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The Tragedy of Tommy Blake
By Shane Hughes
Tommy Blake was one of the more curious characters of the Big Beat era. He was a man
with talent, but seemed unable to channel his talent in the right direction. Instead of harvesting
the rewards he should have received for his genuine songwriting ability, he burnt too many
fingers and rubbed too many people the wrong way. Bill Millar has said of Blake, "The records
of Tommy Blake afford a glimpse of a man of considerable imagination as well as flights
of indiscipline". He continued, saying Blake was a "headlong troublemaker" and concluded
with the lugubrious summary of his life being "-a psychodrama far cheaper than any he
wrote about". Noted musicologist Colin Escott similarly opined, "Tommy Blake's life
was a How-Not-To-Do-It manual", elaborating with the unfavorable retrospection ...
"He was one of the guys who never really made it but got close enough to know what
'making it' was all about. Close enough to know that he wanted it badly. Some guys
can give it a shot, accept that the public doesn't want to buy what they have to sell, then
move on, happy that they at least tried. Not Tommy Blake. He couldn't accept the public's
verdict with good grace".
Tommy certainly did get close enough to being the success that he strove for. He was handed many opportunities
and, when all is said and done, he should have been firmly ensconced on Music Row by the time of his
death in 1985. He was his own worst enemy, though, as one of the few people that was ever close to
Tommy, guitarist Ed Dettenheim (a.k.a. Eddie Hall), told me ...
"Blake had talent. He could have been big but he inevitably did things that set him up
for failure. He was without a doubt the best salesman I have ever known. He could talk
himself into getting anything he wanted but would invariably keep on selling until the
deal was compromised. He knew that but could not seem to help it. My role was often
to accompany him and 'punch him' when it was time to end the hype and shut up".
There were just a handful of shining moments in Blake's long and tortuous music career. Those few
luminous moments did offer a concise glimpse of Tommy Blake's aspiring talent as a songwriter
and proved that he did indeed have a "-considerable imagination-".
Blake's beginnings proved to be a mirror image of the songs he would later write, as his earliest
years were far less than auspicious. He was christened Thomas LeVan Givens when born illegitimately
on September 14, 1931. His place of birth is speculative. Early research by Jay Orr and Adam
Komorowski indicated Tommy's birthplace as Shreveport, Louisiana. His mother is believed t
o be from Shreveport. However, more recent findings by Escott and Millar reveal that he
was actually born in Dallas, Texas. Apparently, the young Tommy never knew his father and,
due to his illicit birth, was never looked upon kindly by his mother. This neglect seemed to
instill a waywardness in Tommy's character. As he grew older and matured, he became
more of a rounder, a trait that would remain with him for the rest of his life. During
these early, formative years his abstinence first reared when he was, according to Escott,
supposedly jailed for statutory rape while in his teens. One of Tommy's daughters from his first marriage
has since denied this claim and irrefutable proof of Tommy serving time has yet to be been uncovered.
He learned to play guitar and developed a liking for country music while he was still in school. In 1951
he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps, but never made it past boot camp. During training
in North Carolina he lost an eye and later claimed to anyone who would listen that he sustained
the injury in Korea. He did play regularly to the other enlisted ranks before his discharge
and when he eventually left the Marine Corps he settled in Louisiana, taking up work as a performer
and deejay on radio station KTBS in Shreveport. Around 1954 Tommy married for the first time,
tying the knot with Betty Jones in Carthage, Texas. Soon after, he moved back to Louisiana,
with his new bride in tow. This time he settled in Ruston and found work at station KRUS.
Joining the Ruston station was a major turning point in Tommy's music career. He would meet two
other aspiring musicians with similar ideas to his; a chance meeting at an obscure radio station that
would present him with his first opportunity to crack the big time. These two young musicians
were the gifted guitarist Carl Adams and rhythm guitarist/occasional bass player Ed Dettenheim.
The pair had been active at KRUS as session musicians for some time before Tommy found work
there, and had first met years before. Carl Bailey Adams was born in Rayville, Louisiana to Monroe
Cleveland and Lura Elizabeth Adams on November 7, 1935. He was the last born of ten children,
four of whom died at birth. His other siblings included sisters Gladys, Myree, Genny and Vaudie
and an older brother Clyde. Carl would mature into a deeply troubled soul, more so than the irreverent
Tommy in his later years. His pain stemmed from a traumatic incident that occurred when he was only
five years old and would scar him physically and mentally for the remainder of his short life. On
October 11, 1941, less than a month before his sixth birthday, his brother Clyde and his sister
Gladys' husband, Alton, were planning to go hunting and had asked their father for use of his
double barrel shotgun. Monroe retrieved the weapon, laying it on a table in the dining room of their Epps,
Louisiana home. Gladys and other members of the family were milling about the kitchen sink,
when Gladys heard her father say that he'd laid the gun on the dining room table. When she realized that
Carl and her two year old son Charles Alvis were in the dining room, she screamed for her father
to get the gun. As she did she saw that Carl had already jammed two fingers into the barrels
and her scream had startled him, causing him to jerk his fingers out of the gun. Nobody
knew that the safety was off and one shell had been loaded, when Carl's sudden movement
forced the shotgun to roll and discharge. Once the initial shock of the blast had
subsided, the scene that unfolded was of utter horror. The two fingers Carl had
pushed into the gun barrels were blown clean off his left hand. Worse still, his young cousin,
who was in the direct line of fire, had been decapitated by the blast. Carl was
devastated. He believed he was responsible for his cousin's death and the guilt
would always remain with him.
His hand was partially mended by surgery to shape his other fingers into a claw like grip so he could
grasp objects and, in an effort to prevent his left hand becoming a handicap, Carl's mother bought
him a guitar when he turned twelve. He taught himself to play the instrument and eventually
developed a technique whereby he played left-handed, with thumb picks taped to his
thumb and banjo picks taped to his little finger and holding the guitar upside down
and backwards. Totally unique and very much reminiscent of veteran French jazz picker
Django Reinhardt (whose left hand had been mangled by an accidental fire), Carl's style of
playing prevented his deformed hand from becoming an impediment, and allowing him
to create sounds that completely baffled other players and spurring Ed Dettenheim
to describe as his "screaming guitar sound".
Around this time, the pre-pubescent Carl first met future rocker Dale Hawkins while
an elementary school student in Mangham, Louisiana. The pair attended the same school and, no doubt,
shared similar interests. They struck a lasting relationship, but it would be at least another
decade before Carl and Dale would perform together professionally. Carl later graduated to the
Louisiana Technical College, where he met the man who would become his closest friend, Ed Dettenheim.
Ed's upbringing was far less traumatic than his friend Carl's. He was born in Shreveport,
Louisiana on February 23, 1934 and took to playing drums at around the same time Carl
began learning the rudiments of guitar. By the age of 13 he was a guitarist in a teenage
band, but confessed he was not entirely proficient as a lead guitarist ...
"I learned to play left handed first and switched to right so I was never that great
a lead player. I simply could not move that pick in my right hand fast like flatpickers
but I could put harmony and rhythm to anything a picker could play. Filling in the
gaps and surrounding whatever melody one might play with supportive sound was
why Blake sought me out I suppose and why Adams and I made a unique team".
After meeting Carl at Louisiana Tech, they both gained work as session players at radio station
KRUS in Ruston. Not long after, Tommy Blake entered their world.
Contrary to previous accounts, Tommy did not form the Rhythm Rebels. As Ed clearly pointed out, "I
didn't 'join' the Rhythm Rebels. Carl and I were the Rhythm Rebels". By this stage the duo had been
working together for some time, but hadn't adopted a commercial name as such. When Tommy joined
KRUS and befriended Carl and Ed, he convinced them to become his backing band and only on the
occasions when providing support to Tommy was the band known as the Rhythm Rebels. Carl and
Ed frequently backed other KRUS acts, but not as the Rhythm Rebels. The fourth addition to the group
was a drummer by the name of Tom Ruple. A fellow Louisiana native, Ed had known Tom since they
had performed in a high school band together. Collectively, the trio was known as the Rhythm Rebels
when they hit the road with Tommy, touring mostly around the confines of Shreveport. Ed recalls
one of their first gigs in Alexandria, a show that also boasted the prime billing of Johnny Horton,
Johnny Cash and Tommy Sands. Sands was minus his own band for the show, so the
Rhythm Rebels played behind him. For their efforts, the entire entourage was paid $200,
which they were to divide evenly amongst themselves. Hardly the star status Tommy Blake was aspiring to.
By 1955 Tommy and his band were playing further south. Following appearances on The Ruston Hill Country Hoedown and The Big T in Texarkana, the group headed for Dallas and a thirteen week engagement on the Big D Jamboree, topped with a ten month stint on The Grand Prize Jamboree in Houston. This was still the small time, though. Tommy was looking for that elusive break and it came when he and the band were invited to perform on Hoss Logan's famed Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport. Still peddling country sounds, Tommy's perspective soon changed when he witnessed the phenomenon that was Elvis Presley. The Tupelo born singer had been a regular on the Hayride since late the previous year. By the time Tommy and the Rhythm Rebels joined the show's cast, Presley's sound was still fresh and sending larger ripples through the music industry as time progressed. Few were unaffected by his hybrid music, least of all Tommy Blake. He was won over completely by the new beat.
Sold on this new sound, Tommy found it easy to adapt to a repertoire of rock and roll, as did Carl,
Ed and Tom. Ed had now switched to bass after a "-twist of fate", as Ed called it, one night on the
Hayride. Carl had nurtured his abilities significantly by this time too, as is evident on their first
recordings made for A. T. Young's Buddy label in Marshall, Texas. Young had been
managing the Marshall Jamboree, aired over station KMHT in Marshall, and had formed his
own Buddy label (named after his son Noble 'Buddy' Young) a year or so earlier. He likely
became aware of Blake and the Rhythm Rebels following their appearance on Johnny Horton's
television show on KLTV in Tyler probably during the early months of '56. Tommy was
one of the first acts to record for Young and was followed closely by other equally obscure
Texas acts as Lucky Boggs, Jim Hadley, Don Boots and Joe Richie, all of whom cut creditable
rockabilly sides for Young's label. Ed recalls that the session may have taken place at
the KWKH studios in Shreveport, with Sonny Trammel brought in on steel. Tom Ruple
was conspicuously absent from the session that spawned just two titles, the first of which
proved a showcase for Carl's deft picking. The tune in question, Tommy's self-penned Koolit,
was seminal rockabilly. Carl's simple, yet robust melodic theme was complimented superbly
by Ed's propulsive rhythm. However, many may consider Koolit to be the bands weakest and
most contrived effort. In a sense, such criticism is not totally without foundation. Lyrically,
the song was pure corn. Regardless, this was the first recorded example of Tommy Blake and
the Rhythm Rebels expounding their version of the infantile Big Beat and for this fact alone, Koolit
is an important artifact. In contrast, Tommy and the group remained loyal to their country
roots for the flipside, If I'm A Fool. Issued as Buddy 107, the release wasn't the hit record
that Tommy may have been hoping for. Tommy and the Rhythm Rebels kept up their appearances
on the Hayride though, with Carl and Ed even signing to the show as regular session musicians.
When Koolit failed to set alight the popular music charts, Tommy mustn't have been too perturbed.
This was only a minor setback and his desire to make the big time was still strong as is evident
in the fact that he was fervently writing songs with Carl and Ed. Nashville was now beckoning.
Ed can still recall the day in April 1957 when he, Tommy and Carl decided to head north to
Tennessee and peddle their wares to Music Row publishers ...
"I wrote [songs] as did Blake. Together we had material galore. Carl, Blake and I
loaded in an old station wagon and headed for Nashville in search of a record deal
and some publishing contracts. Webb Pierce owned Cedarwood Publishing Co. He
signed for several of our songs as he knew [Johnny] Horton was hot to record a couple.
Next day we went over to Tree Publishing and Buddy Killen also wanted our material.
He introduced us to Chet at RCA. Chet wanted to sign us on RCA and asked us to return
to Nashville a few days later to record 4 songs".
Blake's chance had arrived. Country music kingpin Chet Atkins had shown interest in the
material he had written with Carl and Ed and, better yet, he had been offered the opportunity
to record for one the country's major record corporations. The group went home, probably
overjoyed with the outcome of their foray into Nashville. Four days later they made the return trip north,
with Ed behind the wheel ...
"That session still sticks rather clearly in my mind. I was the 'designated driver' on
the way from Louisiana to that RCA session. It was around midnight and coming a
rainstorm. I ran a stop sign in a little town west of Nashville called Humbolt-never
even saw the sign it was so dark and raining so hard. The cops stopped me. We
didn't have $10 to pay the speeding ticket. I sat on a desk in the jail while Blake called
Chet. Chet had to get up out of bed and go down and wire me $10 so we could be there
to cut the session that day. We were all tired and sleepy but we made it somehow".
At two o'clock on the afternoon of April 15, Tommy and his band entered RCA's newly
constructed studio B on McGavock Street, where they were joined by a handful of Nashville's
finest session men. Carl played lead on the date, with Ed providing support on rhythm.
To bolster the rhythm section, Chet brought in Buddy Killen on bass, Farris Coursey on
drums and the ubiquitous Floyd Cramer was at the piano stool. The session kicked off with
a tune written by the trio of Blake, Adams and Hall (Dettenheim) called Honky Tonk Mind.
From the moment Carl struck the first chords of the introduction it was all too clear that the
band had matured as musicians and songwriters and, although the tune harked back to their country
roots, was a more convincing effort at recording rockabilly than their earlier Buddy release. The
lyrics were superlative and Carl's string bending was nothing short of astounding. Next in the can
was the ballad Freedom, a song that Hawkshaw Hawkins, who was now an RCA act, would record
twice for the label (his first version was cut on September 11 and remained unissued. His second
take on the tune was recorded a year later on September 8 and released as RCA 47-7389). An
instrumental worked up for the session by Carl and Ed followed (Mister Hoody), with the session
closing on an aggressive note and the first true installment of the Hoody saga, All Night Long
(written in the living room of Ed's home). Carl certainly left an indelible impression on Chet
with this song. His take off solos pierce the skull and are truly menacing. As always, Ed was
filling in the gaps with a solid rhythm. Conversely though, Tommy's vocals seemed too light
for the atmosphere created by Carl's riffs. At this stage, the trio was probably still perfecting
their sound and may have been finding it difficult to break the shackles tying them to their hillbilly
beginnings. Nevertheless, this was a solid session.
Tommy should have started counting the dollars roll in, but this was not to be. He had sold himself
out early and burnt his bridge before even reaching it. On his first trip to Nashville with Carl and
Ed the previous week, Tommy had offered Honky Tonk Mind to Johnny Horton, who duly recorded it for
Columbia on the 11th. When RCA executives heard of Horton's version the situation rapidly
deteriorated, particularly when competing music publishers became involved. Tillman Franks,
Horton's manager at the time, was more than aware of the ensuing conflagration between RCA
and Columbia and decided to rush Horton's version onto the market (Columbia 4-40919) on April
22 under the title of The Woman I Need, with writer credits to himself and a Cedarwood Music
employee named Lee Emerson. Not surprisingly, Tommy's version was held back by RCA. Infuriated,
he invoked a lawsuit over the composer credits to Horton's version of the song, which he eventually
won. His efforts were to no avail, though and recompense for his mistake was not forthcoming.
Unwilling to continue an association with the rogue singer, Chet was advised to issue Freedom
and Mister Hoody back to back (RCA 47-6925), then nullify his contract.
Success was close enough to touch. Carl and Ed were bitterly disappointed. Tommy had blown it. What had gone
wrong? Ever the salesman, Tommy had spread his product too wide and found it difficult to keep control.
As a result, he sold himself down the river before he had a chance to strike gold. Ed certainly hit the
mark when he said that Tommy would " - invariably keep on selling until the deal was compromised".
Luckily, another chance for Tommy to record and take another shot at fame was enticingly close. With
Carl and Ed still in tow, he attended a disc jockey convention a few short months after leaving RCA.
Also in attendance at the meeting was renowned Memphis producer Sam Phillips, who Tommy was
fortunate enough to meet and chat with. During their conversation, Sam may have inferred an interest
in wanting to record Tommy and the Rhythm Rebels as that Summer, the trio traveled to Memphis
to solicit a recording date at Sun. Sam consented and the group, bolstered by Sun session drummer
Jimmy Van Eaton, cut a brief session. The result was a solid reworking of TV Slim's Clif/Checker
label recording of Flat Foot Sam and a further addition to the Hoody saga with the very raw and
unbridled Lordy Hoody (the term Hoody derived from Who Dey?, itself a bastardization of Who are
they?). Flat Foot Sam proved that Tommy and the Rhythm Rebels now had a firm grasp on rockabilly,
while Lordy Hoody was a perfect showcase for Carl's blistering or "screaming" guitar work. Similarly,
Tommy sounded far more comfortable with the new R&B tinged material. Lordy Hoody was pure,
lowdown rockabilly, rivaling the work of other Sun stalwarts as Jimmy Wages and Ray Harris. Sam
noted similar merit in both cuts as he chose to couple them for release on September 14 as Sun 278.
Flat Foot Sam sold reasonably well in regional markets and was Tommy's first real taste of success,
no matter how fleeting it may have seemed. Further, the records prosperity may have instilled
thoughts of greater fame in Tommy, as he returned to 706 Union early in March 1958 to record a
demo session without the backing of Carl and Ed. Of the nine sides he cut at this session, Ballad
Of A Broken Heart possessed the greatest potential; a fact realized when Johnny Cash recorded the
tune just two months later on May 15 as Story Of A Broken Heart. Tommy may have prematurely dashed
his hopes on the song becoming a hit as Sam waited over two years to release Johnny's version of the
song and when he did, he assumed credit as the writer (Tommy may have been experiencing financial
difficulty at the time and sold the song to Sam shortly before it was released). Only two other titles
from this session have survived (or, at least, have been located and since released), I Dig You Baby
and You Better Believe It. Both songs illustrate Tommy's creative and now tender grasp on the teenage
idiom of rock and roll, but proved to be worthy of revival a few weeks later when he recorded his
second full band session for Sun on March 16.
Carl and Ed had since parted company with Tommy. The Hayride was beginning to wind down by '58
and so too was the support that Carl and Ed particularly, had been showing him. Appearing unforlorn
over the split, Ed recalled that "the Hayride and personal appearances were still receptive of Blake
so Carl and I were still active, but the fire was gone and in our mind Blake had blown it". The pair
may have contributed to some of the material that Tommy demoed at Sun in March; however, they
were no longer Rhythm Rebels. Leaving the Hayride cast, Ed returned to college (Louisiana State
University) to complete a degree in psychiatric social work. He remained active for a time, playing
mostly blues on the college circuit and recording behind various acts who breezed through the studios
at KWKH. Shortly after parting company with Tommy, Ed cut two sides for Chic Thompson's ill-fated
Chic label based in Georgia. He cut the session at RCA's studio B with Hank Garland and Chet Atkins
arranging the date. Recording only two songs, the countrified My Baby's Got A Picture For A Daddy
and the calypso tinged Little Love Light, he was robbed of a solo release when Chic became embroiled
in the Nancy Whiskey affair that followed the stateside success of Freight Train. Ed later graduated
from LSU and would go on to work prolifically for the state and as a superintendent for various state
institutions for the mentally retarded. He retired in 1986 and says, "I never quit writing or playing.
I still write and I still play at least once a week. I never played professionally again after the
Hayride closed its doors and I went back to college. I mostly play country, gospel and a bit of bluegrass
today. I still play a few sessions now and then when somebody needs my creative efforts, but it's
mostly helping others demo their material".
When the Rhythm Rebels dissolved, Carl found work with his old school friend Dale Hawkins. He had
joined Dale's band well before Tommy cut his demo session for Sun in March '58. Some time during
the latter half of 1957, Carl headed to Fort Worth, Texas with Dale to record at Clifford Herring's
studio. When listening to the results of this impromptu session, it's no wonder that Dale wanted Carl
for his band. The high energy take of Tarheel Slim's Number Nine Train is consummate rockabilly. So
too was Carl's instrumental work out Daredevil, which luckily still survives on acetate. Carl then
followed Dale to Chicago and was featured on a handful of his Checker cuts recorded late that year
including Baby Baby (Checker 876), Tornado (Checker 892) and Little Pig (flip of Tornado). Kenny
Paulsen was working with Dale by this time as well, and he remembers Carl and Kenny forming a
formidable pair on stage, " - when I had Kenny and Carl at the same time, we'd kill 'em! Just knock 'em
out! You talk about skinnin' it, boy!" A brief stint with Janis Joplin followed in the mid sixties.
Not long after, Carl was gone, a victim of prescription drugs. The final years of his life were hell.
Playing long hours and too many gigs eventually took a toll on Carl's health. He became addicted to
over-the-counter drugs and on more than one occasion sort help (he had checked himself into the
Central Louisiana State Hospital late in '61), to no avail. Doctors told him that it was not illegal
to use such drugs and admitting him to hospital for rehabilitation would prove costly. Finally,
on the day before his death, Carl called his mother from El Paso desperately pleading for help.
He told her that doctors in El Paso wouldn't admit him for rehabilitation. He managed to find the
funds to purchase a bus ticket to Bakersfield, California where his mother and sister Vaudie were
residing at the time. The people who bought the ticket for him had inadvertently purchased a ticket
for Long Beach and not Bakersfield. Carl took it anyway and was met in Long Beach by Vaudie. She was
an operating room nurse and immediately recognized the symptoms of kidney failure in her younger
brother. She drove him directly to hospital (where, ironically, his mother had been recently admitted
for pneumonia) and was whisked into surgery. He didn't pull through and died from the effects of kidney
failure on February 25, 1965. Carl was only thirty and at his peak.
Tom Ruple, the unknown third of the Rhythm Rebels, still resides in Louisiana and maintains contact
with Ed. He worked as a drummer at a club in Texarkana for quite some time after the Rhythm Rebels
folded. According to Ed, he is now involved with a group playing Christian music, but his tenor singing
voice is very much intact.
With the Rhythm Rebels gone, Tommy utilized Sam Phillips' prime house musicians in Roland Janes,
Sid Manker, Stan Kesler, Jimmy Van Eaton and Jimmy Wilson for his March 16 Sun session. Also, Ed
Bruce, who had recorded a handful of dates for Sun since March the previous year, was added to the
lineup on second guitar. Sweetie Pie* and the reworked I Dig You Baby were the strongest cuts from
this session, and sensing that the songs may have had some teen appeal, Sam coupled them for release
in June (Sun 300). Two other cuts from this session, a revised version of You Better Believe It and
an adaptation of Ray Smith's Shake Around, remained in the can.
* - Sweetie Pie was penned by Dale Hawkins and Carl Adams, not Tommy and Jerry Ross as other
sources have claimed. Curiously, Carl also co-wrote Mrs. Mergitory's Daughter and Lovin' Bug with Dale.
Tommy's second outing on Sun was far more polished than his first, in spite of Roland Janes' presence
on the record. The arrangements were certainly memorable, although Sweetie Pie and I Dig You
Baby lacked the hard edge of Lordy Hoody, due primarily to the noticeable absence of Carl Adams.
Tommy's busy take on Shake Around was the only tune from the March 16 session that possessed
the same primitive nature as Lordy Hoody and Flat Foot Sam. It seems that Tommy's direction was
beginning to change and, judging by the poor sales of I Dig You Baby, he was heading the wrong way.
The records lack of success was a clear indication that Tommy Blake's talents did not lie in writing
and arranging pop songs, so he countervailed his contract with Sam Phillips and the hallowed Sun
diskery and immersed himself in the country music field.
Before leaving Sun, Tommy may have bequeathed Sam his Marine Corps pal, Jonas B. Ross (otherwise known as
Jerry or Gene). Late in 1958 or possibly early the following year, Jerry supposedly submitted
two demos to Sun, neither of which Sam saw fit to release. An enigmatic figure, Tommy probably met
Jerry while the two were enlisted in the Marine Corps and both were based in Shreveport around
the time that Tommy cut his second Sun session. While working as head bell hop at the Captain
Shreve Hotel, Jerry seems to have struck a tentative songwriting partnership with Tommy shortly
before the latter's contract with RCA expired in '57. This speculative claim is based on the fact
that Jerry co-inked I Dig You Baby with Tommy, while both names appear erroneously as the c
redited writers of Sweetie Pie, a song that Dale Hawkins first recorded in Chicago for Checker
late in '57, at least three months prior to Tommy's version hitting the market. Jerry's demos
of Everybody's Trying To Kiss My Baby and Little One that he submitted to Sun under the name
of Gene Ross, offer only sparse evidence as to the true nature of the partnership the two
shared, as the former title is the only demo since located and bares no indication of the writers
responsible for the tune. The sole clue that solidifies the affirmation of a partnership between
the pair is a seven-inch record that Jerry cut in 1959 for the Shreveport based Murco label owned by
Dick Martin and Harding Desmarais (could this be Dee Marais' real name?). The top-side of the Murco
single, Everybody's Tryin' (as by Jerry Ross on Murco 1016), is identical in every aspect to the earlier
Sun version and credits Thomas Givens and Jonah Ross as the writers. As Givens was Tommy's
given surname, it is fairly clear that the two singers did, for at least a year or so, work
together as songwriters. The flip of Jerry's Murco disc, Small Little Girl, may be a reworking
of his still missing Sun demo Little One.
Jerry wrote at least two other songs with Tommy, including Alright and a tune that Tommy
would record for Bragg in 1964 as Van Givens, titled You And I (Betty Givens was also credited as
part composer). Little else is known of Ross though, aside from a few records that appeared under the
name of Gene Ross in 1958 on Herald (the Al Silver owned label?), Indie and Spry (a re-issue
of the Indie disc) and one final release on Time in 1962. There may exist unissued recordings by
Jerry in the KWKH tape library too. Ed Dettenheim is sure that he backed Jerry on two titles
recorded at the station's studio, probably around the time he and Carl parted company with Tommy.
With Carl Adams on lead, Jerry cut a rendition of Shadow My Baby (possibly the Glenn Barber
song?) and a tune composed by Ed, Mr. Blues. Ed's memory of the session is faint, "It was a low
down blues [Mr. Blues] with Carl playing awesome string bending walking stuff. He cut a couple
more songs but I don't remember what they were".
Still longing for that hit record and minus a record label, and even his own band, Tommy returned to
Shreveport. He supposedly worked for a time as a deejay on KWKH before befriending a rising young
talent in the country music field, Carl Belew, and forming a far more lucrative songwriting partnership
with him than his previous collaboration with Jerry Ross. Carl had already hit pay dirt by the time he
met Tommy. He was still riding high on Johnnie and Jack's hit RCA recording of his Stop The World
(And Let Me Off) (RCA 7137), which had peaked at number seven on Billboard's country charts in
February 1958. He had also been a regular on the Louisiana Hayride since 1957 and appeared on the
television networked Ozark Jubilee in 1958. Carl knew what success felt like.
Born in Salina, Oklahoma on April 21, 1931, Carl was given his first guitar at the age of thirteen.
By his fifteenth birthday he had found work in the construction field as a plumber, a vocation that
saw him regularly traversing the mid-west. Carl frequently visited California, where he met Kenny
Sowder, a small-time entrepreneur who would eventually become his manager. His first recordings
appeared on the 4 Star custom imprint, Sowder. Further sides were issued on 4 Star proper, while
Carl was simultaneously performing on the Town Hall Party in Compton and the Cliffie Stone Show
in Los Angeles in 1956. Two years later, he had left the Louisiana Hayride, joining the celebrated
Grand Ole Opry and signing with Decca. Around twelve months later his path crossed with Tommy
Blake's when Tommy pitched his banal Cool Gator Shoes (or Cool Alligator) to Carl. Reminiscent
of his earliest attempts to pen rock and roll, Tommy had written the song while recording
sporadically at Dee Marais' studio in Shreveport in 1958. Carl liked the song and cut his
version for Decca at Owen Bradley's studio in Nashville during the first week of June 1959.
Only two months before, he had scored a major coup when his recording of Am I That Easy
To Forget became a Billboard hit, spawning innumerable cover versions by the likes of Debbie
Reynolds (#25 Pop), Englebert Humperdinck, Skeeter Davis, Jim Reeves, Orion, Don Gibson and
Leon Russell. Trying to cash in on Carl's good fortune, Tommy misleadingly claimed to be the
song's co-writer. Posterity proved otherwise. Tommy was clearly aware of Carl's success.
His growing fame is what Tommy had been striving for himself and he may have thought that
associating and working with a fresh and vivacious talent as Carl could relegate him the
prosperity he had been searching for the past few years. Conversely, Carl must have seen
something in Tommy that told him the budding songwriter had talent, as the duo's prolific
partnership lasted into the coming decade.
Before the year was out, Tommy took one final shot at cutting a rocker. Still based in
Shreveport and recording under the auspices of Dee Marais, Tommy waxed the superlative
F-olding Money on Marais' own Recco label (Recco 1006). Acquired deviously a few years earlier in Dallas,
Tommy's F-olding Money was a Summertime Blues structured tune possessing an infectious, rhythmic
boogie beat evocative of his best recordings for RCA and Sun. In contrast, the version Carl Belew
recorded at his Cool Gator Shoes Decca date is moderately more sublime and remained unissued
until recently. Interestingly, both recordings of the song credit Tommy, Carl and the pseudonymous
W. S. Stevenson (4 Star's Bill McCall in disguise) as the writers. A popular Texan country duo
was the true genius behind F-olding Money, but Tommy claimed it as his creation, much like he 'adapted' Dale
Hawkins' Sweetie Pie as his own. Regardless, F-olding Money and its western themed flip, The Hanging
Judge, sold poorly and Tommy was short-changed again.
The game was not over for Tommy yet, though. Working with Carl was bringing out the best in him. While
Carl continued making hit records for Decca into the new decade, Tommy was busy putting ink to paper
and rolling out one quality tune after another. The reward eventually arrived in 1961 when Darrell
Edwards expressed interest in a song the pair had written titled Tender Years. Both Carl and Tommy could
have cashed in on a superb deal, if Tommy had only played his cards right. In need of money, he sold
the song to Darrell who wasted no time in pitching Tender Years to his pal George Jones. George
was quick to cut the tune for Mercury (Mercury 71804) under the supervision of 'Pappy' Daily,
and saw a number one country hit with it in 1961. To add to the hurt, James O'Gwynn and Reggie
Lucas recorded the song, turning it into an enticing future nest egg for Darrell Edwards.
By this stage of Tommy's life a firm pattern was beginning to emerge. He had already cheated
himself of the benefits that Johnny Horton had reaped with the success of Honky Tonk Mind.
Now, he'd cheated himself again with Tender Years and the bitterness was growing stronger.
Booze offered some solace, but the frustration would always linger. He was determined to
succeed and his partnership with Carl Belew continued for a few more years. Tommy cut a few
more records himself, as well. After waxing a disc for Chancellor in 1960 (coupling two tunes
co-inked by Belew), he signed with the west coast based 4 Star label, recording one disc for the company
in 1961 (Back Door To Heaven b/w I Try Harder, 4 Star 1765). Released under the moniker of Van Givens,
his 4 Star disc faired little better than any of his previous efforts. Records followed on Bragg,
Musicor and Paula through to 1967, but it was now painfully obvious that Tommy's time had
passed and there would be no more chances.
He persevered. Feverishly writing songs on his own and occasionally with others (particularly
Clyde Pitts Jr. and Carl Belew's son, Bobby), he maintained contact with the Nashville establishment,
hoping that the elusive hit would soon arrive. Stonewall Jackson's 1967 chart topping Columbia
recording of the Blake/Belew composition Stamp Out Loneliness (Columbia 43966, #5 Billboard)
ensured the royalty cheques, however minimal, were still arriving. However, to help further support
his family, Tommy found work as a carpenter during the early seventies. His alcoholism was getting
worse, though and in 1972 he suffered a heart attack. Colin Escott claims Tommy and his family
was living in Carthage, Texas at this time and in 1976, he moved to Nashville. Whether Betty and any
of his six children followed is another matter. He'd sworn off the booze after his heart attack in '72,
but he wasn't completely reformed. In his work, Tattooed On Their Tongues, Escott vividly depicted
how Tommy had reached his lowest ebb, "Like a dice player, Blake was looking for the win so high
and wild that he would never need to roll again. This time nobody wanted to listen, though, and Blake
ended up in Georgia without Betty. There he met Samantha, and they moved to Shreveport". Escott's
portrayal of Tommy's supposed self-destruction should not be taken too literally. According to Sondra
Hall, a close friend of Tommy's second wife 'Samantha' (her real name was actually Luvenia Carter),
the newly wedded couple lived briefly in Tyler, Texas before moving to Bossier City, not far from
Shreveport. While Tommy had resumed his alcoholism, he wasn't the drug abuser that Escott depicted
him as. Further, Tommy was no wife-beater and tried to be the model husband to his wife, "Samantha
was treated like a queen. Van [Tommy] received a military disability pension along with royalty
payments, but Samantha was never satisfied with the money he brought in".
While he may have felt some resentment for not seeing the success he so desperately wanted,
he wasn't dwelling over his failures either. Sondra continues, "He was writing and home-recording
song after song. He was in contact with performers, notably Ray Stevens and happier than he had
been in years". She went on to outline how she had three ninety minute cassettes of songs Tommy
had written and primitively recorded in a one month period! Escott's claims of Tommy's demise
are completely unfounded, too. He stressed how Tommy was virtually a wreck from alcohol and
drug abuse, in addition to his total depression. He also presented the assumption that Tommy's
behavior towards Samantha is what caused his death. Sondra disagrees and recollects the events
of that fateful Christmas Eve in 1985 ...
"Samantha had been to the grocery market that afternoon - buying food with illegally
applied for food stamps. Ursula and Tamara, her daughters went with her. Van was at
home with her cousin Dale and they were playing music and maybe even talking about
the "truckstop" tape of nasty lyrics Van had taped & sold to buy Christmas for his family.
He [had] bought Sam a pair of diamond earrings. Sam & the girls returned home,
not to a trailer park, but a beautiful 4-bedroom Florida style home with master suite
opening to a patio. Van was drinking beer with Dale. Neither of the men would help
with the groceries and this pissed Sam off. Dale left, and Sam began to argue with Van.
She slammed out of the kitchen, went into the garage, where she had her office-unlocked
the door, got her pistol, went out the garage door across the patio, entered the master
bedroom, got the bullets and loaded the gun and went back to the garage. She called
Van out there and he approached her with his hands behind his back. He asked her
Not to be mad and reminded her it was Christmas Eve. He held out a small jewelers
Box to her and said, 'These are for you'. She shot him. One time-thru the heart. He was
dead before he hit the garage floor".
Samantha was never indicted for murdering her husband. Why the charges against her were dropped
may never be known either. As Sondra observed, Tommy was "-happier than he had been in years".
What spurred Samantha to cut him down and end his life so coldly? From all accounts, Samantha (she
had assumed the moniker and Social Security number of her oldest daughter to avoid paying debts)
seemed shadier than Tommy had ever been. Maybe she had a sinister motive for wanting to kill
her husband. Surely, such a minor grievance wouldn't be sufficient reason for murder? The truth
will probably remain a mystery. As for Tommy, he was cheated for the last time. Samantha made sure of that.
After thirty years of chasing his ambitions, Tommy failed to achieve what he wanted so badly - to write a -
number one country hit that he could spend his retirement reaping the benefits from. He had enough chances,
let them slip away at the last moment, then stood by and watched as others benefited from the prosperity
that should have been his. He may not have always been legitimate in his business dealings, but he did
have the desire to succeed and genuine talent. Similarly, he could have easily become the star he
envisioned, but he always seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and never knew when
to keep his mouth shut.
Whatever is said about Tommy's integrity is no longer relevant, as the standard of his music can
never been altered. Nor can it really be faulted. He was a talented songwriter. His own recordings
illustrated that and, thankfully, he wrote and recorded enough quality material for his name to
remain in the limelight long after his passing. In hindsight, maybe Tommy did finally achieve
his ultimate goal.
The author expresses sincere thanks and appreciation to Ed Dettenheim and Sandy Lee for their tireless
assistance. Without their invaluable recollections, the life of Tommy Blake (and many of the other
players involved in Tommy's story) could not be fully told. Gratitude is also extended to the following
people for their help, Tapio Vaisenan, Sondra Hall, Terria Givens Allen, Dale Hawkins, Brian Poole, Dave
Penny, Dave Sax, Frank Frantik, Cees Klop, Johan Lofstedt, Joe Wajgel, Dick Grant, Michel Proost and
Escott, Colin / Tattooed On Their Tongues
Escott, Colin with Hawkins, Martin / Good Rockin' Tonight
Whitburn, Joel / The Billboard Book Of Top 40 Country Hits
McCloud, Barry / Definitive Country
Logan, Horace with Sloan, Bill / Elvis, Hand, And Me
McDevitt, Chas / Skiffle
Hawkins, Martin / booklet notes to The Sun Country Years (Bear Family) and Sun : The Rocking Years (Charly)
Millar, Bill / sleevenote to That'll Flat-Git It! Vol. 1 (Bear Family)
Orr, Jay / sleevenote to Get Hot Or Go Home (Country Music Foundation)
Escott, Colin / sleevenote to That'll Flat-Git It! Vol. 14 (Bear Family)
Komorowski, Adam / sleevenotes to Essential Sun Rockabillies, vol. 1- 6 (Charly)
Rockin' Country Style (http://rcs.law.emory.edu/rcs) / Compiled by Terry Gordon
BMI database (www.bmi.com)
Social Security Death Index (www.genealogy.com)