Born Don Franklin Willis, 30 September 1933, Munford, Tipton County, Tennessee Died 1 March 2006, Memphis, Tennessee
Don Willis was born of farming stock in 1933 and spent his formative years attending Munford High School. As a youngster his favourite singers were Ernest Tubb, Eddy Arnold, Perry Como and Bing Crosby. By the mid-fifties Don had learned to play guitar and began to take an active interest in playing music professionally. He entered a talent contest in Covington, TN, where he met another contestant, guitarist Shelby Byrd. They agreed to join musical forces and after having added Vaughn Allen Kent as the third member, Don found himself with a band, which he called The Orbits. Their intial interest in country music switched to the emerging rock 'n' roll that was sweeping the country in 1956. The Sun studio beckoned and Don persuaded Sam Phillips to give the band an audition. Reportedly, only one song was recorded ("Deep In My Heart I Have A Place For You"), which has failed to turn up in the Sun vaults up until now. Working for the Kimberly-Clark Company by day and as a musician at weekends, Don wrote "Boppin' High School Baby" and "Warrior Sam" in 1957. He went to record demos of the songs in Nashville, where he met Jay Rainwater (Brenda Lee's stepfather), who was impressed enough to offer the band a Mercury recording contract.
In the meantime, a colleague of Don's at Kimberly-Clark had become friends with Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton in Memphis, who were about to start a new record label, Satellite Records. Jim and Estelle heard Don's songs and said they wanted to record them. Don turned his back on the Mercury deal and went to the little studio on Orchard Street in Jackson, TN, to record his two compositions. "Boppin' High School Baby"/"Warrior Sam" was released on Satellite 101 in early 1958. Contrary to what has been written elsewhere, this was not the first, but the second release on Satellite, see http://www.soulfulkindamusic.net/satellite.htm
The little label had no proper distribution at the time and the record never went beyond the initial pressing of a few hundred copies. No wonder it made little impact in 1958. In later years, however, when rediscovered by European collectors, the echo-laden "Boppin' High School Baby" became one of the leading records of the rockabilly boom, first as a repro and then as a legal reissue on Record Mart. Regarded as one of the greatest ever rockabilly releases, it has since appeared on numerous compilations. "Warrior Sam" is quite something, too.
There was no follow-up release until 1964, when Don recorded the slightly more restrained rocker "Mar's Dame" for the Style label in Memphis, coupled with "A Glass Of Wine". Again, it failed to sell. Satellite Records, in the meantime, had developed into Stax Records, becoming one of the most influential labels of the next decade. Don held on to his day job, now at Cook's Pest Control, but also found time to front The Memphis Kings, a showgroup who played all over the mid-South for 35 years. The group released one single on Top Gun ("Give Me All Your Love"/"Our Love Don't Travel On the Same Road") and also cut an album to sell on their gigs.
In 1991 Cees Klop released an entire LP (15 tracks) of Don Willis tracks. The eight unisssued songs (plus alternate takes of "Boppin' High School Baby", "Warrior Sam" and "Mar's Dame") were discovered in Don's collection on an acetate. Plans for Don Willis to make his European debut at Hemsby a few years ago were thwarted when he had to cancel due to health. He died of cancer at the age of 72.
LP : Don Willis, Boppin' High School Baby (White Label WLP 8965). "Boppin' High School" and "Warrior Sam" are the only rockabilly tracks ; the rest is rock 'n' roll with sax and piano well to the fore. Recommended.
Acknowledgements: Liner notes for White Label LP 8965 (by Dave Travis). NDT obituary (Now Dig This, issue 277, April 2006, page 2).
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