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A GREAT ROCKABILLY GUITAR PICKER
Tommy was born Gerald Delmar Tomlinson, October 28th, 1930 in Hampton, Arkansas.
The Tomlinson farm was located just a few miles away from the Cash's farm between
Kingsland and Tinsman, Arkansas. After the flood that destroyed the entire area many
families had no other choice but to move out. The Cash family moved to Dyess, Arkansas and
the Tomlinson's to Minden, Louisiana in 1940. Tommy was always intrigued by guitars and
had made several as a young boy. He even constructed one from a bugs spray can. Some years
later a guitar was purchased for Tommy's older brother Bill. When the war came around Bill
enlisted in the Navy and the guitar was given to Tommy perhaps to keep him out of trouble.
A friend of Tommy's taught him how to play a few chords and by the age of fifteen
he had his own band and was playing bar dances and social events. By Tommy's account he
has stated that he has played with Hank Williams in the late 40's, early 50's, before
joining the Marine Corp in February 24th, 1951. Young Tommy also played the Big D
Jamboree, in Dallas, around 1950.
During Tommy's three year enlistment, Tommy saw action against the enemy in Korea.
Receiving wounds in both legs in the winter of 1953 he still continued to serve his full
three year enlistment, ultimately receiving an Honorable Discharge on February 24th, 1954.
Immediately returning from the war, Tommy joined the Louisiana Hayride staff band. There
he picked guitar for anybody needing a top notch guitarist. He played mostly for Werly
Fairburn, Jim Reeves, Paul Howard and few others. On April 1956, he traveled to Dallas
with James "Sonny" Trammel for Werly Fairburn's last "Columbia" session. Here they cut
Werly's all time classic "Everybody's Rockin'" and Tommy delivered great work on his
Gretsch. Well, I wanna rock a bop a be bop, gonna jump in my rockin' shoes!
At Shreveport's Municipal Auditorium he was introduced to the great Johnny Horton
and, with Tillman Franks on bullfiddle bass, he become the nucleus of his touring band.
That three-piece band developed such a full sound and worked like a well-oiled machine for
years. Tommy started to record with Johnny on April 1957 cuttin' Claude King's "She Knows
Why" in a great rockabilly style. Here came a perfect blend between Johnny's style of
singing and Tommy's style of bring the strings to words. Together, they created one of the
greatest sounds of rockabilly by recording jewels like "Lover's Rock" or "The Wild One" in
1957. Cut in 1957, Johnny's cover of "Honky Tonk Hardwood Floor", a song recorded for
"Capitol" by Jess Willard, is pure rockabilly. Those great lyrics still fit perfectly when
released in February 1958 and are a perfect follow up to "Honky Tonk Man". In 1959, they
scored with "The Battle of New Orleans" and, in 1960, with "Sink The Bismarck" and "North
to Alaska". While on tour with Johnny Cash, Tommy would spent countless hours teaching
Luther Perkins how to perfect the rockabilly sound of the times. It probably helped a
little to give birth to "Luther's Boogie" recorded for "Sun" by Johnny Cash. Of course,
all those men also shared fishing parties and secrets about fish-hooks while on tour as
they used to travel with them fishing equipment.
There's not much live footage of Johnny Horton but you can see him, with Tillman
and Tommy, singing "The Battle of New-Orleans" on the Ed Sullivan Show on May 31, 1959
with fur hat and complete frontiers men clothes. Another one is "Johnny Reb" but the
sidemen are lost in the background. When on stage, Johnny often took a break and let Tommy
play "Wildwood Flower" or ""Honky Tonk".
The day of the tragic wreck that ended Johnny Horton's life on 5 November 1960,
Tommy had just returned from Nashville after completing the first of four instrumental
albums with Jerry Kennedy. Those albums included such great musicians as Harold Bradley,
Hank Garland, Bob Moore or Boots Randolph and brings covers of the current hits of the
time from Country, Rock'n'Roll, Blues or Pop. The songs range from "Sugarfoot Rag" to
"Raunchy" via "My Blue Heaven" or "Unchain My Heart". All of these albums issued on
"Mercury" were entitled Tom & Jerry because he was paired up with legendary producer Jerry
Kennedy. The first single issued in August 1961 offered "The Golden Wildwood
Flower"/"South" and a fan club was started by Jamie Willard from Texas.
In the car wreck, Johnny Horton lost his life and Tommy suffered multiple leg
fractures who put him out of work for months. On 30 November 1960 was set in Shreveport a
"Johnny Horton Memorial Premiere" with the screening of "North To Alsaka" as benefit for
Tommy and two weeks later, his friends Gordon Terry and Marty Robins would ultimately came
together to hold a benefit concert to help cover the medical expenses. Also on stage were
Johnny Cash and Luther Perkins who wrote him those great words: "Tommy as your friend I
would be honored and proud to be of help to you and your family in any way that it is
needed. Give me this chance to show you what friends are for please". I knew Luther was a
great fellow but those words are simply beautiful.
Luther's letter. Click to enlarge.
After re-breaking his leg several times and spending four months in a full body
cast he finally decided to have the Doctors amputate the troubled left leg. Although Tommy
would never be the same he still was upbeat and kept a smile on his face. After receiving
his prosthetic leg even though it was very painful and hard to perform on the pain
medication, he always did his part. Tommy would spend over eighteen months recovering but
he was yet on tour by November 1961 with Claude King, Jimmy C. Newman and Wanda Jackson.
... with Claude King
In 1962, Tommy worked some with Claude King who was climbing the charts with
"Wolverton Mountain" and, in August 1963, he backed David Houston on the all time hit
"Mountain of Love", written by Maggie Lewis and Mira Smith from Shreveport. That session
was produced by Tillman Franks who worked the deal with "Epic" records. Tommy will work on
David Houston touring band, with Gene Wyatt - another Rockabilly cat, for a while.
For the next ten years, Tommy would perform with musicians such as Glen Sutton,
Terry Bradshaw, Shoji Tabuchi, Claude King and many others. As Tommy's touring career
started to slow down due to the pain of his leg, he started to do more session work and
producing. Although he still performed occasionally with visiting stars to Shreveport like
Ernest Tubb, Mel Tillis or John Denver. Tommy also wrote several songs for Dolly Parton,
Norma Jean, and, of course, Johnny Horton like "You're My Baby" from 1957.
Tommy passed away on April 8th, 1982 due to heart failure and his old friend Werly
Fairburn followed him three years later. Both had great talent, were regulars on the
legendary Louisiana Hayride and rubbed shoulders with the greatest performers of the 50's.
They both left that old earth without a noise so it is time to tell about Tommy's great
work on his Gretch Hollowbody in the 50's.
His great work on stage helped Johnny Horton to move from his "Mercury" Hillbilly
sound to the solid beat we all know on his "Columbia" sides. Even if Tommy not played on
Johnny's classics 1956 sides, he was the one who played the "Honky Tonk Man", "I'm Coming
Home" and "I'm a Woman Man" hot guitar chords on stage until 1960. The recently found live
recordings of "Rock Island Line"," Honky Tonk Hardwood Floor" or "Jambalaya" (Scena
Records) prove it if needed ... That Arkansas cat deserve to be in the Rockabilly Hall of
Fame were he will meet again his musical partners ... Tillman Franks and Johnny Horton.
-Dominique "Imperial" ANGLARES
Sound of the 50's
Posted October, 2007
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