JIMMY DONLEY (By Phil Davies)
Born James Kenneth Donley, 17 August 1929
Died 20 March 1963
I first heard Jimmy Donley's name in an old Let It Rock mag ( a pioneering mainstream UK music mag, which had great features on many 50s heroes) or Record Mirror early 70s article on Swamp Pop. Whilst Jivin Gene, Cookie & the Cupcakes and Johnnie Allen became household favs (when my mam was out) Jimmy remained an enigmatic mystery, a shared label credit or two on some early 60s Domino sides, a Jerry Lee album track and also on a Billy Swan lp. Despite Bill Millar ,Charlie Gillete and Flyright 's pioneering dips into Swamp pop/Southern fringe music I heard no more about the man until Stu Colman played Jimmy's waycool The Shape You left Me In on a radio show, where he stunned me by saying Jimmy had comitted suicide in 1963. In 1987 Cliff White informed me that he was helping put together a Decca anthology on Jimmy for Charly records. This great vinyl compilation of 15 Decca tracks from 57-60 is a gem, try to track it down. Sadly there is no CD collection of Jimmy's Decca sides, despite my semi regular mailing to Bear Family's suggestion box. Happily, Edsel have a great cd of his early 60s Teardrop label songs and some demos cut for the infamous Huey Meaux's Crazy Cajun labels.
Cajun rocker Johnnie Allen has written (alongside Dr Bernice Webb) Jimmy's biography, Born To Be A Loser, but despite several US visits I've yet to track it down. Johnnie's notes in the Edsel cd (writen in 1998) indicate that a Californian movie company was making a video movie based on the book but I can find no trace of it being issued. File next to the many proposed but never issued films on Vincent, Cochran or even Joe Clay ( where the great Jack Nicholson was mooted as going to portray him in a film). Now he was agreat great songwriter but he never had a million selling hit to his name so why would he warrant a book and movie? Well, gentle reader, this synopsis of his life may indicate the complex life lead by this forgotten southern songrwriter .
Jimmy was born James Kenneth Donley on August 17th, 1929. He grew up in Jonestown Mississippi, the wrong side of the tracks in the town of Gulfport, now the Dixie Vegas. His mother Myrtle was musical amd doted on her son. His father James Gilmore "Tag" Donley however regarded music as an unmanly interest. Tag forced Jimmy to quit school at 14 to work unloading the banana boats at the Gulfport dock ( Day-o!). He developed a keen interest in music throughout his teenage years, encouraged by his mam he became a talented vocalist and multi instrumentalist. He told his fellow musicians that he would on day be a big star. These happy teenage years ended when he enlisted in the US Army in 1948. After being sent abroad he developed terrible homesickness, missing his mother and little sister. Like a future musical army sargeant, he developed a drug habit to help him cope with the rigours of army life and his overseas posting. His behaviour deteriorated and he was finally given an undesirable discharge in 1949. Family and friends soon saw great changes in him, no longer happy-go-lucky, he was showing signs of schizophrenic mood swings. His personal problems lead to him marrying four times in four years. Each on of his wives adored him but he abused them badly and quickly tired of each one.His sister Myrna put this restlessness down to an inner desire to search for happiness.
His love for his mother drove him to strive to succeed and improve their circumstances via his musical talents. By 1956 some local music promoters (including Pee Wee Maddux) manged to arrange a deal with no less than Decca Records. Jimmy recorded with Owen Bradley in Nashville.From Feb 1957 we have the swinging sax laden Kickin My Hound Around and Come Along. The session also included a New Orleans styled Baby How Long (think Bobby Charles at his bluesiest)and the unissued Chuck Willis styled rockaballad Child Love (on the Charly lp) A later session in Nov 1957 featured another neat bluesy rocker Please Come Home and the now classic lament Born To Be A Loser (later recorded by Jerry Lee on the Southern Roots album produced by Huey Meaux in the mid 70s). This perfect swamp pop anthem featured all the heavyweights, Hank Garland, Chet Atkins, Grady Martin, Harold Bradley and Floyd Cramer and Glenn Douglas on keyboards, Frank Duke on drums and the Anita Kerr Singers (who for once add an effective backdrop to Loser). This gem received a vast amount of airplay in southern Dixie and became a jukebox fav. Like later follow ups, Radio Jukebox & TV and Our Love, Loser was a small regional hit but failed to break through to the all important cross country national charts. Several label tours ensued, venturing as far as the Midwest and the Eastern coast. His songs being staple bandstand requests in Southern Louisiana and the Gulf Coast.
Hearfelt ballads like I'm Alone, Our Love and What Must I Do ( with little sister getting a co-writer credit) were of the quality of the then popular Everly/Nelson style million sellers and sometimes sound as if the young Ronald Wycherly (aka Billy Fury) had hijacked his Mersey tug boat and crossed the big pond. The angst and self reflective mood of the songs hint at the inner turmoil that must have haunted this superbly talented musician. The frustrations in his career (where he could see that far less talented "singers" from bandstand were selling shed loads) lead to more disappointments and eventual despair with a return of erratic behaviour and health problems. Give Me My Freedom from July 1959 would have been a gold record in the hands of Mr growly Conway Twitty, but for the Jimster, zilchsville.
Radio, Jukebox & TV from August 58 similarly would be gold in the hands of say Chuck Willis or Ivory Joe Hunter , the song would fit in well on any compilation of their best, but the backbeat handclaps and the wailing sax failed to click once again, despite several hits like Splish Splash, Willie & Hand Jive, My True love, Western Movies etc getting a name check. Now I Know from July 1959 would have fitted Brenda lee like a Ronnie Self styled glove but you can guess the rest.The plaintive I Can't Love You from the same session flopped likewise. The touring and regional hits faded, Jimmy had lapsed back into the honky tonk circuit, Jimmy's addictive personality and booze not being an ideal combination. Drunken bad behaviour lead to legal problems and also a spell in a mental institution. Things began to look up when he married again in January 1959 to Lillie Mae Ugas, that damn confetti addiction striking again. The Wanda Jackson lookalike dark haired beauty brought some domestic stability and short lived happiness into the darkness that seemed to surround him.She was his one true love, abused by Jimmy but able to deal with it and loving him despite the problems, she was the mentor of many of his best songs.
April 60s chugging My Baby's Gone fared no better. His best Decca rocker is the great The Shape You left Me In from March 1959, an absolute corker of a song which I was finally able to track down in a vinyl haven in New Orleans in 2004. if there was natural justice in the wolrd, this would've sold a million and been covered by the returning king on the Elvis Is Back album, a real gem. Even Little Willie John couldn't have bettered the performance.
How frustrating was it for Jimmy to see say Fabian being a star when he couldn't carry the suggestion of a tune in a bucket.This came out on Brunswick in the Uk, as did the earlier South Of The Bordert/Trail Of The Lonesome Pine (not on the Charly lp)
When Liillie Mae briefly walked out on him he responded by containing his emotion in the song What A Price. This became one of seven songs recorded by Jimmy's hero the great Antoine Domino (four of Jimmy's originals can be found on the Edsel cd). What perhaps handicaps Jimmy's reputaion as a great songwriter is the fact that he frequently, like other starving songwriters (eg the young Willie Nelson), sold the rights to his latest song for a paltry sum like say $50, to put food on the family table. His reasoning being, heck I can write another song tomorrow. Many opportunistic entrepreneurs ( that is verbattim from the more erudite Johnnie Allen's notes, thieving twats would be my cultural assessment)have benefitted from his desperation. This explains why his name seldom appears on the writer's credits of any song he wrote for others or himself, hence the occasional appearance of his sister's name.
The Domino link lead to the Fatman recording latter Imperial period goodies like What A Price, Domino Twist, Stop The Clock and Rocking Bicycle (only Stop the Clock has Jimmy's name on it along with Fats, Maddux and Jessup. Roll over Russ Fratto and tell Alan Freed the news ;-)) What cements Donley's reputation amongst those in the know is the quality of songs he wrote and recorded for Meaux's Teardrop label. Just a shame Jimmy couldn't get that regional breakout that Meaux achieved with Barbara Lynn, Joe Barry, Sunny & Sunliners and Big Sambo. Meaux couldn't read music but had a great ear for a hit and luckily bumped into Jimmy at Cosimo Matassa's studio in NO and he promptly signed him up. A session was set up, produced by Leroy Martin and using Joe Barry's band the Vikings and possibly Mac Rebennack.
Jimmy was despondent over his beloved mam's death in March 1962, this coupled with his Decca failures caused him to fall out aggresively with Lillie Mae. her increasingly frequent departures lead to him penning several heartbreaking pleas for her to return once more. Meaux accuratelt described him as the " most lonesome guy on earth, reminding me of Hank Williams, Jimmy sang in a heartbreak key", mental torture equals songwriting genius. no wonder JLL always reckons he avoids songwriting as it can kill you.The Crazy Cajun cd is packed with 26 gems, 5 previously unissued. Please Mr Sandman is stunning, Loving Cajun Style likewise, even JLL has played this live and has jammed with it in the studio, Think It Over (not the Holly), Santa Don't Pass Me By (what a title and the performance is as good.)Just A Game, I'm To Blame, Forever Lillie Mae, the Domino songs esp Domino Twist with the ad lib "not the Chubby Checker twist, but the Domino twist" before breaking into giggles, all wonderful in the ears of this smitten kitten.
If only Jimmy had the lucky break of say a massive hit like Tommy Maclain's cover of Sweet Dreams. The reality is just after the first anniversary of his mam's death Jimmy took his own life on March 20th 1963, the demons he'd battled since the army days finally won. Gone but not forgotten as Johhnie allen says, his songs are still on the bayou jukeboxes, in the repertoire's of the dance bands and on the Donley memorial day radio playlists. That unique mix of blues,soul, country with a bluesy edge gets me eveeytime. No wonder they wanted to do a movie, I could see the young Ed Harris in the lead role or the young Robert Duvall
If like me, you dig Bobby Charles, Johnnie Allen, Cookie & the Cupcakes, Jivin Gene, Joe Barry, Rod Bernard etc than add the name Jimmy Donley to the list of guys to check out, oh, and send Bear family an email if you have the time -------
These swamp pop gems are evocative of lazy mint julep bayou visits and that heavy atmospheric Nawlins aroma. It was magical to hear Warren Storm's Lil Band Of Gold stroll through Please Mr Sandman at a great free State sponsored gig there back in April, I espied no less a legend than Allen Toussaint digging that one. Says it all really.
Charly lp Give Me My Freedom 1987 CR 30265 (or Freedoom as the perhaps ironic cover states)
Born To Be A Loser Crazy Cajun Recordings - Edsel Records CD EDCD597
Thanks to Johnnie Allen for flying the flag and for the great notes used as the basis for the above
Recommended Reading,- Johnnie Allen/Dr B Webb's Born To Be A Loser -The Jimmy Donley Story
Let me know if you have a spare copy BTW!
Journal Of Country Music Vol 15 no 3
Discographical info below from the essential RCS web site which must be in everyone's favourites I guess
Born 1929 in Gulfport, Miss. Died in 1963.
References: Johnnie Allan and Bernice Larson Webb. Born To Be A Loser: The Jimmy Donley Story. Lafayette, La.: Jadfel, 1992. Feature article and sessionography in issue 72 (1999) of Rockin' Fifties.
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