Rock’n’roll music built its history on the contribution of independent labels. Every major artist in the 1950s started with an independent. While some like Sun, Roulette and King became very well-known, there were many others whose contribution, though just as vital, have rarely been documented. These were the launching pads for artists who found fame elsewhere. Bill Lowery’s NRC was one such label.
Lowery first got into the music publishing business on the advice of Capitol A&R man Ken Nelson after a cancer scare in 1951. Following some early successes in the gospel field, Lowery acquired the copyright to Be-Bop-A-Lula, an early rock’n’roll hit by Gene Vincent. At the end of 1955, Lowery and partner ‘Boots’ Woodall launched their first label, Stars, operating from a PO Box in Atlanta.
Very little is known about Lowery’s earliest artists, most of the Stars and Fox releases were pressed in very small quantities by RCA and rarely distributed beyond Georgia. Chuck Atha, Cleve Warnock and Little Jimmy Dempsey are three of the rockabilly recordings taken from this period.
In 1958, Lowery was reportedly approached by a group of businessmen, with the query “How much would it take to start a real record company?” With a supposed million dollar goal, the stock sellers went about selling what they called ‘founder contracts’, which would allow early investors to acquire more stock at a lower price as the company grew. In a short time, the NRC Studio was operating in the former Brookhaven Elementary School in metro Atlanta. The basic studio staff band included Joe South on guitar, Jimmy Estes on bass fiddle and Nelson Rogers on drums, with Ray Stevens and Jerry Reed filling out the group. Stevens and Reed would eventually become NRC artists themselves when their Capitol contract expired.
Meanwhile, Woodall was busy scouting for talent, and NRC began pressing and distributing other labels, accounting for hits such a Rockin’ Little Angel by Ray Smith on Judd and Mountain Of Love by Harold Dorman on Rita as well as Robbin’ The Cradle a master brought to NRC’s attention by Chicago singer Tony Bellus. From 1958 until 27th April, 1961, when the company went down, the studio was filled with future stars and wannabees, including a number of singers who would go on to have major country hits: Sonny James (another former Capitol artist), Dave Dudley, Johnny Sea and David Houston.
“The Rockin’ South” is an important release in the rock’n’roll calendar. It marks the first time these masters have been released legitimately on CD and, equally importantly, it rocks from start to finish. Highlights include Rod Willis’ sought after rockabilly classic, The Cat, Joe South’s The Purple People Eater Meets The Witch Doctor, a novelty which made it halfway up the Hot 100 in 1958 when South was only 18 years-old, Tommy Roe’s original pre-hit version of Sheila cut with his high school band for Judd in 1960, and a number of powerful rockers such as Sweetie Jones’ Baby Please Don’t Leave, Paul Peek’s chaotic The Rock-A-Round (withdrawn ‘long’ version) and Ric Cartey’s stupendous Scratchin’On My Screen. One of NRC’s few hits, Tony Bellus’ charming Robbin’ The Cradle is taken directly from the original master. The legendary Wayne Cochran talks his way through his debut 45, The Coo, a lascivious blues co-penned by Ray Stevens. This is the withdrawn version referred to as The Naughty Coo. Cochran toned it down on later pressings after the record was banned.
By Johnny Carter and Rob Finnis