This week would have been the 70th birthday of cult rockabilly figure Tracy Pendarvis. Although he's little more than a footnote in the history of rockabilly in general and Sun records in particular, he possessed a pure rock 'n' roll voice and cut one of the all-time great Sun rockers.
Born Tracy Rexford Pendarvis in the small central Florida town of Shamrock on February 8th 1936 he developed a love for music at an early age. Clear air meant clear airwaves and healthy signals, so Tracy was able to enjoy music from far and wide. He listened to the Grand Ole Opry from WSM in Nashville and also heard plenty of rhythm and blues. He soaked it all up and this showed in his music in later years. As with all the good rockers he showed no signs of musical colour blindness, loving the country sounds of Marty Robbins and the hypnotic blues strains of Jimmy Reed.
Together with close buddy Johnny Gibson (a great name for a guitar slinger!) they jammed until the early morning, having fun and honing their skills in equal measure. In late '57 they entered a talent contest on WDVH in Gainesville, Florida and won first prize, a record deal with the small Scott label.
The first single (Scott 1202) coupled It Don't Pay and One of These Days. If he was nervous in the studio for the first time it didn't show. He glides through the rocker with his best Elvis vocals, sounding like he's got sideburns in his throat whilst the backing vocals fit around him like a glove. The flip is nearly as good, developing from it's slow blues opening into a mid tempo rocker. It Don't Pay got some local action and a follow up was quickly put out (Scott 1203). Give Me Lovin' was another trip down Presley Avenue but the b-side All You Gotta Do was no more than a b-side. Encouraged by the singles the boys decided to venture to Memphis to the Church of Rockabilly, and it's High Priest, Sam Phillips.
Pendarvis, Gibson and drummer Merrill "Punk" Williams were met at the door of 706 Union Avenue by Ernie Barton who arranged an audition with Sam Phillips. Sam the man with the best ears in world liked what he heard. The boys had a rockabilly sound which took him back four years, and he decided to give them a try. They also had the look, check out the well known photo of the hip rocker in the upturned collar.
There's some conjecture as to how Tracy Pendarvis would have faired at Sun Records had he arrived there a couple of years earlier. I think that with his voice he could have had a shot, but having said that, a lot of artists got overlooked due to the sheer volume of acts in that mid-'50s period. When he did arrive in 1959 Sam had lost a lot of artists and was able to devote more time to the ones he still had. Whether you make it in the music business seems to me to be more down to luck and fate than anything like real talent so I don't think anyone can judge what would have happened.
Sam produced the first session, augmenting the trio with session men Sid Manker on bass and Jimmy Wilson on piano. Sam must have been beaming from ear to ear when the guitar started to jingle jangle, and the drum started its marching beat. A couple of bars later and in comes Tracy with the lonesome ³a thousand guitars, a million stars². A Thousand Guitars (Sun 335) was a brilliant record and I bet Sam struggled to watch the boys finish the song as cash registers must have started flashing before his eyes. Sam had lost a bit of the wild-eyed enthusiasm over the last year or two but he wasted no time in getting this little peach pressed. Unfortunately the b-side said it Is it Too Late? Yes it was, three or four years too late in fact. In 1960 kids wanted to buy soppy-pop not rockabilly-rock. The pity of it all was that the single was a killer hit waiting to happen. It was the first Sun single of the '60s and was released at a time when the majority of singles releases at that time were by the departed Johnny Cash or the boycotted Jerry Lee Lewis.
The same fate befell the follow-up, South Bound Line and Is It Me (Sun 345). The top side was another high quality release, sort of Mystery Train done Johnny Cash style, with Pendarvis's vocals again very engaging.
For the third single (Sun 359) Sam chose to try the formula which had worked with Carl Mann. Rocking up the standards was not a new notion but it was certainly back in vogue in 1961 and TP's stab at Belle of the Suwannee was as good as anything else at that time.
Following the failure of the third successive single, the singer and label parted company. Pendarvis started his own record production company, Descant Records, working in tandem with Bill Lowery's NRC complex in Atlanta, Georgia. He worked on recordings by Lowery's proteges including Jerry Reed, Joe South and Ray Stevens.
He had two releases under his own name for Descant but limited distribution would no doubt have hindered the sales of the these rockaballads.
After a year Pendarvis folded Descant Records and moved to Chicago, playing the Illinois honkytonks before moving back to his native Florida. For the rest of his life Tracy worked in audio technology, installing a studio in his hometown of Tavares. In October 1992 he made his long awaited debut in Europe at the Hemsby Rock 'n' Roll festival. He died a couple of years later in Cross City, just outside Gainesville.
Looking back over his career half a century later, the bottom line is that Tracy was unlucky to be in the right place at the wrong time. He was trying to sell rockabilly records to a public that was more interested in The Night Has A Thousand Eyes than A Thousand Guitars. Shaun Mather
February 13, 2006
Title Label Date It Don't Pay / One Of These Days Scott 1202 Jan 58 Give Me Lovin' / All You Gotta Do Scott 1203 Feb 58 A Thousand Guitars / Is It Too Late Sun 335 Jan 60 Southbound Line / Is It Me Sun 345 Sep 60 Belle of the Suwannee / Eternally Sun 359 May 61 First Love / I Feel A Teardrop DesCant 1234 Jan 62 Philadelphia Filly / Don't Wait On Love DesCant 1235 1963
Label photos courtesy of Terry Gordon's RCS site: http://els51.law.emory.edu/rcs/artists/p/pend1000.htm
Hemsby photo courtesy of http://www.keeponrockin.co.uk
Posted February, 2006