Two for the Show

Rockabilly Hall of Famer Jody Reynolds kicks off a new tour with friend and hometown legend Al Casey

Here is Jody Reynolds, circa 1955. Here's this towheaded 17-year-old rockabilly player, good-looking fellow sporting a low blond pompadour and a guitar slung across his shoulders, playing at a little club in Odessa, Texas. Jody Reynolds is walking down a nighttime street with his buddies Al Casey, Billie Ray and Noel Stutte between sets, over to the Odessa VFW Hall, to hear a cat named Elvis Presley run through his numbers.

(Presley was starting to get big among country audiences in the South on the strength of his Sun Records sides, but he had yet to move to RCA. Texas, Jody remembers, was into that kind of music early on -- only they called it "bop." Alan Freed hadn't brought the phrase "rock 'n' roll" to the radio yet.)

And man, did he like that sound. Jody Reynolds loved that stuff -- hillbilly music, and Fats Domino doing "Ain't That a Shame," all those good songs. He used to listen to Bob Wills on the local cafe jukebox when he was a little boy in Shady Grove, Oklahoma; Ella Fitzgerald was on that box singing "A Tisket, A Tasket," and he liked the bluegrass and the big band tunes, too. But it was the fat guitars and backbeat of down-and-dirty rockabilly that really got to him, brought his hands to the guitar and made him feel like the music meant something special. That night, the night he saw Elvis for the first time, he heard something that connected.

Jody Reynolds, seen here in his late-'50s heyday.
Jody Reynolds, seen here in his late-'50s heyday.

One year later, Jody's sitting in the Back Yard Cafe in Yuma, Arizona, and he hears that voice again. So he gets up and walks over to the jukebox, and he sees it's a new one, just released, in fact: Elvis Presley singing the Mae Boren Axton/Thomas Durden-penned "Heartbreak Hotel" on RCA.

In those days, you got five plays for a quarter. Jody Reynolds dropped a coin in and played that song five times in a row. And then he went home and wrote "Endless Sleep."

Here is Jody Reynolds, circa 1958.

Everybody had turned down the demo cut of "Endless Sleep." Capitol, Dot, Liberty, Decca and so on -- they didn't want it. Too slow, they said; too this, too that. But a Hollywood-based label called Demon Records ("The Highest in Fi!") picked it up and released it, finally, after persuading Jody to change the lyrics to deliver a happy ending. To be straight, he wasn't too happy about that, or about giving up the publishing rights, which he also had to do; but with his buddy Al Casey on guitar, he nonetheless crafted a haunting, echo-soaked song that managed to work in a lot more danger and darkness than were found on most jukeboxes at the time, and it eventually sold more than a million copies.

Guy's baby leaves him, you see; they'd had a fight. And he follows her footsteps down to the ocean, where the sea itself taunts him: "I took your baby/From you away." "Oh why did we quarrel?" he asks himself, "Oh why did we fight?" Serious questions and no answers except her footprints leading down the shoreline. And though eventually he finds her and gets her back, he's got to walk into the ocean to do it, pull her out all by himself.

In a fine little piece of irony, that song crossed right over the ocean itself and hit it big. Big in Europe, where rockabilly's always had a better following than in the States; big in Australia, where it went right to number one. For a while there, Jody Reynolds and the Olympics ("Western Movies") were the two acts keeping Demon in business: Reynolds cut songs like "Fire of Love" and a great two-shot, "Elope With Me" b/w "Closin' In," for that label over the next few years.

Reynolds was palling around with guys like Ritchie Valens, Eddie Cochran and Alan Freed. He used to go grab coffee with Valens whenever the young man stopped by Gold Star Studios, where Reynolds was doing some recording. He got especially tight with Freed; after Reynolds had relocated to the West Coast, Freed took a couple of his tracks, a cover of "Silhouettes" and one called "Robbin' the Cradle," out to Phoenix to produce them.

(When Alan Freed passed away, Reynolds was one of three people in the hospital sitting with him. It nearly breaks him up that when the man who popularized the term "rock 'n' roll" died, only three people were in attendance. Freed gave Reynolds his personal collection of 45s before passing. Reynolds still has them.)

That endless parade of people: Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry -- Jody crossed paths with them all. Bobbie Gentry was playing in Jody Reynolds' band when she wrote "Ode to Billie Joe." Reynolds spent 25 years on the road, in the studio, and (starting in 1967) running a music store in Palm Springs, California. Elvis Presley visited whenever he passed through -- Reynolds had a friend who worked for Colonel Tom Parker. That 1962 Gibson Super 400, the one Elvis used in his television comeback special? Jody sold him that guitar. One time the King called up trying to locate five televisions. Said he wanted to watch Johnny Cash. Jody didn't press it.

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