What is the Phoenix sound?
In this week’s issue of New Times, we explore the subject with longtime radio DJ Jim West, author of a new book, The Phoenix Sound: A History of Twang & Rockabilly Music in Arizona. A familiar voice to listeners of powerhouse country station KNIX in the ‘80s, West says his new book isn’t so much a definitive statement as a wide reaching sampler, surveying many of the key players in the mid-‘50s rockabilly boom in Phoenix, when songs like Sanford Clark’s “The Fool” and Duane Eddy’s “Rebel Rouser” introduced the nation to a souped up, reverb-drenched take on hillbilly and country music. The hits paved the way for an eventual surf music craze across the nation, and through the work of producer Lee Hazlewood, helped inspire Phil Spector's famous Wall of Sound.
Compiling five years of interviews, the book highlights a variety of sounds, but keeps its feet planted mostly in the twangy department.
“In the ‘50s you had the Memphis sound, with Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash, and the Motown sound in Detroit,” West says. “Phoenix had its own little sound too, which is not as well known.”
With the release of the book and a new compilation of Phoenix recordings out via Germany’s Bear Family Records, Martians, Demons and Fools Like Me: The MCI Records Story 1954-61, it's a perfect time to take note of Phoenix's unique sonic qualities in the '50s. We asked West to share 10 selections from the book that help illustrate what the Phoenix sound actually sounded like. (Full disclosure: The writer of this story previously hosted a radio program with John P. Dixon, Arizona music historian and producer of the Bear Family compilation.)
10. Loy Clingman, "Rockin' Down Mexico Way"
A school teacher who played music on the side, Loy Clingman was born in Williams, Arizona, and spent time traveling the Southwest before recording this corker in his tiny garage studio. It was released on his own Viv label in 1960. "That's got a cool groove to it," West says of the brisk number, telling the story of heading south of the border, where the mariachis play and the señoritas hang out at night. "They rock it fast, they rock it slow, they really rock it down in Mexico," Clingman sings before cutting loose on a fiery solo.
9. Alvie Self, "Let's Go Wild"
Born in Cottonwood, Self lived a throughly western life working as a rodeo cowboy. "Let's Go Wild," was released on the Don Ray label in 1959, and it's propelled by a rickety, reverb-laden guitar and even a little suggestive, with Self extolling the quality of his lady's kisses and dishing on their time parked "all alone in the dark." Self originally started on the accordion, West writes, but soon switched over to a Gibson Les Paul.
8. Ted Newman, "Plaything"
Released on the Rev label, "Plaything" "was a top 45 hit, recorded in 1957," West says of this brash heartbreaker. "It lasted maybe a month or so on the charts. It hit number 45, and then another version came along by Nick Todd, the little brother of Pat Boone." Todd's version stole some of Newman's thunder. "Back in those days, artists did that a lot. If a song looked promising on the charts, some other guy would jump in and record the same thing and either beat you to the top of the charts with it."
7. Richie Hart, "The Great Duane"
Before forming the country rock outfit Goose Creek Symphony, frontman Charles Gearheart recorded rockabilly as "Richie Hart." This 1959 gem idolizes the heartthrob status of Arizona's own national star, Duane Eddy. "It's a tribute to Duane Eddy," West says. "The premise of the song is that the guy's singing about 'the great Duane,' with his dreamy brown eyes and slicked-back hair."
6. Waylon Jennings, "Rave On"
Before he was a country outlaw superstar, and even before he was a local sensation packing the nightclubs in Phoenix, Waylon Jennings was a member of Buddy Holly's band. After the tragic death of his boss in 1959 — he apparently joked with Holly that he hoped his plane would crash — Jennings packed up and made his way to Coolidge, Arizona, where he worked at a small station, KCKY. Eventually, he made his way to Phoenix, where he won over the rockabilly scene. West is partial to his take on this Buddy Holly classic. "That was recorded here in the Valley," West says. Stardom beckoned and Waylon made his way to Nashville and Texas, but eventually returned to Arizona, where he passed away in 2002.
5. Jimmy Dell, "I've Got a Dollar"
Hailing from Coolidge, Jimmy "Dell" Delbridge's career finds him between the piano and the pulpit. Though he'd eventually become well known for his ministry, this raucous cut definitely falls on the secular side. It was recorded at Floyd Ramsey's Audio Recorders before being licensed by Chet Akins at RCA. "He's got some tunes that really kick up," West says. This one qualifies.
4. Dyke and the Blazers, "Funky Broadway"
Though West's book focuses predominately on country and rockabilly, he can't resist adding a little soul from Dyke and the Blazers. "It just seems to jump out of the speakers," West says of the 1966 song. One of the first songs to feature "funky" in its title — it was banned on some stations because of its blue connotations — the song was cut by Arlester Christian and his band at Audio Recorders and released on the small Artco Records label. It would become a major hit for Wilson Pickett, but West says its roots in Phoenix are secure: "It was written about Broadway Road through Phoenix and Tempe."
3. Ray Sharpe, "Linda Lu"
"Ray was kind of more of a jazz guitarist, from Texas originally, but he recorded here," West says. "Linda Lu," released in 1959, features "just incredible rockabilly riffs," West says. "Linda Lu" was a bit of a departure for Sharpe. Produced by Lee Hazlewood and featuring Don Cole, it stepped away from his bluesier style toward revved-up hillbilly territory. Clearly it resonated with audiences — the Rolling Stones went on to cover it.
2. Duane Eddy, "Rebel Rouser"
Featuring production by Lee Hazlewood, who utilized a grain silo to achieve the cavernous, thick reverberating electric guitar sound, "Rebel Rouser" sounds like a widescreen epic — without so much as a single lyric. "That jury-rigged homemade echo worked like a charm," Eddy is quoted in The Phoenix Sound. "Almost out of the gate, that was a million seller for Duane," West says of the 1958 hit. "It really took off big time. If defined the early twangy guitar rhythms that dictated his style." The song helped to inspire the surf craze that would soon sweep America's youth.
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1. Sanford Clark, "The Fool"
Sanford Clark's "The Fool" has to top the list, West says. "Featuring the incredible work of [guitarist] Al Casey, those haunting guitar riffs, it was a top 10 hit in '57," West says. Produced by Hazlewood at Floyd Ramsey's studio at Seventh Street and Weldon, the young Clark emotes passionately, hiccuping a lovelorn tale, while Casey approximates the riff of Howlin' Wolf's "Smokestack Lighting" while his wife Corky plays rhythm guitar, Jimmy Wilcox mans the bass, and crooner Connie Conway cracks a snare drum. It's undeniable and sold over 800,000 by the end of the year. "All of a sudden, the music industry was keeping an eye on the budding music scene in Phoenix," West writes. The Phoenix sound had arrived.
Correction, 12/2/2015, 4:20 p.m.: Al Casey and Duane Eddy were not featured on Ray Sharpe's "Linda Lu." It was Don Cole.