SUN RECORDING STUDIOS, MEMPHIS
130 Photos of the Birthplace of Rock 'n Roll
Johnny Cash 1950s Show at the Brandon Arena
Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Three in the Brandon Arena ~ Late 1950s
Copyrighted Cash Photos taken by Bill Hillman
The first records I bought as a teenager in the mid-'50s were Elvis 78s -- I still have them. Soon I was buying LPs, mainly by Sun Records artists from Memphis -- Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, et al. Other artists that fell into my collection included Fats Domino, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and any music that had a blues or rockabilly feel to it. The next step was to abandon the drudgery of piano lessons and to devote most of my time to attempting to learn the guitar licks on these records. No mean feat in those days before the flood of "Teach yourself guitar by tablature... by video tapes... by CD...by computer software... by online courses, etc." Looking back it is hard for most people to appreciate the profound influence these singers and guitar players had on music and youth culture in those early days of rock 'n' roll. For a novice guitar player many of the riffs heard on these records were out of reach... except for those featured on the Johnny Cash records. Technically, Johnny, lead guitarist Luther Perkins, and standup bass player Marshall Grant, were not fantastic musicians, but they came up with a magic sound in Sam Phillips' Sun recording studio in Memphis. The rhythm was provided by Johnny's "scratchy" acoustic rhythm guitar, Marshall's driving slap bass, and Luther's damped boom-chick on a trebly Telecaster. His simple "just right" lead riffs in the intros and breaks were excitingly unique. And most guitar players, with a little bit of tenacity, could emulate Luther's leads and rhythm styles -- sort of. I bought every Cash record on Sun and most of those from Columbia and later years until his death. I was continually surprised and amazed at how successfully he could extend his music formula across so many genres.
I have since seen all my Sun Records idols in person -- and every time another leaves us I experience a great feeling of loss -- another piece of my youth has been torn away. The recent deaths of Sam Phillips and Johnny Cash have whittled the surviving influences down to just about one major Sun performer: Jerry Lee Lewis. The enormous Cash legacy is still with us, however, and especially gratifying are the memories of having seen him perform numerous times in our home town.
Seeing the Johnny Cash / Jim Reeves Show in the old Brandon Arena was a real thrill. I got some great photos. After the show when the stars headed across the arena floor to the dressing room area, the majority of autograph seekers followed after them. But Luther Perkins, and W.S. "Fluke" Holland of Johnny's Tennessee Three stayed in the stage area to pack up. This was in the days before roadies and big tour buses. I saw Luther alone at the side of the stage and made my way over to him to boldy ask if I could try out his Fender guitar. He said "Yup" and this led to my first real guitar lesson. Luther wasn't a really great accomplished guitarist . . . he probably didn't know many more chords than I at that time. . . but the lessons I learned in that short time about interaction with fans and the importance of creating your own style were invaluable. His "boom-chick" style of damped guitar and simple memorable riffs are probably some of the most imitated by guitarists. Sadly, he died in a house fire a few years later. Jim Reeves, the other star on the bill, also died later in a tragic plane crash. Soon after Luther's death, guitarist, Bob Wootton, was enlisted to join the Tennessee Three. Wootton is still on the road with the Tennesse Three (he does J.R.'s vocals and Luther's guitar leads). I'm very proud of one of the recent after-show photos that my friend Bill Stadnyk snapped while I was chatting with Bob and "Fluke" Holland.
The Johnny Cash Show appeared again in Brandon Arena in the early '60s. The show started late as they had apparently been delayed at the border crossing. They didn't have all their costumes and instruments... I recall that there was a communal Telecaster guitar that was passed around from artist to artist. From what I can remember, the show consisted of Johnny and the Tennessee Three, the Carter Family, the Statler Brothers, Buck Owens without his own band (or his own Tele), Carl Perkins and I believe Roy Clark.
Johnny's career was really starting to take off again when he made this third Brandon appearance. He was recovering from his dark years of drug addiction, thanks to June Carter, and he was just starting to put out a string of cross-over hits. There was even talk of a network TV show. Around this time one of the Brandon service clubs and/or promoters had asked us to perform at an after-show reception for the Tommy Hunter Show. This was a success, so when the Cash show came to town we were asked to perform a similar show for his entire troupe, as well as for invited guests and dignitaries.
Johnny and June were staying at the grand old Prince Edward Hotel and the party was to be in the hotel's main ballroom. This was quite a thrill for us, although it promised to be a somewhat intimidating experience. We were excited to meet and play for the Carter Family, Carl Perkins, The Statler Brothers, etc. Johnny and his fellow Memphis Sun Records artists had been my major musical influences.
I was looking forward to another meeting with Luther Perkins, who had given me one of my first guitar lessons about 10 years before.
Luther, along with bassist, Marshall Grant, had been with Johnny from the start back in Memphis and gave the Tennessee Two (later
Tennessee Three when drummer W. S. "Fluke" Holland was added) their distinctive "boom-chicka-boom" sound. Sadly, Luther had died in a house fire a few months before and had been replaced by young Bob Wootton, who did a quite amazing effort at imitating Luther's palm-muting guitar style. He knew the intros, breaks and extros to all of John R's hits.
The event was even more memorable because Johnny and June had been recently married back in March. Johnny had actually proposed to her onstage at a show in London, Ontario. We performed for the crowd made up of the Johnny Cash show performers and specially invited Brandonites. The guests partied and danced . . . and everyone waited expectantly for the two stars to join the party.
Johnny finally appeared with June reluctantly in tow. He made a few thank you remarks and then June dragged him back toward their room. With June's help he was on the wagon after his many years of self-destructive road life -- she led him from temptation that night. Sue-On and I quickly took our break and rushed out to the hallway where we caught up with the famous duo and spent some time making small talk with them. We learned that although Johnny appeared to be looking forward to joining the crowd, June would have no part of it, considering the long battle they had just gone through to break him of his addictions and to get his career back on track. We returned to the stage, the show went on, the party was fun. . . but Johnny's "no show," although understandable, was still a disappointment to everyone there.
Into the 21st Century
In more recent times we've seen Bob Wootton and his new Tennessee Three band a number of times. Bob does a fine job on Johnny's vocals and is accompanied by his wife and daughters. They do a fine job of carrying on the Cash legacy. The first time Bob's reincarnated Tennessee Three group appeared in Brandon there was the added bonus of seeing the legendary WS "Fluke" Holland on drums. Holland had gotten his start with Carl Perkins playing "Blue Suede Shoes," etc., was in on the famous Million Dollar Quartet session at Memphis' Sun Studio, and had been part of Johnny's Tennessee Three band until the singer's death. They were great guys to chat with.
Photo by Sue-On Hillman
Bill Hillman and Bob Wootton ~ 2010
See stage photos of the Bob Wootton's Tennessee 3 ~ Brandon, MB ~ Sept 2010
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