WHITEY "DWIGHT" PULLEN (By Klaus Kettner with Tony Wilkinson)
Born Dwight A. Pullen, 5 March 1931, Blountsville, Alabama
Died 24 November 1961, Los Angeles, California
Popular with teenagers in the fifties were songs about clothing they wore or fashion accessories. Indeed many became hits such as 'Blue Suede Shoes', 'Penny Loafers & Bobby Socks', 'Black Slacks', 'Sack Dress, 'White Bucks And Saddle Shoes', 'Pink Shoelaces', 'Leather Jacket' and 'Black Denim Trousers'. Another similar title was 'Sunglasses After Dark' which sadly failed to ignite the charts but is revered today, long after many of the aforementioned hits mean nothing but fond memories. Indeed, 'Sunglasses' has passed into that select group of discs that are now rightly regarded as rock 'n' roll classics. It is sad that the singer on this disc, 'Whitey' Dwight Pullen, passed away at a young age and thus was unable to observe that he had made a record that stood the test of time. Undoubtedly he would have had the call to appear at the European rockin' festivals.
Dwight Pullen was born in the poor neighbourhood of Blountsville, Alabama on March 5, 1931 and started playing guitar and singing whilst still in school. Country music was close by as Red Foley broadcast his famous 'Ozark Jubilee' from Springfield, Missouri and the Pullen family were regular listeners. Dwight had four brothers and four sisters, all of whom were into making music but, as his cousin Reuben L. Pullen recalls, Dwight was the one who took it real seriously. Two sisters, Polly and Zera, were a popular country duo in the thirties and forties who performed under the name of Polly & Dolly and occasionally co-starred alongside Eddy Arnold. From Blountsville, the family moved to Birmingham, Alabama as Dwight´s father was in the steel construction business and work was available there. When Dwight was 10 years old, his family moved to California for work reasons but older sister Sarah stayed behind in Alabama. They based themselves in Pittsburg, CA. and another sister, Betty, still resides there. Around two years later, the Pullens temporarily relocated to Florida where Dwight worked as a delivery boy and helped out in a restaurant after school. However they all soon returned to California. Back in the Promised Land, and whilst in high school, Dwight formed his first band along with Cotton Brown, Larry Murphy and Jimmy Webb. The last mentioned, until recently, ran a record shop. They had their own radio show in the Pittsburg CA. area. His sister Betty recalled that Dwight was very ambitious and was always coming up with ideas as to how to make some dollars. His cousin Jim Nobles recalls that he was a strong businessman and a go getter: 'He could charm birds out of a tree'. He was always generous to his family and other loved ones.
The Pullen family had moved back to Alabama in 1951 and it was in the early fifties that Dwight was drafted into the navy and ended up based in Anchorage, Alaska. Whilst performing in the local clubs, he met Margaret, a young girl from nearby Palmer whom he married. In 1956, Dwight and his wife were appointed as the managers for the Red Barn club in Anchorage, Alaska and in addition he also became the manager of the resident band. Margaret's father had a car dealership in town and Dwight also took up a day job there before setting up his own franchised car dealership. At this time, he was about the only booking agent in Alaska and so he soon became involved in booking acts into various entertainment spots in the Anchorage area as well as his 'own' club. Many big country stars of the day made their first trip to Alaska on the strength of a booking from Whitey. Pullens also had a local popular television show. It was no wonder then that whitey formed lasting friendships with the likes of Ray Price, Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. Indeed the last mentioned used to stay at Dwight's house when in Anchorage. His nephew James Noble helped him during 1955 and 1956 playing bass whilst brother Brack Pullen, who stayed with Dwight in Alaska, was an occasional band member for a few years playing rhythm guitar, handling some of the vocal work and acting as a roadie. Brack, who is now 80 years old, remembers that they went on several tours with Ray Price and one with Johnny Cash and The Collins Kids.
Dwight appreciated the fact that if he was to make the big time as a singer, then he should not stay in Anchorage all the time. Accordingly, in 1955, he and nephew James visited Connecticut and the next year Dwight tried his luck in Nashville, Tennessee. He fully appreciated that he would make better money by issuing a record to promote himself. After auditioning for some bigger labels and getting turned down, he got lucky and secured a recording deal with the new Delta Record Company. There have been at least five companies by that name but this particular one was run by F.L. "Red" Wortham out of Nashville in the years 1956 through 1959. Despite this relatively long period for a small independent label, it only had handful of releases. Dwight's first single was 'I'm Beggin´ Your Pardon' c/w 'Broke Waiting For A Break' and was cut in late 1956 and issued in December of that year. Both sides were composed by Pullen and was issued, as were most of his subsequent releases, under the name of Whitey Pullen. He got the nickname 'Whitey' from some musical friends because of his light blond hair. The record was commercially stillborn and, at this time, the only regular band member he used was Bob Saxton from Laurel, Mississippi who played the lead guitar.
In late 1957 James Noble, who was born on 12th December 1936, was walking down Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles at night when he spotted a black guy driving his Cadillac convertible wearing sunglasses. Jim thought 'Wow, sunglasses after dark, that's cool' with the result that he had the opening line for a new song. With the influence from his musical family, he already considered taking up a musical career and so offered the completed song to several record companies. Noble finally got an interest from Joe Carlton who wanted to record the song for his own Carlton Label. However for unknown reasons, it was Dwight and not Jim who was called upon by Joe Carlton to record the song. There have been rumours that this was a split session along with Kenneth (Kenny ) Rogers, the subsequent country superstar, who was supposed to be backed by Dwight. James remembers the session and states there were only studio musicians used for the two songs and no other artists. As Dwight already built himself a name in Country music as Whitey Pullen, he used his birth name of Dwight Pullen for this classic rock 'n' roll release. Both he and Joe Carlton thought that Dwight had a better commercial ring to it for the teenage record buying public. With the ultra cool 'Sunglasses After Dark' and 'Teen Age Bug', Pullens succeeded in laying down two of the all time greats of rock 'n' roll recordings, tunes which have now been re-issued around the world on numerous occasions on various releases. The record received a good review in Billboard magazine on 3rd March 1958. Despite all this, the disc failed to become a hit record.
From this one shot deal with Carlton, Dwight went to Sage & Sand Records and Publishing and signed a several years long contract with co owner Pat Nelson. The Los Angeles based company kept their name for their publishing department but, from 1957 onwards, only used the name of Sage for record releases. The first release by Dwight on his new label was in October 1958 with 'Walk My Way Back Home/Don´t Make Me Cry', two self composed songs. His next release, 'By You By The Bayou/It's Over With" quickly followed in December 1958 and secured a nice review in the Billboard pop section on 5th January 1959.
This was gathering reasonable local success when in January 1959, Sage issued his next record 'You'll Get Yours Someday/I Lived A Lifetime Last Night'. To this day, the logic behind these three releases in a matter of four months remains unclear. Certainly, there was insufficient time to promote each release properly. It is also interesting to note that a person by the name of Friedman co-wrote with Dwight the majority of the titles recorded by Pullens for the company.
Unfortunately the cupboard is bare as to who were the studio musicians used on Dwight's Sage sessions. It is quite conceivable that it was the regular bunch of guys used for other recordings on the label and therefore would have included guitar genius Roy Lanham. Lanham was born in Corbin, Kentucky on 16th January 1923 and passed away from cancer in California on 14th February 1991' Roy had cuts sides with The Delmore Brothers and, later, some fine rockabilly. It has also been suggested that James Burton, who worked with Bob Luman, Ricky Nelson and Elvis Presley amongst many, also played lead guitar on some of the sessions.
In May 1959, Dwight's pure rockabilly magic of 'Let's All Go Wild" was released. It was around this time that rockabilly music was having a significant impact on Dwight as during the summer, he also became the road manager for Gene Vincent. Pullen was working for agent Pat Mason in Seaside, Oregon who had become Gene Vincent's manager. In August 1959, Gene recorded two of Pullen's songs for his "Crazy Times" album (Capitol T 1342). These were 'Everybody's Got A Date But Me' and 'She She Little Sheila', the latter being listed as a co-write with Blue Cap Jerry Lee Merritt. 'Sheila' saw several cover versions around the world such as those from The Spotnicks (Sweden), Flash Cadillac (USA), Idoles 60 (France) and Les Chaussettes Noires (France) who also recorded the aforementioned 'Everybody's Got A Date But Me'. Jerry Merritt also recorded a version of 'Sheila' in 1959.
Jerry Merrit recalls the story of 'Sheila' as follows: 'I gave half of the songwriters credits of "She She Little Sheila" to one of our managers, Whitey Pullen. He and Pat Mason booked Gene and I on the 1959 tour of Japan. Gene got madder than a hornet at me for giving half of the song away, but I was young and foolish. Whitey was a rockabilly singer on Carlton Records and I felt he was a rhythm singer like me. I still don´t regret giving the song away. His widow got the money from the royalties after his early death, so I still feel I did the right thing'.
This may or may not be true as Whitey was a songwriter in his own right. It is quite possible that he added some ideas to the tune. Whatever, it is a very tasty composition. The aforementioned Japanese tour was the one where Gene Vincent got homesick for his wife Darlene and left leaving Jerry Lee Merritt had to finish it under Gene´s name. Pat Mason remembered: 'Gene Vincent was a good attraction and entertainer, but I had problems controlling him. When he got back from Japan I decided, I was gonna have to give up with this. I moved Gene and Darlene back to Hollywood'. After this ill-fated tour, Vincent and Merritt went on to record a new album for Capitol. Jerry Lee Merritt has been quoted that he used Whitey Pullen's Fender Stratocaster Guitar on that session. Whilst Pullen is not listed on the files for this batch of sessions, rumour has it that Dwight played rhythm guitar on some songs. This does make sense he was at the session acting as manager, songwriter and guitar rental.
James Noble, who wrote 'Why Don't You People Learn How To Drive' for the same Gene Vincent album was Dwight's nephew who had previously written his signature song 'Sunglasses After Dark'. James's mother was Pauline 'Polly' Pullens, an older sister of Dwight. Whitey and James were opening the shows for Gene Vincent singing such as 'Blue Suede Shoes' and 'Johnny B. Good' during three tours in 1959 that made their way through the North West and Mid West USA.. After the intermission they came back on stage as backing band for Gene Vincent. James remembers 'I played bass for Gene , while Whitey played guitar as part of his backing band. That didn't make us real Blue Caps but we had a good time anyway'. The last gig that they played with Gene was the day before he left for the first English tour - the one involving the horrific road accident that left Gene seriously injured and Eddie Cochran dead. As a farewell present, Gene left James the Fender Bass which had been owned by him. Jim still uses the same instrument to this very day. When Gene Vincent and The Blue Caps toured or performed on television shows in the San Francisco Bay area, they occasionally stayed at the house of their road manager's sister, Betty Pullen who is two years younger than Dwight.
Manager Pat Mason mentioned that Pullen made the contacts for Gene´s European tour in 1959 by going to England, France and Germany playing army bases. Then they did Alaska and Japan, where they played for $2,000 per day. October 1959 saw the release of a slightly upbeat re-recording of his first recording "I´m Beggin´ Your Pardon".
In November 1959, Sage Records had released the last disc by Whitey Pullen during his brief but eventful life. This was the great rocker 'Tuscaloosa Lucy' c/w 'Waltz Of The Steel Guitar'. The "Tuscaloosanews" from Alabama had a story in April 2002 about songs based on their city and of course included Whitey Pullen with 'Tuscaloosa Lucy'.
Another of Pat Nelson's artists was Cincinnati rocker Rusty York who already had hit with 'Sugaree'. Nelson placed York with Starday Records where he recorded mainly instrumentals. However, during 1959 Rusty and Whitey got together and wrote the song "Margaret Ann". Rusty recorded the song in the autumn of 1959 for King Records at the Chess studio but it was not released and now it appears that the tapes have been lost. York then re-recorded the song with the help of Bill Lanham (bass),Jim Lundy (drums), John Bower (piano), and Jimmy Risch (sax) in 1960 as The Cajuns for Sage Records. It is unclear whether Whitey was involved in either of these two sessions.
After this, Whitey became less active and one significant reason has to be that prostate cancer was taking a toll on his health and he so returned with his wife and son to Alaska for a while. Fighting cancer he returned California for radiation treatment. This pushed the cancer into remission and so he moved on to Madford, Oregon where he had a television show. In late 1961 he went to Los Angeles, still planning for his future, when on 24th November 1961 he passed away at the young age of 31. - a sad loss. His remains were shipped to Blountsville, Alabama, for burial where his parents and older sister, who passed away in 1978, are also buried. Whitey has started to write his biography but it was not finished. His son, who lived in Washington, was killed in a hunting accident by a friend. He was only 21 years of age. Whitey's wife is still living in Alaska and has remarried. Several members of the Pullen family still reside in Alabama and California.
Crown Records from Los Angeles, California was searching for cheap material to release as budged records and so they leased ten songs of Whitey's recordings from Sage to put out on the album "Country Music Star" (332). Besides some released songs, it included the five then unreleased recordings 'Tight Slacks', 'What Are We Going To Do', 'So Much To Remember', 'Moonshine Liquor' and 'Waltz Of The Blues'. Crown also leased material for other albums by Doye O´Dell and Whitey Knight from Sage Records. (Incidentally, Whitey Knight does not have any connection with Whitey Pullen). . The Whitey Pullen album, which had a nice painting of Dwight on the cover sold in reasonable quantities and is today a collectors item amongst country and rockabilly fans.
The last Sage single by Whitey Pullen was 'Crazy In Love' c/w 'I Won The Day I Lost You' and was released in 1963 to cash in on the success of the Crown album.
Family member James Noble had become hooked on music and set about carving out his own career as a recording artist. In 1957 he got together with George Rod Wilson, who later went under the name George Weston. They played the local West Coast scene and came up with a song called "Didn't It Rock". James shopped the song around and received expressions o interest from both Imperial records and Challenge Records. The latter's A&R man was Joe Johnson and James had played the song to him over the telephone. Accordingly the duo went into a Los Angeles recording studio on 9th September 1958 and recorded 'Didn't It Rock' along with another composition penned by the duo 'My Baby's Got Dreamy Eyes' and this was released on Challenge 59034 under the name of Jim and Rod - The Noble Brothers in November 1958. The backing band on the session was another Challenge group who became known as The Champs of 'Tequila' fame. The duo performed some shows and appeared on local television, all backed by The Champs. Whilst regional airplay was obtained, the record was not a commercial success - perhaps because it was somewhat similar to the sound of the Everly Brothers. After that, James and Rod went their separate ways. Rod recorded several records for Challenge and their subsidiary label Jackpot before disappearing from view. James tried several other record companies in an effort to get a solo career going but this unfortunately did not get too far. James has played in several bands over the years and at one time worked in a group together with ex Blue Cap Johnny Meeks. He left his last band, 'Rennegade' in 1996 as his day job did not permit him enough time to take care of his musical needs. Nowadays James plays every once in while at the local church or for friends but he is still writing songs.
Going back to the recordings of Whitey Pullen, During the rockabilly revival in the late 70´s Dial Records issued the previously unreleased 'Drinkin' Wine (Spoo Dee O Dee)' during the rockabilly revival of the late seventies whilst the California based Rollin´ Rock label put out two singles by Pullen, namely 'Drinkin' Wine/Everybody's Rockin' (005) and 'Tuscaloosa Lucy/Tight Slacks' (017). Following on from this, various of his recordings have appeared on several mixed artists compilations, all of which have served to keep the name and talent of Dwight 'Whitey' Pullen justifiably in the spotlight.
(German) Hydra BCK 27127 - 'Sunglasses After Dark' (going to pressing factory as this is being written)
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