OK, you've got a choice here. On the one hand you could buy THE COMPLETE ROCKABILLY & HILLBILLY RECORDINGS double-CD containing both sides of all 19 rare and wonderful singles from the legendary Meteor label of Memphis. On the other hand, you could decide to hunt down the original 78s or 45s instead. It may be a difficult one to figure out, but let's see if I can help you weigh up the odds.
There's no denying that the sound from a pristine 78 rpm record is wonderful, given the right equipment, but you also get top quality sound with the Ace CDs and it will stay that way forever - and the CDs won't break. You get four originally unissued tracks from Steve Carl as well, 42 tracks in all, and a lavish 40-page booklet full of good stuff.
There are detailed biographies and stories about all the artists and their recording sessions. No 78 rpm or 45 rpm label - not even the old King promo labels - will tell you the complete artist story. And what stories these Meteor people had to tell! Even those who've been dead twenty five years didn't escape, courtesy of some old unpublished interviews and family reminiscences.
We all know the Charlie Feathers' story I guess, and a bit about Junior Thompson, the makers of those classic Meteor rockabillies, Tongue-Tied Jill and Raw Deal. And those guys get the full photographic and biographical treatment here. Did you know Feathers was a milkshake fiend, or that Junior wrecked Meteor boss Lester Bihari's house and then enrolled in bible school? And did you know anything at all about, say, Mary Edwards, an artist so obscure that the few written references have normally labelled her an R&B singer. In fact, she sang country and ballads on the Louisiana Hayride and was friends with Bob Hope and Elvis Presley.
Did you know that the hillbilly hitmaker on Meteor, Bud Deckelman of Daydreamin' fame, was so unreliable he couldn't keep his band together and they'd go off playing jazz instead? Or that his producers Quinton Claunch (yes, he of subsequent James Carr fame) and Bill Cantrell were integral in establishing the Meteor hillbilly and rockabilly sound, as well as paving the way for the future Muscle Shoals recording scene?
Do you know which of the Meteor artists played with Hank Williams, and which Meteor artist's son plays with Hank Junior? What about Elvis's mom sending dinner over on a plate to one of the artists making a Meteor session? And which artist used to go "carousing" with Sam Phillips? Or indeed which Sun artists also recorded for Meteor? One of the Meteorites wrote songs for Ivory Joe Hunter, another was a city fire chief, and then there was the strange case of the "dirt-dobbers" and the snakes in the studio. The Meteor sidemen were pretty heavy cats too. One of them went on to play with everybody who was anybody. Another met an early death after writing hits for Arthur Alexander. Another owns a chain of motels having given up being a private eye, a record label boss, and a steel guitarist. Then there is the morning TV presenter. We are talking colourful characters here.
Want another reason to buy THE COMPLETE ROCKABILLY & HILLBILLY RECORDINGS on the Ace CDs and not the original 78s and 45s? What about the fact that Ace has the full Lester Bihari story too. Here's the eldest of the four Bihari brothers, a famous dynasty in the indie record business, and no one knew doodley squat about him until Ace turned up an interview from 1981. He talks about Meteor, about how impossible Charlie Feathers was to deal with, about Elvis and Charlie Rich, and about the fabulous guitarist Reggie Young's whammy bar. Cigar-chomping Lester was a real character, too, be in no doubt. There's a full analysis of Lester's role in indie label history. Turns out he was in a good place at a good time, and because he was a salesman more than a producer he recorded the music largely as it was played in the clubs and bars of Memphis, Mississippi and Arkansas. More than Sun Records, Meteor represented what was out there day to day, straight and unvarnished. Still not convinced you need all this information with your music? In that case consider the photographs in the Ace package. Most 78s or 45s don't have photos. A few did, like the Cecil Gants or Miltones from 1940s Los Angeles or the Golden Crests from 1950s New York, but not photos like these. Not unpublished pictures of artists who only made one record and have never been seen until now. Mary Edwards, Haward Swords, Barney Burcham, the Daydreamers, Jimmy Lamberth, the Velvatones, these are not people you meet face to face every day. Apart from the photos there are some classic illustrations, such as letters from Lester to his artists, adverts from package tours, trade paper reviews, disc jockey charts. You get the idea.
What's that you say? You'd still rather have the original discs? Are you mad - or a millionaire? Bill Bowen's Have Myself A Ball has to cost $3000 for a start, if you could turn up a copy AND find a willing seller. You might pick up a Bud Deckelman or a Charlie Feathers but in what condition? Have you ever seen mint discs by Red Hadley, Mac Sales, Buddy Bain & Kay Wayne, Jess Hooper, Lendon Smith, Mason Dixon, Brad Suggs, Wayne McGinnis and the rest? The whole lot would cost a fortune.
My advice is this. Get yourself a copy of Ace's double-CD with the mega 40 page booklet. You know it makes sense, and you will play it again and again - unlike those priceless Meteor 78s and 45s.
By Martin Hawkins