All Night Rock:
Glenn Honeycutt interviewed by Colin Davies
One of the many highlights of the April 2005 Green Bay Rockin’ 50s Fest was the performance by Glenn Honeycutt, ably supported by Germany’s Randy Rich & The Poor Boys. Glenn doesn’t move around much on stage — in fact he sat on a stool throughout his performance — but his baritone voice is still in great shape and his guitar-playing is as forceful as ever. His set included several tracks he had written for his new ‘Mr. All Night Rock’ CD (see review in NDT 268) — ‘Backdoor Billy’, ‘A Love Song’, ‘New Orleans Is The Place To Go’ and ‘Saturday Night’ — and he closed with ‘All Night Rock’ — one of the really great Sun recordings that took many years to see the light of day. I had the pleasure of speaking with him before he went on stage.
I’ve got a lot of rockabilly compilations with tracks of yours on them. In the sleeve notes they usually write about you fairly briefly…
Yes, well it’s fairly brief.
If you don’t mind, I’d like to learn a bit more. What I’ve read is that you were born in Belzoni…
You’re Elvis’ cousin and you went to the same school, Humes High. Were you close to him?
No, I never knew him. It’s not a close thing. Actually, Elvis’ grandfather was my grandfather’s brother. My mother’s father and Elvis’ grandmother were first cousins.
Were you at school together?
I’m not really sure that we were. See, he was born in 1935 and I was born in 1933 and I left Humes in ’48 or ’49. I quit after the ninth grade and Elvis graduated from Humes. I don’t know if at any time we were there at the same time.
Maybe now we can talk a little about your growing up, where you started playing music, who you were listening to, and how you got into recording and performing…
Well, I was raised in Memphis from about the time I was 7, and my influences were some of the big orchestras like Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller. I also liked country music. Hank Williams was a big guy for me. Eddy Arnold, Carl Smith…
What about rhythm and blues? Black music?
No, I wasn’t into that at all. Not till later, when they got into rock n roll. I wasn’t into B.B. King, but Chuck Berry and Little Richard — I really liked that. In 1952, when I was 18, I joined the military. Of course I had my guitar with me some of the time and we’d sit around and play. I did one show while I was in the military. I got out in 1955, when I was 21, and then I tried to organize my own band.
Was that The Rhythmaires?
Yes. The Rhythmaires was me and a couple of others. I don’t even remember their names. That was 50 or 55 years ago, and it was very brief. I thought I’d have my own band, but it just didn’t work out.
Was there a regular make-up in your band?
The Rhythmaires were for a very brief time. What I was trying to do was book some schools — stuff like that — but I didn’t have any credentials. At that time I hadn’t had anything on Sun or with anybody, so I couldn’t get the bookings. The Rhythmaires were just a flash and then they were gone. And then I hooked up with Ronald Wallace. Jack Clement was in the band for a time with me and we played around Mississippi, Tennessee and Arkansas. Jack played drums mostly, and when he would want to sing I knew just enough at the drums that I could sit down with a snare drum while he took the guitar and could sing.
You were doing some of his songs?
No. But at the time we were playing he went over to Sun and he wrote the song ‘Ballad Of A Teenage Queen’ that Johnny Cash put out and it was a big hit for him. From then on Jack became pretty big. I think he went to Texas then and I lost track of him. I played with Slim [Ronald Wallace] most of that time. I would do most of the singing. So after that I never really tried to have a band. Slim and Jack then started the Fernwood studio behind Jack’s house, out of the garage. And he recorded some with Billy Riley and carried them over to Sun and Sun liked that and got Billy Riley. They did the same with me.
So you first recorded in the Fernwood studio?
In the garage, yes. And they played it to Sam Phillips and he brought me over to Sun.
And so things like ‘Bagpipe Rock’; those were recorded at Sun?
Yes, but not at an actual recording session. I would go in and sit down with a guitar because I was trying to push myself and sing those songs and Jack would record them.
‘I’ll Be Around’ and ‘I’ll Wait Forever’ was a single. But ‘All Night Rock’ — sometimes called ‘Rock All Night’ — was not issued at the time…
Yes, that was going to be on the record, but for some reason Sam Phillips chose to put out the two slow sides.
And on those tracks, Roland James …
…was on some of it.
Jimmy Van Eaton?
I think so. I’m not sure. Probably.
See, these are the things I have trouble remembering. When you’re meeting a lot of musicians and everything, and 50 years goes by, it gets kind of vague.
Jack Clement was the engineer?
And what was Sam doing?
Sam was just… I never really saw him do anything as far as the recording. I saw Sam maybe just a few times.
So Sam didn’t ‘discover’ you in any way?
No, not in the sense…not really. I went to see Sam, I guess, in 1955 when I was trying to do country songs that I can’t even remember now, and Sam told me “Nashville has country” and wasn’t interested and I went away. And the next time I went back was when Ronald and Jack got me set up over there.
And then you did how many sessions?
I don’t know. I did three songs recorded for Sun. The other tracks, like ‘Be Wise, Don’t Cry’ was just pretty informal. ‘I’ll Be Around’, ‘I’ll Wait Forever’ and ‘All Night Rock’ were recorded at actual sessions. Those were written by me. And as we said, we think that Jimmy Van Eaton and Roland Janes played on them. I’ve had trouble all these years remembering the piano player that did the chop on the song.
People say it was Jimmy Wilson…
Well they probably know, ’cause they have access to things that I don’t — the session tapes and things like that. Now we’re talking about it, I am sure that Jimmy played on the slow records [‘I’ll Be Around’ and ‘I’ll Wait Forever’] and on ‘All Night Rock’. The reason I know that — and it just occurred to me — was that we were going to a radio station, actually. Billy Riley and myself, and we were going to sing on the radio that day. So I had a little band with me to do that and then Billy Riley was there with The Little Green Men — Jimmy and Roland. I remember I got them to play with me on the radio because they had done the recording with me.
So we can confirm it was The Little Green Men?
Yes, on the radio and they would also have been in the studio.
Do you have any memories of Jimmy Wilson?
Oh sure. And I saw Jimmy Van Eaton’, I think, at Paul Burlison’s funeral not too long ago.
When I spoke to Jimmy at Jerry Lee’s birthday party a couple of years ago he said he played on almost all of the Sun recordings…
Yes, you can just about tell when he’s playing. He has a particular style. He’s apparently a very modest sort of a guy who doesn’t want to exploit what he did — ’cause he’s definitely got bragging rights.
Was there anything special you remember about recording in the Sun studio that might have been different from recording in other studios?
Not really, not at the time. Of course later I realized that he had a distinct sound, a “Sun sound” that they are still trying to get now. And actually, Rhythm Bomb, the people I’m recording for now, he’s getting the Sun sound pretty darned good.
Did you rehearse the songs with the group beforehand or did you rehearse in the studio?
I don’t think we recorded the music live with the vocals. The band recorded first and I would have sung a bit to help them, and they played it back through the headphones and then the vocal was dubbed on afterwards. That’s the way a lot of the recordings were done, but I won’t swear to that.
And The Miller Sisters were dubbed onto your single afterwards?
They were there in the studio when I was there on at least one occasion.
They sang live?
I think they did. It’s what Sam Phillips seemed to have liked. I saw him go back into the room where they did the engineering and when I came out with ‘I’ll Wait Forever’ — I really came out blasting, really forced, and I saw him talking to Jack and it looked like that’s what he liked. It was a little bit individualistic, I guess, and Sam would look for stuff that was not what everybody else would do
When you were in the Sun studio, were any other performers there at the same time?
Well, I talked to Billy Riley there. The only time I ever talked to Johnny Cash, I just happened to walk in and he was talking to Sam. I remember one time Jack Clement was going to do a commercial for a sausage company. He had Roy Orbison and me and some more in there too. Roy Orbison was playing the harmonica. He was delightful to be around — he was funny. The only time I had anything to do with Jerry Lee, I remember he and Jack and I went over to this little restaurant next door and sat and had coffee and just talked.
Did you have a contract with Sam?
Yes I did. On the two slow ones and on ‘All Night Rock’. I signed with BMI through Sam. Of course, ‘All Night Rock’ never came to any fruition with Sam.
Was the plan for ‘All Night Rock’ to be the follow-on?
No, it never got that far. It just kind of fizzled out. Sam had more going for him than he could promote, or something. I don’t think my record was ever promoted. I got paid for maybe eighteen hundred copies.
Did you ever think of going across town to the Meteor people, as some others did?
I’m probably the least observant man you’ll ever talk to. I didn’t understand why my record didn’t do anything. It never occurred to me that it wasn’t promoted or anything like that. I think that’s exactly why it didn’t get any further. At the same time my record came out, Roy Orbison’s record came out [‘Devil Doll’], and also Sonny Burgess’ [‘Restless’]. Sam released three at the same time, and it may have been that he got kind of over-extended.
You mentioned Billy Riley; he feels very much that he wasn’t promoted properly…
Well, he did some great records. And he may not have been promoted to the extent that maybe he thinks he should’ve been, but he was played quite a bit on the radio around Memphis. Promotion depends on how you look at it. Somebody would say, “I got heard on three radio stations”, and somebody else would say, “Well there’s a million radio stations”.
And were you performing while the record was out?
I was performing but mostly in the sense that we played night clubs around Tennessee and Arkansas and Memphis. I was mostly out of town. That was with Ronald and his group. I never was really the headliner — there wasn’t a headliner. He was the bandleader and I did most of the singing.
Which songs were you singing?
I was singing songs of the day like Top 40 stuff and some country stuff — Porter Waggoner and Jimmy Rogers, the ‘Honeycomb’ man. I would listen to the radio’ and try and learn two or three new songs each week.
But you got paid for the 1,800 your Sun record sold?
Only the performance rights. That’s to say the BMI. For a couple of years after that I might get a cheque, just for a very small amount, if I was played somewhere on the radio. I remember I got a statement one time and it was less than a dollar. It wasn’t any big money at all. The only money I made was playing night clubs.
And you kept up a relationship with Sam?
No. That was that. Nothing ever came of it.
What about some of the records you made after Sun…
I had ‘Campus Love’ issued on Fernwood. Fernwood had moved from the garage and they had a big studio. Ronald and Jack, and Scotty Moore was in with them.
Who played on ‘Campus Love’ and ‘Tombigbee Queen’?
Slim was playing bass. Scotty was on it. It may have been Tom Haggenmaker… he was the sound man up there and he played lead guitar.
You also recorded for Topp-ett…
‘In The Beginning’ and ‘At The End Of A Long, Long Day’. That would have been about 1964. Topp-ett was another Fernwood label.
And on Black Gold — ‘Right Gal, Right Place, Right Time’ …
Yeah, that was me in there. I never had a contract. Ronald called me one night and said there’s this fellow wants this song sung, and I went down and put it on tape. They paid me a fee, but I never had anything to do with it at all.
And you carried on performing for a while?
After I had went into the Post Office in 1958, music was part-time for me. I was married when I was in service so I was married that whole time. But around the early ’60s we just kinda quit. About ’64 and ’65 was when I got out of it and maybe done something once in a while. And then later on I was still playing at home and with friends. But I got to where I wasn’t playing in nightclubs at all because I didn’t believe in all that drinking. I think you saw people at their worst in nightclubs. I wouldn’t playa nightclub for a long, long time and I won’t today. I’d been playing keyboard for a while and I’d played for Ronald’s band. I didn’t do a lot for all those years and then the Europe stuff came up.
I have a list here of the number of collections on which your tracks have been issued. There’s about 30 of them…
The only royalties that I have got — and I did go to some lawyer at one time — I’ve been getting some from Dave Travis ’cause I signed with him for some songs which included the Sun stuff. So I hear from him. All these years that guy who got the studio — Shelby Singleton — I think he’s the biggest crook in the world. They lease to other labels. Sun never paid me a dime and these other people didn’t either. I tried to get in touch with them and was totally unacknowledged. But then one day Dave Travis told me that Shelby’s brother, John, was kind of running Sun at the time and he was paying royalties. I got in touch with him and he sent me one cheque and I think it was for about $150 and he sent me an account back for ten years. Of course, it went back much further than that, but that’s the accounting. I got one cheque from Sun and I haven’t heard from them since.
Have you talked with some of the other Memphis musicians about this?
Not really. But probably they got the same shaft.
So then how did you hear about your being rediscovered in Europe?
There’s a man that wrote for ‘Sun Kommotion…
No, ‘Sun Kommotion’, and he tracked me down through the Post Office and said I may be surprised that the record had been released in France, which is where it started. ‘All Night Rock’ was issued and then I went to a man round where I live and he had a small radio show. He invited me to come up and played some recordings of me and I saw this album which was called ‘All Night Rock’ and my song was on it. I had no idea that it even was existing. As time went on I learned a little bit more about it, but when I went to see the lawyer I didn’t have any information to give him. He said we’d have to investigate, which would cost me and I really didn’t want to put out on it. So all I have got is with Dave Travis and he’s been square with me on a publishing contract.
When did you start performing again?
In 1999 I was invited to go over to Europe. I remember sitting in a taxi cab, and the driver was playing a tape with ‘All Night Rock’ on it and it was quite a thrill to hear something I had recorded 50 years earlier. Hemsby was through Dave Travis and that went pretty good. In 2001 I did one show in London, at the Tennessee Club, and one in Germany. The European fans are really into this music, but there’s very small play over here. People that I know here can’t realize the ardour of it.
Why do you think it all happened when it did, in Memphis?
I think it’s a fairly large city as southern cities go, and they had a lot of black people there and a lot of white people. Just all those things together made for a situation where it could happen. And Sam Phillips was in Memphis. He was a spark plug and could hear the sounds and he had the way to put them out. He had an ear for something different and that’s what he wanted to do. And everything he done was different. Jerry Lee, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins…all of them had their styles. He definitely had an ear as far as I’m concerned.