Born Opal Jean Amburgey, 6 March 1925, Neon, Kentucky
Jean Chapel had one release on the Sun label : “Welcome To the Club”/ “I Won’t Be Rockin’ Tonight” (Sun 244) in 1956. This record was very different from anything she had recorded up to that point. During her long career she performed in a variety of styles under several billings. She left a significant songwriting legacy.
Opal Amburgey (her real name) started out in music with her sisters Irene and Bertha in 1938. They performed on Kentucky and West Virginia radio as the Sunshine Sisters. In 1940 they joined the Coon Creek Girls at Kentucky’s Renfro Valley Barn Dance. Opal played banjo, fiddle, bass and guitar and began to call herself Mattie O'Neil. At Atlanta’s WSB Barn Dance in the 1940s the sisters were dubbed the Hoot Owl Holler Girls aka Mattie, Martha and Minnie. Later, in 1952, they would have one release on King under that latter name, “You Can’t Live With ‘Em (And You Can’t Live Without ‘Em)”.
In 1947 Opal married country musician Floyd ‘Salty’ Holmes. Between 1948 and 1953 they recorded prolifically for Decca, King, Capitol and MGM, billed as Mattie O’Neil and Salty Holmes or as Salty and Mattie. They also performed together on the Grand Ole Opry and other television shows. In 1950 Opal made some solo recordings for the American London label (as Mattie O’Neil) ; these two singles were also released on UK London (L 1037, 1095). On Hickory (1954-55) she was billed as Opal Jean and Jean Opal. All of these recordings were firmly rooted in hillbilly and country.
By 1954 she had written more than 300 songs, for artists such as Rosemary Clooney, Milton Berle and Wilma Lee Cooper. And then, in 1956 she became rock and roll singer Jean Chapel. “Welcome To the Club” and “I Won’t Be Rockin’ Tonight” were produced by her manager, veteran country A&R man Murray Nash, who sold the masters to Sun in April or May 1956. “I Won’t Be Rockin’ Tonight” was written by Mae Axton and Tommy Durden, the “Heartbreak Hotel” team.
Suddenly Chapel was touring in Alan Freed’s famous rock and roll shows. In a bizarre twist, the record re-emerged on RCA Victor in October 1956. Odd because RCA already had Charline Arthur’s cover of “Welcome To the Club” on the shelves. RCA promoted Jean as the Female Elvis, but the nickname stuck more successfully to Janis Martin. One other RCA single would follow, in April 1957. ”Oo-Ba La Baby” is her best rocker, originally sung by Mamie Van Doren in the film “Untamed Youth”. By this time she had divorced Holmes, had moved to Nashville and devoted herself primarily to songwriting for the next couple of years. Coincidentally, her older sister Irene (then known as Martha Carson) also had a quick stab at rock ’n’ roll on RCA in 1956-57. Carson had risen to prominence in the early 1950s as a powerful singer of uptempo country gospel songs.
In 1962 Chapel re-appeared as a singer, under the name Jean Chanel on Crest. The next year she recorded a good version of Roy Hamilton’s 1958 hit “Don’t Let Go” for Smash. It was her last flirtation with rock & roll. She continued to record throughout the 1960s, for Challenge and later Kapp, but switched back to country, without ever coming close to chart success.
Chapel settled in Gallatin, Tennessee and became a respected Nashville writer, signing first with Regent Music and then Pippenway Music. Among those who recorded her songs were George Jones, Hank Snow, Patsy Cline, Red Foley, Sonny James and Nancy Sinatra. Eddy Arnold scored a # 1 country hit with Chapel’s “Lonely Again” in 1967, the same year “Lay Some Happiness On Me” became a pop hit for Dean Martin (# 55). “To Get To You”, recorded by Jerry Wallace, was nominated for 1972 CMA Song of the Year. In the 1970s and 1980s Chapel entertained as "Opal Jean Cologne”, but she made no further recordings after 1970. She died of cancer in 1995, aged 70.
More info : http://www.rockabilly.nl/?artists/jchapel.htm
CDs : There is currently no CD exclusively devoted to Jean Chapel and her aliases. Her two Sun tracks have been reissued widely on Sun CD compilations.
Very detailed discography / sessionography (by Dick Grant) :
Acknowledgements : Dick Grant, Adam Komorowski, Robert Oermann.
Dik, April 2017
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