Born Charles Arthur Feathers, 12 June 1932, near Holly Springs, Mississippi
The late Charlie Feathers, who hailed from Holly Springs in the Mississippi backwoods, combined elements of country blues and hillbilly to create the quintessential rockabilly style. All original rockabilly artists from the 1950s switched to country or pop when the genre went out of fashion, or quit the music scene altogether. Feathers was probably the only one who continued to do rockabilly-type music his own way throughout his lifetime.
Charlie was one of six children for poor tenant farmers. It was the time of the Great Depression and when you were a poor kid in the Deep South, there was no time for school. If you wanted to eat, you had to work like Charlie did from the age of ten. He was almost illiterate. Feathers learned to play the guitar from a local black sharecropper called Junior Kimbrough, "the greatest blues singer in the world", according to Charlie.
He moved to Memphis in 1949, worked there in a box factory and got married to Rosemary in 1950. Influenced by Hank Williams and Bill Monroe, Feathers decided to try his luck in the music business. In 1950 Sam Phillips had opened his Memphis Recording Service and Charlie claimed that he started hanging around Sam's studio almost from the beginning. His role at Sun remains a bit unclear. Feathers liked to tell many tall stories about those days : that he and Sam Phillips discovered slap-back, that he recorded rockabilly before Elvis and taught Elvis his style, that he arranged "Blue Moon Of Kentucky" (for Elvis) with Scotty Moore (a recollection not shared by Moore), that he worked with Phillips in the control room, that he gave Jerry Lee Lewis the idea for his "pumping piano", and lots more. Some of his stories may even be true, but the result of all this was that Feathers became a controversial figure and was often seen as someone who hugely exaggerated his role in the development of rockabilly to compensate for his lack of success. For in spite of all his talent, Charlie never had anything resembling a national hit during his long career. The main reason was probably that "Charlie was his own worst enemy", in Colin Escott's words. He was stubborn, suspicious, impatient, undisciplined, proud and unwilling to adapt. Sam Phillips found him difficult to work with. "He always felt that he knew more than anyone else. He was a damn talent, though. Could have been a superb country artist."
Feathers did not record rockabilly until 1956, because Sam Phillips saw him only as a country singer. Charlie claims to have recorded almost 50 titles for Sun, but only two singles were released : "I've Been Deceived"/"Peepin' Eyes" (released in February 1955 on Sun's Flip subsidiary) and "Defrost Your Heart"/ "Wedding Gown Of White" (Sun 231, January 1956). Pure hillbilly. Feathers co-wrote (with Stan Kesler) "I Forgot To Remember To Forget", which was issued as the B-side of Elvis Presley's last Sun single, "Mystery Train". While the latter went to # 11 country, "I Forgot ..." topped the country charts for five weeks in February-March 1956 (before "Heartbreak Hotel"), during a 39-week run.
Early in 1956, Charlie had a rockabilly song he'd written and recorded for Sun called "Tongue-Tied Jill", which he wanted Phillips to release. When Sam said, "No way. That song could offend people with speech impediments", Charlie went to Sam's competitor across town, Lester Bihari, who owned Meteor Records. Meteor was more than glad to have Charlie record the song for them, and the great double-sider "Tongue-Tied Jill"/"Get With It" came out in June 1956. It became the biggest-selling record that 10 the small Meteor label ever had and the closest thing Charlie ever did have to becoming a hit. It led to a contract with King Records, where Feathers recorded four singles during two sessions, one in August 1956 and one in January 1957. It is on these eight King tracks (and the Meteor single) that Charlie's reputation as "King of Rockabilly" is largely based. Standout single was "Bottle To the Baby"/"One Hand Loose" (King 4997, released December 1956), rockabilly in its purest form. For the King sessions Charlie's trio (Jerry Huffman on lead guitar, Jody Chastain on string bass and Feathers himself on rhythm guitar and vocals) was augmented by a drummer, Jimmy Swords, and at the second session also by a black male vocal group, the Prisonaires, who had recorded for Sun.
By 1958, rockabilly had died a commercial death and Feathers had very few 45s released until 1973 : one single for Kay in 1958 ("Jungle Fever"), one on Walmay under the name Charlie Morgan ("Dinky John", 1960), one on the Memphis label in 1961 (a strong up-tempo number called "Wild Wild Party"), a single on Sam Phillips's Holiday Inn label in 1963 ("Nobody's Darlin'"/ "Deep Elm Blues") and, in 1968, the excellent coupling "Stutterin' Cindy"/ "Tear It Up" (Philwood), with Marcus Van Story on slapping bass. Feathers's recognition finally came with the rockabilly revival of the 1970s. Starting in 1973, he recorded many albums (almost always with his son Bubba on lead guitar), for a variety of labels and his eight King sides were reissued in 1974 on the LP "Rockabilly Kings - Charlie Feathers / Mac Curtis" (which also featured eight tracks by Mac Curtis), the basis for his (re)discovery in Europe. (Reissued on CD by Ace in 2005 with 10 extra tracks.) His first trip overseas was in 1977, for the Sun Sound Show at London's Rainbow Theatre, which also featured Jack Scott, Warren Smith and Buddy Knox. Several more UK trips shows would follow (1980, 1984, 1990, 1992).
In 1987 Charlie was diagnosed with diabetic neuropathy. To help him, fan Billy Poore organized benefit shows in Memphis in July 1988 and in Baltimore, Maryland, in August 1989. During 1994 and 1995, Feathers had three heart bypass surgeries performed and was confined to a wheelchair until a massive stroke in August 1998 took his life.
The 'legendary' status accorded to Feathers tends to overshadow the fact that he made a lot of poor records. I agree with Trevor Cajiao, who writes : "He made some wonderful recordings, but he also made lots of average ones and many awful ones." (Now Dig This # 312, March 2009, review of El Toro double CD.)
More info :
Further reading :
Recommended CD's :
Acknowledgements : Billy Poore, Peter Guralnick, Shaun Mather, Craig Morrison, Colin Escott & Martin Hawkins.
Dik, September 2013
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