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INTERVIEW BY STEVE KELEMEN
If you are a lover of vintage obscure rockabilly then the name Jackie Gotroe should already be familiar. Originally based out of San Franisco, he set the bar exceptionally high with his all time classic rocker 'Lobo Jones'.
My mother was a singer in the 20's and 30's. She sang in speakeasys and had her own radio show for a while. She also recorded with some of the big bands of the day such as Paul Whitman and Gus Sonheim and sang with the Phil Harris band for a while. She continued performing for quite a long time.
When I was growing up in the 40's and 50's mom and dad would take me around to the clubs and I had a chance to see the current music scene. I learned all the oldies.
I grew up on Perry Como and Eddie Fisher. The first rock and roll I ever heard was Bill Haley and I was hooked. I played ukelele for a while but when I heard Elvis I graduated to the guitar and I never looked back.
Left to right: Len Alexander, Don Barksdale, Don Benton, me,
Gary Thompson (Hush Records), Willie Littlefield.
Photo taken at a rehearsal for our first recording session
Some of my old time heros were Elvis, Gene Vincent, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis ( who was one of my great favorites ). He was born in Ferriday, Louisiana and my dad came from Broussard, Louisiana so we shared some roots.
I worked for my dad in Radio Village next door to KDIA Radio. A Blues station, in and around 1955/1956. We had a print shop and ad agency and everyday I would go over and listen to the DJ's spin records.
From right to left: A neighborhood pal, Len Alexander, Don Beten, George Salas, Me & Sidney (my kid sister).
I recorded my first record with Don Barksdale on Rhythm Records. When I auditioned for him he thought we could do some cross over music. We wanted to get into a little bit of white music. He had only black performers on his label and he thought since Elvis was so popular that I could do some cross over into rock and roll.
I auditioned for him in 1957 right after I graduated from high school. I returned from summer vacation in Louisiana and got an appointment with him shortly after I got back into town.
An appearance at the local TV station
I played my guitar and sang a couple of Elvis songs and Don thought there was some potential there. He asked if I had any original material and when I said no he said I should go home and write some and get a little band together in order to cut a record.
It was just that simple. So I went home and wrote about half a dozen songs. I was really pumped up. One of the songs I wrote was "Raised On Rock and Roll". I also wrote "Rock It To The Moon" and a couple others. So I went back and performed the songs for Don. He liked the first two songs because they were current, particularily "Rock It To The Moon". The Sputnik satellite had just come out so the song was current.
He told me to get a little backup band because after recording we would go out and play some clubs and I would need a band. I had a buddy of mine named Jim Hale who knew a lot of local musicians. He went out and recruited a guitar player, drummer and bass player. So I had a 3 - piece back up band. The guitar player was George Salas. The drummer was Len Alexander and the bass player was Don Beton. We played for about a year and I haven't seen those guys since then. George was a fabulous guitar player and played Fender Stratocaster. He was the son of a Baptist minister and had a very strict upbringing. His dad didn't want him to play rock and roll so we had to get him out of the house through his bedroom window. Everything was done undercover and I don't think his dad ever knew he played rock and roll.
An autograph party
So we got together and did a recording session at Rhythm Records in San Francisco. We used the R&B group Ollie McClay and The Mondellos to do the doo wop backup for "Rock It To The Moon". There was no over dubbing at that time and everything was done in one take in one room. We had sound baffles spread around the room and we worked most of the day to get it just right. After the recording session was finished we thought the beat was a bit slow so the record was sped up slightly.
You can hear the voices sound a higher pitch than usual. We did what we had to do to make it right. That was my first recording session and it was a lot of fun.
There were two different versions of "Rock It To The Moon". One was with vocal backup and one was without. It was thought that the version without vocal backup was more rockabilly.
Me and my Gretsch
The second recording session came 6 to 8 months later at Keen Records. Bumps Blackwell did the A&R work. The Blossoms were the back up singers. We brought George in for the guitar work and the rest were studio musicians. There were 4 songs cut. The first two were released on Keen Records. The songs issued were "Golden Spur" b/w "Summer Lightning". Part of that recording session was paid for by Gallo Wine who had a product out called Golden Spur Wine. Don made a deal with them to help me and said if I could write a song with Golden Spur in it they would give us some money and when it was played they would get some product placements. We did what we had to do to raise some money. We had some studio time left so Don said let's do this other song - "Lobo Jones". So we did that with the flipside being "Don't Treat Me This Way".
"Lobo Jones" was the only recording released on Vortex. It has apparently become a cult classic. It's been re-released over and over again. Within the last 4 or 5 years it was issued on Rhino Records in a box set of classic 1950's Rockabilly with selections by Elvis, Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent and other early rockers. I was in good company on that box set. And it was because of the subject matter. "Lobo Jones" was a dangerous character and the subject matter of all the songs was the dangerous rock and roll from the era of Eisenhower, Camel cigarettes and the atomic bomb.
It is really interesting that an obscure record that didn't sell that many copies when first released has had such a long shelf life. Collectors apparently pay up to $2500 for a mint copy. I wish I had saved my copies. I must have had 200 copies that I autographed and gave away to fans etc.
My career with Don Barksdale ended after "Lobo Jones". We didn't make anymore recordings. We played some local gigs. I played The Garden Of Allah and The California Hotel in Oakland with some R&B groups etc. But I didn't play many gigs with The Scamps. We gradually went our own way.
I did hear that George Salas had quite a career in music and played on cruise ships for a while.
I went on to sign a contract with Hollis Music in New York. I got with them through a mutual friend of the family whose sister worked as a receptionist in a nightclub. She was very friendly with a lot of people in the music business.
She came out to visit and I sang for her. She was very impressed and wanted a couple of my records to take back with her. She thought that some of these people might be interested in me. She took the records back and within a month or two I was contacted by a Mr.Al Brachman of Hollis Music wanting to know if I was interested in signing with them. I was still under contract with Don Barksdale but Mr.Brachman said if I could get out of that contract or wasn't going to be used anymore he would be interested in signing me up. So my folks went to see Don and he graciously agreed to let me out of my contract and I signed with Hollis Music.
Me and my wife Michelle
They flew me back to New York, all expenses paid, to record at Capitol Studios. There weren four demos. The songs were "Child's Play", "Carolina Moon", "No Money Down" and "Strolling To School". The first two songs were released under the name of Jackie Powers. They felt that Jackie Powers was a name that would be a little more acceptable to the mainstream. I was all set for a big promotion with Decca Records. They were going to get me on the Peter Tripp Show. He was one of the biggest DJ's in New York. Ultimately they would get me on Dick Clarks American Bandstand. They had the connections and felt they could market me that way. But right about then the Senate investigated payola and the lid clamped down really tight. My record was released and sort of died right there.
All the avenues for promotion dried up and nobody wanted to spend any money to try and promote records. "No Money Down" and "Strolling To School", which I felt were the stronger of the four sides were never released. I still have some acetates of those songs. They were all recorded professionally at Capitol Records with the same backup singers and A&R people who produced for Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and others. But the recordings didn't have the same raw quality that my earlier records had.
After that I backed away from the music industry. I did some little theatre and nightclubs. I got into some folk singing. I ultimately got married, raised a family and started a career.
That was the end of Jackie Gotroe era and now I'm just plain Jack.
Posted September, 2012 - ©Rockabilly Hall of Fame