The Meteoric Rise and Fall of Jimmy Drake
This Post came as a result of last week’s family Thanksgiving gathering hosted by my oldest son down in the Baker neighborhood of West Denver. He and my second son were sitting his large – over 100 year-old Victorian style home “sitting room” where they were streaming oldies (probably for my benefit – thanks boys!) and they were both laughing and reacting to the ITunes track being played.
Jimmy Drake was born on March 24, 1912 which makes his year of birth the same as my late father. 1912 is where the similarities come to an abrupt end between Jimmy and Wendall! Jimmy came out of Tennessee (born in Memphis and residing until age 7 in a place called Ripley, Tennessee (guitar player ‘Sleepy’ John Estes, blues musician Peetie Wheatstraw and most notably, Tina Turner all came from Ripley).
Due to chronic asthma Jimmy’s family would move to the West Coast to the town (are there towns in California) and later landing in Oakland where he would remain until his early death.
Drake was a late bloomer in the recording industry. The year was 1954 and he was earning a living as a truck driver. As a side venture, Drake (now over 40 years old) composed some curious lyrics, put them to music of sorts and shopped them around to radio DJ’s. Drake wanted to find a profession to lift him out of the life of a truck driver.
Red Blanchard – Enabler In Transfusions
He found a willing party in the form of a radio figure Red Blanchard, who hosted a comedy and novelty oriented shown. Beyond sitting behind the microphone, Blanchard also dabbled in lending his voice to silly tracks, as well as commercials.
His personal efforts didn’t exactly set the world of novelty records on fire with zanies such as “Pagan Love Song”, “Captain Hideous (King of Outer Space)”.
Back to Drake and Red – The wheels of stardom don’t always turn rapidly, but Drake’s submission to Blanchard finally found it’s way to Dot Records in 1956, being released under the acumen “Nervous Norvus”. (Drake was composing novelties as early as 1951 – all inspired by what he was listening to on Red Blanchard’s program (“Little Cowboy” and “Kangaroo Hop” being two early efforts).
In short order Drake would have his second novelty hit, “Ape Call”, quite an opposite end of the spectrum for Jimmy. That curiosity would peak at number 28 and Drake seemed to be established – maybe as the new Stan Freeburg? Blanchard kindly did not take co-composing or production credits on the Norvus releases – but did get credit for providing the “Ape Calls” on Jimmy’s second outing and then backup credits on “The Bullfrog Hop” performing as “Red Blanchard and the Smogrollers”. Drake and Blanchard seemed to definitely be cut from the same strange cloth.
Not to be. Fame was pretty much fleeted just a short six months after it arrived. There would be additional attempts for “Nervous”. Wisely, Drake didn’t leave his day job (or maybe night job) of truck driving.
Probably as much responsible for catching Red Blanchard’s attention, was not so much the theme and morose lyrics – but more likely the employment of the “jive” talk on the demonstration record – a style that Blanchard himself used on-the-air and ironically, that influenced Drake’s rendition since he was a regular listener to Blanchard’s program (which at the time was KCBS in San Francisco). Blanchard owned a respectable record collection of “Be-Bop” tracks.
When Drake submitted his “Transfusion” demo to Red, he had no illusions of becoming the artist delivering the bizarre lyrics. Blanchard saw it differently. He deemed the song nearly ‘perfect’ as submitted – only requiring the addition of the dramatic screeching and exploding ‘car crash’ sound effect.
Drake did play guitar and sing and apparently cut a ton of vocal acetates which pretty much went nowhere. Many of these have survived with generic labels hand written identifying the singer as “Singing Jimmy Drake”.
Here is a fun fact: That sound effect was extracted from the “Standard Sound Effects Library” – and would be used again very prominently first on Jan and Dean’s “Dead Man’s Curve” and then most dramatically on “Leader of the Pack” by the quintessential girl group of tragedy and heart-break – The Shangri-Las.
As stated, Drake continued to drive his truck, but also set up a little ‘demo’ service for other aspiring artists – charging only a few dollars per demo.
Drake was a very shy person and could not be persuaded to perform “Transfusion” on a very large stage – The Ed Sullivan Show – He simply turned it down.
Phil Milstein of the “American Song-Poem Music Archives” paid tribute to Drake “Add in some excellent unreleased demos and a small handful of other Nervous Norvus records, and you have one of the richest bodies of novelty work ever made, as inventive, as timelessly fresh and as purely musical as any since Spike Jones. His songs zip and bounce along in jittery rhythms perfectly suited to the “nervous” quality of his delivery; the lyrics cleverly written in accord with conventional craft, yet informed by a unique middle-aged hepcat persona; his cutting-edge sound effects (most of them created by his mentor, radio host Red Blanchard) integrally woven so that music and effects are inseparable.”
There is a record myth floating around out in collector’s land that Jimmy Drake was a member of a group called the “Four Jokers” who covered the novelty in a singing style in 1956 – Not true the historians assure us. Not Drake’s ‘cup of tea’ (or cup of ‘Shoot the juice to me Bruce’).
Another historical footnote – “Transfusion” is credited with inspiring another DJ – Barry Hansen – who played the track on his regular Top 40 program – into transforming himself into “Dr. Demento” and skyrocketing on from there to fame.
Jimmy Drake died on June 24th, 1968 succumbing to a liver disease, after a long struggle with alcohol. Red Blanchard (who was born in 1920) passed away on June 16th, 2011.
Nervous Norvus Discography (and Red Blanchard)
45 Dot 15470 – Transfusion b/w Dig – 1956
45 Dot 15485 – Ape Call b/w Wild Dog of Kentucky – 1956
45 Dot 15500 – The Fang b/w The Bullfrog Hop – 1956
45 Embee 117 – Stoneage Woo – 1959
45 Embee 118 – The Plaster Song – 1959
45 Big Ben 101 – Let’s Worship God Each Sunday b/w Pure Gold – 1960
45 Big Ben 1614 – Does a Chinese Chicken Have a Pigtail? – 1961
45 Neale 12953 – Cowboy Soldier b/w Wa-Hoo – 1964
45 Dot 130 – Transfusion b/w Dig – 1965 Reissue
Red Blanchard Discography
45 Columbia 40280 – Dig That Crazy Mixed Up Kid – 1954
45 Columbia 41051 – Captain Hideous b/w Zorch! – 1957
45 Dot 15901 – Open the Door Richard – Parts I and II – 1959
LP – Evergreen – Donald “Red” Blanchard Command Performance Before His Fan Club