Two for the Show

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

In the 1970s, Jody Reynolds took a little hiatus from playing, but he kept on writing songs, passing them out to other people. And in a further bit of irony, Elvis Presley himself, the man whose "Heartbreak Hotel" had a little hand in pushing Jody to write "Endless Sleep," had agreed to record two of Reynolds' songs, just before he went into an endless sleep of his own.

Reynolds, a devoted workaholic, met a bunch of writers in Palm Springs in the 1960s and 1970s; they all came through town at one time or another. And he talked to them all, "cornered them," as he says: Jimmy Van Heusen, Frederick Lowe, Hoagy Carmichael. Hoagy Carmichael once told him that for every "Stardust" or "Georgia on My Mind," he'd written 500 bombs. But it was also Hoagy who told him to just keep at it, to write, a little bit every day. And he did. Reynolds was the only man Colonel Parker ever signed to Boxcar Publishing under a specifically worded "writer's contract."

Years later, after all those songs and all those singles, here's Jody Reynolds in 1998, being inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame in Las Vegas. All around him are young people, folks who bear as little resemblance to that kid from 1955 as he does to them today. The young folks were tattooed up, clad in leather jackets, chains dangling, sweat flying. Reynolds himself was a dapper dresser, a cool cat like his rockabilly compatriots: suits, ties, the whole bit. But those kids had fun, Reynolds says. And that's all that matters. One fellow won a pompadour contest; his coif stood up seven inches from his scalp.

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

And here's Jody Reynolds this very morning at 7 a.m., California time.

"I've been up since 3:30," he says without a trace of exhaustion. "I spent 25 years staying up 'til 3:30 playing shows, but when I sort of retired from playing and went to writing full time, I found out that the day held a little bit more for me than the night. I've been writing a whole lot more over the past four or five years."

Jody Reynolds has a career-spanning two-disc set out on Tru-Gems, a collection called Endless . . . that culls tracks from his 43-year history. Don't look for detailed information about the songs; sadly, you won't find it. That's a mistake that somebody should correct, especially given Reynolds' diverse and long track record with various sidemen and studios. But listen to the music, which moves freely from rockabilly to hillbilly to twangy instrumentals to Tex-Mex. You'll find "Endless Sleep," and a what-did-I-do-last-night heart squeezer called "Stranger in the Mirror" with Bobbie Gentry, and "Tight Capris," and two songs with Les Paul, and newer stuff like "Devil Moon, Angel Eyes" (Reynolds' personal favorite on the collection), and "Maria of New Mexico," and "Yesterday and Today," one of the songs Elvis was slated to record. And most of all you'll hear all those stories, all those voices he picked up, on cuts like "Dreamin' My Way Back Home" and "Blue Russian Nights."

"I pick up ideas from people talking, see. That's where the good stuff comes from. Guys like Chuck Berry, he was so good at that. Chuck Berry could write a line like 'I parked my car in the open and I just walked on inside,' and you could see yourself doing it. Man, he got to the bottom of it on songs like 'Too Much Monkey Business.' He was really great at that.

"And that's hard to do, write a simple, true song like that. You'd think it's easy to write a song like 'That's All Right Mama,' a song that's just got a few chords and a few words, until you try it. It'll just come out sounding like a bad version of 'That's All Right Mama.' I always had to use maybe six or seven chords in mine, because I couldn't do it. 'Endless Sleep,' I just got lucky with three chords there. I called up my friend Al Casey, who was in Phoenix, and I asked him to come out and play on [the demo]. And we played it live, and the people liked it. We didn't tell [audiences] that I'd written it, they just thought it was another hit song from somewhere.

"Casey's so good," Reynolds says of his longtime partner in crime, a straight-up guitar hound whose extensive session credentials are a matter of record. "On another song [on Endless . . .] called 'Devil Girl,' that was a single in 1966, I don't know what he does with that guitar, it rings like a pipe throughout that song."

Reynolds himself first picked up a guitar when he was 15 years old, in the Imperial Valley, "a real Grapes of Wrath scene, because I didn't want to work in the cantaloupe sheds. I said, 'Well, I gotta do something.' I tried boxing first. Boxing came more natural to me than the guitar. The guitar was very hard for me, very hard. I was dumb, slow. I finally got to where I could play it halfway decent. Halfway.

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