'I Mean, I'm Mean' - Roy Duke
A Country Music Anomaly
By Shane Hughes

Roy Duke's style was unique and not easily identifiable as either hillbilly or rockabilly. Certainly his earliest sides on Mart are overtly country in composition and treatment, yet his Reject and Decca sides expose definite rockabilly overtones, due mostly to the presence of ace picker Hank 'Sugarfoot' Garland. Garland's runs are typically definitive and starkly contrast Duke's lazy and loping vocal, particularly on cuts as Honky Tonk Queen and Hard Hearted Mama. Similarly, these recordings, in terms of lyrical content are unalloyed honky tonk. I Mean, I'm Mean is pure Ernest Tubb, while Behave, Be Quiet Or Begone would have been well suited to Johnny Cash's almost baritone vocal and isn't too dissimilar to many of his Sun recordings of the period. Further, Roy's Reject and Decca records have been sought after by rockabilly collectors for years, with his Reject disc fetching healthy sums at auction (when copies eventually turn up). So, just who is Roy Duke and why are his recordings still so much in demand? Maybe it was Roy's propensity for sheer originality that made him a unique and, thus, collectable artist. Today his appeal is certainly broad; probably further reaching than when he made those eclectic recordings during the early and mid-fifties (no thanks to an over active reissue market).

Roy had the potential to find success too, especially after signing with Decca in '56. By this stage of his career Ernest Tubb had already cut a few of his songs and he was still tight with Tubb's nephew Douglas Glenn. However, as with the trail of Douglas Tubb's career, Roy's tapered radically after minimal sales of his Decca releases (although Roy Junior confessed to Colin Escott that Honky Tonk Queen was a moderate hit in Nashville). Roy's ill-defined style could have been the cause. Staid hillbilly fans may have heard something too progressive in Roy's recordings, whilst southern teens probably shied away from the melodic hillbilly vocals and languorous rhythm so evident in Roy's music. Regardless, Roy's music has persevered and is still very much revered. It's time his story was finally told.

Roy James Duke was born on 11th April 1922 at the Rutherford County Seminary Community in Tennessee. According to Bill Millar's research, Roy's father was associated with the church and his mother was involved with running a boarding house. His early life was not overly divergent to that of any other young southern country boy - working as a field hand picking cotton and listening to the Grand Ole Opry whenever the opportunity arose. Little else seems to be known of Roy's adolescent years, of when he first garnered a serious interest in music or even if he took up playing an instrument. It is known that Roy's brother, Frank Edward, was fairly like minded and that by the early fifties they had begun performing, either together or solo. By this time, Roy's propensity as a songwriter had emerged as evidenced by Ernest Tubb picking up his My Wasted Past and recording it for Decca (Decca 28777) on 24th February 1953. Tubb is given co-writer credit for the tune, however it seems likely Roy was the sole composer. Indeed, he probably wrote the tune with Tubb in mind and visited the ET record store, pitching the song to Tubb via Tucker Robertson and Jimmie Rodgers' widow. Tubb's recording wasn't a hit, but must have inspired the young Duke not to give up. Apparently he was still working a fulltime job at this stage (for the Avoco aerospace company), but seemed keen to take his music career further.

Still based in Nashville in '53, he soon fell in with an aspiring singer/songwriter from San Antonio, Douglas Glenn Tubb. Douglas had moved to Nashville from Austin during March '53 (a move possibly instigated by Uncle Ernest). Needless to say, the young Douglas was constantly in the shadow of his famed uncle, and time and again he tried to shake the Tubb family tag, even changing his name on record during the latter fifties. Douglas Glenn Tubb was born at Porter Street, San Antonio on 29th June 1935, barely a month before his cousin Justin Wayne. By 1952, he had moved to Austin forming a band with Justin, Billy Tubb and three other unknown musicians. The group picked up a gig at the Dessau Hall in Pflugerville, attracting the attention of Austin's KVET deejay, C. V. 'Red' Jones, who became their manager. He suggested the boys bill themselves as The Tubb Boys and the Hootenanny Scratchos, an odd name that at least seemed to draw crowds. They began playing shows and clubs in Austin, and even trekked to Shreveport with Goldie Hill to perform on the Louisiana Hayride. Further appearances followed on Slim Willet's Mid-State Jamboree in Abilene and the boys were also, apparently, guests of Hank Williams and his mother at the Skyline Club in Austin during December '52.

A few months later, in March '53, Douglas made the move to Nashville and almost immediately befriended Roy Duke and his brother Frank. Tubb and the Duke Brothers seemed to recognize kindred spirits in each other and wasted little time in organizing a band, which also included Russville, Alabama born fiddle player Mack Smith.

Small time entrepreneur Ted Edlin then entered the picture. He would later gain some notoriety managing the careers of Hawkshaw Hawkins, Jean Shepard and Cousin Jody, but was still unknown when he met Roy's band in '53. He spurred the group to join the ranks of Bill Bailey's Minstrel Show to play the part of, as Ronnie Pugh depicted, "the hillbilly act to hold the crowds between animal acts and clowns in Cy Ruben's circus". To promote the groups part in the minstrel show, Edlin had Roy, Frank and Douglas cut a record each for his own Mart label, when they were presumably swinging through Birmingham, Alabama with Bailey's circus. Roy saw the inaugural release on Mart with My Heart Can't Talk (co-written with Frank and Ted) and the wonderfully simplistic and undoubtedly Ernest Tubb inspired Goo Goo Eyes (penned by Joyce Duke, the wife of Roy or Frank?) on Mart 1001. Retrospectively, Goo Goo Eyes proved a blue print for the recordings Roy would make in the coming years, if not less subdued than his later sides. Maybe slightly more jovial than his Decca recordings, his drowsy, yet infectious vocal was unmistakable. Roy's hopelessly obscure Mart release was followed by his brother Frank's offering of Web Of Lies and They Made Me Fall In Love (Mart 1002), Douglas Tubb's The World Is A Monster and Deaf, Dumb, And Blind (another tune Joyce Duke had a hand in writing) (Mart 1003) and finally Ted Edlin himself with Only One God and Hello Little Boy (Mart 1004).

Sales of the Mart release were probably minimal, with most copies doubtlessly given away at the groups various appearances with the minstrel show. Edlin faded out of the picture some time later and Frank seemed to have adopted a lesser role in Roy's career after the Mart release. It was another two years when Roy emerged from the depths of anonymity to make his second appearance on record. Around 1954, Roy met renowned songwriter and plugger and one time fishing buddy of Hank Williams, Vic McAlpin.

McAlpin had been imbued in the Nashville hillbilly scene since around 1945 when he became acutely involved in Roy Acuff's career. After Hank Williams star began to shine brighter, McAlpin became involved in his career also, if only fleetingly. He was the inspiration for Hank's Long Gone Lonesome Blues, even contributing a few lines to Hank's flawless composition. He later crossed paths with aspiring honky-tonker Jimmie Logsdon in '52, whom he must have held considerable faith in, as he managed to broker contracts for Logsdon with Decca, Dot then Roulette. Logsdon told Colin Escott that McAlpin "was a great man" and when the latter discovered Roy Duke in '54, Roy could have only been enamored by the potential of having the support of such a respected songwriter.

True to form, McAlpin set about organizing a deal for Roy with Dot, which eventuated some time in '54. Douglas Tubb was included in the deal as well and on 14th August '55, the pair waxed their only sides for the now well established Nashville independent. With Bob Moore on bass and other hitherto unknown session players brought in, Tubb cut You Just Stood There solo. Roy joined the session to duet with Douglas on Standing At The End Of The World. Released as by Glen Douglas and Ray Duke (Dot 1268), discographers have since been befuddled as to the true identity of Ray Duke. Roy's son confirmed to Colin Escott that Ray Duke was indeed his father, Roy Duke Senior. Released during September '55, researcher Ronnie Pugh believes that it may have been the stepping stone for both Roy and Douglas Tubb signing with Decca. There may be some truth in this notion and McAlpin could have also lent an influential hand in gaining a major label contract for the now veteran songwriters. However, these claims are mere inference only and the existence of a release by Roy on the unknown and appropriately named Reject label of Hermitage, Tennessee may contradict such a claim.

Early in '56, Roy found himself cutting his quintessential classic Be-Have, Be-Quit Or Begone (sic) (note the original spelling of the title) in Nashville with guitarist Hank Garland for Reject (Reject 1002). Penned by his brother Frank and Vic McAlpin, Roy's rendition of the tune was superlative in every aspect. Hank's dexterous picking was incisive and a distinct contrast to Roy's almost lackadaisical treatment of this rousing honky-tonk opus. It was Hank's lead that raised the tune above such a simple typecast, offering a sharper edge to the tune and effusing it with a characteristic rockabilly sound.

Vic McAlpin's involvement in writing the tune for Roy is indicative that he was still very much a part of Roy's career and may have even been the catalyst for Roy signing with the small Hermitage label. Curiously, the initial release on Reject was credited to the slightly lesser known Wayne 'Red' Cobb. The enigmatic Cobb may have originated from Hank Williams' adopted home town of Montgomery, Alabama where he was a permanent fixture on WBAM's Deep South Jamboree in 1954 along with Shorty Sullivan, Rebe Gosdin (of Rebe and Rabe fame), Jack Turner and future rocker Lonnie Allen. By early '56, Cobb was in Nashville and his Reject sides were probably cut a split session with Duke. Aural evidence suggests Hank Garland was the picker on his sides too, which evoke a decidedly overt rockabilly tendency. Curiously, Vic McAlpin penned Something Bad's Gonna Happen, indicating Cobb may have been a fleeting protege of McAlpin. Regardless, Cobb's Reject sides (Shopping Around and Somethin' Bad's Gonna Happen, Reject 1001) were sharply disparitive of Duke's sides and are arguably more reminiscent of Glenn Reeves unissued Decca sides.

While Cobb's Reject disc is far more desirable among collectors, he seems to have drawn the short straw in terms of career growth. Duke's Reject disc may have caught the ear of a discerning Decca talent scout, probably with considerable impetus from McAlpin, and on 11th May '56 Decca purchased or leased Duke's Reject masters, reissuing both sides on Decca proper (Decca 9-29962). Although Douglas Tubb had no apparent part in Duke's Reject recordings, he was offered a Decca contract as well, no doubt instigated by McAlpin, who by now had brought a handful of talented artists Paul Cohen's way.

Roy's first of two dedicated Decca sessions took place in Nashville (possibly at Owen Bradley's studio?) on 9th June. Hank Garland returned for the date, as did Bob Moore, who last worked with Roy on his Dot release from the year before. Opening the date was Roy's consummate recording of Honky Tonk Queen (Decca 9-30095). Co-written with McAlpin and brother Frank, the tune was perfectly suited to Roy's vocal style and was as convincing as anything he had recorded to date. From his last session on 20th February the following year was the even more inspiring I Mean, I'm Mean (Decca 9-30325). Much in the same vein as Behave, Be Quite Or Begone, I Mean, I'm Mean was far more impressive and could be considered the crowning achievement of its writers, McAlpin and Douglas Tubb. The flip, Hard Hearted Mama, yet another Ernest Tubb inspired tune was equally effusive and warranted far more attention than was received. Honky Tonk Queen was garnering the greater sales, though, which certainly wasn't an unjust scenario considering that, in the words of Roy Junior, "The cheque for that amounted to $1000 and it arrived just before Christmas when the family was real broke".

Roy's brief stay with Decca did prove moderately fruitful, despite minimal record sales. Ernest Tubb picked up Roy's self-penned Loving You Is My Business, duly cutting the tune for his long standing label (Decca) on 13th September 1956. Roy himself graduated to regular performances on Tubb's Midnite Jamboree and also befriended one time Jimmy Martin sideman (who was also under contract with Decca at the time) Greg Garing; the pair remaining friends for many years.

Meanwhile, Douglas Tubb churned out a few more sides for Decca through March '58 before hitching with Johnny Cash, touring with him extensively and nudging many of Cash's songs the way of his Uncle Ernest. Tubb repaid the favour to his nephew and Cash by recording no less than eight of Cash's compositions, beginning with a memorable rendition of So Doggone Lonesome in 1956 (Decca 9-29836). After his Decca sojourn there were further obscure releases on equally obscure labels, but Douglas eventually found his niche as a songwriter, offering more than a helping hand to his cousin Justin and furnishing Ernest with a continual supply of original material until at least 1969.

Conversely, Roy's career subsided when his final Decca release hit the market in March '57. Roy Junior claims his father was involved with a release on M-G-M, however sufficient evidence is yet to surface. He did, apparently, remain active in music playing live gigs and seemingly forever reminiscing with his pal Greg Garing about those joyous years when Roy was almost a star. By '91 he could still be found in Nashville making an occasional live appearance, although his health was deteriorating. Three years later he passed away.

Unlike many of the hard drinking, fast talking and hard bitten songwriters and aspiring singers who traveled the hard road to Nashville to find fame, Roy wasn't bitter about his lack of success. At least Roy Junior's conversations with Colin Escott depict a man who was mostly satisfied with his achievements. He should have been satisfied too. Success isn't always interpreted by record sales. Sheer talent nullifies any deprecating market statistics. Roy Duke proved that. Simply listen to Honky Tonk Queen or I Mean, I'm Mean. Roy's reverence, if only retrospective, is more than justified.

ACKNOWLEDEMENTS - gracious thanks are extended to Al Turner, Kittra Moore, Willem Agenant and Dave Sichak ( www.hillbilly-music.com) for their generous assistance.

Ernest Tubb: The Texas Troubadour / Ronnie Pugh (Duke University Press, 1996)
Hank Williams: The Biography / Colin Escott (Little, Brown and Company, 1994)
Tattooed On Their Tongues: A Journey Through The Backrooms Of American Music / Colin Escott (Schirmer Books, 1996)
Notes to That'll Flat Git It, Volume 9 / Bill Millar
Rockin Country Style (http://rcs.law.emory.edu/rcs/) / compiled by Terry Gordon

Roy Duke Discography

Birmingham, Alabama.
Roy James Duke - vcl, other personnel unknown.
M-50 - My Heart Can't Talk (R. Duke/F. Duke/I. Edlin) - Mart 1001
M-51 - Goo Goo Eyes (J. Duke) - Mart 1001

Nashville, Tennessee.
14 August 1955.
Glen Douglas/Glen Douglas And Ray Duke.
Douglas Glenn Tubb - vcl (-1), Roy James Duke - vcl (-2), Bob L. Moore - bs, other personnel unknown.
MW 8956 - You Just Stood There (-1) (D. Tubb) - Dot 1268
MW 8957 - Standing At The End Of The World (-1,-2) (V. McAlpin) - Dot 1268
NOTE: MW 8956 credited to Glen Douglas. MW 8957 credited to Glen Douglas And Ray Duke (sic).

Nashville, Tennessee.
Early 1956.
Roy James Duke - vcl/gtr, Walter L. 'Hank' Garland - gtr, unknown - bs, unknown - dms.
SO-88 (45-89832+)  - Honesty (F. Duke) - Reject 1002 SO-89 (45-89831) - Be-Have, Be-Quit Or Begone (sic) (V. McAlpin/F. Duke) - Reject 1002
NOTE: SO-89 titled Behave, Be Quiet Or Begone on Decca 9-29962. Reject masters probably leased by Decca on May 11, 1956. Reject and Decca releases are aurally identical. Reject 1002 reviewed in 21st April 1956 issue of Billboard and Decca 9-29962 reviewed in July 7th 1956 issue.

Nashville, Tennessee.
9 June 1956.
2:00 PM.
Roy James Duke - vcl/gtr, Walter L. 'Hank' Garland - gtr, Bob L. Moore - bs, unknown - dms.
NA 9405 100214+  - Honky Tonk Queen (D. Tubb/R. Duke/V. McAlpin) - Decca 9-30095
NA 9406 - From Midnight Till Dawn (V. McAlpin) - Decca Unissued
NA 9407 - Good Morning World (B. Adams/R. Duke/D. Tubb) - Decca Unissued
NA 9408 100217 - It's Been The Talk All Over Town (V. McAlpin/F. Duke/W. Smith) - Decca 9-30095
NOTE: Decca 9-30095 reviewed in 27th October 1956 issue of Billboard.

Nashville, Tennessee.
20 February 1957.
Roy James Duke - vcl, Walter L. 'Hank' Garland - gtr, unknown - bs, unknown - dms.
NA 9665 - Behave Yourself () - Decca Unissued
NA 9666 101947 - I Mean I'm Mean (V. McAlpin/D. Tubb) - Decca 9-30325
NA 9667 - From Now On () - Decca Unissued
NA 9668 101949+  - Hard Hearted Mama (F. Duke/D. Tubb) - Decca 9-30325
NOTE: Decca 9-30325 reviewed in March 1957 issue of Billboard.

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ŠRockabilly Hall of FameŽ / Shane Hughes