Born Enos William McDonald, 1 October 1915, Greenway, Arkansas
Skeets McDonald is not forgotten, mainly thanks to the extensive reissue activities of Bear Family, but he is certainly underrated. His music helped serve to bridge the gap between country and rock 'n' roll in the 1950s. Enos McDonald was born in the extreme Northeast of Arkansas, into a cottonpicking family of three brothers and three sisters. He grew up on his father's farm in Rector, Arkansas, and got his nickname Skeets after he was attacked by a swarm of mosquitoes. "I go home! Skeets bite!" A well-worn family story recounts Skeets at age twelve getting his first guitar : "He traded a red hound dog for a guitar and six dollars", recalls his brother Lynn. In the evening he would sit for hours, picking guitar and singing. Making music certainly beat picking cotton and being bitten by mosquitoes.
In 1933 Skeets moved to Detroit to work in the automobile factories. It was there that he joined a country band called The Lonesome Cowboys. By 1936 he had his own band and was able to make music full-time. Thus began a career that was to last until his death in 1968, interrupted by active service in World War II from 1943-1945. Skeets made his first recordings for Fortune Records in Detroit in 1950, with Johnnie White and the Rhythm Riders. These were modestly successful and he decided to make a serious run at the record business. But after sessions for London and Mercury, he felt that he would never get out of the minor league if he stayed in Michigan. Encouraged by his second wife, Jo, he moved to Los Angeles in 1951, where his break came almost instantaneously. With the help of Cliffie Stone, he was signed to Capitol Records, where Ken Nelson saw him as a possible answer to Lefty Frizzell, who recorded (with great success) for Capitol's arch-rival, Columbia. His first session, on April 5, 1951, yielded the single "Scoot, Git And Be Gone" (Capitol 1518), one of Skeets's many own. compositions. Backing musicians included Speedy West, Billy Strange and Cliffie Stone. All his Capitol sessions would be done with top Hollywood studio musicians. Cliffie Stone also signed Skeets to appear on his television show Hometown Jamboree on KXLA-Pasadena.
McDonald's stay with Capitol lasted until the end of 1958 and produced some 85 recordings. Only one of them actually got onto the Billboard charts, but several others sold well or were influential. That sole hit was "Don't Let the Stars Get In Your Eyes", written by Slim Willett, whose original version topped the Billboard country charts for one week, but on December 27, 1952, it was replaced by McDonald's version (Capitol 2216), which stayed at # 1 for three weeks. By then Skeets had developed his own unique style, which was defined by up-tempo songs set off with a barrelhouse piano, a cajun-style fiddle and a strong electric guitar doing lead-ins.
In May 1956, at the age of 40, Skeets was persuaded to try his hand at the new rock 'n' roll sound that was sweeping the nation. This was not an unnatural move, as he had been experimenting with many of the elements of rock 'n' roll for several years. With 17-year old Eddie Cochran on lead guitar, this resulted in the single "You Oughta See Grandma Rock"/"Heart Breakin' Mama", both sides written by Harlan Howard. Now considered a rockabilly masterpiece, at that time the single was a commercial failure and seen by many as tarnishing the reputation of an otherwise respectable country singer. Several other country artists (for instance George Jones, Buck Owens, Webb Pierce) recorded rock 'n' roll singles in 1956, but the fact that most of them did so under a pseudonym indicated that these singers feared being alienated from their traditional fanbase by dabbling in rockabilly. There were no further excursions into this genre for Skeets, but he recorded some of his best work between 1956 and 1958. In 1958 he recorded his first LP,"Goin' Steady With the Blues" (Capitol T 1040), which has been called a tour de force and not unjustly so. Standout track was "Gone And Left Me Blues", one of my all-time favourites. The lasting importance of the album is reflected in the fact that in a few weeks time it will be reissued for the third time (by Righteous Records), after previous vinyl rereleases on Music For Pleasure (England, 1965) and Stetson (Germany, circa 1984). By this time, Skeets had switched from "Hometown Jamboree" to its rival TV show, "Town Hall Party", where he would stay until the show's demise in early 1961.
In spite of the quality of his recordings, Capitol did not resign him when his contract expired at the end of 1958, as he had not had a chart hit since "Don't Let the Stars Get In Your Eyes". His connections with Town Hall Party soon won him a new contract with Columbia Records. Starting with the excellent "Cheek To Cheek With the Blues", Skeets recorded regularly for the label from 1959 until 1966, the year that his producer Don Law retired. For the first time he recorded in Nashville, backed by the city's A-Team. His Columbia records sold better than those on Capitol, with nine entries in the country charts between 1960 and 1967. The biggest hit was "Call Me Mr. Brown", which went to # 9 in 1963. He resisted efforts to modernize his sound and one 1960s reviewer wrote "He belongs to another age. Listening to him sing is like playing a record you liked twenty years ago." This didn't seem to bother Skeets and he was still doing his classic songs in a straightforward way when he died from a massive heart attack on March 31, 1968.
Acknowledgements : - Charles Wolfe, Sleeve notes for the Bear Family LP's BFX 15191 and 15195
CD's : Bear Family has released the complete recordings of Skeets McDonald on a 5-CD box-set called "Don't Let the Stars Get In Your Eyes" (BCD 15937). If that's a bit too much for you, the excellent 2008 CD will suffice.
For session info and discography, see Frank Frantik's website http://countrydiscography.blogspot.com/2009/07/skeets-mcdonald.html
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