Walking the Streets of Denver

Every musical style has a birthplace and geography associated with it. Rockabilly was a genre whose popularity wasn't in the public arena for very long. Its roots grew from the soil of the southern United States. Rockabilly music evolved and became popular during the middle 1950s. After small independent record labels started to record this kind of music, major labels jumped on the rockabilly train and discovered that there was big commercial potential, which led to the world-wide spread of the style. Although well-known and established artists added rocking tunes to their playlists, the most ground-breaking rockabilly was released by independent labels. The musical legacies of many of these independent record companiesare still very much sought-after by record collectors and music lovers all around the world.

The most famous rockabilly institution is the Sun Records studio, located in Memphis, Tennessee. To name a few of the brilliant artists of this label, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison (not counting his early recordings on JEWEL), Conway Twitty (who recorded under the name Harold Jenkins although none of his tracks were ever issued as singles), and Dickie Lee all made their first recordings at Sun.

If you study it from a distance of 50 years, the influence and fame of this label was so great that most other companies, even if their recording quality was better, nearly disappear behind the Sun Records logo. Sun was the ultimate record label for young rock'n'roll artists of the 1950s to aspire to, and people today still connect the term "rockabilly" with Memphis.

Founder Sam Phillips was neither the inventor of rockabilly, nor the man who came up with the term. Phillips had a big influence on the birth of rock'n'roll because of the popularity of this style, but he was also partly responsible for its decline, when in later years he abandoned the Memphis beat by watering it down with background choruses, overdubs, etc. Sam Phillips was more of a businessman than an idealistic advocate of a particular musical style. He was lucky to be in the right place at the right time, and to be surrounded by an abundance of talent. Even though Sun Records was strongly associated with the rockabilly sound, it would be wrong to limit rockabilly music to the Memphis area.

For example, there were many small record labels in Texas, with recording studios and hundreds of high-quality musicians and entertainers. Industrial cities like Chicago and Detroit, just to name a couple, also bore this musical subculture with regional and nation-wide success, Although most of their artists were still from the rural south and migrated north for work as well as musical opportunities. 

Now we turn to Denver, the capital of Colorado with 2,400,000 inhabitants.  Denver is not a place one would normally refer to as "Music City." During the 1950s, the town's musical impact on popular music was practically zilch. Denver's only record label of any note was Bandbox Records, which never really had any  big hits. If this label had never existed, the development of musical history would not have been affected much.

The first mark the city of Denver made on the world's rock'n'roll landscape followed 25 years later with the founding, and the rise of the Rock-A-Billy Record Company.  Owned and operated by one Mr. Willie Lewis.

It goes without saying that the musical importance of Memphis in the 1950s is not comparable with Denver in the 1980s and 1990s. The social impact of rockabilly music had totally changed in 40 years. During the 1950s, rockabilly music was a contemporary trend which influenced and touched a whole generation, and was always present in society. Nowadays the rockabilly music scene has changed to include record collectors and fans worldwide, whose interests do not reflect the current state of popular music.

The releases of the Rock-A-Billy Record Company quickly became collector's items and many of the first pressings are valued at prices higher than original records of the 1950s. It's remarkable that today a small, independent label could develop from a few releases into an important institution in the rockabilly music market of today.

Since 1980, many rockabilly bands turned their attentions to Denver. Their main wish was to make a record for the Rock-A-Billy Record Company.

During its early years, the Rock-A-Billy Record Company limited its releases to recordings made by Willie Lewis. Other bands and artists like High Noon, Carl Sonny Leyland and Marti Brom made some of their first recordings for the label, which helped them to become popular throughout the international rockabilly scene. Nearly all these artists had recorded before, but they never received attention to the extent they earned from their releases on Rockabilly Records. It's a tribute to the artistic integrity of the Rock-A-Billy Record Company as well as the artists and bands themselves that these artists became popular and that they are some of the most requested acts in today's world wide rockabilly market. Although many of these  artists became successful, the real star of the scene was the man who gave his heart and soul to the music: the man who recorded Rock-A-Billy R-101, and whose goal was to release good records according to his standards -- not necessarily to become a star in the rockabilly world.

  The biography of Willie Lewis is a dramatic story. While growing up under unusual circumstances, Willie's childhood years were filled with misunderstandings that led him into lawless activities as an adolescent. After turning around his life several decades ago, Willie's enthusiasm for rockabilly music grew as deep as his love for his family.

William Lewis Klug was born September 27, 1946 in Denver, Colorado. A incompatible RH blood factor made a blood transfusion necessary immediately after his birth. His father, Michael G. Klug left Willie's mother, Anna, four months before Willie's birth. Four years prior, on June 7, 1942, Willie's brother Michael George Jr. was born, and died five days later of the same RH blood problem.  In 1943, his sister Carolyn was born. It wasn't easy for Anna Lee to raise two children without a husband. Anna Lee blamed Michael's absence for the family's dire straits. She directed her frustrations on her boy Willie, while Carolyn grew up relatively sheltered by her mother and grandmother. When Willie was six months old, he was delivered to a home for children, where he lived until he was five. Then he was placed in the George W. Clayton College For Boys orphanage, where he lived between 1951 and 1963. Children at the institution were disciplined constantly, often to a severe degree. Willie tried many times to get in touch with his mother, but without success.

  The staff's harshness wasn't the only thing to watch out for, as the children had their own laws dictated by the strongest of them. When all the kids werepunished for something one of them did, the guilty person was beaten by the whole group when the adults turned their backs.

At 16 years of age, Willie came into conflict with the law for the first time, after he and some friends stole a car. Following a few more crimes and apprehensions, the court gave Willie two options: go to jail or join the Navy. He joined the Navy. Willie soon regretted the choice, because he had problems following orders made by people he didn't respect. Five weeks later, he and a friend went AWOL, stole a car, got arrested and wound up in the Nevada City jail. During the scuffle with the police, his friend was seriously wounded. After four months in jail, Willie was returned to the Navy, as part of his sentence.

He spent nine months in a Marine brig where he was taught military discipline and how to carry out orders. When his time at facility was completed, Willie was offered the choice to stay in the Navy or being discharged.  On June 5, 1964, he quit the Navy. On June 8, he headed back to Denver. On June 9, Willie stole another car, and on June 19th, 1964 went to jail for two years.

Willie's friends, most of whom also engaged in criminal activities, served as a substitute family. After he returned from jail in Denver, his mother and grandmother refused to give him a place to stay. When his relatives refused to shelter Willie, he went back to the opportunity program and asked for accommodation until he could find a job and an apartment. Once surrounded by his old friends, Willie took up where he left off, drank a lot of alcohol and came into trouble with other gangs.  Then he met Mary Lou and she completely changed Willie's life. Not only was Mary Lou his girl, she also served as his inspiration for tunes like The Rockin' Blues, Mary Lou Rock, I'll Still Love You When They Lay Me In The Ground and My Special Girl. These songs are only a few examples of the inspiration and affection he feels for Mary Lou.

The Mary Lou Rock

Maria Louise Sanchez was the daughter of hispanic parents who grew up in an orphanage (more or less) like Willie did. Although the one she was in was a Catholic institution named St. Clares. Mary Lou had 17 brothers and sisters and it was very hard for the family to make ends meet so she was put into this orphanage on a temporary basis. Although she was in the home, she did not lose touch with her family as Willie did.

Willie developed feelings for Mary Lou very shortly after he first met her, but she did not return those feelings for some time. She did not appreciate his outlaw antics and rough ways. They did see a lot of each other though because they both worked together at the same place, the Youth Opportunity Center, a government funded program for ex-offenders. Of course Willie was the only ex-offender. Mary Lou worked downstairs as a receptionist. For awhile Mary Lou was dating one of Willie´s best friends but as time went on, Willie and her got to be be more than friends and took up living together. But this arrangement did not alter Willie´s somewhat wild life style at all. The change came on July 10th, 1969 when his daughter Carol Lynn was born.

Willie reflected on his fartherless childhood and decided that he did not want his daughter growing up the same way. To accomplish this, him and his family moved to a different neighborhood, and Willie gave up all of his old rough and rowdy friends and ways. He got a less than great paying job while turning down better ones offered by his old friends because he was concerned about ending up back in jail again if he did not stay away from the potentially bad influences.

Willie then began to live his life on a straight and narrow path, which could be painful at times. He hated authority because during years in the orphanage, the jail, and Navy, people had tried to keep him in line without showing respect for his point of view. It was difficult for him to find and keep a job sometimes because he would always get into trouble with his bosses. When he found work, it didn't last very long before he either quit or got fired. To many people, Willie seemed to be bitter and stubborn, but to his friends he was open and selfless. To find a job that he could stick with was nearly impossible, so Willie decided to become his own boss. He began selling records from his substantial record collection. His mail order sales for rare records grew, and provided a good income for him and his family for quit some time.

The Birth of the Rock-A-Billy Record Company

    At the end of the 1970s, Willie could look back on a 20-year career as a record collector. Many record hunts led him around the 48 States, and contacts with other collectors made his collection expand. Because he owned so many rare records or knew them from other collectors, the amount of rockabilly music that was new to Willie's ears began to thin after a while. So he decided to learn how to play guitar, write songs and make a record of his own.  If he could achieve this goal then he wouldstart his own record label and produce rockabilly records which would sound as close to his favorite 1950s records as possible.

The layout and the name for the label were no problem, but for the rest of the business, he had to begin from scratch. He was an expert concerning rockabilly music, but as a musician he had no experience. He never played guitar before, and never sang except when he took  showers. When he was 32 years old, he bought his first guitar (used) and started practising like mad. He didn't think his first record should be a remake of an old rockabilly song, so he wrote his own songs after he learned a few chords on the guitar.

His first band members came from his family: Mike Montoya (nephew), Donnie Montoya (nephew), Eddie Valdez (nephew), Joe Sammy Sanchez (Mary Lou's brother) and Vic Svenson (cousin). They called themselves the Unknowns until, after many rehearsals and broken guitar strings, they agreed on Willie & The String Poppers. Their aim was to work up two songs for the first 45 rpm record, so they rehearsed Willie's Whatever Happened To That Rock & Roll and The Rockin' Blues. After Willie was satisfied with the arrangements, he did some research to record an "authentic" 1950s sound. The positions of musicians around a single microphone and the volumes of the instruments were arranged and rearranged hundreds of times until he was satisfied with the results.

The takes for the record were recorded February 6, 1979, in Willie's kitchen, with a tape machine. All other tapes from the early rehearsals were recorded over, so the first takes for R-101 are the only existing versions of the songs. More than 1500 recordings followed.

To make sure the recordings for the first record were the best versions, both songs were played as the first numbers at band rehearsals for a long time (as a rule, Willie recorded all his practices). Willie brought the tapes to Dave Stidman, who helped get them on vinyl. Dave Stidman was also a record collector who sold records. Dave is the owner of Wax Trax, Denver's biggest record shop. The mastering of the tapes and the purchase order to B&F Record Pressings in Texas were made through Dave's connections, and he distributed the whole production. The birth of the label started with 500 copies of Rock-A-Billy R-101 on black vinyl. From this modest start, the Rock-A-Billy Record Company became one of the most important modern labels known for producing rockabilly music.

Six months after the release of the first record, Willie started work on the second single, which was released in March, 1984. Willie proceeded as before, with support from Dave Stidman and B&F Record Pressing, but when Willie listened to the final product on his record player he was shocked. The recordings had been mastered and pressed with a pitch adjustment that made the music sound speeded up. That was a catastrophe for the perfectionist Willie. He asked Dave Stidman to destroy all copies of the record, because the results didn't represent his original vision. 450 copies of 500 were slated to be destroyed, but nearly 200 copies were sold in the end. The buyers of these pressings had fewer problems with the music than the father of the record.

Willie's disappointment and a series of massive heart attacks that followed shortly after this release, implied the quick end for his young Rock-A-Billy Record Company. The doctors didn't express much hope for Willie's state of health and his recovery, but Willie survived. He wrote two songs while he was in hospital: I'll Still Love You When They Lay Me In The Ground and Hospital Blues. Both were recorded six months after the heart attack.

  Two years later, R-103 was released. The circumstances were different from the other releases. It was the first record that Willie produced alone. The only support he solicited was that Dave Stidman distribute the single through his Wax Trax stores.

The record was pressed on colored vinyl as well as black, and for all future releases, the first press runs were made with colored vinyl while the second pressings were done with black. The colored pressings are now very collectible and bring high prices in auctions.

  While the recordings for R-101 and R-102 were made in Willie's kitchen, the takes for R-103 were recorded in a professional recording studio: Reel Art Studios in Denver. However, the studio sound didn't impress Willie, and nearly all future releases where recorded by his own recording methods at home.

  The disaster of R-102 and the fact that B&F Record Pressing wasn't able to press up coloured vinyl led to a change of pressing plants. The next releases on the Rock-A-Billy label were pressed at United Record Pressing (most of the 45s), Bill Smith Custom Pressing (a few 45s), Rainbo (10-inch albums, R-104, R-106, R-110 and R-301) and Archer (R-3001 and R-3002).

  Once Willie decided to control as much of the production process as he could, he got in touch with Paul Brekus. Paul ran Aardvark, a mastering company in Denver, out of his home. Willie and Paul became friends, and since the release of R-103, Paul mastered all follow-ups and made all acetates for Willie too. Paul's work added to the success of this label. More of Paul's mastering work can be find on the Lewmann EP, Waterhole's 45s and all releases on the Bop-Land label.

  For the fourth release on Rock-A-Billy, Willie recorded The Fender Bender Boogie, which was recorded with adventurous overdubbing. Les Paul's earliest overdubs of the 1940s sound high-tech compared to Willie's lead guitar overdubs. The results were raw and rockin'.

The songs for R-105 and R-106 were recorded in a studio again. Together with the Be My Baby on R-112, these three cuts were the last studio recordings Willie made. Even if the studio quality was good, none of these recordings have the feeling and sound of the "kitchen recordings." The rough style of Willie Lewis and the sterility of a studio simply don't fit!

  The seventh release began a new era for the Rock-A-Billy Record Company. Willie began to produce records by other artists. Shaun Young, singer of High Noon, the rockabilly trio, was an enthusiastic collector of Willie's 45s. When Willie first saw High Noon performing live on stage, he was taken with the trio. Willie and the High Noon boys agreed to make an EP (R-107) on Rock-A-Billy, and High Noon sent him recordings they made in Texas, which hadn't been released.

What followed their first release wasn't bad: a 78 rpm record, a 45 rpm record, a 10-inch album, some tracks on compilation albums and the licensing of their recordings to the Goofin' label of Finland were some of the fruits of the partnership between Willie Lewis and High Noon.

Willie concentrated more and more on productions by other artists. Only three 45 rpm records, the King Cat & The Pharaohs album (R-1001), the CD (R-5001) and some recordings on the various artists compilations (R-3001 and R-3002) included Willie's own recordings. This sad fact led to the founding of the Bop-Land label in Germany, which focused exclusively on releasing the recordings of Willie Lewis. Willie's work made a big impression, and other companies became interested in his recordings. The person mainly responsible for the quick popularity of Willie Lewis was Pete Hakonen of Goofin' Records in Finland. Pete was fascinated by Willie from the beginning, and was the first man who imported Rock-A-Billy records to the European market. The quality of these records led to broad interest in the Denver label. The records became popular, and they turned into collector's items after a while. Distributing Rock-A-Billy releases wasn't the only thing Pete Hakonen contributed. He also issued previously-unreleased tracks on his Goofin' label.

Other labels like Bop-Land, Waterhole, Crazy Love and Dynamite from Germany, Crazy Gator from Great Britain and On The Hill from Japan followed this example.

Two bootleg vinyl LPs include Rock-A-Billy Records material, while cover versions of Willie's songs and the unauthorized use of the label's logo by theFrantic Flattops for their own compact disc further demonstrate the status of the label and its owner.

Even though the last official release of the Rock-A-Billy Record Company was several years ago, and the fact that Willie isn't able to perform live on stage due to health problems, his songs are still requested by his fans. In the future, many recordings will be re-released, and new releases will be produced by other companies. There are also plans to release recordings by King Cat & The Pharaohs, and Tennessee Bill & The Tennessee Boys. A production covering his unreleased material from the beginning, to his last recordings made in December 2002 is also planned.

At the time of this writing, Willie's health is not good. After his first heart attack, three more attacks and a stroke followed. When his doctors estimated Willie had about six months to live, his will to survive, his power and his energy helped him bounce back time and again. His friends wrote a song for him and about him called, Too Mean To Die that suits Willie perfectly.

When you listen to his latest recordings, which he did with Mike Baird and Jim Holdridge, you'll notice nothing of his illness, just energy and a joy for life. On December 20, 2002 Willie had his fourth heart attack and the Too Mean To Die legend was again strained and put to the test. Perhaps someone should change to song title to Too Good To Die.

      - Sven Bergmann (owner of Bop-Land Records)

Posted March, 2007

©Sven Bergmann / Rockabilly Hall of Fame ®