JOHNNY OLENN (By Tony Wilkinson)
Born Johnny Olenn McCord, 16 December 1936, San Antonio, Texas
Who can forget the guy in the red suit early on in the movie 'The Girl Can't Help It' wailing away on the songs 'My Idea Of Love' and 'I Ain't Gonna Cry No More'. That was Mr. Olenn and he recently appeared at last October's Hemsby weekender where I had the good fortunate to meet him. He is one heck of a nice genuine guy and who still possess a great singing voice. He is also a talented guitar player. The following is based on the story put together by Mac Bouvrie, who runs Mac Records from Lanaken, Belgium.
Born John Olenn McCord, he started out in the music business in the early fifties as the stand up bass player in the western style music band fronted by Eddie Dugosh. Johnny switched to playing the steel guitar, something at which he remains very adept at to this very day, and Rudy 'Tutti' Grayzell took his place on bass. This was whilst Olenn was attending the Edgeware High School in San Antonio.
Come 1954, Johnny left both school and Dugosh and formed his own band The Jokers. He took over the lead vocals and guitar spots and, along with Cullen Offer on saxophone, Jerry Carnes on drums, Bobby Gene Baker on bass and Greg Nanus on piano, the outfit got a regular engagement at the Tiffany Lounge Club, San Antonio in 1955 that lasted for six months. This was the same year that Olenn started to record for the TNT label run by Roy Tanner. Two singles were issued, namely 'Sally Let Your Bangs Hand Down' c/w 'Candy Kisses (#1016) and 'I Ain't Gonna Cry No More' c/w 'Blues Stay Away From Me' and are tight R&B influenced rockers. (These are the original versions by Olenn, those subsequently issued on Liberty are re-recordings). I have also read that the first TNT single was originally issued on Glenco 7001 in 1955.
The group came to the attention of Major Riddle, who ran The Dunes Hotel in Las Vegas, and he signed them for a two-week stint at the venue in 1956. This was extended to six months. The talent casters for the film 'The Girl Can't Help It' signed them for guest appearances in this 20th Century-Fox movie (when is somebody going to get around to issue this on DVD?). By this time, Jay Orlando had replaced Cullen Offer on sax and it is he that one sees honking away on celluloid. This appearance in turn lead to a recording contract with Liberty Records and the issue of the single 'My Idea Of Love/Candy Kisses' (#55053) along with the hideously rare album titled 'Just Rollin' With Johnny Olenn' (#3029). The last mentioned single was also released in the UK on London HLU 8388 and the album was re-released on (UK) Ace LP in 1982.
A European tour was set up in 1957, Johnny was included but he subsequently elected to take up a residency at The Hacienda Hotel, Bakersfield, California instead. His replacement on the European jaunt was another great rocker, Benny Joy. Olenn had also signed with Buck Ram and had three singles issued on Ram's Antler label that year. (#4009 'My Sweetie Pie/Smile', #4012 'My Sweetie Pie/Come Prima (For the First Time)' and #4018 'The Magic Touch/Football Freddy').
On a recurring theme, the stay at the Hacienda again lasted 26 weeks and from here it was on to Harvey's Wagon Wheel at Lake Tahoe for a four-week stint. Enter Doc Bailey, who was chairman of Hacienda Hotels Inc., into the picture and he signed up the band for appearances that lasted for 15 years. Olenn spent this time at engagements in Las Vegas and Fresno.
But tracking back to1959, he had another two single releases on Antler. The first was a re-issue of 'My Sweetie Pie but this time coupled with 'For The First Time (Come Prima)'. The second is much more interesting as it also marked his second film appearance. Olenn was featured singing the title track to the movie 'Born Reckless' which starred Mamie Van Doren (oh dear, a quick retreat to my darkened room at the thought of that). This side (which had 'You, Loveable You' as the flip on Antler #1105) is probably Olenn's best rocker, a corker of a disc that also came out on Mercury #1050 in the UK. This disc lead to an appearance on Dick Clark's 'American Bandstand as well as numerous TV shows in California. There was also another single for 1959, 'Teenie' c/w 'Devil Darling' on Personality #1002, another label in the Buck Ram empire. The next year saw the release of 'Gotta Keep Movin'/You've Got The Magic Touch on Dee Gee #2000 (which also appeared in 1960 on Entrée #2003.
Recording wise, that was it until 1976 when Johnny issued the single 'Miss Yesterday/Living Together' on both ECR #1-7-81 and Marquee #376. But he kept on gigging and was found performing at The Dunes Hotel, Las Vegas in 1983 by the aforementioned Mac Bouvrie. Mac persuaded Johnny to make a European appearance that took place at the northern French town of Aulnoye/Aymeries on 13th October 1984. Later that month, Johnny cut the sides 'Hey You, Let's Dance' and 'I Feel Alright' which were released as Mac #124 in 1985. In March the following year, he made a return trip to Europe with performances in England, France and Holland. He cut a further two recordings, 'The Rock And Roll Therapy' and 'I Feel All Right, which were released in 1987 as Mac #128. Olenn returned for shows in Holland in 1987 and three tracks were releases on a Hydra label LP that year.
In October 1987, Johnny and his regular band recorded an album in Las Vegas that was released under the title 'Johnny Olenn Keeps On Rollin' on Mac #014 in 1988. Prior to the aforementioned Hemsby performance this year, Olenn's last European visit was to perform at a show in Slagharen, Holland in 1989. He gradually cut back on performing and became involved in a financial investment company. Today, he is retired but does make the personal appearances when called upon.. He has recently has both hips replaced and this has limited his mobility on stage. Indeed at Hemsby, he sat on a stool and sang but the beat was obviously getting to him as he still moved around as much as possible. The voice is still totally in tact.
The following releases on Mac Records are still in catalogue and are easily available.
Mac 124: Hey You, Let's Dance/I Feel Alright
Mac 128: The Rock And Roll Therapy/She Came Running Back To Me
Mac LP 014: 'Johnny Olenn Keeps On Rollin'
In addition, the reissue of the album 'Just Rollin' With Johnny Olenn' on (UK) Ace LP 48 still crops up fairly regularly at record fairs.
Johnny Olenn has five tracks on the (UK) Ace various artists CD 'Rock All Night' (#CDCHD 763) from 2000. These sides are from his days with Antler, and include an alternate take of 'Born Reckless' along with the previously unreleased versions of 'Shake, Rattle And Roll' and 'Tutti Frutti'. The 'Just Rollin' With Johnny Olenn' album was reissued on CD in Japan on South Bay 3029 in 1995.
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