ROCKABILLY HALL OF FAME® MERCHANDISE & SERVICES
Travelin' That Milwaukee Road
An Interview With
Larry Lee Phillipson
By Shane Hughes
Beginning with the usual question, can you tell me where and when you were born?
Also, do you recall where you grew up?
I was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on Sept. 13th, 1923. I went to a fortuneteller once -
as I sat down I said, "I was born on the 13th therefore I consider 13 to be my lucky number". She looked
at me sternly and replied in a dour voice, "In my book that is not lucky". I never believe that t
here is any substance to fortune telling. When I was three years old my folks moved to Coral
City, a place in Trempealeau County in West Central Wisconsin.
You spent your adolescence weathering the Great Depression. How did you and
your family cope with the adverse effects of the time?
Near Coral City my parents rented a farm. My father used all of his savings to
buy six cows and machinery with which to work the farm. Everything went along fine until in
1929, wham! The depression hit and what small amount that my dad had saved was wiped
out when the banks went bust. It was fortunate for us that we were on a farm. There
was a creek that ran through our place and my mother had a green thumb. She always
had a large vegetable garden. In spite of the drought we carried water from the creek,
watered the plants and the result was a lush vegetable garden. My mother was deft
at canning enough to supply us through the winter. It seems that havoc, hard times
and catastrophe join hands and dance along merrily together. As an example - first
the depression hits, with it comes a drought, the banks close and then the winter turns
bitterly cold. So cold that the supply of potatoes froze in the cellar. Frozen potatoes
have a sickening sweet taste but we ate them, it was better than nothing.
During World War Two you enlisted with the Marine Corps and served in the pacific
theatre. What can you tell me about your experiences during the Second World War?
I was just past 19 years old when I joined the US Marine Corps. Oh to wear
one of those pretty blue uniforms, I thought. I arrived in San Diego, Calif. the first week
in December 1942 almost a year to the day after the U.S. entered WWII. I spent a year in
training state side, mostly at Camp Pendleton near Oceanside, Calif. I was engaged
in the battle on the Marshall Islands, then Saipan, Tinian and finally Iwo Jima.
Later I received the Purple Heart for having developed perforated eardrums from heavy
shellfire. I received my discharge at the Naval Hospital in Philadelphia Oct 29th, 1945.
When did you first become interested in music and what were your early influences?
I would listen to Montana Slim, Gene Autry, T. Texas Tyler and the WLS Barn Dance on
Sat. nights from Chicago. I knew that I wanted to play a guitar and sing like those stars.
To me they were some kind of special gods apart from regular people. I would muse about
being like them when I was six years old walking the two miles on that lonely country
road to school. It took a while and I didn't get a guitar until at the age of thirteen I
saved enough money from picking cucumbers to send for a guitar. It came from Sears
Roebuck, in a cardboard box, hanging on the mailbox, instruction book and all for $2.98.
There was a picture of a cowboy, a horse and a cactus plant with the words, "Home On The Range".
Your favoured instrument is the guitar. What spurred you to learn this instrument?
My Dad tried to get me to play the violin but I wanted to play the guitar so that I
could sing along with it.
You began performing at talent shows during the late forties. What can you tell me about
the first talent contest you entered? How did these contests and the public exposure help develop
your unique style?
I had been trying to learn to play the guitar a couple weeks when a schoolmate,
who played the harmonica, and I entered a contest at the local Whitehall Fall Festival.
Actually, I was really afraid to go up on the stage so the two of us stood on the ground
in front of the stage and played. We won first prize, a dollar apiece. Never again
was I afraid to go up on a stage. Even then after it was over I rued the fact that
I had been too chicken to bask in the glory for everyone to see. In my book I
tell of how I entered the Tex Ritter Contest in El Paso, Texas. There I didn't
win and hocked my guitar in disgust. That was a nice looking blond, arch top F
hole Sears Roebuck guitar that I had bought before I went in the USMC. My parents
had saved it for me while I was away. That was in 1947. After that I returned to Milwaukee,
bought another Silvertone and won first prize singing the same song that I sang on the Tex
Ritter Show. The picture of me with that guitar appears on the front cover of my book, "From
Rocks to Rockabilly". That picture was taken around the time that I won the Fox Wisconsin
Theater Contest. It was then that I had the entertainment bug. There was no stopping me
now. It was Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams for me as favourites.
Then came the Monday
night amateur contest on 12th and Wells Street. For awhile I had been playing Sat. nite at Johnny
Simoines Bar on 13th and North Ave. I called him Tennessee Jimmy, he was from Nashville.
He and I along with a cowboy looking hombre we called Arizona Bob went down to the Mon.
night special. Jimmy and I went up on the stage, he played lead on my Silvertone and I
played an $8.00 hock shop guitar and sang "The Wabash Cannonball" as Arizona Bob stood
in the crowd and did the train whistle with his mouth. I have never since heard anyone
who could do the train whistle like he could. He could do it so loud that a person would
think that the old Cannonball was coming right through the place. All pandemonium broke
loose and the crowd went wild. We won first prize, Jim and I, $10 bucks each. I walked
off the stage; a man motioned me over to his table and handed me a card. "My name is
Glen Lyte and I want to be your agent". I took the card. "Call me in the morning", he added.
1954 was the year that your first record was cut. Released on the Demo label, the
A-side of this record featured an early rendition of 'Bitter Feelings', What was the story behind this
song that you co-wrote? Do you remember the musicians who played on the session?
After I was discharged from the military I travelled around for awhile. It was
then that I signed up for the Tex Ritter Amateur Show in El Paso, Texas where I hocked my nice
Silvertone guitar, disgusted because I didn't win. Then I took a trip to Los Angeles, Calif. Then in awhile I
went back to Milwaukee, Wis. This was in 1948. One day I heard a commercial on the radio, sang by Cactus Jack
who had a radio program. Jack was from, what I'd say, the old school, somewhat of a rounder and a bounder
who was a good Bill Monroe singer and a pretty good person, I thought.
It was after I had won my contest at the Fox Theatre and I had booked gigs in a couple bars that we met, around 1949.
When he heard that I tried to write songs he took an interest - he had ideas for songs and so did I. It seemed
that most or all of the egotistic, up and coming country singers looked on Cactus Jack as an old "over the hill"
guy and kind of made light of him and brushed him aside. I'm jumping back some here, but when I was in El Paso
I was selling for the El Paso Mattress Co. I met an old salesman and I asked him the secret of being a good
salesman. He told me in one line, "Read the Dale Carnige book "How To Win Friends And Influence People'".
If I ever learned anything from being in El Paso, the contents of that book was invaluable. So instead of shunning
Jack I told him what a good singer I thought that he was and I was OK by him. Jack was in his 40's, so he had
some experience that was also helpful for entertaining. I was green and naive. He told me about professional
jealousy, about how I could expect women to throw themselves at an entertainer, of how club owners would
try to take an entertainer over, bleed him dry and then cast him aside. None of that made sense to me. I had the
world in my hands and I could handle it all.
We worked on his idea of "Bitter Feelings", I wrote the music down
and we copyrighted it as co-writers. I had "A Rose From Your Bouquet" and I put his name on it as a co-writer
[as well] as a couple of other songs. Finally, in 1953 I took Billy Wood, a mandolin player, Ralph Hanzel on
the steel guitar [and] Rose Mary on the box bass (the girl singer) with the band. By then I was using "The
Westernaires" as my band name. The record was backed with "While I Was Waiting For You". The man who set
up the recording session sent us to Chicago to the RCA Studio. I wanted it recorded with my own unit. As
Dick Hiorns would say, "One can use their own band to record but it doesn't work, it is best to hire a studio
band". Then I was working at the "Cackle Shack" and appearing on WTMJ-TV every Sat. with the Hot Shot Revue.
Then I met Bob Martin, an ex-Marine, and when I took the record to radio station WMIL, where he was Deejay
and told him that I was an ex-Marine, he started to spin the record "Bitter Feelings". Jack would take me
around to jukebox operators and we would talk about how we should write a song with a beat. That is
the new trend, a good beat we decided. How about "My Be Bopping Hillbilly Baby". Radio Doctors, the largest
record distributor in Wisconsin, out of Milwaukee contacted me and said that RCA was ready to give me a
contract and take over my recording. Wow! I thought. Two weeks later I asked if they had heard any more about
the contract. "Yes, RCA is putting everybody on hold, they have signed up a singer from Memphis named Elvis
Presley". What a strange name I mused. Well, that wasn't the end of my life, just one of the
disappointments that Cactus Jack told me that I could expect in the entertainment business.
I laugh about it today and say, "I'd rather be where I am today than where Elvis is with all of his millions".
Around this time you formed the Larry Lee Trio. How did this band come together? What
about the Westernaires?
Ralph Hanzel, who had played steel guitar with me while working on the road,
had landed a job with a group at a club named "The Cackle Shack". At the time Ginny May and I
had broken up and Herbie had been drafted into the Army. So I got a job driving a truck for Keikhafer Corp.
(the company that makes Mercury Outboard Motors). Five days a week I would drive all over Milwaukee,
delivering and picking up parts for the company. I got to know the city like the palm of my hand. I had time
to muse as I drove around. My thoughts drifted back to the time when I grabbed the
freight train as a lad and my feet slammed up against the side of the "Milwaukee Road" boxcar. I had a piece of paper
on the dashboard of the truck and would write the words that I had in my mind at each stop. Voila! Thus "The
Milwaukee Road" song was born. I didn't know what lay ahead for me in the music field - maybe nothing. This was in
One day Ralph called me and asked if I would take a job playing bass with the band at "The Shack". I pulled
my bass fiddle out of the closet and there I was slapping bass and glad to be playing music again. Well, we would
switch around and after a couple sets I got to sing some songs with a guitar and it went over so well that when we
took our break the boss called me over to his table. "I like your style and presentation" he said and then added, "I have
just bought this place and the band came with it. I want you to be my new band, keep or let any body go that you
want". So the "Westernaires" was born autumn 1952. I wasn't really trying to [do] anything with a name to it, but I
liked doing music with a beat to it. It was back when Cactus Jack and I talked of writing "My Be Boppin' Hillbilly
Baby". It was maybe a year later that I got to go to Chicago and record the first "Bitter Feelings" on Demo. I appeared
on the "Ernest Tubb Midnight Jamboree" July 10th 1954 and I had made the recording by then.
Following a second release on Demo, you cut another disc for the local Raynard label in 1957. Both sides,
"The Milwaukee Road" and "Greedy Lips", possess strong elements of rockabilly. Were you striving for such a sound
at the time?
Later I got into rock and roll pretty heavy when Herbie came back from the Army, and I called the unit
'The Larry Lee Trio'. By then I was having a problem of drawing too young a crowd in the 21 year old clubs,
so I was ordered by the club owners to stick to country.
Your musical style changed considerably between recording the Demo label version of 'Bitter Feelings'
and the 1959 version released on Cinch. Was this fact reflective of the country music scene in
Wisconsin at the time? What spurred you to re-record 'Bitter Feelings'?
By the time that the fifties were coming to an end it was time for a change. It was coming to
an end of an era. I decided that if I was ever going to update "Bitter Feelings", the time was due. The recording
was made in Chicago during the first week of December of 1959. Just before Christmas I boarded the Rapid
Transit to Chicago and picked up my first order of 500 records. I paid for the session and paid for the records.
I carried the five boxes (100 per box) back to the station and boarded the Transit (90 miles) back to Milwaukee.
The whole thing cost $300.00. By Christmas I had sold many of the records to jukebox operators. The two big
playing records on the jukeboxes in Milwaukee that end of the year were "Talkin' To Myself" (flip side of "Bitter
Feelings") and Jimmy Reeves' "He'll Have To Go". Later I ordered another 500 45 rpms from 'Cinch' and rode the
Transit to Chicago to pick them up. It was not too long later that the Trio disbanded and I left Milwaukee in
search of new horizons.
During the nineteen sixties you travelled extensively and recorded a number of sessions in Nashville.
These recordings were released on your own Phillipson label through until the late seventies. Why did you
establish your own label? Were other record companies uninterested in the material you were recording
at this time?
I appeared on a television show awhile until I was cut out by some local guys that couldn't
stand to see someone from up North cuttin' in on their territory. Then I ended up in Huntingdon, Tenn.
and had a radio program on WHDM McKenzie, Tenn. for a few months. It was there that I walked in the
woods and surveyed the crash site where Patsy Cline lost her life in a plane crash that fateful day March
5th, 1963. From there I went to Eau Claire, Wis. (this was near my hometown area) and there I booked gigs
in bars and began writing songs in earnest. Although I contacted publishers and recording studios in Nashville,
Tenn. I had promises and run arounds so I would rent a studio and hire musicians in Nashville and do a
recording session on my own. I started contacting jukebox operators all over the State of Wisconsin.
[Larry subsequently added the following passage] In the early 1960s I tried my luck in Panama City,
Florida with a show on television for awhile and then a radio program for a few weeks. It was
while there that I wrote "Little Miss Teardrop". Then I went to Nashville to record it and ended up
in Huntingdon, Tenn. There I got a job at 'Vickers Buick'. When the owner of the garage heard that
I was an entertainer he sponsored me on WHDM radio, McKenzie, Tenn. On the 4th of July 1964
I drove up to see my folks at a family reunion. There had been a hailstorm in the area and my
brother who was in the roofing business offered me a job roofing. There was good money to
be made so I took the job and when I got to Eau Claire, Wis. I bought a PA set and an amplifier.
I found out where a box bass was for sale, bought it and taught my brother to play it in a
couple of days, hired a lead guitarist and booked gigs in bars on weekends. It was then that I
began writing songs and ordered some of my old recordings from a jukebox operator in Milwaukee.
Luckily they had some of them on hand from years before. It was then that I ordered a thousand
records at a time through 'Cuca'. I also used my own label, 'Phillipson', because I became weary
of promises in Nashville with offers that didn't materialise. I could order records through
Cuca for $275.00 per thousand and I could order them on my own label from Bill Conners at
'Classic' in Nashville for a lot less.
In 1962 you recorded 'Miami Road' for the Snatch label. Then, in 1965, two discs were released on
James Kirchstein's Cuca label. How did you become associated with Kirchstein and his company?
It was then that I met Jim Kirkstein [Kirchstein - SH] of 'Cuca Records' in Saukville, Wis. I
had Jim press 1000 45 rpms from my 'Cinch' record. I could order records for $180.00 per thousand.
I ordered several one thousand orders and paid for them all. I was on a record-selling roll.
I had an old 1959 Ford station wagon. My wife and I were on the road day after day selling
records. Sometimes we would sleep in the car and be on our way the next morning. Along the way
I would book gigs in clubs and return to perform there on weekends. We were getting into Minnesota
and Michigan. Yes I am one person that "Did It My Way".
You eventually settled in Wisconsin and became involved in antique dealing. How did your interest
in antiques develop?
In 1966 I was selling records and booking jobs at clubs. In the spring of 1966 (Feb.)
my wife [and I] went to Nashville and recorded a session. When "Absent Minded You" came back the
pressing was of a smaller size so that it jammed on the jukeboxes. It was then that I became disgusted,
quit pushing and got a job at the Chrysler Corp. working on the assembly line making Dodge and Plymouth
automobiles. It was during this time that I also attended and graduated from college. Then I moved up to
Amery, Wis. and continued once again to play music, write songs and book gigs as a means of survival.
I got to travel a lot and I have many pleasant memories from being engaged in a project that I
[Larry subsequently added the following passage] In 1965 I got married and my wife and I travelled in
an old 1959 Ford station wagon from town to town selling records. Many times we would stop in
a park to sleep over night in the wagon and be on our way in the morning. We sold many thousand
records that way. All the while booking gigs on the weekends. Then I ordered "Absent Minded You"
and the record was off sized and would jam the jukeboxes. I became disgusted and quit the whole
works and went to Illinios and got a job making cars at the Chrysler plant in Belvidere. While there
I enrolled in Rock Valley College. That was in 1966. There I stayed away from music. In 1971 I
graduated from College with a degree in English and History. Then I got the longing for music,
ordered "Charlene" [and] moved up to Amery, Wis. into our vacation mobile home. Then I went
to Nashville and recorded "Double Time Heart", "A Corner In My Heart", did "Little Miss Teardrop"
over again, "The Racing King", "Old Enough To Worry" and "The Challenge". We needed stuff to get our place
in the woods set up so we started to go to auctions. I asked someone why that junk that we used to
throw away went at such a high price. "Those are antiques", was the reply. Immediately I decided
to learn all about antiques. All the time I was booking gigs and selling antiques at flea markets
until I couldn't make it to some of my far away gigs. I began upgrading my wares and got into
bigger antique shows in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Then we bought a motor home and booked
antique shows all over the Mid-west. Places like Duluth, Fargo, Moline, Ill., Chicago, Milwaukee,
Green Bay, Wi., Eau Claire, Wi., Waterloo, Iowa to name a few. My wife, Linnea, bought antique
price guides and became a well knowledged antiquer. I always did well with musical Instruments.
My favorite pitch is, "When a singer gets too old for the girls to wink at him he sells guitars".
In 1999 you released a CD compiling the best material from your long recording career and
also published your autobiography. Did this publicity garner any level of recognition for you and
your devotion to country music? Also, a few years ago you were inducted into the Rockabilly Hall
of Fame. How did you feel when you heard the news of your induction?
I got tied up with Antiques and then in 1999 I got the notice that I had been
inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. I was elated! After all this time I had become acknowledged.
I wrote a book, had a CD made in the Twin Cities and it opened a new door for me. I was invited to speak
at writers clubs [and] asked to perform at dinner banquets.
Are there future plans for European festival appearances or have you retired from performing publicly?
Now I have a group from Minneapolis that has made a TV video with me and they back me up on
shows. Larry Lee and The Twin Cities TV Band. Cal Hand on steel guitar and also doubles on dobro,
Gary Schwartz plays electric bass and doubles on box bass. His brother Denny plays lead guitar. Yes,
it has opened a new door to a big beautiful world. I still feel full of life and will perform any time or
anywhere that I can find someone that will listen. May 11th on Sat. 3:00 to 7:00 P. M. we will be performing
at the 'Coral City Daze' celebration. I guess that I am about the luckiest Country Rockabilly Guy in
the whole world.