MERLE TRAVIS REMEMBERED
by RAY CAMPI
As originally printed in Now Dig This. Used by permission of Ray Campi.
"You can take this job and shove it!" I said to my friends at the City of Austin Power Plant where I sat around daily drinking coffee and doing practically nothing as there was little or no work to do. "You mean you're quitting?" they asked. "Yes," I replied. "I'm bored to death, and Friday when I get my paycheck I'm packing my car with all I own and I'm heading for California."
I thought about all the musicians who had made it big after going west over the years: Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Rex Allen, Tex Ritter, Ray Whitley, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, the Burnette boys, Rose Maddox and her brothers, Elvis... and now little ole me. It was my turn to "give it a whirl." I had already had a TNT record release in '56, a Dot record in '57 with a New York promotional tour, and by 1959 releases on Texas labels Domino and D. I knew by now that the major labels in Hollywood were waiting for me with open arms!
I arrived in glitter-town in September 1959 and drove down Hollywood Boulevard in awe. I'm sure I felt the same excitement as the thousands who had come before, to rise and fall with the tide of acclaim and rejection. It was about three in the afternoon and I had driven all night. I pulled into the only motel I could find on Hollywood Boulevard, just past La Brea. I checked into a room, flopped onto the bed and flipped on the TV. "And now, folks, it's 'Cal's Corral' featuring Sammy Masters," the announcer bragged. Yes, there was rockabilly in Hollywood, and plenty of it.
Before long I had situated myself into a lodging with my finger-snapping pal "Doc" and was soon tearing tickets at the Fine Arts Theatre in Beverly Hills where I'd secured a job as assistant manager. Soon I was also busy recording demos and knocking on record company doors.
Merle Travis and Joe Maphis were well-known on the West Coast. They'd been playing in clubs and in films since the mid-1940s and were members of a band that played regularly on a weekly TV show called "Town Hall Party," which also featured Tex Ritter, the Collins Kids, Freddie Hart and Lefty Frizzell. I had to get on TV, too! I checked on Cliffie Stone's "Hometown Jamboree" featuring Tommy Sands and Molly Bee, but it had recently gone off the air. Just my luck! Dodge dealer Cal Worthington was still active with his channel 13 show "Cal's Corral," however, and "Town Hall Party" was very popular (just ask Glen Glenn).
"Merle Travis is in the hospital and would appreciate your cards and letters," drawled the homespun voice of the Squeaking Deacon on station KFOX, and I decided to get over see Merle right away. This was my second week in town. Things were happening fast! I located the correct hospital and went in the room I had been told he was in. Merle invited me to sit down and went on to explain how the tubes injected into his arm wre filling him with vitamins and other "get-well remedies." I reminisced about how we had met in Austin in 1952 [see Part One] and he teated me like an old friend, although I'm sure he barely remembered me. We discussed his acting part in the film From Here to Eternity, and I visited with him for about an hour.
I saw him a few times after that - both in person and on TV, too - and in 1961, with the production help of Perry Bodkin Jr., I finally got a record released on the Colpix label: "Hear What I Wanna Hear" / "French Fries." The Colpix promotion man, Stanly Styne, informed me, "I got you a TV spot on 'Town Hall Party'!" "Just what I had in mind!" I answered.
The afternoon before the show I rehearsed my song with Merle and the complete band and sang with them on the air that night. It was great! I took pictures in color of Freddie Hart and a tiny girl whom I later found out recently was Barbara Mandrell. Pictures of the adolescent Collins Kids were shot and some of Joe Maphis, Fiddlin' Kate and myself with Lefty Frizzell.
The night was one I'll never forget and it was several years later before I was to see Merle Travis again. I'll get to that story in a future issue of Now Dig This [see Part Three], when I'll recall Merle recording at Ronny Weiser's Rollin' Rock studio.
Now Dig This
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MERLE TRAVIS REMEMBERED - PART THREE
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