Born William M. Mizell, 9 November 1923*, Dayton Beach, Florida
The story of Hank Mizell is one of the most amazing in the history of rock 'n' roll and certainly in the history of rockabilly. Most Europeans (if they're not too young) will remember how an obscure rockabilly record from 1958 became a monster hit 18 years later, but I'm not so sure about our American list members. Florida-born Bill Mizell was brought up by adoptive parents in Asheville, North Carolina. He served in the US Navy in World War II and took up singing after his discharge, moving to Montgomery, Alabama, where he sang on local radio, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. A DJ there nicknamed him Hank, after C&W legend Hank Williams, and the name stuck. In 1956 he moved to Chicago where he formed a combo with guitarist Jim Bobo, bass player Eddie Boyd and drummer Bill Collins. They secured a residency at the Napoleon Lounge, a low-life redneck bar, playing there every night from Wednesday to Sunday.
In the autumn of 1958, Mizell and Bobo were approached by Gene Parsons, a local country vocalist who had set up his own record label, Eko Records. Parsons had converted his garage into a makeshift recording studio and it was here that Mizell and his band recorded the rockabilly novelty "Jungle Rock", as well as two other songs. Parsons achieved wonders with the limited technology at his disposal, conjuring up a thick, bottom heavy sound. The first pressings of "Jungle Rock" on Eko 506 wrongly credited Jim Bobo as both the writer and the artist, and Parsons had the single re-pressed with Mizell's name on the label. It was this pressing that got a favourable 3-star review in Billboard of November 10, 1958: "A persistent jungle blues item would make good swingin' dance fare. It's all about the jungle denizens doing the rock. Good sound and rhythm". The B-side was a slow country tune, "When I'm In Your Arms", with Mizell and Jim Bobo singing in harmony. Some eight months later, the distribution manager of King Records came into the Napoleon Lounge and heard "Jungle Rock" on the jukebox. Sensing a potential hit, he purchased the master on King's behalf and also acquired the publishing rights from Parsons, who had wound down Eko. Ralph Simonton, owner of the Napoleon Lounge, helped negotiate the deal and has been listed as co-writer of "Jungle Rock" ever since (along with Mizell). The single was reissued on King 5236 and got another review in Billboard (issue of August 24, 1959), but this time in the country and western section. The hoped-for hit never materialized, though, and Hank and Jim plugged away in Chicago for the next couple of years. Around 1962 they broke up their act and went their separate ways. Mizell, who now had a wife (Rosemary) and four children to support, gave up music altogether and became a preacher.
In 1971, unbeknownst to Mizell, "Jungle Rock" was reissued by Dutchman Cees Klop on a bootleg Collector LP called "Rock 'n' Roll, Vol. 1". Klop had found an early pressing of the Eko single during one of his trips to the USA and credited the song to Jim Bobo, as it was on the single. That's when I first heard the song, though I didn't buy the LP. One of the people who did was British DJ Roy Williams, one of the three members of the famous Wild Wax Show (one of the others was our list member John Alexander). He started playing "Jungle Rock" in clubs and soon the song became so popular that bootleg copies began to circulate. Charly Records jumped on the chance, acquired the tapes of "Jungle Rock" and "When I'm In Your Arms" from King and gave the single an official UK release (CS 1005), crediting it to Hank Mizell. It entered the UK charts in March 1976, peaking at # 3. In my own country, Holland, the record went all the way to # 1, and the record also did well in several other European countries. Roy Williams, who was a member of the 1996 rockabilly list, received a silver disc for breaking the record. **
The news of the unlikely success of "Jungle Rock" took some time to reach Mizell. Nobody knew where to find him. When, after several weeks, he was finally tracked down in Murfreesboro, TN, hardly any time was wasted before he was flown over to Europe to promote his hit. He appeared on "Top of the Pops", the UK's popular weekly televised hitparade show, and also on its Dutch counterpart, Toppop. I clearly remember seeing him miming his record, with a bemused "What-on-earth-am-I-doing-here"-look on his face. However, when he returned to Toppop a few months later to promote the follow-up, "Kangaroo Rock", he looked much more confident and even seemed to enjoy the experience. It must be said, though, that these promotional visits totally removed the mystique of the obscure. Part of the attraction lay in the romantic appeal of the distant, exotic artist.
Inevitably, Mizell was also rushed into the studio to record new material. Shelby Singleton invited Mizell to his Singleton Sound Studio in Nashville, where enough material for an LP was recorded. The production was in the hands of Royce G. Clark and among the session players was drummer D.J. Fontana. The material was heavy on the jungle theme, with additional material coming from the Sun catalog, not surprising, as it was recorded for the Shelby Singleton Organization, which also owned the rights to Sun. The LP wasn't bad, but lacked spark. A couple of subsequent singles by Mizell went absolutely nowhere and his moment in the sun disappeared as quickly as it had come. A third recording from the Eko session, "I'm Ready", was found in the record library of a radio station in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1980. It was issued in the UK on the one-off Juke Box label in 1985. Recently, it has been reissued on CD on "Rockin' From Coast To Coast, Vol. 3" (Ace 985).
The "Jungle Rock" LP from 1976 was reissued on CD in 1999 on the German Repertoire label (REP 4778-WG), with three bonus tracks.
Acknowledgements: Liner notes by Rob Finnis for the CD "King Rockabilly" (Ace 777).
* All existing sources claim that Mizell was born in either 1924 or 1926. This 1923 date comes from the Social Security Death Index. A William Mizell who died in 1992 in Murfreesboro : it simply must be our man.
** Tapio, since you have saved all messages from 1996, perhaps you can dig up Roy's own post about how he broke "Jungle Rock"? October 1996, I think.
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