Superb vocalist backed by sizzling Billy May charts
With Frank Sinatra having decamped to start his Reprise label, his former label, Capitol, signed the next best thing, Vic Damone. The Brooklyn-born Damone had the same working class roots as Sinatra, and after getting his first break on Arthur Godfrey’s talent show in the late ‘40s, he signed with Mercury. Damone had several hits with Mercury, as well as subsequently with Columbia, but in 1961 he began a five-year run on Capitol. This third long-player for Capitol, released in 1962, was also Damone’s second to pair him with arranger Billy May. The latter had worked with Sinatra in the late ‘50s on the seminal Come Fly with Me and Grammy-winning Come Dance with Me, and paired again with Sinatra for two more titles in 1961.
Entering the studio in 1962, Damone was an established star, and May was coming off a string of superb swing albums with one of Damone’s vocal role models. The result has the hallmarks of Sinatra’s great sessions – sizzling horn charts, swing surfaces, jazz underpinnings and thoughtful interpretations of material that leans heavily on standards. Winningly, however, this doesn’t sound like someone imitating Sinatra, as Damone asserted the beautiful tone of his voice on both ballads and up-tempo numbers. There’s none of Sinatra’s ring-a-ding-ding bravado here, and Damone sings with a friend’s smile rather than a pack leader’s wink.
Buck Owens had hits before teaming with Don Rich, but together they led the Buckaroos to unparalleled commercial and artistic success. Owens first met Rich in Tacoma, Washington, where the latter grew up playing fiddle and the former was taking a break from his Capitol Records contract. Rich gigged with Owens around town and on local television, and after a stint in college, joined him in the studio for 1959’s “Above and Beyond” and “Excuse Me (I Think I’ve Got a Heartache).” Rich switched to acoustic guitar for 1961’s B-side “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall” and electric lead for 1963’s “Act Naturally.” The latter was perhaps not coincidentally Owens’ first #1, and the first in an uninterrupted string of fifteen chart toppers.
Owens and Rich equipped themselves with sparkling Telecasters (tuned down a half step to reduce string breakage and get a fatter tone) and Fender Twin Reverb amps, and with the bass and drums given more prominence, the Bakersfield Sound was born. Music poured out of the Buckaroos at an incredible rate, filling albums and the singles charts, and spilling over from Buck Owens’ albums into a dozen albums led by Rich. It’s from this torrent of creativity that Omnivore has cherry-picked eighteen tracks, three from Buck Owens albums, fourteen from Buckaroos’ albums, and a previously unreleased version of “Guitar Pickin’ Man,” recorded for the Hee Haw television program.
The selections favor vocal tracks, though Rich’s guitar playing is highlighted both here and on a sprinkling of instrumentals. Among the latter is the stuttering lead of “Chicken Pickin’,” the western atmosphere of “Meanwhile Back at the Ranch,” and the genre-bending “Bossa Nova Buckaroo Style.” Rich’s vocals weren’t as sorrowful as Owens’, though he strikes a similar tone for Bonnie and Buck Owens’ “Number One Heel,” and recalls Owens’ own double-tracking on “You Bring Out the Best in Me.” Rich wrote a lot of the Buckaroos’ material, often working with Red Simpson and other co-writers when not covering catalog material from Owens and Merle Haggard.
Having already been feted with exhaustiveboxsets, multidiscanthologies, vaultfinds, tributealbums, a posthumous autobiography, and dozens of original album reissues, one might ask: what’s left to say? As it turns out: plenty. Collecting Owens’ A’s and B’s from his most commercially fertile years, this generous two-disc set replays Owens’ emergence and dominance as both a country hit maker and a maverick artist. Recording in Hollywood, two thousand miles from Nashville, he added a new chapter to the country music playbook with the driving, electric Bakersfield sound, and established himself as an iconoclastic force on the both the singles and album charts. Among the fifty-six tracks collected here are twenty-two Top 40 hits, including an astonishing string of thirteen consecutive chart toppers.
While the hits will be familiar to most, and the B-sides to many, only the most ardent Owens fans will recognize the earliest Capitol singles. This quartet of originals, waxed in 1957, sounds more like Buddy Holly-styled rock ‘n’ roll than the Bakersfield sting Owens would later develop. The low twanging guitar, sweetly phrased lead vocal and backing chorus of “Come Back” is more doo-wop than country, and its waltz-time B-side “I Know What It Means” sounds like Nashville going pop. “Sweet Thing,” co-written with Harlan Howard, has rockabilly licks supplied by guitarists Gene Moles and Roy Nichols, and its ballad B-side, “I Only Know That I Love You” has a lovely guitar solo to accompany its double-crossed lyric.
Owens returned to Capitol’s studio in 1958 with a reconstructed backing unit that included fiddler J.R. “Jelly” Sanders and Ralph Mooney on steel. It was from this session that “Second Fiddle” launched Owens onto the country chart. The same group, which also included pianist George French, Jr., bassist Al Williams and drummer Pee Wee Adams, cut a 1959 session from which “Under Your Spell Again” climbed to #4. By year’s end, Sanders was out and Don Rich was in, Harlan Howard’s “Above and Beyond” carried Owens one notch higher, to #3, and Howard and Owens’ “Excuse Me (I Think I’ve Got a Heartache)” then reached #2. The B-sides include the charting “I’ve Got a Right to Know,” and the ironic “Tired of Livin’.” Ironic, because the song’s sad-sack complaint about a lack of success was fronted by a Top 5 hit!
1961 found Owens paired with Rose Maddox for the double-sided hit “Mental Cruelty” b/w “Loose Lips,” and he just missed the top slot twice more with “Foolin’ Around” and “Under the Influence of Love.” The success of his A-sides dipped slightly in 1962, though he was still charting regularly, minting staples like “You’re For Me,” and the B-side “I Can’t Stop (My Lovin’ You).” Owens turned out an incredible amount of high quality, original material throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, winningly vacillating between sunny elation and sorrowful heartbreak. He also had an ear for other songwriters, recording albums dedicated to Harlan Howard and Tommy Collins, and charting covers of Pomus & Shuman’s “Save the Last Dance for Me” and Wanda Jackson’s “Kickin’ Our Hearts Around.”
Owens finally topped the charts in 1963 with Johnny Russell’s “Act Naturally,” kicking off a string of #1s that stretched into 1967. Incredibly, all of disc two’s singles topped the chart, except for a return duet with Rose Maddox that stalled at #15 and a 1965 Christmas single. The A-sides from this era are among the most iconic of Owens’ career, including “Love’s Gonna Live Here,” “My Heart Skips a Beat,” “I’ve Got a Tiger By the Tail,” “Waitin’ in Your Welfare Line,” “Open Up Your Heart” and Don Rich’s “Think of Me” (which became a staple for the Mavericks). The B-sides include the chart-topping “Together Again,” the stalwart “Don’t Let Her Know” and the woeful “Heart of Glass.”
The classic lineup of the Buckaroos had come together in 1964, with Owens and Rich joined by bassist Doyle Holly, drummer Willie Cantu and steel player Tom Brumley. Their chemistry was immortalized on Live at Carnegie Hall, and their instrumental skills carried “Buckaroo” to the top of the country chart. More importantly, it was this lineup that doubled down on Owens’ rejection of the Nashville Sound. The polite drum accents of 1961’s “Foolin’ Around” might have alarmed Music City’s gentry, but it was only a prelude to the more insistent tom-toms of “My Heart Skips a Beat,” Don Rich’s twangy fills and solo on “Act Naturally” and Willie Cantu’s full-kit drumming on “Before You Go.”
While Nashville was busy courting pop fans with syrupy layers of strings and choruses, Owens was stripping his sound down to guitars, bass, fiddle and drums, and riding the beat. He also bucked another Nashville standard by recording with his band, rather than picking up session players. Red Simpson sat in for a few sessions in ‘65 and ‘66, and James Burton provided the sputtering electric lead on “Open Up Your Heart,” but what you hear on all the singles from ‘64 onward are the Buckaroos. The set ends with Owens’ last hit of 1966, “Where Does the Good Times Go,” two singles shy of the end of his continuous string of #1s, and well short of the success that ran up to Don Rich’s 1974 death. Owens moved on from Capitol to Warner Brothers, and returned again in the late ‘80s, but mostly retired from the studio to run his businesses and perform on the weekends at his legendary Bakersfield club.
A stellar second chapter of the Buck Owens catalog
With the wealth of terrific material included on the first volume of Buck ‘Em!, a second volume had a high mark to reach. But by splitting the sets by era – 1955-67 for the first set, 1967-75 for this set – this second collection is no second helping. Volume one established Owens’ Bakersfield legacy, while this second chapter shows how he extended his reach, responded artistically to changing times, and used his commercial success to free himself of commercial restrictions. As on the first set, these two discs include hit singles, well-selected album cuts, and a sprinkling of tracks previously unreleased in the US. And also as with the first set, the liner notes are cannily drawn and craftily assembled from Owens’ like-titled autobiography, giving the artist an opportunity to expound on his own work.
By 1967 Buck Owens was one of country music’s biggest stars, having landed eight albums and twelve singles at the top of the charts in only four years. He kicked off 1967 by expanding his fame internationally with a concert in Japan and its subsequent chart-topping album. This set picks up later in the year with sessions that produced “Sweet Rosie Jones,” the like-named album, and the title track of what would become 1970’s You Mother’s Prayer. For the first time since Owens began his streak of hitmaking, the drummer’s throne was occupied by Jerry Wiggins, in place of the departed Willie Cantu. “Rosie,” “Let the World Keep On a Turnin’” (sung with Owens son, Buddy) and “I”ve Got You on My Mind Again” all charted Top 10, but it took “Who’s Gonna Mow Your Grass” to get Owens back to the top spot.
Throughout 1968, Owens expanded his reach, recording the Latin and polka-styled instrumental album The Guitar Player (represented here by “Things I Saw Happening at the Fountain on the Plaza When I Was Visiting Rome or Amore”), adding Don Rich’s fuzztone guitar to “Who’s Gonna Mow Your Grass,” and teaming up with Susan Raye for “We’re Gonna Get Together.” The latter, recorded in 1968 wasn’t released for two years, which hints at Owens’ incredible productivity. 1968 found Owens playing a command performance for President Johnson at the White House, represented here by “Tiger By the Tail,” and also marked the departure of steel player Tom Brumley, who was replaced early the next year by JayDee Maness. Maness would leave by year end, leaving Owens without a steel player in the band.
1969 started similarly to 1967, with an international tour that yielded the live album Buck Owens in London and the chart-topping single “Johnny B. Goode.” Live recording continued to be a regular feature of Owens’ catalog, with “Big in Vegas” (a rewrite of Terry Stafford’s “Big in Dallas”) and “Las Vegas Lament” recorded live in Las Vegas, and “Tall Dark Stranger” recorded in Scandinavia. 1969-70 saw many more changes for Owens, including a move from Capitol’s famed Los Angeles studio to his own place in Bakersfield, the arrival of keyboard player Jim Shaw (who’s terrific live piano playing can be heard on “I’ll Still Be Waiting for You”), and perhaps most importantly, Hee Haw. The latter, initially a CBS network show, provided the sort of financial compensation that records rarely did, and it freed Owens to chase his musical muse without lashing it to commercial considerations.
1970-71 saw Owens in the Top 10 with “I Wouldn’t Live in New York City (If They Gave Me the Whole Dang Town),” a cover of Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and the title track from the bluegrass album Ruby, but it wasn’t until 1972 that he returned to the top of the charts with “Made in Japan.” Musically, Owens had moved well beyond his Bakersfield Sound, but his writing and voice, particularly the latter, provide a surprisingly straight line through his entire catalog. The twang of steel guitar rejoined the band in 1972 with the arrival of Jerry Brightman, but before he came on board, Ralph Mooney added his stellar playing to “Arms Full of Empty” and “Ain’t It Amazing, Gracie.”
Owens’ records through the mid-70s never regained the chart performance of his earlier releases, but there were still plenty of excellent albums and singles, including Gene Price’s “Something’s Wrong” and Owens’ “In the Palm of Your Hand,” the latter highlighted by Don Rich’s fiddle. Even more important was an album track that would be remade into a huge hit fifteen-years later, Homer Joy’s “Streets of Bakersfield.” The original is more sedate than the chart-topping remake Owens recorded with Dwight Yoakam, but it provided the template for the hit. Owens returned to the Top 10 in 1973-74 with a string of upbeat novelty songs, “Big Game Hunter,” “On the Cover of the Music City News” and “Monster’s Holiday,” but his mirthful side was about to go into hibernation.
In July, 1974, Don Rich, was killed in a motorcycle accident, and Owens fell into a deep depression. He’d continue to record and release records, but the latter-half of the ‘70s found his singles failing to make much of an impact on the charts. His last Top 10 single for Capitol, “Great Expectations,” was also the last to feature Don Rich. By 1981, Owens had turned his attention to his many successful business ventures, and he began a hiatus from the charts that lasted until “Streets of Bakersfield” and Dwight Yoakam reinvigorated his interest in recording and performing. In the mid-90s he built the Crystal Palace in Bakersfield, where he’d regularly perform to enthusiastic crowds and broadcast live over his own KUZZ radio.
50 prime hits, B-sides, alternates, live tracks and rarities from 1955-1967
Proving himself as savvy in business as he was innovative in music, Buck Owens wrested control of his masters from Capitol Records in a 1970s legal battle. His ownership led to a CD reissue program on Sundazed that stretched from 1995 through 2005 and encompassed nearly two dozen original albums. Add to that multiple box sets , greatest hits discs, pre- and post-Capitol anthologies , and a collection of tunes recorded for Hee Haw, and you have to wonder if there’s anything left to say. The answer provided by this new double-disc set is a definitive yes. Compilation producer Patrick Milligan has done an expert job of assembling singles, album sides and rarities into a compelling fifty-track exposition of Buck Owens’ key years before and with Capitol. The set tells a familiar story, but with an idiosyncratic selection of tracks that deftly balances the many elements of Owens’ extensive catalog.
Starting with a few mid-50s sides for Pep, the collection traces Owens’ rapid evolution from a country singer with steel guitar, tinkling piano and fiddle to the king of an exciting new Bakersfield Sound. As Owens developed his unique brand of country music, the Buckaroos grew into one of the world’s premiere bands and live acts. With so many sides to their commercial success, it’s tricky to find a compelling point between the shorthand of a single-disc hits collection and a Bear Family-length box, but Omnivore’s done just that. The set succeeds by combining a well-selected helping of singles (both charting and non-charting), B-sides, live performances, duets, alternate and early takes, previously unreleased, unreleased-in-the-US and unreleased-on-CD tracks, stereo album cuts and appearances on rare compilation albums.
In addition to well-known hits rendered in their original radio-ready mono, the set includes the non-charting “Sweet Thing,” the B-side “Til These Dreams Come True,” and a sprightly early version of “Nobody’s Fool But Yours” that stands side-by-side with the better-known master. Other early versions are closer to the masters, but tentative and not yet fully gelled. It’s a treat to hear the works-in-progress and compare them to the refinements of the final takes. The early version of “My Heart Skips a Beat” is already a great song, but without Owens’ opening lyrical cadence and Mel Taylor’s tom-tom rolls, it’s not yet an indelible hit record. The alternate arrangement of “Where Does the Good Times Go” includes a happy-go-lucky string chart (courtesy of future Bread main man, David Gates) that was dropped from the final release.
By 1964 the classic Buckaroos lineup had solidified around Owens, Don Rich, Doyle Holly, Tom Brumley and Willie Cantu, and it’s this group that powers the last three tracks of disc one, and all of disc two. The quintet punched up the beat for “Gonna Have Love,” “Before You Go” and “Getting Used to Loving You,” with guitars and drums that no longer held the line on “Opry polite.” The group’s live sound has been documented across more than a half-dozen live albums (including the legendary Carnegie Hall Concert, represented here by “Together Again” and “Buckaroo,” and In Japan! represented by “Adios, Farewell, Goodbye, Good Luck, So Long” and “We Were Made For Each Other”), but Omnivore’s dug deeper to pick up a 1963 Bakersfield performance of “Act Naturally” from the rare Capitol release Country Music Hootenanny, recorded in surprisingly clear stereo.
The song list is given mostly to Owens’ terrific originals (including the instrumental “Buck’s Polka,” with Owens picking lead), but adds a good helping of gems he selected from other songwriters’ catalogs, including Eddie McDuff and Orville Couch’s “Hello Trouble,” Tommy Collins’ “Down, Down, Down,” Red Simpson’s “Close Up the Honky Tonks,” Eddie Miller and Bob Morris “Playboy,” and Johnny Russell and Voni Morrison’s “Act Naturally.” Owens’ work as a duet singer is touched on briefly with Rose Maddox on “Sweethearts in Heaven,” but his more extensive collaboration with Susan Raye fell beyond the set’s designated ending point in 1967. The end of that year saw Willie Cantu leave the fold, and the classic lineup of the Buckaroos come to an end.
Owens and the Buckaroos continued to have both commercial and artistic success well into the mid-70s, when the death of Don Rich seems to have sidelined Owens’ initiative. With a wealth of post-67 hits and ever more far-reaching albums left to sample, hopefully Omnivore has a second volume up their sleeve. For the period they’ve selected, however, they’ve created a fresh view that expands upon shorter hits anthologies, but abbreviates the full albums into a compact telling of Owens’ most successful commercial period. There are too many essential hits missing for this to be a complete view of Owens’ genius, but as an introduction to his plain-spoken, naturally brilliant and stylistically diverse brand of country music, it’s a winner.
The Buckaroos’ main man steps to the front with his fiddle
Though it was Buck Owens’ name that appeared on the marquee, he’d have been the first to say that the marquees would have been a lot smaller without his right-hand man Don Rich leading the Buckaroos. Rich was an ace guitarist, harmony singer, songwriter and fiddler, and just as responsible for creating the Bakersfield Sound as Owens, Haggard or Wynn Stewart. Though he’s best known for his stinging Telecaster, he joined Buck Owens as a fiddler, and can be heard threading his strings around Owens’ vocals as early as 1961’s “Excuse Me (I Think I’ve Got a Heartache).” He’d pick up the lion’s share of the Buckaroos’ guitar work a couple of years later, but he never gave up the fiddle.
Rich cut albums backing Owens, with the Buckaroos and as a soloist, but this 1971 title is the only one to be released under his own name during his lifetime (a second album was posthumously released earlier this year as Don Rich Sings George Jones). The ten tracks were culled from previously released Owens and Buckaroos albums ranging from 1963’s On the Bandstand to 1970’s Boot Hill. The picks were surprisingly old-fashioned, with little of the kick that the Buckaroos brought to country music. Omnivore’s first-ever CD reissue adds ten more tracks drawn from similiar sources, but the selections highlight more of the Buckaroos’ instrumental sting. Rich’s fiddle is featured on each track, and his melodic lines are often drawn upon by the steel, dobro and guitar for their own spotlights.
Instrumental versions of Buck Owens’ and Merle Haggard’s hits
Ominvore’s two-fer combines two instrumental albums that bookmarked the Buckaroos’ solo recording career. The Buck Owens Songbook was originally issued in 1965, and features a dozen twangy Bakersfield-sound instrumental covers of songs written by (or in the case of “Act Naturally,” closely associated with) Buck Owens. This classic lineup of the Buckaroos included Don Rich, Tom Brumley, Willie Cantu, Doyle Holly (playing guitar instead of bass) and Bob Morris (playing bass), and their guitar-led arrangements are tight and clean. But without Owens out front pulling them along, the playing remains a bit sedate, perhaps – as the original liner notes and included lyrics sheet suggest – for singing along. It’s a nice curio, but no substitute for either the original hits or some of the Buckaroos more adventurous instrumentals.
Haggard’s original 1960s Capitol singles – A’s and B’s
As with their collections of singles on Wanda Jackson and George Jones, Ominvore’s anthology of twenty-eight Merle Haggard sides – fourteen A’s and their respective B’s – shows off a perspective not covered by greatest hits collections or original album reissues. In addition to Haggard’s thirteen charting 1960s Capitol A-sides (eight of which topped the charts), the set includes the non-charting “Shade Tree Fix-it-Man.” Haggard wrote all but one of the A-sides (“The Fugitive,” penned by Liz Anderson), and most of the flips, but his first Capitol single was backed by a lush-stringed arrangement of Ralph Mooney’s “Falling for You,” and he later covered Anderson’s sorrowful “This Town’s Not Big Enough.”
Haggard’s B-sides are far from the filler many producers used to force DJ’s onto the plug side; the productions were carefully crafted, and the instrumental backings are often highlighted by Ralph Mooney’s piercing steel and Roy Nichols’ sharply picked electric and resophonic guitars. It’s hard to imagine how DJs kept themselves from flipping “The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde” to play the equally attractive “I Started Loving You Again.” There are a few lighter sides, like “The Girl Turned Ripe,” but the lyrics are most often of afflicted love – relationships bound to end, ending, or receding too slowly in the rear view mirror. Haggard’s jazzier inclinations come out on Hank Cochran’s “Loneliness is Eating Me Alive” and the original “Good Times,” and his love of Jimmie Rodgers is heard in a cover of “California Blues.”
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