Born Thomas Norris Tolleson, 5 July 1936, Palacios, Texas
The discovery and rerelease of the recordings of singer / pianist Tommie Tolleson is entirely the work of Dutchman Cees Klop, who visited Tolleson in the mid-1990s and has released two CD's on his Collector label. Tommie Tolleson spent almost all of his life in Palacios, a small town (population 5,156 at the 2000 census) between Galveston and Corpus Christi on the Gulf of Mexico. The fifth of a family of six children, Tommie was handicapped from an early age, being virtually blind. He was able to distinguish between night and day, but that was about all. His musical talent was recognized by his parents and by the age of five he was knocking out tunes like "You Are My Sunshine" on an old piano that had been picked up from neighbours for the pricely sum of two dollars. He learned to play the piano entirely on his own. As the local primary school couldn't do much for him, Tolleson was sent to the Texas State School for the Blind in Austin, where he met up with other youngsters who shared his enthusiasm for music. In his teens, Tommie formed his first band, the Western Playboys. They only played together when he was home from school during holidays and vacations.
In 1958, at the age of 22, Tommie graduated from the Texas School for the Blind, and returned to Palacios. He had been taught to tune a piano and apart from playing music, piano tuning was the only other work that Tommie ever did. Around 1959 he recorded his first single, "Think Of Me"/ "Warm Springs Waltz", a Starday custom pressing. For $ 115, an artist could obtain 300 copies of a single with a further 100 being sent out to various radio stations by Starday. The records could be pressed on the Starday label or on the artist's own label. Tolleson chose to start his own label, Gulf Coast Records. Released on Gulf Coast 548, the record was credited to "Tommie Tolleson & The Western Playboys From Palacios, Texas". A second single, "A Girl Named Sue"/"To the Dance" appeared on the Houston-based Kool label (1005) in 1960, backed by a Mexican band. Unimpressed with Kool's promotion, Tommie decided to release all further recordings on his own Gulf Coast label. Ten more singles would be issued during the 1960s, which were mainly sold at local gigs. On September 11, 1961, the Gulf Coast was hit by Hurricane Carla, the most powerful tropical storm in Texas for over 40 years. Tolleson was evacuated against his will and transformed this experience into the song "Carla Blues".
Life with the Western Playboys continued through the 1960s, though how long the partnership lasted into the 1970s is unknown. At some point in the seventies Tommie became a one-man band, using a Casio keyboard to set rhythm patterns while he sang and played keyboard, harmonica and guitar. In the mid-1980s Tolleson was able to recover some of his sight after an operation in Arlington, Texas. But his health wasn't too good and in the late 1980s his relatives encouraged him to go for regular meals at the Senior Citizens Centre in Palacios. It must have been a stabilizing influence because he was soon putting on lunchtime rock n roll sessions for the inmates. But bad health eventually took over and Tommie was found dead in his apartment in April 1997.
After his death, his younger sister Bobbie discovered several music tapes, which were released on a second Collector CD in 2006. Unlike the first CD, which contained mostly Gulf Coast recordings, this collection did have liner notes, with extensive details of Tolleson's life. Strangely, Klop mentions the year 1997 as the release year of the first Tolleson CD and says that Tommie died a few days before that album was released. It seems that Klop is the victim of his own policy to never mention the release year on the cover of his albums. In reality, the first CD came out in 1992 and was reviewed in Now Dig This 118 (January 1993).
The review, by Chris Woodford, was very positive, as was his review of the second CD (NDT 287, February 2007). A bit exaggerated in my opinion. Tolleson was a fine pianist, with a honky tonk style that you could call a cross between Moon Mullican and Jerry Lee Lewis. But he was no great vocalist and many tracks on the two CD's are lo-fi recordings that were never intended for commercial release. Still, if you haven't heard Tolleson and when you like piano rock n roll, his music may be worth checking out. Besides R&R, there's a lot of country / hillbilly as well. And quite a few instrumentals.
CD's : Rockin' the Boogie (Collector CLCD 4407). 24 tracks.
Acknowledgements : Liner notes (anonymous, but undoubtedly written by Cees Klop) for Collector 4498. Chris Woodford's article in Now Dig This 289 ("The Boogie Man : The Story Of Tommie Tolleson") is basically a rewrite (in better English) of these notes.
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