Born 23 August 1932, Woodbury, Tennessee
It’s a small miracle that Jack Earls has become a rockabilly legend. He had only one single released during the 1950s and the musicianship on his early recordings is limited, even by Sun’s modest standards. But Earls’ voice made up in intensity what it lacked in range. His raw enthusiasm is contagious.
The youngest of four children, Earls was born in 1932 in the rural town of Woodbury, middle Tennessee. His family moved to Nashville and later to a farm near Manchester, also in Tennessee. Young Jack grew up listening to country music and appears to have formed his first hillbilly band soon after he moved to Memphis in 1949, where he found a job driving a delivery truck for a bakery. His neighbours included Elvis Presley, the Burnette brothers (Johnny and Dorsey) and Johnny and Bill Black. In 1950 Earls got married and always put his family before his career. It was probably Earls’ lack of dedication to touring and promoting his record that dissuaded Sam Phillips from going ahead with a second release.
In the summer of 1955 Jack Earls recorded a demo at Sun with a group that included “four or five guitars” (interview on the Bear Family 2-CD). Sam Phillips was struck with the agonized intensity of Earls’ vocals and asked him to come back when he had found a better backing group. Together with Bill Black’s brother, Johnny Black (who switched from guitar to upright bass), Jack put together a new band that comprised Warren Gregory on guitar and Danny Wahlquist on drums. It was this quartet that returned to the Sun studio on October 15, 1955 to record four tracks, all written by Earls himself. Two of the songs, “Hey! Jim” and the countrified “A Fool For Lovin’ You” were scheduled for release on a Sun single in March 1956. However, when Earls sang a new song for Phillips called “Slow Down”, Sam got all excited and decided to drop “Hey! Jim”, in spite of the fact that he had already renamed Earls’ band the Jimbos. “Slow Down” / “A Fool For Lovin’ You” was issued on Sun 240 on May 1, 1956, simultaneously with “I Walk the Line” by Johnny Cash, ”Ooby Dooby” by Roy Orbison and “Boppin’ the Blues” by Carl Perkins. Considering Sun’s limited promotion budget and Earls’ unwillingness to leave his job at the bakery (although he took part in one short tour), it was no wonder that “Slow Down” failed to chart. Nevertheless, the disc seems to have sold a respectable 40,000 to 50,000 copies, earning Jack some $2,500 in royalties.
Ever since the rockabilly revival of the 1970s, “Slow Down” has been celebrated as a classic. It was first reissued in 1973 on the British Sun LP “Sun Rockabillys : Put Your Cat Clothes On”, which was followed the next year by “Sun Rockabillys, Vol. 3”, with three unissued Sun tracks by Jack Earls, “Let’s Bop”, “Sign On the Dotted Line” and “Hey Slim!” (which was actually an alternate take of “Hey! Jim”).
Though Earls did at least four sessions for Sam Phillips between October 1955 and January 1957, Sun 240 would remain his only release on the label. From 1974 onward, all his Sun recordings have gradually become available. After leaving Sun, Earls was approached by King and Meteor, but he was content playing weekends at the Palms Club in Memphis and did not record again until 1973 (one single for the Ry-Ho label in Romulus, Michigan). In 1966 he relocated from Memphis to Detroit, where he is still living today. Two singles on Don Rader’s Olympic label were issued in 1975-76, in the same raw rockabilly style as his 50s recordings. By then, the news about the European rockabilly revival and the reissue of his Sun recordings began to reach Earls, but he declined all invitations to tour overseas and hung on to his day job at Chrysler until his retirement there in 1996.
That year he accepted an invitation to headline the Hemsby Rock and Roll Weekender in England. Like many other American rockabilly acts before him, he was overwhelmed by the reception he received. “They treated me like I was the second coming of Elvis”. Earls would return to Hemsby four times ; only one other artist performed five times at Hemsby, namely Art Adams. Jack also performed in Sweden (where he recorded a live album in 2000), the Rockabilly Rebel weekender in Indianapolis and at Viva Las Vegas. In 2010 he retired from performing, due to ill health. Since then Earls has undergone extensive treatment for colon cancer, including chemotherapy, but at this time of writing his situation seems to be stable.
Since the release of his Sun recordings in the 1970s and 1980s, the music of Jack Earls has become an influence on rockabilly groups throughout the world.
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Acknowledgements : Craig Maki, Colin Escott, John Klompenhouwer.
Dik, March 2017
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