The author is indebted to Mrs Chandos McRill for her valuable assistance.
Lee Finn and Chandos McRill
The Birth of Missouri Rockabilly
By Shane Hughes
Missouri is the heart of the Ozarks and professes a rich musical tradition spanning the birth
of popular music to the thriving Big Beat scene of the late nineteen fifties. String band music
was as prevalent throughout Missouri during the late twenties and early thirties as other musical
apexes as Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi. Primitive, rare and primeval, the fiddle music of
the Ozark Mountains prevailed and evolved over the decades, adapting to emerging trends but
remaining loyal to its roots. From Pope's Arkansas Mountaineers (the wonderfully archaic Hog
Eye on Victor 21295 is effusive of the Ozark idiom) to the slightly more modern sounds of Elmo
Linn, Bobby Cook and Buddy Nelson and Jimmie Skinner, and finally to the rock and roll element,
expounded by the thoroughly obscure as Uncle Alvis, Gene McKown, Harmony Brothers, Penny West
and Bozo Ratliff, this music is distinctive and from a comparative aspect is certainly not
indifferent. Lee Finn's records on Stardust and Westport are surprisingly similar to the music
Jimmie Skinner cut for Red Barn in the mid forties, which in turn has elements of the early
Ozark string band sound.
With such a fertile patrimony, it's not surprising to find that a sprawling scene had sprung up
in the wake of rock and roll, centered around the Missouri cities of St. Louis to the northeast
and Kansas City to the northwest. St. Louis was the base for small time independents like Bob
Lyon's Bobbin label (Jules Blattner, Carl Phillips and the Harmony Brothers), the veritable
K-Ark concern (Dick Seaton and Onie Wheeler), the aptly named Missouri (Ernie Nowlin), Norman
(Ray Ruff and Don Daffron), Ozark (Penny West), Space (Bozo Ratliff) and the completely unknown
Vir (Maynard Horlick). Bobbin found some success with Albert King in 1959 while K-Ark became
revered due more to its longevity rather than record sales. The others came and went after
only one or two releases.
On the other hand, Kansas City was even more conducive to the new sound of the Big Beat
with a burgeoning industry led, from the mid-fifties, by Bill and Leroy Davidson and Harold
Hassler. From early beginnings during the immediate post-war years with labels as Red Barn
(noted for releasing Jimmie Skinner's original version of Doin' My Time, Red Barn 1150),
Damon and Sho-Me, the Kansas City scene progressed to cater for the new sound with the
Hassler/Davidson owned Choice and R labels, Cliff Shepherd's KCM concern run with Jim
McDonald, Brass, Aggie, and the much renowned Westport label formed by Dave G. Ruf in
1955 as an outlet for the Westport Kids (Bobby, Davie, Christine, Betty, Hank and
Cathy Ruf and Marvin Bredemeier). Westport and Choice were the first companies to
emerge at the time the Big Beat was just beginning to make ripples in the popular music
field. Initially, both labels were primarily hillbilly oriented, with Choice featuring
Cliff Shepherd and Chuck Bowers, while Dave Ruf inaugurated Westport with the venerated
Jimmy Dallas, Milt Dickey (already with a handful of releases on Sho-Me), and Westport
Kids and later featured staid Missouri warbler Elmo Linn (who had earlier cut for Red
Barn in the forties).
Westport seems to have been the most prolific of these new Kansas City labels, and when
rock and roll eventually made its shattering debut in 1956, Dave Ruf did not hesitate to
accommodate the new sound. To this end, Texan Alvis Wayne and the less familiar Gene Chapman
were brought into the fold. But it was another, hitherto unknown Missouri native that would
offer the most convincing example of rockabilly on Westport - Lee Finn.
Lee Finn's life has remained mostly un-documented, apart from a tantalizing snippet
provided by Finn himself to Ron Weiser in the seventies, which Weiser reprinted in
toto on the reverse of a Rollin' Rock EP cover. From this, Lee tells us that he was born
Dwain Lee Voorhies in Greentop, Missouri on 19 April 1926. Raised on a farm near Lancaster,
he enlisted with the Navy during the Second World War and following his discharge, relocated
to Kansas City, where he found work as a truck driver. Any interest in music or performing
seemed absent during his adolescent years until, as he explained to Weiser, "I stopped
at a truck stop at Savannah Mo., and a popular song (Condemned Without Trial) was playing
on a juke box, I sang a few lines of it, & the owner of the truck stop liked my voice &
encouraged me to get a guitar & start playing & singing".
What happened after this point is uncertain. Discographies of early post-war Missouri
labels fail to document any Lee Finn or Dwain Voorhies releases, leading to a logical
conclusion that Lee, despite encouragement from a certain 'truck stop owner', did not garner
any serious interest in music until the following decade. He first appeared on a thoroughly
arcane release on the local Stardust imprint in 1958. Curiously, the Stardust name had
recently been employed by another Missouri hillbilly singer, Chandos McRill. McRill's
own vanity label was located in his home town of Perryville and bore no obvious relation
to Finn's release. The affinity is too coincidental though. McRill had first released
a disc on Stardust in '57 and both his and Lee's records were pitched to Don Pierce
in Nashville, who issued both as Starday customs. The begging question then is, were
Chandos McRill and Lee Finn associates? Chandos' widow may have the answer, "I do not recall
Chandos mentioning Dwain Lee Voorhies, so am sure he was not acquainted with him. Chandos
pretty well kept up with all the country musicians". Maybe this chain of events was purely
coincidental. Nevertheless, the propensity of Lee's debut record is clearly evident. Backed
by his Ozark Country Boys, the typical country tinged Missouri sound was in abundance
on the top side, Load Up My Blues. While the guitar pattern is somewhat monotonous,
Lee's vocals are melodic and, to a point, almost over power the guitarists' novice
capabilities. The sound is rural, but relaxed and the lyrical content is not as overtly
clichéd as the song title may suggest. Released as by Lee Voorhies and his Ozark Country
Boys (Stardust 45-671), Load Up My Blues and Hand In Hand proved an interesting precursor
to what would soon follow.
Lee was in the studio again in November, this time cutting a session for the now well
established Westport label. Paduka, Texas born rocker, Alvis Wayne, had already seen two
solid releases on the label with Swing Bop Boogie and Don't Mean Maybe Baby before Lee
arrived at Ruf's door in Kansas City. The band Lee brought with him sounds to be the same
as the earlier line up of the Ozark Country Boys. The rudimentary talents of his guitarist
had improved slightly by the time of the November session, when Lee laid down four tunes
that clearly depicted the changing times. High Class Feelin' was still very much country
based, but the rock and roll element was far more conspicuous than on his previous effort.
Lee's vocals are convincing despite the anachronistic quality and the overall sound is
more polished than on the Stardust sides. The flip side, Pour Me A Glass Of Wine, is
a tour de force and was clearly inspired by the Johnny Cash Sun sound. Glass Of Wine
is superlative in every aspect. The backing is sparse, yet decisive and conveys an air of
despondency reminiscent of Jimmie Skinner's early Radio Artists material (compare Finn's
tune with Skinner's The Rambler's Call or On The Wrong Side Of The Track).
The final cuts from the November session remained unissued until Ron Weiser located and
released the masters during the seventies. Lee's self-penned Cat All Night is a celebration
of the new sound of the Big Beat, and was as worthy of release as High Class Feelin'. Why
this, and the last tune from the session It's Night, was left in the can by Ruf will never
be known. High Class Feelin' coupled with Pour Me A Glass Of Wine, as by Lee Finn and his
Rhythm Men, eventually saw release on Westport (Westport 141) early the following year to
little acclaim. >From this point, Lee's trail seems to have run cold. A third release
appeared in 1962 on a Rose label, custom pressed by RCA and featuring two Finn compositions,
Lonesome Road and Just Wastin' My Time (Rose no #). After that, Lee was not heard from
again until rediscovered by Weiser a decade later. He did marry at some point and fathered
five children and was also operating a successful haulage company, but offered no impression
to Weiser as to his willingness to rejuvenate his music career. Last reports indicated that
he was residing in Mitchell, Indiana where he passed away on 2nd May 1999.
Lee Finn's talent as a singer and songwriter was engaging, warranting far more recognition
and reward than the obscurity he received. Similarly, fellow Missouri hillbilly Chandos McRill,
possessed the same latent ability as a songwriter as Finn, but was less endowed as a vocalist.
Yet, his records perfectly suited his vocal abilities and Ernest Tubb inspired songwriting.
Chandos' two Stardust releases were raucous, unrestrained pure Ozark hillbilly that overtly
leaned towards the new rockabilly sound. Not only that, he was almost as convincing as Finn too.
Born in Missouri, McRill began playing the guitar purchased for him by his parents while he
was young. Mrs McRill intimated that Chandos' interest in music emerged early on in his life.
After becoming proficient on standard guitar, he would soon be found accompanying his mother,
regularly singing and playing at church meetings. His penchant for country music grew as well.
Much of his teen years were spent listening to The Grand Ole Opry, broadcast over the airwaves
At some point, Chandos formed the Perryville Melody Boys and in 1957 cut his first record.
Mrs McRill recalls that Chandos played rhythm guitar with the Perryville Melody Boys and their
debut recordings were made at a local radio station. The line-up of the group is uncertain,
but may have included Chandos' songwriting partner Elmer La Homme. Regardless, these first
sides by the group were certainly energetic. Money Lovin' Woman is as good as the title suggests.
The unknown string bass player is well to the fore, and the guitarist offers some searing runs
underlying Chandos' distinctive vocal. The rhythm is relentless and it is easy to visualize
the atmosphere in the studio on that day in '57. Similarly, Little Bit Too Bashful is just
as raucous even if it is corn and steers dramatically away from the rockabilly mould of
the top-side, highlighting Chandos' passion for country music. The masters from the session
were sent to Don Pierce in Nashville with instructions to release both sides under the vanity
Stardust motif. Pierce obliged, issuing the better takes from the master tape on Stardust
(45-655) during mid-1957.
Chandos and his group remained local luminaries until the decision was made to travel
the hard road to Nashville and fame. Some time after January 1959, Chandos and the band
trekked east to Nashville. Soon after arriving they were offered a spot on the Ernest Tubb
Jamboree, broadcast from Tubb's record shop each Saturday morning from 10:30 to 11:00. Not
surprisingly, Chandos befriended the Texan honky-tonker while in Nashville who, according
to Mrs. McRill, extended “…a standing invitation to return with his band to play on [his]
Friday or Saturday night jamboree radio shows". Undoubtedly, Chandos was tempted. The rest
of his band proved to be the voice of reason, though, deciding that to remain in Nashville
without any money was fraught with misfortune. Grudgingly, Chandos made the trip back home
to Perryville, leaving behind his dream of singing on the Opry.
He was disappointed. However, the disappointment was short-lived. A few months later he returned
to the same radio station studio in Perryville where he cut his first Stardust record, to lay
down sides for his second and final release. The Perryville Melody Boys were in tow, but
re-christened The Excellons, a more dynamic sobriquet to match a newly refined sound. The
session kicked off with Chandos' self-penned Poor Me. On the surface, this song may have
been a reflection on Chandos' recent ill-fated foray to Nashville. Listening to the record
suggests a far deeper, morose meaning. Not only that, Poor Me proved to be unbridled rockabilly
and Chandos clearly had a firm grasp on the genre. For the flip, the group cut loose on a
rousing instrumental, The Toddle, on which Chandos handled lead guitar to good effect.
Once again the masters were dispatched to Don Pierce, with Stardust 45-805 being released
late in '59 as a Starday custom. Not long after, the Perryville Melody Boys come Toddlers,
parted company. Chandos continued to play music for family and friends, but never did record
again. Dutch collector and fanatic, Cees Klop located Chandos during the nineteen eighties in
Sikeston, Missouri and found he still had the Stardust master tapes in his possession, which
contained innumerable alternate takes of all four sides. Overcome with excitement,
Cees neglected to ask him for permission to release the tapes and when Chandos passed away
in June 1991 after a long suffering illness, access to those tapes passed over as well.
Lee Finn and Chandos McRill may have only been bit players on the Missouri scene of the mid
to late fifties; moreover, they were artists of unrecognized potential and have been unjustly
neglected. Record collectors have, over the years, lauded Finn's prized Westport and
McRill's Stardust discs ensuring the mystique surrounding both these talented artists
will always remain and their records always desirable. Thankfully, the burgeoning reissue
market of recent years has not neglected these artists and their prized recordings will
be available for many years to come, even if Lee and Chandos aren't here to see it for
themselves and enjoy the belated attention.
Thanks also to Martin Hawkins and Terry Gordon.
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©Rockabilly Hall of Fame® / Shane Hughes