Born 1 January 1928, Water Valley, Mississippi
Vocalist / guitarist / songwriter.
Ernie Chaffin was a country singer who is best remembered for the four singles he cut for the Sun label. He had an unusual, haunting voice and above-average material, but never scored a national hit. Nevertheless, he is held in high regard by Sun aficionados and is an important footnote in the history of country music.
Born in Water Valley, Mississippi, Chaffin grew up in the Depression years, singing in church and listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio. He relocated to Gulfport in 1944, hoping to break into country music. In the early 1950s, he met Pee Wee Maddux, a singer / songwriter / steel guitarist from Biloxi, Mississippi, who would become his manager and who wrote most of his material. Maddux brought Chaffin to Nashville in 1954. Decca’s Paul Cohen offered Chaffin a four-year contract, but Ernie didn’t like Cohen’s attitude and signed with Fred Rose's Hickory label instead. Four Maddux compositions were recorded on May 5, 1954, subsequently released on two Hickory singles. The best of the four cuts was “Get Me On Your Mind”, the A-side of the second Hickory release. Fred Rose was disappointed with the sales of both records and Chaffin’s Hickory contract was not renewed after Rose’s death in December 1954.
Undeterred, Chaffin and Maddux then started their own label, Fine Records. Ernie’s only Fine single, “The Stop, Look and Listen Song”/“The Heart Of Me” was released in June 1956. Two months later Maddux sent a tape of two demos by Chaffin to Jack Clement at Sun. Both Clement and Sam Phillips were impressed by what they heard and Chaffin was signed to Sun in September 1956. His first session for the label is logged in the Sun archives as having taken place on December 10, but was probably held earlier, in October or November. Out of this session came Chaffin’s first Sun single, “Feelin’ Low”/“Lonesome For My Baby” (Sun 262). Both songs were written by Maddux and Billboard (issue of February 16, 1957) was impressed : “Sun Records may have another big time artist in Ernie Chaffin. He warbles in the earthy Presley groove, with plenty of feeling, interesting phrasing and spontaneous sounding vitality.” It’s a bit hard to see the Presley connection, but on all other counts it is clear that Billboard saw the virtue in this Mississippi singer. Though it didn’t sell very well, the single was also released in the UK, on London HLS 8409, Chaffin’s only British release.
By this time Sun was not releasing much of anything but rockabilly. Chaffin, who didn’t like rockabilly, was the only country artist to have more than one Sun release after 1956, apart from Johnny Cash. His second Sun single, “I’m Lonesome”/“Laughin’And Jokin’”, was recorded on January 29, 1957 and released on August 15, 1957. Chaffin was backed by his own guitar and by PeeWee Maddux (fiddle) and two Gulfport musicians, Ernie Harvey (steel guitar) and Leo Ladner (bass), who had also played on the first session. This time a drummer was added to the accompaniment, in the shape of Jimmy Van Eaton, Sun’s in-house drummer.
“This is without doubt Ernie Chaffin’s two-sided masterpiece”, writes Hank Davis in the Bear Family book that accompanies “The Original Sun Singles, Vol. 2”. Two more Sun singles would follow, “(Nothing Can Change) My Love For You”/“Born To Lose” in October 1958 and “Don’t Ever Leave Me”/“Miracle Of You” in April 1959. All four Sun singles failed to make any real commercial impact. The first two singles represent his best work.
A deeply religious man, Chaffin always had the feeling that the Lord came first, his family second, and his career third. Colin Escott and Martin Hawkins make this comment in their book “Good Rockin’ Tonight” (1991) : “From a commercial point of view, Chaffin had a dangerously skewed perspective, but his priorities have brought him peace of mind - some- thing to which few of his contemporaries at Sun can lay claim.”
Since the Sun reissue programme began in earnest in the mid-1970s, various unissued Chaffin titles have emerged, including “Linda”, probably the closest he came to cutting rockabilly-type material.
After Sun, Chaffin had one-off releases on River (1960), Village (1962) and RKP (1965). He continued to perform occasionally, mainly in a country gospel vein. He was a popular attraction in various churches in and around the Mississippi area right up until his death. Ernie Chaffin passend away following a tractor accident on his farm in Hattiesburg, on April 19, 1997. He was 69.
More info : http://www.bopping.org/ernie-chaffin-mississipi-hillbilly-1954-56/
Discography (single releases only) : http://www.45cat.com/artist/ernie-chaffin
CD : Laughin’ And Jokin’: The Sun Years Plus (Bear Family BCD 16780). Released in 2006. 27 tracks plus interview. http://tinyurl.com/y834b4s5
Acknowledgements : Colin Escott, Martin Hawkins, Hank Davis.
Dik, July 2017
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