A name like "Johnny Dollar" is so overtly showbiz that most people would automatically assume that it was the creation of a seasoned record company promotion department or a cigar-chomping talent manager's overwrought imagination. Surprisingly, though, it's the actual given name of one of the most overlooked early rockabilly and country talents to emerge from Texas' fertile musical soil: John Washington Dollar, Jr.
Johnny Dollar sprang upon the Texas music scene in the late 1950's sporting dark-haired good looks, a wild rebel attitude and a full-bodied rock and roller's voice to match. This former used car salesman had the right mix of talent and bravado to impress Big "D" Jamboree owner/promoter Ed McLemore and become part of Ed's Artist Services talent roster. Johnny's early collaborations with legendary songwriter Jack Rhodes yielded startlingly powerful early rockabilly gems such as Rhodes' "Green-Eyed Cat", "Rockin' Bones" (first recorded by Elroy Deitzel, later made famous by Ronnie Dawson and still later covered by The Cramps), and "Action Packed", which also served as a template for Ronnie Dawson's second 45 rpm release of the same name. Johnny and Jack often held makeshift recording and song writing sessions at Jack's Trail 80 Courts motel in Mineola, TX which contained a primitive recording studio in one of the motel's empty rental rooms.
By the mid-50's, Rhodes was well known as a hot country/pop songwriter who had a particular talent for writing songs in the sassy new "cat music" style that was later to be called rockabilly, and eventually, rock & roll. In addition to his song writing talents, Rhodes was an adept businessman and deal maker with legitimate music business connections, making him the focal point for many up-and-coming performers looking for just the right catchy song to break into the charts. Rhodes spotted a potential winner in Johnny Dollar and provided him with many of his best rockabilly efforts to record later for McLemore's Big "D" Publishing Company at Dallas' Sellers Studios under the direction of session producer Johnny Hicks. He's supported on the record by some of Dallas' best home grown rockers of the era: innovative guitarist Howard Reed (later to become one of Gene Vincent's Blue Caps), spectacular teenage piano-pounder C.B. Oliver, and (most likely) Grady Owen on bass (also a Blue Cap-to-be). The result was classic transitional rockabilly, played electric and full blown by a tight, sympathetic ensemble and fronted by a swaggering, tough-talking lead singer who combined the good looks of a Warren Smith or Elvis Presley with a hint of Gene Vincent-style danger and aggression.
An unbeatable combination that should have (and surely would have) made Johnny Dollar famous if the recordings had ever been released on record to the public. Mysteriously, however, they were not and instead they remained trapped in a Bekins Moving Company box on old reels of Scotch audio tape in the closet of a north Dallas home for almost forty years until their discovery in 1997.
John Washington Dollar, Jr. was born in a makeshift tent on March 8, 1933 in Kilgore, Texas to John and Nellie Mae Morgan "Millie" Dollar as the fifth of six children. John and Millie (Creek Indians) moved to the oil boom town from Bristow, Oklahoma in 1932 and leased 20 acres from a local black man at $1 an acre. Johnny and younger brother Jimmy went to school in Kilgore, Fredricksburg, Crab Apple Creek (a one room school) and Junction, before Johnny left home in 1948 or '49 to live with older brother Milford in Sheridan, Texas where he attended Schreiner's Military Academy. Johnny and John Sr., (who ran a Shell Oil station in town), were always at odds with each other and after Johnny left home he was rarely seen by the family for long stretches of time, making his background very hard to trace during this period. He joined the Marines at age 17, where he supposedly acquired a taste for singing and entertaining. After he left the service, he drifted to west Texas where he picked up singing jobs as he could, worked as a roughneck in the oil fields, as a truck driver and as a lumber yard man.
In 1952, Johnny started recording for Shelby Singleton's D Records and cut a record called "Walking Away" at his own expense. When nothing happened with the disc, he became a deejay at stations in Louisiana and New mexico, formed a band called The Texas Sons, and began performing in Shreveport at the famous Louisiana Hayride, which was regularly broadcast over radio station KWKH. He tried his hand at releasing a record again, this time for Winston Records, called "Lumberjack", but again it failed to garner much attention. By 1957 or '58, he drifted back to Texas where he took up the rockabilly style that Elvis Presley and others were making popular, eventually talking his way into the good graces of Ed McLemore and joining the Big "D" Jamboree cast. Some of his live performances from those shows are included on this disc, as well as the previously unreleased rockabilly studio recordings which make up the body of this record. It was these recordings that later influenced current rockabilly legend Ronnie Dawson, who styled many of his early arrangements and performances after Dollar's recorded works. Compare Johnny's version of "Action Packed", for instance, with Ronnie's later single (available on the double CD Rockin' Bones: The Legendary Masters, Crystal Clear) to see just how close the performances were. The Big "D" Music connection is also strongly evident here, notably because producer/DJ/MC Johnny Hicks virtually ran the publishing company and conducted many of the sessions for both Dollar and Dawson, often using the same studio, backing musicians and scores. It seems incredible now that none of these exceptional recordings ever came out during their heyday.
As the popularity of the first wave of rockabilly artists began to wane in the late 1950's, Johnny evidently became discouraged with music as a career and switched to selling financial investments in Oklahoma. According to brother Jimmy, it was here that he met country artist Ray Price, who happened to be a principal in the company Johnny was working for and gave Johnny his first real break in the big time. Price liked the personable singer and got him signed with Columbia Records where he became known as Johnny $ Dollar and "Mr. Personality", enjoying a string of respectable C&W hits such as "Tear-Talk" (Top 50) and "Stop the Start (of Tears in My Heart)" (Top 15). He was nominated in 1966 and 1967 respectively for Billboard and Records World's "Best New Artist" award, and later in 1967 he moved to Dot Records "(Your Hands)", and then to Date Records where he enjoyed some success with "The Wheels Fell off the Wagon Again" and "Everybody's Got to Be Somewhere". He soon changed labels again, this time to Chart Records in 1968, where he had a pair of notable truck driving hits with "Big Rig Rollin' Man and "Big Wheels Sing For Me" (1969). His final hit was for Chart in 1970 with "Truck Driver's Lament", which made the Top 75.
When the hits began to dry up, Johnny left the stage behind and became a nashville-based producer for Jim Cartwright, Bonnie Cash, the New Coon Creek Girls, "Little" Jimmy Dickens and Teddy Nelson, receiving a platinum and a gold album for Nelson's record sales in Europe. Unfortunately, after he divorced his fourth wife, Carole Dollar, he appeared to lose his way, became depressed and began to drink heavily. According to his nephew, Dr. Charles Yeargan, Johnny was diagnosed with throat cancer in the early 1980s and underwent an operation to remove the cause of the disease, effectively destroying his voice in the process. The loss of his voice and the subsequent reappearance of the cancer by the mid-1980s plunged Johnny into an even deeper depression, resulting in more drinking bouts and ending with him taking his own life on April 13th, 1986.
Always the so-called "black sheep" of the family, Johnny's music career and drifting ways always stood at odds with the rest of his kin, most of whom went into the ministry at some time or other. Younger brother, Reverend James "Jimmy" Dollar, remembers the time that Johnny was asked why he didn't follow the rest of his family into the seminary, to which he wryly replied "Hell, my job is to keep them supplied with customers!" There's no doubt that there would have been plenty of customers for Johnny's rockabilly music if it had been released on records and received some national radio play. Now, with the rediscovery of this music some forty years since it was first recorded, maybe Johnny Dollar can finally laugh and say "It's My Day", baby!-David Dennard, 1998
More lost sessions emerge from Dragon Street Records with the release of Johnny Dollar - "Mr. Action Packed" on Tuesday, July 27, 1998. The newly compiled CD from 1957-'58 tapes is volume 2 of the "Legends of the Big 'D' Jamboree" and features 20 spectacular rockabilly performances, including the original versions of "Action Packed" and "Green-Eyed Cat" as later made famous by Ronnie Dawson. Dawson also copied Dollar's version of the classic "Rockin' Bones", which is included here in two different versions. In addition to the previously unreleased studio material, which features Blue Cap guitarist Howard Reed on lead, the disc also contains two live performances from the 1958 Big "D" Jamboree, plus a complete artist biography, loads of rare photos and more. Available soon from Hep Cat Records, CDNow, Collectors Choice Music or at a hip store near you. You can also order via the mail direct from Dragon Street Records: Send a personal check or M.O. in the amount of $15 to Dragon Street Records, PO Box 670714, Dallas, TX 75367-0714.
Johnny Dollar CD Out 7/28/98