Gene Harrell’s Country Journey
Interview conducted and submitted by Craig Swank January 2016
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Gene would take an early interest in country music influenced no doubt by his father who played guitar, “picking with his thumb and two fore fingers” Gene relates. Gene lived for a time with his uncle in Dallas, Texas and it was there at the age of 15 that he took six guitar lessons and he was on his way to a life of performing country music.
Gene’s first instrument was a mandolin, moving a short later over to guitar. He departed Dallas at the age of 17 returning to his hometown where he would join up with his brother and cousin to perform with a country musician, Burton Harris in the “Burton Harris Band”. The group would perform in the nearby Texas towns of Kilgore and Mount Pleasant.
Gene relates that two country figures who sparked his country music yearnings were Al Dexter and the legendary Bob Wills. Somewhat ironically, at the age of 19 Gene would meet up with a young fiddle and mandolin player by the name of Johnny Gimble. The two met in the Texas Gulf port town of Corpus Christi in about 1947, where they were both working in local country honky-tonks. During that time in Corpus Christi Johnny and Gene would become roommates for about one year.
Gimble would go on in 1948 to join “Bob Wills Texas Playboys” where he would remain as one of the finest fiddlers in country music for nearly a decade.
Jim Reeves – Longview, Texas
Gene’s musical journey would put him in contact with many country musicians including several 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 country singer 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 helped avoid the problem of replacing an entire band when someone in 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 further recalls, “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 (in Kilgore, Texas) which was located just south of Longview off of today’s Interstate 20. The Kilgore Club 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 stated. 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 him that he would like Gene 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 La Dell.” Enough said.
The Louisiana Hayride & Elvis
Gene did indeed venture onto Kilgore where he played for a time before making make a musical detour in 1953 playing with “The Circle J Ranch Boys” on KCMC TV in Texarkana, near the northwest Texas border. Gene played guitar in this group which initially included Hank Grant (guitar), Monroe Grant (fiddle), Leland Ivey (bass), Jim Evans (steel guitar) with Gene assuming lead guitar duties.
KCMC, which aired on channel 6, urged a name change to better 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 KMCS’s audience being voted the number one program. The Hayride had an opening on their program and summoned the Circle-6 Ranch Boys. So in 1954 they would join the KWKH Louisiana Hayride cast of regulars where they would remain for about 6 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 in order to be closer to their families.
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 & Sun Records with Sam Phillips
A little later on in the mid 1950’s Gene would find his way back to Texarkana where he would meet two young country musicians, sisters Bette and Mary Kirby. Harrell would join other backing musicians who included future country & 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 him play Bill Doggett’s “Honky Tonk”. He would later be inducted into the Arkansas Jazz Hall of Fame. During his career Tonk worked with Gerry Mulligan, Billy Butterfield, Dizzy Gillespie and Sarah Vaughan just to name a few and remains in contact today with “Tonk” Edwards.
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 the attention of Sam Phillips.” Phillips headed up the legendary Sun Records label and studio that spawned so many famous musicians. Sam liked 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 Bette, Mary and company cutting the first of five intended tracks on the Sun 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”, as well as “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 due to the session being cut short by Phillips. The four 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 and becoming very popular in Europe. The Sun session was interrupted by a phone call from Johnnie Chaylor, who apparently had issues with one or both of the Kirby sisters. The story is documented in an interview with Gene in the book “Memphis Belles – The Women of Sun Records”.
In the mid 1950’s Gene would meet and play briefly behind the great Johnny Horton in a small Texas venue. Then, a few years after their first meeting, Horton was back in the area, at about the time of his 1959 smash hit crossover “The Battle of New Orleans”. Horton requested the backing of Gene’s band but didn’t require the services of Gene as a lead guitar since he brought his own musician with him.
So Gene was content to sit in the nightclub audience and enjoy the performance. Then sometime into the set, Johnny walked up to the microphone and announced that a friend of his was in the audience. Gene was floored with surprise when Johnny introduced and asked him to come up on stage to sing one song. “I came up on stage and was shaking like crazy. I didn’t think I would be able to even open my mouth I was so nervous” recalls Gene. But he did get through the song and received a great round of applause.
Gene remembered being outside the nightclub during the day and seeing a very pretty woman sunbathing in the back of Johnny Horton’s truck. The lady turned out to be Horton’s wife, Billy Jean, who had also been married to the legendary Hank Williams, before his untimely death at the age of 29.
Cowtown Records Fort Worth, Texas
In 1957, Gene was approached by the owner of a small Fort Worth record label, Cowtown. The label owner used a portable tape machine to record a couple of songs by Harrell. And that was the end of that. Some time later, Gene was tuned in late one night to one of the “blowtorch” radio stations operating out of Mexico. Gene recalls that this station was out of the Mexican town of Del Rio – and Although he just missed the song on the air he heard the DJ say and that is a new song out on the Cowtown label, “I Won’t Be Back No More”.
The song was backed by “Mumbles” and they were released on Cowtown label number 605 in January of 1957. Gene never heard again from the label nor did he ever again hear his recording. The song was composed by Mary L. Miller, who must have been involved with Cowtown, having composed for several of the known artists on that small label.
Marriage – Onto New Mexico and Utah
Gene would meet his soon-to-be wife, Florence (better known to her friends and family as La Dell). Gene remembers, “She didn’t seem very interested in me at first”. But before long the two would connect and now they are approaching 60 years of married bliss.
Gene and La Dell would tie the knot on January 25th, 1958, marrying in the town of Texarkana. Then, in 1959 Gene and La Dell pulled up stakes and headed north to the Colorado town of Cortez, a town located in the “Four Corners” region of the United States surrounded by Native American reservations.
Gene worked as part of a duo with his friend “Dub” Pervis in the “Four Corners Club”. Things went smoothly for a time, until one night the club owner approached Gene and Dub. “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 between songs.” That was it for Gene and Dub. They were shown the door that very night and so his Cortez days came to a quick end.
Next it was onto nearby Moab, Utah with Dub. The two obtained employment working on an oil rigging crew and supplemented that working as a duo in a Moab country night spot. The versatile Pervis played multiple instruments and was a very proficient lead guitar player. Gene took on the vocal assignments and played rhythm guitar.
In 1960, Gene and La Dell, joined once again by Dub Pervis, packed up their belongings and headed for Colorado. On the first night of their journey they stopped over in Grand Junction, Colorado. Gene and Dub sought out a local country spot to check out the talent. That evening Gene introduced himself to the leader of the country combo performing, Dewey Knight. Gene and Knight would connect once again in Denver, remaining friends for a long time thereafter.
The Harrell’s rolled into Denver taking up residence in Littleton along South Santa Fe Blvd. Gene found work right away with a construction company and joined a country band at a nightspot Gene remembers being called “Denver’s Oldest Bar”. Gene played at “Denver’s Oldest” for about 4 months where he doubled as an emcee for other performers.
Through the rest of 1960 and 1961 Gene worked many weekend gigs with his partner Dub as well as with other local country musicians. Then, in 1962, Gene made the acquaintance of George “Blackie” Minor, a local country singer with a golden voice. In short order Gene teamed up with Blackie providing lead guitar backing for Minor’s band, who often played at the “My-O-My” night spot in Commerce City, Colorado.
Gene and La Dell journeyed back to Texas in 1964 to the town of Gladewater, Texas another small town in the vicinity of Kilgore. They remained in Kilgore for about 5 months where Gene worked in construction and performed with a country music combo, The Bobby Clemeth Band.
Back to Colorado for Good
In later 1964, it was back to Colorado, this time to the front range town of Loveland where he again worked in construction building homes and performing of course, at times as a member of The Roy Keys Band, usually working Friday through Sunday evenings in a venue called “The Western Inn” in the small town of Laporte, Colorado which is situated just north of Fort Collins.
Then once again back in Denver around 1965 Gene would rejoin Blackie 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 western suburb just outside of the Denver city limits, near Sloans’ Lake.
While at CLW Records, Gene recorded with Blackie, the Floyd Sisters, Jimmy Dallas and others. 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. In May of 1966, that song would hit the local country and western music charts featured on radio station KDKO which presented a country format at the time, rising into the top 20 on that station.
Gene became a regular at “Ollie’s Round-Up” in the mid 1960’s, a Denver mainstream country night club located in southwest Denver. He did a short stint at Ray Oliver’s “Singing River Ranch” in the Colorado mountain town of Evergreen, where he and La Dell resided for a short time before returning to Denver. He and Blackie Minor also worked at the Athmar Lounge.
His musical memories also include befriending black country musician Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown who also worked for a time at Ollie’s. Gene relates “Clarence got his nickname due to the condition of his missing teeth.”
Other musical acquaintances, many whom he performed with in the Denver area included The Larry Skinner Trio, Charlie Mathis, Kenny Burrell, Buster Jenkins, Lee Simms, Dewey Knight, Jim McGraw, the Joe Diamond Band, Randy King and others since forgotten. Gene remembers composing a song called “Little Tootsy Wootsy”, a song that local country singer Pamela Dickerson took with her to record at Nashville.
Patsy Montana in Denver
In 1968 Gene and Dewey Knight backed up a touring country artist Patsy Montana (Ruby Blevins) for three or four performances at the Long Branch nightclub located in Wheat Ridge, Colorado. Patsy is credited with recording the first million selling country song by a female artist, “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart” popular in 1935. The song was written by a close friend, fellow actor and performer of Patsy’s, Gene Autry.
Gene performed regularly through the 1960’s and into the 1970’s mainly with Blackie. Sometime in the early 1970’s Blackie became ill with cancer and it resulted in him losing his vocal ability after a surgery. Gene reflects, “I was so sad for Blackie at that time, just seeing him up on the bandstand unable to use that beautiful country voice.” Around this time, Gene departed Blackie’s band. Sadly, in 1977, Minor passed away. Gene joined Dewey Knight, country singer Jim McGraw along with other Denver musicians and served as pallbearers for Blackie who is buried at Crown Hill Cemetery in Wheat Ridge, Colorado. Gene recalls that The Olinger Gospel Quartet performed at Blackie’s memorial service.
Sons of the Pioneers in Denver
In the 1970’s the famous Sons of the Pioneers came to Denver to perform at the opening of a new downtown Denver bank, Empire Savings. Gene was selected with other area country artists to provide musical back-up for the group. He remembers the Sons as getting a big kick out of the very flashy country spangled shirt that he wore to the rehearsal session.
Gene semi-retired from the country music scene in the early 1980’s but would occasionally take on fill-in dates here and there. He obtained a position with King Soopers in the 1970’s, and worked there for nearly three decades before finally fully retiring.
I asked Gene what his most special memory was along the way. Was it performing with Jim Reeves, meeting Elvis, recording at Sun Records, the Hayride, Johnny Horton? No – Gene fondly remembers a day back in Kilgore, Texas. Country star Lefty Frizzell was in town staying at the home of one of Gene’s friends.
Gene drove over to the residence the morning after Lefty and friend had been out the night before in hopes of meeting the singer. That wasn’t to happen since they were sleeping long and hard after a long night out. Outside the home Gene noticed an acoustic guitar in the back of his friend’s car. Gene picked it up and lo and behold it was Lefty’s guitar with his name inscribed on the neck. “I gently caressed that guitar and light strummed it for a while” Gene fondly recalls. And he never forgot and always treasured that brief moment in time.
The Colorado Country Music Hall of Fame
Since the 1980’s Gene has long since put his guitar away. He doesn’t play any longer, but since his retirement from country music he began and continues to compose gospel songs for his family and his church. “I composed a special song for each of my three children” he states.
The Harrell’s enjoy three adult children, Mike (Texas), Dave (Denver) and daughter Teresa (California). Son Dave carries on the country music tradition today, and played and traveled for a time with Joe Murphy and the Rampage. The couple have six grandchildren and two great grandchildren.
Today Gene enjoys his time with La Dell and their young dog Cocoa, residing in Centennial. He calls me often to relay yet another memory from his musical past. He owns a CD player and enjoys listening to music by Blackie Minor, Buster Jenkins, The Floyd Sisters and others.
In 2016 Gene Harrell was at last inducted into Colorado’s Country Music Hall of Fame!
Gene Harrell encompasses the true spirit of a dedicated country musician, playing often in the background, seldom in the spotlight, traveling to where there was opportunity, working hard throughout his life to make ends meet, to raise and love his children, practice his faith, cherish his wife, support his friends, and to never abandoned his love of the songs, or forget the musicians he made music with. This indeed is what country music is really all about.