I’m sure that by now you know that I am a child of the 50’s and was present for the Birth of Rock and Roll. Today original Rock and Roll is called Rockabilly, I don’t agree, but I will accept it.
I will write about a country singer tonight who had a number 7 novelty hit in 1960 and a few country hits and left us far to soon at the age of 41. The reason posted for his death at 41 was pneumonia but people in the industry and bloggers like myself are aware of his very large drinking problem.
Now why talk about a country singer who had a number 7 in 1960 and a few small hits in the late 60’s and 70’s. Well, it’s about what he did in the 50’s that peaked my interest, because he was a Rockabilly singer and was in a Movie “Carnival Rock” with some very special musicians. Bob was a good Baseball player and actually tried out for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Bob won a talent contest in 1956 and was invited to appear on the Louisiana Hayride. He had to form a band quick and found some local boys, yea right, he somehow put together one of the most talented group of young musicians of the 50’s. He found, 17 year old James Burton (guitar), 20 year old James Kirkland (Bass) and Butch White on drums. Now both Burton and Kirkland are in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
Bob Luman and the Shadows circa 1957
The story gets even more interesting. The movie was terrible, but it got them a gig on Town Hall Party the biggest live venue in Southern California in 1957. They were rehearsing one day in 57 at Imperial Records as Lew Chudd let them use the Studio to rehearse. We are now in the summer of 1957 and one of Imperial’s Artists came in, Rick Nelson and I quote from James Burton:
Rick came in on business and said, “ I hear music in the next room, Who is that? Chudd and Haskell replied , “ That’s Bob Luman & The Shadows from Louisiana,” so Rick then inquired, “Would you mind if I go in and say hello and listen to them a little bit”? They said “ Nah, go on in”. So Rick came in and listened to us play for about three hours, and we just had a great time.
We had a home in the valley in Tarzana, out in Canoga Park, so the next day James Kirkland jumped up and ran outside to get the newspaper. When he came back inside, he noticed a telegram hanging on the door, so he grabbed it and brought it in.
It was from Rick Nelson, who had invited me over to the General Service Studios. Rick recommended we bring our instruments, so James and I immediately went over and met his mother and dad, along with everybody involved with the show.
So that’s the start of how James Burton and James Kirkland ended up with Rick Nelson for many years. The first record they played on was “Waitin’ in School” but James only played Rhythm as Joe Maphis was lead. But the young James Burton was let loose on “Believe what you Say” and “It’s Late”, plus many others. True Story!! I believe James Burton lived with the Nelson family for about 2 years and was treated just as well as David and Ricky.
James Kirkland, Rick Nelson and James Burton and the Rickenbacker Guitars
So, that’s the story of how some very talented musicians ended up with Rick Nelson, but started with Bob Luman. Let’s take a look at the brief career and life of Bob Luman.
April 15, 1937 – December 27, 1978
1965 / His 1960 # 7 Hit / Let’s Think about Living /
1960 / Let’s Think About Living / # 7 BB
1960 / Oh Lonesome Me
1970 / Honky Tonk Man / # 22 Country
1972 / Lonely Women make good Lovers / # 4 Country
Born Robert Glynn Luman, 15 April 1937, Blackjack, Texas
More than half of the (too) short life of Bob Luman was devoted to a musical career. Although he scored only one pop hit during those 20+ years, he was much more than a one-hit wonder. Blessed with a great voice, he was equally at home with rockabilly and country.
Born in the small community of Blackjack, just out of Nacogdoches, Texas, Luman grew up on a diet of country music. He received his first guitar when he was 13 years of age. At Kilgore High School he formed a country band, playing the hits of Lefty Frizzell and Webb Pierce. Also a talented athlete, Luman was still trying to decide whether to seek a baseball career or a country music career when Elvis Presley came to his hometown of Kilgore in August 1955. Young Bob was blown away. He switched to playing rock n roll with his band and it wasn’t long before he won a talent contest sponsored by the Future Farmers of America, defeating second place winner Mac Curtis in the process. Before the end of 1955 Bob had recorded six demos (including “In the Deep Dark Jungle” and “Stranger Than Fiction”) under the guidance of Jim Shell, a Texas songwriter / music honcho. These rockabilly recordings would not be released until some twenty years later, on Ronnie Weiser’s Rollin’ Rock label.
In 1956 Luman became a regular on the Louisiana Hayride, produced by Horace Logan, who introduced him to a young Shreveport guitar player named James Burton. Adding James Kirkland on bass and Butch White on drums, they formed a four-piece rockabilly band, the Shadows. They recorded three vocal and three instrumental numbers for Fabor Robison’s Abbott label, but again these remained unreleased (until the 1990s). Finally, in early 1957, Luman was signed to a real recording contract, by Imperial Records. Three singles were released in 1957 (“Red Cadillac And A Black Moustache”, “Red Hot”, “Make Up Your Mind Baby”), but without commercial success. It is mainly Burton’s guitar playing that makes these recordings special. That same year Bob and the Shadows appeared in the rock n roll movie “Carnival Rock”, where he sang “All Night Long” and “This Is the Night”. Luman moved to California and became a regular on the Town Hall Party television program.
Then, in December 1957, the Shadows left Luman to become Ricky Nelson’s band. Bob was devastated by the defection, though he was happy for James Burton, who went on to become one of the greatest rockabilly guitarists in history. Two Luman sessions for Capitol in 1958 resulted in two singles, the best of which was “Try Me”/”I Know My Baby Cares”. The next stop, in 1959, was at the newly established Warner Bros label. The first two Warner singles, “Class Of ’59” and “Dreamy Doll”/”Buttercup” did nothing and one of his best rockers, “Loretta”, would remain in the vaults until 1980. Bob Luman became increasingly disheartened with the music business and even thought about going back to baseball.
But his luck was about to change. The Everly Brothers told him about a song their mentors Boudreaux and Felice Bryant had brought to them recently. It didn’t fit their style, but they thought it was perfect for Luman. Reluctantly, Bob travelled to Nashville for his first session in that city, on July 11, 1960. It turned out to be the most fateful studio date of his life. “Let’s Think About Living” – a tongue-in-cheek answer to all the sad songs in the charts – became an international hit (# 7 US, # 6 UK). After four years of trying, Bob Luman had hit pay dirt. But soon after the release of the fine follow-up “Why Why Bye Bye”/”Oh Lonesome Me” (a # 46 hit in the UK), Bob received the notice that Uncle Sam needed him. Stationed in Missouri, he depended on three-day weekend passes to fly to Tennessee for recording sessions. Warner Bros released an LP and eight further singles during the two years that Bob spent in the army, but he was unable to promote his records through personal appearances and sales were disappointing. “Let’s Think About Living” would remain his sole entry on the pop charts.
After his demob, Bob moved to Nashville and in January 1963 he began to record for Wesley Rose’s Hickory label, switching from rock n roll to country. The spirit of Wesley Rose had already loomed large over Bob’s Warner recordings. John D. Loudermilk, who wrote many songs for Luman, told Hank Davis : “Wesley Rose understood very little about music. He was first and foremost a businessman. His background was in accounting, not making records. He was a domineering little guy who had some pretty negative impact on a lot of people. Artists like Bob Luman had to record a lot of material that was really out of character for them.”
Over the years Luman would become a bona fide country star, scoring twenty Top 40 country hits between 1964 and 1977. Only three of these were on Hickory ; his stint at Epic (1968-1976) was much more successful, with four Top 10 hits. The highest charting of these was “Lonely Women Make Good Lovers” (# 4, 1972).
From August 1964 until his death, Luman was a member of the Grand Ole Opry. In 1976, Bob was hospitalized for nearly six months for an operation on a blocked artery. After his release, Johnny Cash brought him back into a recording studio and produced his LP “Alive And Well”. But things were not well. There’s no nice way to say it, but Bob Luman was an alcoholic. It affected his career, his family life, and ultimately, his health. Finally, it killed him, at the age of only 41. “Pneumonia”, the press releases said. (And even now in 2012, most Internet sources still say so.) None of the fifty or so obituaries in the weeks following his death in 1978 hinted at the truth.