Country Music’s Quiet Musician
Soon-to-be-Inducted into the Colorado Country Music Hall of Fame
The truly rewarding part of creating and maintaining this Blog site is on those occasions when I make contact with the musicians, their acquaintances and family members.
Many of the musicians have long since passed on from the earlier days, but thankfully many still are going strong – if not by making music – then by enjoying life. In September of 2015 I received a message from relatives of country guitarist Gene Harrell, his daughter Teresa and her husband Bud. We exchanged a few emails whereby I learned that Gene was indeed very much with us and living in Englewood, Colorado.
I knew of Gene only by a couple of 45 recordings – one on the Cowtown label out of Fort Worth, Texas and the other on Jim Ward’s Colorado label, CLW out of Edgewater – a very small community located in the West Denver area adjacent to Sloan’s Lake.
One would imagine – not knowing Gene at all – that he must have been just a passing footnote in the history of Colorado musicians and that perhaps his CLW release was no more than a vanity pressing. There is much more to the Gene Harrell story than meets the eye. Gene is a rather humble man not given to bravado. By his own admission he never really sought out the spotlight, opting instead for a enriched life that comes with sharing his music with other artists and with anyone who might enter a honky-tonk, a small bar, or any venue where one or more are gathered.
Gene in October of 2015 is now 87 years old and is enjoying life with his beautiful wife of nearly 60 years – Florence “La Dell” and their precious little dog Cocoa.
Gene (“Billy Gene”) Harrell was born in the late 1920’s in the northeast Texas town of Dangerfield located about equidistant between the towns of Texarkana, Texas and Shreveport, Louisiana. Gene took to the guitar early on and developed into a first rate guitarist.
Gene’s musical journey would put him in contact with many country musicians of little note and many accomplished artists who made names for themselves. In the early 1950’s – around 1951 according to Gene, he would meet a young country vocalist and local sports announcer at a honky-tonk called the Rio Palm Isle in Longview, Texas.
That musician was the yet undiscovered Jim Reeves. Gene would join a group of backing musicians to support Reeves at the Isle. Gene recalled, “Back in those days a lot of night clubs and bars would hire musicians one at a time as opposed to hiring an entire group.” Gene explained that this practice help avoid the problems of replacing an entire band when the band would quit. So when backing Jim Reeves at the club the band worked without a stage name.
Gene remembers that Reeves sang at that time in a very high pitched voice, not at all like the smooth and rich baritone which would lift him to fame. Gene remembers that it was RCA Victor’s Chet Atkins who suggested the vocal shift once Reeves signed on with RCA Victor. Atkins was an extraordinary guitarist and would become a top producer for RCA. Interestingly, around 1947, Atkins was “discovered” by RCA’s country A&R director Steve Scholes. Atkins was working in Denver, Colorado with a country group. Scholes made the trip to Denver where he successfully signed Chet to the label.
“I was making about 50 dollars a week backing Reeves which was okay back then.” But after a time Gene received an offer from another honky-tonk, The Kilgore Club which was located just south of Longview off of today’s Interstate 20. The Kilgore offered Gene 65 dollars a week. “Fifteen more dollars was a lot for me, “Gene related, and so he accepted the offer.
“After I gave my notice to the Palm Isle I was packing up my musical gear”, Gene related. He continued “I was actually out in the parking lot placing my guitar into my car when Jim came up behind me.” Reeves was surprised that Gene was departing telling Gene that he would like him to stay on. “He told me that he would be going to Nashville soon to cut some tracks and asked if I could come along to back him.” Gene thanked Reeves and politely declined electing to honor his commitment to the Kilgore Club.
“Who knows where I might have ended up if I had followed Jim up to Nashville,” Gene reflected. “I have no regrets, because if I had followed him I probably would not have met my wife Florence.” Enough said.
Reeves would of course go on to lasting fame, first recording in 1953 on the Abbot label putting out a series of singles with his 2nd effort “Mexican Joe” landing on the number 1 spot country. He followed this with “Bimbo” which once again went to number 1 in early 1954.
Reeves would sign on with RCA Victor in 1956 where he would remain until his untimely death in an airplane crash in 1964 at the age of 40.
Gene did indeed venture onto Kilgore, Texas to play in The Kilgore Club for a time. Next, Gene would make a detour in 1953 playing with The Circle J Ranch Boys on KCMC TV in Texarkana, Texas. Gene played guitar in this group which initially included Hank Grant (guitar), Monroe Grant (fiddle), Leland Ivey (bass), Jim Evans (steel guitar) and Gene Harrell (lead guitar).
KCMC, which aired on channel 6, urged a name change to reflect their station and the group became The Circle-6 Ranch Boys. Before long the band came to the attention of Shreveport’s Louisiana Hayride. The program requested an audition tape for consideration.
Meanwhile the band was gaining every more popularity with KCMS’s audience being voted the number one program. The Hayride had an opening on their program and summoned the Circle Ranch Boys. So in 1954 they would join the KWKH Louisiana Hayride cast of regulars where they would remain for 6 months. After six months the band members all voted to depart the Hayride, opting for limiting their travels to a more confined area around their east Texas base.
Gene related a very special experience while at the Hayride. The group shared a dressing room with a young up and comer – Elvis Presley. “Elvis was a very quiet and polite young man,” Gene remembers. “He felt at home sharing our dressing room, where all the band members made him feel welcome and comfortable.”
Texarkana & The Kirby Sisters
A little later on in the mid 1950’s Gene would find his way to Texarkana where he would meet two young country musicians, Bette and Mary Kirby. Harrell would join future jazz artist of note, Clarence “Tonk” Edwards, sax player Del Puschert, steel player Ivan Greathouse and drummer Bill Fairbanks. Clarence was nicknamed “Tonk” by Bette Kirby after hearing play Bill Doggett’s “Honky Tonk”. He would later be inducted into the Arkansas Jazz Hall of Fame. During his career he worked with Gerry Mulligan, Billy Butterfield, Dizzy Gillespie and Sarah Vaughan just to name a few.
The Kirbys and band were working at a night club called “Chaylor’s Starlight Club”. The band cut a few demonstration tracks while performing live at the club. Gene recalls, “The tracks were a little rough but we sent them up to Memphis to Sam Phillips.” Phillips headed up the legendary Sun Records label and studio that spawned so many historic musicians. Sam like what he heard and he soon came to Texarkana to check out the Kirbys.
This resulted in an invitation to come to Memphis and take a shot at Sun. Gene remembers Phillips as being “a very nice gentleman”. He relates, “Sam took us all out to lunch and then it was into the famous studio!”
Things started off well with the Kirbys and company cutting the first of five tracks on the session schedule. These included “The Blond in Red Velvet” a song penned by the Starlight Club owner’s daughter, Johnnie Chaylor. The other tracks were “I Got the Craziest Feeling” and a Gene Harrell composition “You’ll Always Belong To Me”, “So Tired” and finally “Hello Stranger”.
The first four of these are listed today in the Sun catalog. The fifth, “Hello Stranger” did not make it to tape. The session was well under way when it was interrupted by a phone call from Johnnie Chaylor. She did not care for the two Kirby sisters and so – according to accounts in the book “Memphis Belles – The Women of Sun Records” by Hank Davis, threatened Phillips with every verbal means to stop the sessions. Both “Tonk” Edwards and Gene recall the phone call and they knew something was amiss.
Phillips, apparently wishing to avoid problems, pulled the plug on the session. The Kirbys and company went back home. The tracks remained dormant in the Sun Vault until more recently when “Red Velvet” began to emerge as a rock-a-billy favorite appearing on global CD releases.
Gene would go on to meet his wife Florence at the Starlight Club. She was a big fan of the music. “She didn’t seem very interested in me at first,” Gene remembered. But before long the two would connect and now they are approaching 60 years of married bliss.
In 1957 Gene would manage to cut his first two tracks that found their way onto vinyl, “I Won’t Be Back No More” and a song called “Mumbles”. They were released on the Fort Worth, Texas label “Cowtown” in January of that year.
Moving On to Colorado
Around 1959, Gene and Florence eventually journeyed north first landing in Cortez, New Mexico – a town located in the “Four Corners” region of the United States surrounded by Native American reservations. Gene worked as part of a duo in the “Four Corners Club”. Things went smoothly for a time, until one night the club owner approached Gene and his partner. “He came up to me and told me he didn’t like me fraternizing with the Native Americans at the club” Gene relates.
“I told him that I had no problem with the Indian people so I just sort ignored him and continued to converse in a friendly manner with them.” That was it for Gene. He was shown the door that very night and so his Cortez days came to a quick end.
Next it was off to Moab, Utah, where he took on a job in the oil fields and worked nights as a guitar player working with his Cortez partner fiddle player Dub Purvis. Next, in 1960, it was off to Colorado via Grand Junction descending into the Denver area via Lookout Mountain.
Here Gene would perform around town while making his first home along south Santa Fe Blvd., not far from where he resides today. The couple would journey back to Texas in 1964 to the town of Gladewater, Texas another small town in the vicinity of Kilgore. He remained in Gladewater for about 5 months performing with country musician Bobby Clemeth.
CLW Records Edgewater
Then, later in 1964 – it was back to Colorado this time to Loveland where he worked in construction building homes and performing of course. By 1965 the Harrells were once again anchored back in the Denver area. During these days he would meet local Denver country musician George “Blackie Minor” and would back him often during both live performances and on recordings which were cut on Jim Ward’s CLW record label located at that time in Edgewater, Colorado a small suburb just outside of the Denver city limits.
While working at CLW Gene worked with Blackie, the Floyd Sisters, and Jimmy Dallas. At CLW, Gene would cut his second 45 – CLW 45-6593 in 1965 – “Patricia Gunn A-Go-Go” backed with “Cashing In” a song penned by CLW artist Jim Stewart. Gene provided me with a scan of his rare CLW picture sleeve displayed here. When asked about CLW owner’s somewhat mysterious departure from the Denver area – sometime during the early 1970’s, Gene knew little about it. He thought there may have been marital difficulties but wasn’t sure. Like most everyone else, Harrell would never hear from Ward again. Gene recalls that the CLW studio was “a very nice set-up” located then in what is today a parking lot adjacent to the Edgewater Inn a local pizza favorite. He also remembers Jim being a nice and friendly man.
Gene Hits the Charts
The early KDKO “Korral of Kountry Hits of Metropolitan Denver” survey sheet below from May, 1966 when the station was strictly country, lists Gene’s “Cashing In” at number 18 (His name is misspelled). Several other local label recordings are on this chart (Randy King, Van Trevor, Blackie Minor & Pat Floyd, Doug McLain and Butch La Rita). Making it possibly the most populated Denver survey ever featuring local acts.
Gene became a regular at “Ollie’s Round-Up” in the mid 1960’s, a Denver mainstream country night club. He did a short stint at Ray Oliver’s “Singing River Ranch” in the Colorado mountain town of Evergreen, where he and Florence resided for a short time before returning to Denver.
His musical memories also include befriending Black Country musician Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown who also worked for a time at Ollie’s. Gene shared with me “Clarence got his nickname due to the condition of his teeth.”
Other musical acquaintances of Gene’s in the Denver area included Larry Skinner, Charlie Mathis, Kenny Burrell, Buster Jenkins, Lee Simms, Dewey Knight and many more.
I intend to meet again with Gene. We sort of wore one another out during our first meeting at his home in Englewood accompanied by Florence and dog Cocoa. I remain in touch with his daughter Teresa and son-in-law “Bud” Perry Fritz who are keeping me up-to-date. Gene and Florence also have two sons – Dave and Mike. So down the road I will add to the very interesting Gene Harrell story! Right now I am working on a little assignment that Gene gave to me – he requested a CD of a few of the Kirby Sisters recordings, some Blackie Minor, and some Buster Jenkins for good measure. Oh yes, and another assignment – Gene – after I left his home – promptly got in touch with his old friend “Tonk” Edwards, then gave me a call telling me that Tonk was waiting for a phone call.