It all took place in a quiet corner of east Texas nearly 50 years ago. The location is the Trail '80' Courts, a motel in Mineola, a railroad hamlet about 90 miles east of Dallas. There's a train in the night and the sagebrush is tumbling across the dirt track courtyard. Inside, a bunch of good ole boys have gathered for a songwriters' jam session convened by the motel's owner Jack Rhodes, the man they look to for inspiration and guidance. A guitarist in small local country outfits, Rhodes didn't take up songwriting in earnest until the early 1950s by which time he was in his mid-forties. One or two of his songs got recorded and pretty soon he was on his way. A tie-up with a song publisher affiliated to Capitol Records opened up new vistas and in 1955 two of Rhodes' songs, Beautiful Lies and A Satisfied Mind, became major country hits with the latter attaining standard" status, as did another of his songs Silver Threads And Golden Needles popularised by the Springfields."
In 1956 Rhodes' Woman Love got a free ride on the B-side of Gene Vincent's million-selling Be-Bop-A-Lula. Another of his songs, Missing Persons, appeared on the B-side of Gone by Ferlin Husky, a 1957 smash on the Capitol label. Rhodes consolidated by using his influence to try and help local talent ranging from honky tonk singers to would-be Elvises and Gene Vincents. Thus for every Woman Love or Satisfied Mind, there were a dozen songs by minor artists on small labels that came and went without making much impression.
Poorly educated but streetwise, Rhodes worked as a casual labourer for most of his early life until a serious back injury confined him to bed for months on end. He bought a guitar and worked out his first chord shapes. He wasn't far short of his fortieth birthday and had a lot of catching up to do. Jack had a role model within the family for this change of direction - his step-brother Leon Payne, a blind singer/songwriter and fiddle player who subsequently composed the country standards Lost Highway and I Love You Because. Rhodes had formed his first band (an old-timey bluegrass outfit) in 1947, called Jack Rhodes' Ramblers. With Payne as their vocalist, they cut their first sides for the Bullet label in the late 1940s.
In 1950, Rhodes built a motel complex on the west side of Mineola near the city limits. Christened the Trail '80' Courts, it incorporated a dozen chalets, a caf?© and a small gas station. Life revolved round honky tonks (a sort of beer joint, dancehall and eatery rolled into one) and the Baptist church. Jack saw himself as something of a hillbilly poet and wasn't about to forsake music just because he had a motel to run.
Jack set up a demo studio in a couple of spare rooms behind the motel's kitchen using an old radio mike plugged into a Magnecord tape machine. If anyone thought they had something on the ball, Jack would ask them over for coffee and donuts and encourage them to lay down some of their material, offering pointers along the way. Rhodes didn't have too much clout beyond East Texas and northern Louisiana but to any local picker without the means to match their ambition, Jack Rhodes seemed like the Great Barnum himself.
Rhodes enjoyed his first taste of real success when Jim Reeves recorded one of his songs on the B-side of his 1953 hit Bimbo. A year later, Jack and his fiddle player, Red" Hayes, co-wrote A Satisfied Mind which Hayes recorded for the little Starday label out of Houston. The quality of the song shone through and pretty soon major country artists were rushing to cover it. Porter Wagoner took it to #1 on the country charts and there were also successful versions by Jean Shepard and Red Foley.
1955-57 were Rhodes' halcyon years. All the big names on Capitol's country roster including Tommy Collins, Sonny James, Jean Shepard and Faron Young and Ferlin Husky came to record his songs. In between the album fillers and also-rans, there were the occasional smashes such as Beautiful Lies (Jean Shepard, 1955), Waltz Of The Angels (Wynn Stewart, 1955), Conscience I'm Guilty (Hank Snow, 1956).
One weekend in March 1956, Jack asked his friend and prot?àg?à Jimmy Johnson over to demo a couple of new songs. Johnson had some sides as vocalist with Rhodes' band a few years before. Though he was a part-timer, whose few recording opportunities had arisen solely through Rhodes' patronage rather than his own initiative, Johnson was an engaging vocalist with an authoritative style. His cool, dry delivery and virile lived-in timbre seemed ideally suited to Jack's songs. They worked on Woman Love, a lascivious blues, and All Dressed Up, a Don Carter song that boasted a rockabilly groove and classic honky tonk lyrics. Johnson accompanied himself on electric guitar, playing the bluesy lead licks himself.
Capitol A&R man Ken Nelson detected hit potential in Woman Love. All he had to do was find somebody to cut it - preferably a new fangled rock'n'roller. The dub sat in a pile on Nelson's desk for several weeks.
Rhodes meanwhile had asked Starday Records to press up a few hundred copies of Johnson's original on its Custom series, a vanity line used as a marketing tool by amateurs looking to get on record. Starday 561 would have been hard to find even in 1956. It can be heard here directly from Rhodes' original "motel" master, together with some other equally impressive demos recorded by the mythical Johnson during that period.
Then Nelson snapped up Gene Vincent, a hitherto unremarkable naval rating who had started performing on a radio station in Norfolk, Virginia while convalescing from a leg injury as an out-patient at the US Naval hospital. Vincent cut Woman Love at his first session in May 1956 with Be-Bop-A-Lula as the makeweight. To Nelson's surprise it was the latter song that deejays preferred and within a matter of weeks, Vincent had been catapulted into national prominence at the dawn of the rock era.
Rhodes and his acolytes went on to pen further material with Vincent in mind including Five Days, Five Days and Red Blue Jeans And A Pony Tail and Bi-Bickey-Bi, Bo-Bo-Bo. These, and many other previously unissued sides by rockin' Rhodes' prot?©g?©s such as Derrell Felts, Johnny Dollar and Johnny Fallin, together with a detailed booklet cast fresh light on a forgotten corner of 50s Americana and will delight rockabilly and Gene Vincent fans alike.
By Rob Finnis"