Tuesday, September 26, 2006


Ronnie Self, Ain't I'm a Dog.
Carl Perkins, Put Your Cat Clothes On.

Here's some rockabilly at full tilt, pure rock & roll performed with joy, ridiculousness and menace. As Ronnie Self says, "forget about the danger and think of the fun."

Of the dozens of aspiring rockabilly musicians in the 1955-58 period who never quite made it, Ronnie Self might have been the greatest. He had the looks (he seemed a genetic hybrid of Eddie Cochran and Jerry Lee Lewis), strong songwriting ability, a nice gritty guitar style, and a voice that could howl and bite with the best of them. But a bad roll of the dice--personal demons, bad luck, poor management--finished his chances.

Self, born in Tin Town, Missouri, in 1938, began dropping off demos to his local radio station, KWTO in Springfield, and caught the attention of producer Si Siman. Self got a songwriting contract and cut a few tracks at ABC Records, producing nothing earth-shattering.

It was a 1957 tour with the Phillip Morris Caravan (back in the days when the cigarette companies ruled the earth) where Self first made his name.

"He'd start at the far back of the stage," recalled his sister Vicki, "throw his guitar over his back and run out to the mike, grab the mike stand and go right down on the floor with it and sing the first song. That was how he'd start. He'd never stop moving on stage ... He'd turn around with his back to the audience and face the band - but he never stood still." More here.

Columbia, hearing of the mania Self was inspiring on tour, signed him. After a weak initial session, Self taped one of his best tracks--the lurid, goofy "Ain't I'm a Dog," a proud celebration of being a cad capped off with a fine guitar break--in June 1957. It was a solid regional hit and with "Bop a Lena," recorded in December, Self slammed into the national charts.

But that was it. A stint with Decca in the late '50s proved fruitless, and Self's greatest efforts began to be for other artists--he wrote and produced Brenda Lee's "Sweet Nothin's" and "I'm Sorry". His personal life began to fracture--wild stories began circulating of, for example, Self obliterating a stack of demo recordings with a shotgun.

Si Siman: "I think he was probably clinically insane then, doing real unusual things. It wasn't safe to be around him although I still thought he was a terrific writer. When he was straight, he was great to do business with. He was a gentleman. But when he got some juice inside him he'd shoot holes in the wall, fire off a bow and arrow, chase people and try to run 'em down with a car. He was in and out of jail God knows how many times. His talent was a curse. When success was real close, he'd have only had to do what people were telling him, but he couldn't handle that - and he blew it." Self died, unfortunately a footnote, at age 43 in 1981.

"Ain't I'm a Dog" was released in September 1957 as Columbia 40989, c/w "Rocky Road Blues." Find on 25 More Rockabilly Rave-Ups.

"Put Your Cat Clothes On" might be the ultimate Carl Perkins record, even more than "Blue Suede Shoes," "Dixie Fried" or "Boppin' the Blues." Brutal, ass-kicking, deranged, with a manic piano solo that is one of Jerry Lee Lewis' finest moments, and a lyric that is pure slurred swagger (for a long time, I thought Carl was singing "I run downtown/and get my females ready," which I thought was the most outrageous rock & roll lyric ever, but alas, I think he's singing "my female hillbilly").

It was recorded in January 1957 but for some reason, Sam Phillips thought this track was too wild to release, and so Sun kept it in the vaults for decades. On Original Sun Greatest Hits.

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