that he had his phone number. I asked him how he had found Joe and he said he was reading the obituary column and saw a guy named Joe Therrien had just lost his wife. He waited a few days and then called this number and it turned out to be the same Joe Therrien I was looking for. My friend told Joe about me and that this crazy guy named "Jungle Jim" would be calling him.
I found out that Joe had moved back to the same area from where he started many years ago. I called Joe and told him that I was an avid record collector and dj and for many years I would sign off my show by saying, "Joe Therrien, Jr., where are you?" Joe was amazed that anyone would do that as he didn't think anyone even knew him. I told Joe that many people knew him because of his records and that he was still known as one of the founding fathers of Rockabilly in the northeast. He just couldn't understand this and he said to me "hell, I only did a few records and they didn't go anywhere." Joe agreed to get together and do an interview. He is one of the nicest guys you would ever want to meet!
I asked Joe how his interest in music got started. He told me that when he was twelve, a friend let him play with an old guitar, and that was in 1943. That was the beginning. In 1948-49 Joe was sixteen and started his first band. It consisted of three girls, Toots on the steel, Babe on the squeeze box (accordion) and Mini LaFleur and himself playing rhythm guitar. (Joe couldn't remember Toots and Babe's last names). The band didn't have any drums or a name but their music was definitely Country and Western.
In 1950 Joe joined the Army and in 1952 was sent to Korea. He saw combat there on Iron Horse Hill and was wounded by a Chinese regular who was fifteen years old. He sustained a bayonet wound to the stomach and was sent back to a M * A * S * H unit and from there to Tokyo for a little R and R. He was discharged on February 2nd, 1953 and stayed in California for two months working in a shipyard. That wasn't really his kind of work, so it was home to Indian Orchard, Massachusetts (a suburb of Springfield, MA). The summer of 1953 saw Joe working a daytime job and gigging with different bands at night and on weekends. Joe got his Country and Western flavor down real well during the period 1953 through 1956.
FORMING THE GROUP. Joe met a guy named Lenny who played the upright bass during his gigging period and lenny introduced him to Danny Bushey and Billy Echoe and all three later become the Rockets. The lineup of Joe Therrien, Jr. and the Rockets in 1956 were Joe on lead vocals and rhythm guitar, Billy Echoe on snare drum, Danny Bushey on lead guitar, Lenny on stand up bass and Marion Laquari on drums and squeeze box. The backing vocals were done by the Eckos, three sisters from Stafford Springs, Connecticut. They included Marilyn, Eunice and Maggie Ekenbarger. The Rockets practiced at Lenny's home and the idea for the groups name was taken from Bill Haley's Comets. Joe says it was kind of a space theme at the time.
The band played central and western Massachusetts and some venues in the Connecticut area for that year. It was during one of the gigs in Western Massachusetts that a dj named Dick Dickson caught their act and told Joe to call some friends of his in New york named Leo Rodgers and Sid Arkie. They owned the Lido Record label. Joe got in contact with them and was asked to come to New York and talk about their music. Instead of a meeting to talk about any deals, the band found themselves in a recording studio where they cut "Come Back To Me Darling" (in 5 or 6 takes) and "Hey Babe! Let's Go Downtown." This session was done in late 1956. The recording studio was on 46th street above a bar called The Satan Club...Joe says "Come Back" was a devil of a song! The "A" side was picked to be "Hey Babe! Let's Go Downtown" with "Come Back" the flip.
The "B" side went crazy in the New England states with the "A" side doing better in the rest of the country. Because of this record, Joe was to become known throughout the country, but he was never to know this himself until May of 1989 when I met him and showed him the records I had of his in my collection. Telephone conversations with people like Jerry Osborne, Billy Miller, Jack Smith (leader of the Rockabilly Planet) and various other people, made Joe really start to understand. The Lido cut was sold to Brunswick by leo Rodgers and two months after the first recording session the band was back above the Satan Club to cut another record at the prompting of Rodgers.
"Wheels" was backed by a super Rockabilly cut called "Your Long Gone" and released in late 1957. Brunswick never got behind these two recordings with much promotion probably because they geared their efforts to another artist on the label at the same time. Buddy Holly and the Crickets had just recorded "That'll Be The Day" (in fact their record numbers are only eight digits apart) and Brunswick was pushing this record heavily. "You're Long Gone" is an excellent tune in the same mold. After the Brunswick releases Joe stated he got in touch with Leo Rodgers and asked him about monies due him and the band. To this the answer was "the records weren't selling well." Joe had received $300.00 and that was all! He also told Rodgers that he had some new material to record but was told that wouldn't work...the sound wasn't selling!
It wasn't long after hearing this, that the Rockets broke up and went their separate ways. Joe kept playing locally around the Massachusetts area until 1959. In the spring of 1959 Joe rounded up a back up band to record two songs he had written. With the backing of his parents, Joe used his own label JAT, which stands for Joe A. Therrien. The back up band called the Sully Trio were paid $105 and the recording took place in the kitchen of 93 1/2 Lyons St. in Indian Orchard, Massachusetts (Joe's home). The "A" side was "I Ain't Gonna Be Around" backed with "Play Me A Blue Song." This record today is a very rare Rockabilly piece and if you have a mint copy, consider yourself fortunate. Joe says 1000 were pressed and of these, 300-400 were distributed and the rest were - get this - thrown out by Joe in 1961 because he thought they weren't going anywhere!
Joe's last recording was on the Sentinel label in 1961. The "A" side was "Tell Me" and it was a country ballad in the doo-wop style. The "B" side was "Siam", a great up tempo piece. One thousand were pressed at Columbia and Joe says that maybe 5 remain out there today. After 1964, Joe gave up Rockabilly music completely.
"SOMEDAY YOU'RE GONNA WANT ME,
BUT I AIN'T GONNA BE AROUND."
Joe Therrien, Jr. died on August 27, 1993, in Pensacola, Florida, from a heart attack. He was a long way from Springfield, Massachusetts, where he spent most of his life. In the mid-50's Joe steered his country band, the Rockets, down the uncertain road to rockabilly history with singles on Lido, Brunswick, JAT (his own label) and one with the Dreamtones on Sentinel. He had recently seen several of his singles resurface in CD form and was genuinely pleased with the current attention he received. He marveled at hearing his tunes played in the 90's much as he had done in 1957-1961 when he experienced his recording successes. Joe was in and out of the music "biz" over the years, but always played for the pure enjoyment of it without demanding repeated fame and fortune. He was well liked by musicians who worked with him and people he met through the years. He remained unchanged and optimistic and was not soured by Tin Pan Alley unlike many of his contemporaries. Joe Therrien was 63.
By Jack Warner & Jim Arslanian