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.

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.

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.

"And now with the writing, I've finally, over the last few years, got to where I can write a song every day. Now, it might not be good, but I can get one out."

But the ones he's getting out are good enough to shop around: Reynolds recently sold two songs for the soundtrack of an upcoming Whoopi Goldberg flick, and on the strength of his recent Hall of Fame induction and the Tru-Gems collection, he's touring the West and Southwest, working out his chops again. He kicks it off in Phoenix playing with collaborator Al Casey; and suddenly, everything old is new again.

But the man's radar is always on; 40-plus years of writing songs will do that to a kid from Oklahoma. When this writer tells Reynolds that he's only got a few loose questions, sort of like lights on the water to navigate by, his ears perk up.

"Now that's a good expression, 'Lights on the water.' I might use that," he says, warming up, still working. "The only trouble you run into is rhyming 'water.' After you get 'water' and 'daughter,' you're pretty much out of options, so you'd have to sneak it in the middle someplace. But that's a good one. I could use that in a song."

No doubt he could.

Here is Jody Reynolds. Go, cat, go.

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