Wednesday, September 06, 2006


Charlie Feathers, Nobody's Woman.
Charlie Feathers, Too Much Alike.
Charlie Feathers, When You Come Around.

In which Charlie Feathers attempts to beat Elvis at his own game.

The Feathers saga to date: Charlie was one of the many ambitious Southern kids who came to Memphis in search of musical fortune, and he recorded, like many others, for Sam Phillips. Yet Phillips never really took to Feathers, considering him more of a pure country singer than a rockabilly one, and he found Feathers' "Tongue Tied Jill," one of his best tracks, to be silly and possibly offensive.

Feathers put "Tongue Tied Jill" out on Meteor, and in mid-1956, signed with King Records. The first King session produced some hot tracks, most notably a rockabilly classic, "One Hand Loose," and evidently the highers-up at King figured they might have a Elvis challenger on their hands.

So six days into 1957, Feathers went into RCA Studio, in Nashville, and recorded four tracks, which were all released as singles in the next few months. The songs were poppier, cleaner, with prominent backup vocals by Johnny Bragg and the Prisonaires (a black vocal group, whose members were allegedly convicts). "Nobody's Woman," the best of the bunch, is in the vein of uptempo, early RCA-era Elvis, complete with a sneer in Feathers' voice, a spare guitar solo and a great, finger-snapping rhythm.

"Too Much Alike" and "When You Come Around" could be Presley outtakes, with Feathers slightly overwhelmed by the Prisonaires--"When You Come Around," in particular, sounds like a rough draft of "Don't Be Cruel." What saves these tracks from being pure imitations is Feathers' singing, which is laced with attitude and humor, and Jerry Huffman's nice and raw guitar playing (the gritty riff that opens "Too Much Alike"; the eight bars of tightrope walking in the middle of "Come Around").

"Nobody's Woman" was released as King 5022 in March 1957, c/w "When You Decide," and "Too Much Alike"/"When You Come Around" was released as King 5043 the next month. Both singles stiffed on the national charts. Feathers didn't record again until the end of 1958, and then for Kay, a much smaller label. His days of trying to cater to popular tastes were over: he was off into the wilderness. All tracks can be found on Get With It.

The Quarrymen, Puttin' on the Style (fragment).

It's miraculous even this tiny shard of music, with abysmal recording quality, exists. This is a recording of John Lennon's first band, the Quarrymen, playing on July 6, 1957, at the Woolton Fete in Liverpool, the day Lennon met Paul McCartney. "Puttin' On the Style" was a popular skiffle hit of the period, and it sounds like the band is whomping the hell out of it. It's unnerving to already hear the sound of the classic Lennon voice, buried in the murk.

A tape of the complete recording of "Style" and "Baby Let's Play House" apparently does exist, owned by EMI or Yoko Ono, depending on who you read. (Extensive write-up here.) It was considered for the Beatles Anthology, but the sound quality was apparently too rough. (This excerpt comes from a '90s TV news feature about the tape's sale, for £78,500.) The complete 1957 recordings likely will turn up one day, to lure people to buy yet another multi-disc compilation of Beatles/Lennon outtakes.

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