Tommy Hill DeceasedUPDATE - One of Nashville great record producers and record execs has passed away. Tommy Hill, who ran Starday Record so many years and has continued to produce records over the past several years, passed away Thursday, March 21, 2002.
Tommy was born on April 27, 1929 on a farm four or five miles out of Coy City, Texas which is itself about 50 miles from San Antonio. "I was a country boy, picked cotton and all that," he says. Like most of the folks in that area, he grew up listening to the border radio stations like XERF. Wayne Raney, the Delmore Brothers, Cowboy Slim Rinehart and others broadcast from the powerful, unregulated stations just across the Mexican border, but no-one could eclipse Jimmie Rodgers in Tommy Hill's eyes. For a couple of years, the Hills lived in Ingram, about six miles from Rodgers' old house, Blue Yodeler's Paradise, in Kerrville. It was Jimmie Rodgers who gave Tommy Hill the inspiration to become a musician.
"I knew when I was draggin' that old cotton sack that if I ever got out with my old guitar, I was gone," says Tommy. "I was determined to be a musician when I was eleven or twelve." On guitar, his big influence was Ernest Tubb's single string picker, Jimmy Short, and his first radio gig was playing lead guitar on KTSA with San Antonio's six foot seven inch singing cowboy, Big Bill Lister. That was 1945, and Tommy was fifteen. "I said to Bill, 'You can tell these other guys to go home,'" he says, "'cause I was hot. I took it serious." They worked morning radio and booked out into theatres on weekends.
For a long time, Tommy worked in tandem with his brother Ken, but Ken never quite had Tommy's passionate commitment to the business and quite in 1959. Back in the late '40s, though, Ken and Tommy were working with Red River Dave McEney. "Smiley Burnette came through town in January '48," says tommy, "and he had Ferlin Husky working with him then, although he was known as Terry Preston then. Smiley and Terry had a misunderstanding, and Terry went back to California. Smiley called WOAI in San Antonio and asked Red River Dave if there was anyone in that area who could work the show with him. Red River Dave put Smiley in touch with us, and we worked on the road for a while then went to California with him and did eight pictures. No talking parts, but we rode horses and did walk-ins. Boy, it was hard work."
After eighteen months, Tommy and Ken jacked it in, went back to San Antonio and formed a big band. "We couldn't make it pay," says Tommy," and I'd written some songs and I was getting enthused about that. Webb Pierce came to town, and he did a radio interview saying that his fiddle player had gone missing so I just took my fiddle and went out there that night. Webb wanted me to go back to Shreveport to work in his band. Tillman Franks was Webb's manager then, and he said if I went to work with Webb, he'd put a good word in to get me a contract with Decca. They fulfilled that promise and I went to Shreveport on Valentine's Day, 1952."
One of the songs Tommy brought to Shreveport was "Slowly." Webb Pierce took four stabs at cutting it; first in April 1952, again that July, yet again in July 1953 and finally in November 1953 when it was kicked off by Bud Isaacs's famous pedal steel intro. Tommy later sold half of the song to Webb when he was short a few bucks. By then Tommy and Webb had parted company. They only worked together about four months before Tommy decided to lead his own band in Shreveport, working with his sister Goldie. Tommy also wrote Goldie's first hit, an answer to "Don't Let the Stars Get In Your Eyes" called "Let the Stars Get In My Eyes". He'd written it for Kitty Wells, and he'd brought Goldie up to Nashville to demo it on the tail end on one of his sessions. Decca's country A&R chief, Paul Cohen, liked what he heard and signed her on the spot.
Tommy moved to Nashville in the latter part of 1954 when he joined Ray Price. Tommy recorded for Decca until music publisher Fred Rose persuaded him to join his new Hickory label. "I told him I was on Decca," says Tommy, "and Fred says, 'You won't be tomorrow'. I said, 'How we gonna do that?' He said, 'We're going to find Paul Cohen.' That's what he did. He told Paul he needed me and that Decca had enough hit acts already." Tommy stayed with Hickory for about three years, but didn't score a hit. "I was always giving the good songs away," he concludes.
Then, in the mid-50s, the walls began to shake with the first rumblings of rock'n'roll. On a tour of west Texas in late 1955, Tommy met Buddy Holly, and it seems as though Tommy had a bit-part to play in bringing Buddy Holly to us. "We were in Lubbock or Odessa and some ol' boys come up behind the stage and said they were singers," remembers, Tommy. "It was Buddy Holly, and he wanted to know about Nashville. I gave him a phone number and said he should give me a call if he ever made it up. They called me from Nashville one morning about ten, and I was leaving at three that afternoon. I called Jack DeWitt and told him about Buddy, and I set 'em up in Studio 'A' at WSM, then I called Paul Cohen and told him he had to go hear these guys."
Tommy thought no more of his brush with Buddy Holly, but still it was clear that rock'n'roll wasn't about to blow over any time soon. During the early part of 1957, he worked on the Philip Morris Caravan with the ever unpredictable Ronnie Self, and saw for himself what it took to perform rock'n'roll with conviction. Then, early in 1958, after a spell with Jim Reeves, he realized that the Crickets were actually Buddy Holly, and that he'd done Decca Records a favor which it was time to call in. Technically, of course, Buddy had been canned by Decca's Nashville division, only to end up on a New York subsidiary, but a favor's a favor.
"After Buddy had had a few hits," said Tommy, "I called Paul Cohen and told him that Decca owed me, and he said that he was having some luck with this rock'n'roll and why didn't I cut him some sessions. Now I was doing this Billy-Rock in 1953. Good Rockin' tonight' was part of my shows, and I wanted to cut it for Hickory with just bass, guitar, piano and drums. I sang it for Fred Rose, and he came out of the control room, come right up about four inches from my nose and said, 'What do you want me to do, paint your goddamn face black?' So that was the end of that.
"Then Paul asked me, and I told him I was raised on that stuff. I got me a fifth [of whiskey], got me some pickers together, and went over and cut eight sides. Had a big time doing it. We cut one night when Presley was in town cuttin', and I brought D.J. Fontana down 'cause I knew D.J. from Shreveport. It was a throw-together band. I just said, 'Hey boys, get yourself a drink, grab a hold of it and here we go." We didn't' do a lot of rehearsing. Paul was always saying he was going to do something with the tape, and he kept saying that up 'til the time he quit Decca."
If Tommy's memory serves him well - and it seems to, then the session can be more-or-less dated to June 10 or 11, 1958 when Elvis was in town crunching out his pre-Army sessions. D.J. Fontana, Floyd Cramer and Hank Garland were part of Prelsey's group on those dates, and it looks as though they took another kick at the can one night with Tommy.
Around this time Tommy cut a record for Starday, then - in October 1959 - he joined Starday, Don Pierce's maverick little empire in Madison. At that time, Pierce was finding it tough going, and he was living in the studio. He had a little cot set up there while his wife and family were still in California. Tommy came on board as a producer, and handled virtually all production until 1968. He liked Pierce's no-nonsense approach.
Don wasn't into playing politics, when everybody downtown was," he says. "And Don didn't have nobody to answer to, and everybody downtown did. He was unique." Tommy quit in 1968 to join a short-lived MGM subsidiary called Blue Valley, and then launched Stop Records with Pete Drake. They scored some hits with Johnny Bush before the record industry hit one of its periodic downturns, and Stop stopped.
Tommy took some of the Stop assets and started Gusto Records in 1972. In 1974, he brought in Moe Lytle as a partner, and together they bought out King and Starday Records. Tommy eventually sold out to Lytle in 1979, although he stayed on in one capacity or another until the end of 1982. In between, he wrote and produced the biggest hit that Starday ever saw, Red Sovine's Teddy Bear, the song that had truckers weeping in their semi's.
Now Tommy is working on remastering and cataloguing the old King and Starday catalogs for reissue, and his studio is busy most hours of the day. He hasn't recorded a vocal side since 1958, and hasn't made any recordings under his own name since the early '60s when he cut some instrumental albums for Starday. "You never get it out of your blood," he says. "I'm sixty-three, but give me a guitar and point me toward the stage and I'm hard as hell to follow. I'll play at some little club out here, and mix it up. I've satisfied my ego by having some hit records as a producer, but I like to perform."
There are a million untold stories sitting in tape boxes sequestered away in closets and home studios. This is one of them. It's a little snapshot of some country boys getting together one long forgotten night to make themselves a rock and roll record. Issuing the tape allows us to tell you about one of the guys that no one outside the industry usually hears about. Friends, meet Tommy Hill.
Toronto, November 1992
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