DICK CURLESS (By Pete Hoppula)
Born Richard William Curless, 17 March 1932, Fort Fairfield, Maine
The rig traffic was rapidly increasing in America during the sixties - and so were the trucks themselves: getting ever bigger, heavier and stronger. The highway network also got wider, which led to longer transportation distances. For the truck-drivers it meant more lonely hours on the road. The only way in which they could stay awake through the night, was to listen to music from the radio stations that started playing music aimed just at them : songs about the life and hard work of trucking people. In time, all this resulted in the popularization of trucker country music. WWVA Radio from Wheeling, West Virginia, used to broadcast a very successful live show, "Truckers Jamboree", in the early 1970's, and many Southern record labels such as Starday and King Records released numerous terrific trucker albums. Along with bright new stars, several former straight country and western or even rock 'n' roll artists found their way back to the bestselling lists. These names included for instance Red Simpson, Dave Dudley, Red Sovine, Jerry Reed and one of the greatest, Dick Curless.
Richard William Curless was born on March 17, 1932 in Fort Fairfield, Maine. He had a musical background. Maine, located on the Canadian border, was once colonized by the Acadians, the same clan that became widely known as the Cajuns in Louisiana. Young Dick heard a lot of Acadian music, as well as country-folk stuff by Jimmie Rodgers, Josh White and others. His mother played the organ and his father, who worked as a heavy equipment operator, sang and played the guitar. In 1940 the Curless family moved to Massachusetts. After his high school years, Dick joined a local western band called the Trail Riders, and at 17 he began touring with country singers Yodeling Slim Clark, Hal Lone Pine and Al Hawkes. A year later, in 1950, Dick moved to Bangor, Maine, but the Trail Riders continued playing and doing some small-scale tours. Dick made up the stage name "Tumbleweed Kid", and soon got his own radio show in Ware, Mass. At that time he made his first recordings for the New York City-based Standard label, and also met his future bride Pauline, to whom he got married in 1951.
Life seemed to smile at Dick for once, but then somehow all the happiness turned to a fully opposite direction. Though Dick had a bad eye (which is why he had to wear an eye-patch) and serious heart problems, he was drafted and sent to the Korean war in 1952 for two years. He and Pauline had only six months of marriage behind them, and ironically, now that they had to say goodbye to each other for a long time, it turned out that Pauline was pregnant! (Pauline gave birth to Dick's two children, a son Rick, and a daughter Terry.)
For understandable reasons, Dick, who served as a truck-driver, wasn't fighting all the time in Korea. On the Armed Forces Radio Network he hosted a show as "The Rice Paddy Ranger", and he also made a popular recording, "China Nights", under that name. After coming home in 1954, Dick continued to appear in radio and television shows. He also did some one-night stands in local joints (Silver Dollar House in Bangor, for example). When his health condition started to fail, he simply walked away from the spotlights and returned to his home area in Maine, spending almost a year in the wilderness, totally separated from publicity and without singing a single note during this time.
In 1956 Dick was invited to New York for a CBS Television's "Arthur Godfrey Talent Show", where he did a successful performance of 'Nine Pound Hammer'. He started co-operating with Event Records of Westbrook, Maine, got himself a new manager, Sol Tepper (who used to take care of Dean Martin's business), and became an esteemed country and western singer. Unfortunately, the hard work and stress forced him into another untimely retirement. Living isolated in Maine for the rest of the year , he finally re-emerged in 1959, and did occasional shows in Hollywood and Las Vegas. For most of the next five years Dick performed at the night clubs and hotels around his home town Bangor. In 1960 he toured on the West Coast for a while, and came home just to find out his home was entirely wrecked by a hurricane! Ain't that enough bad luck for one man, huh?
Despite the stagnation of his music career, Dick managed to get a chance to make his first LP. When the Event Records Company split up, and one of its ex-owners set up a new label out of Boston called Tiffany Records, Dick came along. Tiffany released only one single by him ("I Dreamed Of A Hillbilly Heaven"/ "Deck Of Cards"), though he recorded lots of excellent material for them. In 1959 these sides were included on his debut album "Dick Curless Sings Songs Of The Open Country". In the early 1960's Dick didn't cut any new recordings, but Tiffany continued releasing his previous masters on two other LP's, "Singing Just For Fun" and "I Love To Tell A Story", the latter containing gospel songs only. Around the mid-fifties Dick had become friends with a famous copywriter and radio personality, Dan Fulkerson, who wrote "A Tombstone Every Mile" for him. The song told about a very dangerous stretch of highway through the mountain range of Haynesville Woods, where so many truckers had died that there should be a tombstone every mile. In 1965, Curless and Fulkerson founded a new label together, Allagash Records, and a publishing company, Aroostock Music. When "A Tombstone Every Mile" came out in the same year, it hit the charts like a ton of bricks. The record's success helped Dick to get a deal with the Capitol subsidiary Tower Records, which bought the rights to his Tiffany albums, and reissued them with new titles ("A Tombstone Every Mile" & "Hymns"). The "Tombstone"-single was also reissued by Tower, and this platter stayed in the Country Top Ten from the spring until the summer of 1965. Most of his later Tower 45s also charted well on Billboard's Country Hot 100.
Dick Curless was now one of the hottest names in the country and western market. "The Soul Of Dick Curless" (1966) was the first Tower album that included new recordings. Musically it was a very diverse record, containing songs from blues and gospel to pure rock 'n' roll - but surely not forgetting trucker country! After this LP Tower released another two compilations from Dick's Tiffany archives, "Travelin' Man" and "At Home With Dick Curless". In 1966 Dick was engaged by the "Buck Owens All American Show". He toured all around the continent for two years (1967-8) before coming back to Maine, and then continued his own career at full capacity. During this period Dick lived in Bakersfield, where he also made several new recordings. In 1966 he was the other half of a duo with Kay Adams on the album "A Devil Like Me Needs An Angel Like You". In 1967 Dick cut two albums, "All Of Me Belongs To You (House Of Memories)" and "Ramblin' Country". In 1968 there were two in a row again : "Long Lonesome Road" and "The Wild Side Of Town". Both LP's were recorded in Nashville and produced by Jack Clement. Dick's last Tower release was a soundtrack album of a western flick called "Killers Three", which also featured Merle Haggard, Kay Adams and Bonnie Owens. The collaboration with Buck Owens was now over because of a falling-out, and sadly, it made Dick's drinking problem harder than ever. Enter the 1970s. (BTW, Dick's complete 1959-69 recordings have been assembled on a 7-CD Bear Family box-set, "A Tombstone Every Mile", BCD 15882).
Between 1970 and 1973, he had twelve further country hits on Capitol, though none of them reached the Top 20. In 1973 Capitol released the fabulous live LP "Live At The Wheeling Truck Drivers Jamboree", produced by Joe Allison, followed in 1974 by his last Capitol album, prophetically titled "The Last Blues Song". By then Dick had finally quit drinking. He also moved to Branson, Missouri, recorded for some indie-labels (Interstate, BD Communications & Audem in 1976) and toured the Northeast and Canada. In 1975 Dick had most of his stomach removed, but he never really recovered from his health problems. However, it didn't prevent him from recording 20 new songs in 1976 at the Hilltop company's studios in Tennessee with Curtis McPeake & the Nashville Pickers (released only in Europe on an album called "CB Special"). Soon thereafter Dick experienced a religious transformation, and retired slowly from the music business, even though MR Records issued some of his singles in the late 1970's. He was inducted into the Maine Country Music Hall of Fame on April 30, 1978, and got the DECMA Country Music Pioneer Award in 1982. In 1987 Dick returned and made a new LP in Norway, with local musicians, "Welcome To My World", which was soon followed by another, "It's Just A Matter Of Time". In 1989 Dick's own Allagash Records issued the LP "Close Up", which was a tribute to his all-time singer-songwriter favourites and colleagues, including Smokey Rogers, Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, Pee Wee King and Brook Benton (!). By 1992 Dick worked at the Cristy Lane Theater in Branson, Missouri, and appeared randomly in TV and memorial concerts. In Germany he was a big star all the way to the end, and in the early 1990's he made his last recordings there, with the German singer Tom Astor. In 1995 the world saw the last comeback of Dick Curless, but tragically it wasn't meant to last long. The "baron" passed away on May 25, 1995, shattered by stomach cancer, right after his strongly emotional Rounder album "Traveling Through" was released.
Text by Pete Hoppula.
Same story with illustrations: http://koti.mbnet.fi/wdd/curlessbio.htm
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