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Still, Dawson figures he was lucky. "I look back on it and I see a lot of guys that had a hit or two, like Bobby Rydell. He'll always be remembered as a guy that came from that era and he's still looked at as a has-been. I'm glad I didn't get stuck in that time period. The way things turned out, I wouldn't change 'em for nothing."
Dawson is currently touring with King Memphis, a rockabilly revival quartet from Portland, Maine. It can be strange, he said, being around people half his age who are dedicated to music that was supposed to have died before they were born. "The guitar player I had here from Amsterdam last year, you just didn't say anything around him or he'd correct you. He knew more about America than I did."
In his teens, Dawson briefly attended the Southwestern Bible Institute. He was expelled--just like Jerry Lee Lewis, who preceded him there; Dawson's crime was smoking cigarettes. Nowadays, Dawson, 57, is a dedicated runner and a recovering vegetarian who totes a juicer on the road. He says young revival rockabilly players sometimes get on his nerves because they sleep later than he does and eat junk food.
Talking about rock's early days, Dawson can sound a little like Claude Rains' character in Casablanca, Captain Renault, who claims to be shocked by the goings-on at Rick's Cafe. Dawson was taken aback in 1960 when he toured with Gene Vincent, the older, fading rockabilly star.
"I really did like him," he says. "Everybody did--that was the thing with Gene, he was a very likable guy. When he got a little success, he got a little weird, but he was still likable. I went out with him on what was probably his last tour in the States, to places like Tulsa, Oklahoma; we were playing these huge places and only 15 people were showing up. That's when rock 'n' roll really started to make a change. And Gene, he lived every day like it was the last. I saw him drink a lot. And he would gamble; they were gambling on the bus--he'd just throw away money on a pair of deuces. It didn't make any sense to me. And he'd try to hit on young girls, get them on the bus with us--'C'mon, honey!' He didn't think about the consequences, like when these young girls' daddies would start hunting him--which happened. I told my manager I didn't want to go out with him anymore. I just wasn't raised that way, to destroy people's property and things like that. And steal--they stole stuff! It just astounded me."
From 1957 until 1960, Dawson also toured with inveterate Western swing band the Light Crust Doughboys, whose shifting lineup at one time included Bob Wills and Texas governor Pappy O'Daniel. The band's leader at the time, Marvin Montgomery, was Dawson's mentor. Dawson became the band's protege rocker, the bait it used to stay relevant. In photos from that time, Dawson is the only Doughboy not wearing a Stetson hat. He was ambivalent about playing with the band, he says.
"The pay was 30 bucks a day and expenses, and that was good, for me; I was able to pretty much sustain myself and my mom on that. And it was a very good experience. You didn't get very pumped up playing with the Doughboys, because you'd play grocery stores at 7 in the morning, but one of the reasons they took me is we played schools--they were one of the few groups that could get into schools. I'd play my rock 'n' roll songs. . . . They were all very dear people, but see--they were a fiddle band, and quite frankly, I was embarrassed by that, because fiddle bands were not cool. I can't imagine ever being that way, but I was.
"I talk to Marvin all the time now. They're still here, they're still doing shows, and we're talking about maybe doing an album together. I would love to do that. They had a song that was in a movie recently, called 'Pussy, Pussy, Pussy.' I can't remember the name of the movie it's in, it's a new one. He called me last week, Marvin, and he told me he just got a $14,000 check in from 'Pussy.' He's 84 now."
That song, "Pussy, Pussy, Pussy," remains a bit of a mystery. It shows up on "copulatin' rhythm" compilations, but, like the Treniers' "Poontang!", it's not clear what the title meant in its day.
"They never would own up to that," Dawson says. "I never heard 'em talk about that song. . . . I think they were kind of embarrassed by it--that's my opinion. I think they were just talkin' about a cat. I know a lot of white people were naive at that time. . . . But you know, it's pretty god-danged plain to me."
After the Swan debacle and his Doughboys stint, Dawson cut R&B songs with Montgomery in the early '60s as Commonwealth Jones; the idea was to sound black, he says. But while their efforts led to a deal with Columbia Records, and a favorable review in Cashbox magazine, the recordings sank like iron doughnuts. So Dawson retooled, again, and emerged as the head of Steelrail, a country-rock band inspired by Buffalo Springfield and Rick Nelson's Stone Canyon Band. He wanted to play original rock 'n' roll with a steel-guitar flavor, and was disappointed that he had to play covers to get club gigs.