By Christa T. for Accordion Americana Sad news was received about Buckwheat Zydeco. He passed away on September 24, 2016 from cancer. Stanley Dural, also known as Buckwheat Zydeco, will be greatly missed. To mark his passing, I am running the following article that I previously posted on this site, September 2015. Rest in peace.
As a young child growing up in Lafayette, Louisiana, Stanley Dural, Jr. was said to look like the Little Rascal’s character “Buckwheat” in the Our Gang comedy series filmed during the 1930’s. This whimsical image was to stick with him his entire life as a professional musician. Drawing from his musical roots, the artist who became known as Buckwheat Zydeco,has shown that he is not afraid to move forward and reach beyond the Zydeco traditions to become a legend in American music.
Zydeco music evolved from the French speaking musicians who played at house dances who blended blues, rhythm and blues and the music of the indigenous people of southwest Louisiana. Stanley did not start out as a Zydeco artist, but he continuously worked as an organist from the late 1950’s throughout the 1960’s and well into the 1970’s. Dural concentrated on rhythm and blues, backing well known acts such as Joe Tex, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, among many others. As a mature musician in 1976, he agreed to be hired as a backing organist for Zydeco pioneer, Accordionist Clifton Chenier and his Louisiana Red Hot Band. It was the turning point in his career because it was through this professional relationship that Dural came to be, like Chenier, proficient on the piano-accordion. Stanley Dural, Jr. then recast himself as a Zydeco musician and formed his own band, Buckwheat Zydeco and debuted with One for the Road in 1979. Since then, Dural and his band have become one of the most renowned Blues and Zydeco acts. Buckwheat Zydeco is distinguished as being among the few Zydeco artists to find mainstream success in the music industry and he is the only accordionist of any genre to ever reach that level of recognition in recent times in America.
Throughout three decades, Buckwheat Zydeco has performed and toured extensively around the world. They have also performed at the 1996 Summer Olympics closing ceremonies, and for both of President Clinton’s inaugurations. Buckwheat Zydeco has performed and recorded with major names in the business such as Eric Clapton, Bono and U2, The Boston Pops Orchestra, Paul Simon, Keith Richards, Robert Plant, Willie Nelson, Mavis Staples, Ry Cooder and Los Lobos. The band has also appeared on television numerous times and was chosen by Jimmy Fallon for his final show, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. They have appeared on Late Night with David Letterman, The Today Show, MTV, BET, CNN and have been featured on news programs on NBC, CBS and National Public Radio. Buckwheat Zydeco has appeared numerous times at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, as well as the Chicago Blues Festival, the Newport Folk Festival, the Montreux Jazz Festival and countless major music festivals and venues across America.
Nominated several times for the Grammy Award, Buckwheat Zydeco won for ‘Best Zydeco or Cajun Album” for Lay Your Burden Down in 2010. They also received an Emmy for music performed in the CBS television movie Pistol Pete: The Life and Times of Pete Maravich. The music of Buckwheat Zydeco has been featured in the movies, The Waterboy, Fletch Lives, Hard Target, Ya La Tengo and Bob Dylan’s I’m Not There. The band also made an appearance and performed in The Big Easy, a movie that is credited with revitalizing Zydeco and Cajun music in America. Buckwheat Zydeco’s version of the classic “Cryin’ in the Streets” is featured on the album for Hurricane Katrina, Our New Orleans: A Benefit Album for the Gulf Coast.
Because of his commitment to promoting Louisiana cuisine, Dural wrote and performed the theme music for the PBS television series, Pierre Franey’s Cooking in America. Out of that interest, in 2014, Dural and his long time manager and collaborator, Ted Fox, premiered the You Tube documentary series “Buckwheat’s World”. The online show focuses on the music and colorful lifestyle of the artist, Stanley Dural, Jr. who became known as Buckwheat Zydeco. Dural and Fox have shown their skill as writers and commentarians by becoming bloggers for The Huffington Post in 2014, with their first post, “Mardi Gras Is The Flip Side of the Blues”.
I have sad news to share about the great Dick Contino. We are sorry to learn that he has passed away, April 19, 2017. In honor of his memory, I am sending you this post that I wrote previously Rest in peace, Soldier.
By Christa T. for Accordion Americana Memorial Day is a day of remembering and honoring, not only the fallen soldiers, but also those who have served America. Among the ranks of musicians, one of our own, Dick Contino, stands out as a veteran of the Korean War and as a brilliant accordionist and entertainer.
Born in Fresno, California in 1930, Dick Contino was a precocious child with parents dedicated to his success, from the beginning. The Continos (his father was an accomplished accordionist), recognized their son’s talent from an early age and for years, drove him 180 miles each week for accordion lessons in San Francisco. His first break in show business came in 1946, a year before Dick graduated from High School. He won the prestigious Horace Heidt/Philip Morris talent competition in Fresno which was broadcast on national radio.
Dick also won first place in talent contests in Los Angeles, Omaha, Des Moines, Youngstown, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and New York City. When he graduated from high school in 1947, he enrolled at Fresno State College. Always feeling the pressure of his intense ambition and drive to be a successful entertainer, Dick chose to leave college and dedicate himself to a career as an accordionist. Dick Contino was successful…. very successful. He toured with the Horace Heidt Orchestra and was billed as”The World’s Greatest Accordionist”. Barely out of high school, Contino reported earnings of four thousand dollars per week, an enormous sum for a musician, just before his career was interrupted by military service.
Because he was quite handsome, when he returned from his tour of duty, Dick Contino gained entry into the film industry in Hollywood. He starred in some acting roles, without his accordion. But it was his accordion playing that kept him as a returning star, appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show for a record of forty-eight appearances.
Dick Contino continuex to perform regularly throughout the United States. His repertoire was eclectic, ranging from Italian songs such as “Come Back to Sorrento” and “Arrivederci Roma” to his signature song, “Lady of Spain” and standards like “Swinging on a Star”.
On the accordion, following in the footsteps of his legendary father, is son Pete Contino and his blues band, The Pete Contino Band. Growing up, Pete never aspired to a career in music. But when his Mother passed away (actress Leigh Snowden), he went on the road with his father to learn the music business. It was therapeutic and it kept his mind busy. Through his involvement with his father’s band, he discovered a love for music and for the accordion. Now that he is a professional with his own band, Pete has observed, in an interview with Michael Limnios, “To use an old cliché, (my Dad’s) are very big shoes to fill. His fans are hardcore, and rightfully so. My father made a huge niche with the accordion. The expectations are sometimes high, but I never try to compete with my father’s reputation.” He states, ” A lot of his fans were funny and interesting and very devoted. Sometimes a fan would be uncomfortable to go up to my dad and they would start asking me questions about him. I would finally grab whoever it was and drag them over to meet him. He’s very friendly, my dad, very approachable.”
By Christa T. for Accordion Americana The late Country Music Scholar, Charles K. Wolfe wrote of Pee Wee King, “Pee Wee never picked cotton, never hopped a freight train, never worked as a song plugger in Nashville…unlike so many of his fellow members of the Country Music Hall of Fame, Pee Wee King was not known as a guitar player or even as a singer. His instrument was an ungainly one, the accordion, and he played it so well that he inspired dozens of country bands to add it to their acts in the 1940s and 1950s….he was also a bandleader par excellence whose work often pushed the envelope of older country music. He was a gifted songwriter….a creative promoter, a finder of new talent, an explorer of new media, and, best of all, a consummate professional. In his heyday, Pee Wee King took Country music uptown and didn’t ask whether or not it was ready to go.”
Pee Wee King was then, what we now refer to as a ‘Game Changer’. But even though King is credited as being one of the key people to formulate the sound and look of Modern Country music, even co-writing Nashville’s own state song, ” The Tennessee Waltz“, he and his instrument are still considered to be outsiders by Country music insiders.. His effort to “mainstream” Country music caused great resentment and is still a primary reason why Nashville is resistant to, and even disdainful of the accordion as a viable instrument in Country music.
Born in Abrams, Wisconsin, February 18, 1914, King grew up there and was known under his given name, Frank Kuczynski. He performed as an accordionist and as a fiddler with his father’s band from the time he was fifteen years old. Shortly after, taking the name of King while still in high school, he formed Frankie King and The King’s Jesters in 1930. Within three years, King had his own radio program in Milwaukee and he and his band performed at the local Badger State Barn Dance. It was there that he was discovered by the legendary Gene Autry, an emerging cowboy singer. Autry bestowed the honorary title, ‘Pee Wee’ on King, for his small stature. King and Autry, lifelong friends from then on, moved to Louisville, Kentucky where King backed up Autry on radio before “The Singing Cowboy” left for Hollywood to become a film star.
When Autry departed, King decided to stick with radio, stay in Louisville and remain as a member of Frankie More’s Log Cabin Boys. He already had a business relationship with Autry’s manager, and also was interested in the manager’s step-daughter, a singer on the Louisville radio station. So, in the middle of America’s Great Depression, Pee Wee King acquired both his wife, Lydia Frank, and as his manager, J. L. Frank. He would eventually legally change his surname to King.
In 1937, Pee Wee King formed The Golden West Cowboys and shortly after was asked to join the Grand Ole’ Opry on Nashville’s WSN radio. The ambitious King immediately seized the opportunity to move away from the Opry’s strict mandate to use only stringed instruments. He brought in musical instruments never before heard at the Opry, such as the accordion, an amplified electric guitar, horns and the pedal steel guitar. In addition, Pee Wee King did not make many friends at the Opry when he refused to change his band’s sound when asked to do so, or when, along with Bob Wills, he insisted on using drums on stage.
This new style of music was loud and lively, danceable and entertaining, and very much influenced by the Big Band sound that was popular all over the world in the 1930’s and 1940’s. This gave it new energy, a new sound and brought Country music into the mid- twentieth century. Perhaps, because he didn’t come from that exclusive community of musicians and songwriters that grew up in the hills and the ‘hollers’ of the South, King saw what was known then as “Hillbilly” music, in a broader geographic context. He recognized the new “Country” music as being the music that included the entire nation, from east coast to west coast, and not just the music from the Southeastern part of the United States. In his vision, the Country music genre shifted and stretched to include Texas, Arizona and Southern California, and with this, it acquired a new “western” sensibility. Singers and songwriters from those areas must have taken note, like Marty Robbins, Roy Orbison and Buck Owens and many others and may have felt a sense of inclusion and opportunity in the new Country and Western sound.
Because King saw himself as an entertainer, when America went to war in 1941, he envisioned that Country music should be a part of the war effort and entertainment scene of mainstream America. He knew that to accomplish this, Country music needed a bigger sound and a bolder image. King had a love for flashy, professional showmanship. He outfitted his band with fancy, custom made suits. This new take on Country music became enormously popular all over America and eventually became associated with Nashville. But, at first, such flamboyance was met with resentment in Nashville and there was a strong outcry against King by music traditionalists. King also “changed the game” when he insisted that his band members be required to read music. They were also among the first musicians in Nashville to join the musicians union. He wanted his band, not only to appear professional, but actually be the best musicians in the music business.
The new sound of Country music spoke to wartime America. People needed opportunities to go out and dance, have a good time and for a few short hours, forget that the war was asking for big changes and great sacrifices from them. Country music was American music, and an expression of the new pride and nationalism that the entire country was experiencing. Music served to unify everyone during wartime and to underscore that we were one nation in the fight against tyranny. This new “Western” side of Country music, in its own way, placed American music, defiantly and squarely in the face of fascism and ideologies of “the East”, looming large in Europe and Japan. The Country and Western sound had nothing to do with any European immigrant tradition, and the piano accordion, for the first time, was front and center. It was the soldiers during the war that brought the new sound of Country music to where they were stationed. This opened up the world to Country music and laid the groundwork for its influence on pop music.
In spite of controversy, Pee Wee King remained with the Opry for ten years, quite a long time in show business years. During that decade many performers passed through the training ground of The Golden West Cowboys on their way to fame and fortune. They included singers Eddy Arnold, Cowboy Copas, Milton Estes, Tommy Sosebee, and singer/yodeler Becky Barfield. Pee Wee King and The Golden West Cowboys recorded and toured as Minnie Pearl‘s backing band over 1941-1942, as well as for Ernest Tubb. They also entertained the troops during the War with the Camel Caravan Tours, crisscrossing the country.
In 1946 as the war ended, King composed “The Tennessee Waltz” along with Redd Stewart, vocalist for The Golden West Cowboys,. It was inspired by Bill Monroe‘s composition of “The Kentucky Waltz“, now a standard in Bluegrass music. “The Tennessee Waltz” became an enormous hit, not only for King, but for Patti Page, becoming one of the biggest cross-over hits, of all time. It went on to become a Country music standard and, later on, the state song of Tennessee.
Pee Wee and his family moved from Nashville to Louisville in 1948 when an opportunity surfaced for Pee Wee to work on WAVE radio and television. He explained years later, “The main reason (for moving) was that I wanted television.” The conservative Opry management saw no real future in TV and, again, their view was at odds with King’s vision. But Pee Wee King saw great commercial success as a pioneer in the new medium of television, with regional and national television shows, not only from Louisville, but Cincinnati, Cleveland and Chicago. King won multiple Cash Box and Billboard awards for his television shows and had a six year run on ABC Television with “The Pee Wee King Show“. Just as King had foreseen, television had become an indespensible method of packaging and promoting talent and hit songs in all genres of music in just a few short years.
Pee Wee King continued to perform and record throughout the 1950’s, reuniting with Minnie Pearl until 1963. In 1965, the state of Tennessee adopted “The Tennessee Waltz” as the official state song. Pee Wee was always interested in the history of the music he had helped redefine, and served on the board of directors for the Country Music Hall of Fame and also served as Director for The Country Music Foundation.
Pee Wee King appeared in four movies, always as a band leader, “Gold Mine in the Sky” with Gene Autry, “Flame in the West” with Johnny Mack Brown, “Riding the Outlaw Trail” and “The Rough, Tough West” with Charles Starrett. He also released his own movie production, “Country-Western Hoedown” in 1967. About disbanding The Golden West Cowboys in 1969, King said, “I wanted to find what I thought was the top of my career. When I believed I had found it, I stopped striving and searching and enjoyed it.”
In 1970, Pee Wee King was inducted into the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. He composed or co-wrote more than 400 songs, including some of the most popular songs in American music including the enormously successful “The Tennessee Waltz“, “Slow Poke“, “Silver and Gold“, “Changing Partners“, “Bonaparte’s Retreat“, “You Belong to Me“, “Walk By the River“, “Busybody” and “Bimbo” among many others.
In October 1971 Kentucky Governor Louis B. Nunn declared an official Pee Wee King Day in the state.
In 1974, Pee Wee King was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. His recording career included more than twenty albums, 157 singles with eleven of them becoming chart hits. “Slow Poke” reached the top of both the pop and country charts and held that position for three months. It became not only King’s biggest hit, but his biggest crossover hit. Pee Wee performed and recorded hundreds of sides, from fiddle tunes to pop ballads.
In 1996 Pee Wee King worked with writer Wade Hall to produce his authorized autobiography, “Hell Bent for Music“ (University of Kentucky Press). It was a first person account about his life and career, narrated by King.
Before his death, a boxed set of King’s RCA work was released by Bear Family and a collection of his 1950’s radio transcriptions was released by Bloodshot Records (Pee Wee King’s Country Hoedown)
Pee Wee King died on Tuesday, March 7, 2000 at age 86 while recuperating after suffering a massive heart attack the week before. He was survived by his wife and their four children. Pee Wee and Lydia King were married for sixty-four years. Mrs. King passed away in 2011.
Pee Wee King was fearless, creative, ambitious and successful. He thought big and accomplished great things for his family, for the music industry, for Nashville, and for American music. Pee Wee had a vision from a very young age and never hesitated to trust it and to follow it, through out his life. He fought hard for what he believed in, and withstood an incredible amount of criticism for it. Though I never met him, I believe that his life was the stuff of which movies are made. AND, he was an accordion player…..
By Christa T. for Accordion Americana Danny Federici was never one to try to steal the spotlight. It was not in his character. But, though sweet-natured and shy, his presence was always felt by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band and by their fans. After over 40 years The E Street Band was inducted into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame in 2014. Although he had been with Springsteen throughout every evolution of the band, sadly, Danny Federici didn’t live to experience his own well-earned moment in the spotlight.
Born in Flemington, New Jersey in 1950, Danny Federici’s first instrument was the accordion and from the age of seven, his mother often booked him at events, parties, and on the radio. He eventually won the early television talent program, “Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour” at a very young age. Danny recalled, “I had quite a little accordion career going on, before I even got involved in rock ‘n’ roll…..” It was the 1960’s and there wasn’t any path into the world of rock ‘n roll for an accordionist. E Street band mate Nils Lofgren was a witness to this and remembers in a 2015 interview, “Well, I spent 8 years on the South side of Chicago where I was born. When I was five, every kid played accordion. I asked to take lessons and I did. After the waltzes and polkas you moved into classical or jazz. My teacher sent me into classical accordion….. I fell in love with the Beatles and the Stones and through them, I discovered the British invasion, the American counterpart of the great rock bands of the 60’s….” Nils eventually became a guitarist. Unlike only a decade earlier, an accordionist had to move on and study other instruments to be accepted within rock ‘n roll. There were no role models and few music publications supported a rock ‘n roll repertoire for accordion. Danny Federici adapted to this drastic change and chose to continue his music career by mastering piano and the Hammond B-3 organ, keyboards favored in the Blues, Jazz and in Rock ‘n Roll music.
Danny graduated from Hunterdon Central High School in New Jersey where, in 1968, along with classmate Vinnie “Mad Dog” Lopez and an unknown Bruce Springsteen, he started a band called Child. Out of Child evolved the group Steel Mill, then Dr. Zoom and the Sonic Boom which then became The Bruce Springsteen Band. Finally, around the time of the release of their first album, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. in 1972-73, they took the name Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. The band memorialized E Street in their name because David Sancious’ mother allowed them to practice at the family home located on that street.
(Bruce Springsteen and the band that would eventually be called The E Street Band in the earliest days: L to R: the late Clarence Clemons, Bruce Springsteen, David Sancious, Vinnie “Mad Dog” Lopez, Danny Federici, and Garry Tallent, c.1972)
Springsteen was determined to build their reputation on live performance. His career breakthrough came when Rock Critic Jon Landau, observed Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band perform at a small venue in 1974. What Landau wrote and published in The Real Paper, according to David Remnick, (July 30, 2012 issue of Profiles) “is considered to be the most important review in Rock Music history”. Landau writes,”Last Thursday, at the Harvard Theatre, I saw my rock ‘n roll past flash before my eyes. And I saw something else: I saw rock ‘n roll’s future and its name is Bruce Springsteen. And on a night when I needed to feel young, he made me feel like I was feeling music for the first time…. He is a rock ‘n roll punk, a Latin street dancer, a ballet dancer, an actor, a joker, bar band leader, hot-shot rhythm guitar player, extraordinary singer and a truly great rock ‘n roll composer. He leads a band like he’s been doing it forever…..He parades in front of his all-star rhythm band like a cross between Chuck Berry, early Bob Dylan, and Marlon Brando.” From that time, the future for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band changed dramatically. The years that followed brought great success that garnered best selling albums with hit singles and multiple Grammy Awards. After constant touring for nearly two decades, the band took a much needed hiatus. Throughout the 1990’s, Springsteen and the E Street Band members worked on other projects.
Danny recorded and performed with Arizona-based band, Diamondback and co wrote many of the tracks on the album Ragin’ Wind with lead singer, Franklin Jenkins. He also recorded a solo jazz album called Flemington, named after his home town. It was re-released under the Music Masters Jazz label in 1997. Danny followed up with a self released album of Jazz in 2004, Sweet, which was re-issued as Out of a Dream in 2005 on V2 Records. Federici performed on other artists recordings during the hiatus, including Joan Armatrading, Graham Parker, Gary U.S. Bonds and Garland Jeffreys. Danny remained with Bruce Springsteen throughout the duration of the E Street Band performing for the last time just three weeks before his death in 2008 from Melanoma.
Springsteen described Danny Federici as “the most instinctive and natural musician I ever met” and told him, “Your organ and accordion playing brought the boardwalks of Central and South Jersey alive in my music…” and also acknowledged that “Danny is one of the pillars of our sound and has played beside me as a great friend for more than 40 years.”
Jason Federici, one of Danny’s three children writes: “Since my father’s death, my family and I created a foundation dedicated to raising funds for melanoma research, The Danny Fund. Today, we are honored for the foundation we built to be a program of the Melanoma Research Alliance. Together, we are working to fund the most promising melanoma research worldwide that is hastening the discovery of better treatments and hopefully, a cure. Your participation today will directly support a young investigator whose ambitious and innovative research often spearheads groundbreaking scientific developments.”
Wilene “Sally Ann” Forrester
By Christa T. for Accordion Americana She was born, Wilene Russell, in 1922. Her family called her Goldie Sue. Her classmates called her Billie. She performed as Sally Ann Forrester. Was the confusion created by having too many names the reason why Wilene Forrester is slow to be recognized as the “First Woman in Bluegrass”?
All humor aside, in 1943, Wilene was hired as an accordionist by Bill Monroe just as he coined the name for the music they played, called “Bluegrass”. She was compensated and performed as one of the Bluegrass Boys. As Ginger Rogers said of dance partner, Fred Astaire, Wilene did everything “The Boys” did, only “in high heels”. She was good enough to work as a musician with the band, tour and record with them. In 1945, Wilene, as an accordionist and as one of Bill Monroe and The Blue Grass Boys, recorded eight great Bluegrass classics, “Rocky Road Blues”, “Kentucky Waltz”, “True Life Blues”, “Nobody Loves Me”, “Goodbye, Old Pal”, “Footprints in the Snow”, “Blue Grass Special”, and “Come Back to me in my Dreams”.
Was the lack of recognition based on the fact that she was a proficient accordionist, and not perceived as a ‘real’ Bluegrass musician? Did she lack the ‘chops’, the right ‘creds’, a good enough reputation, or not invest enough years of her life as a musician to be accepted? Is the Bluegrass establishment reluctant to acknowledge her contribution because she was from the Southwest, and not from the Southeastern side of the U.S.? Did she fail to show, at any time during her professional career, that her work ethic did not measure up to, or even exceed those of her fellow, male musicians? If these are seen as issues, they were not then, or when Wilene worked for years, before World War II, as an entertainer at barn dances, tent shows and on radio programs. Having studied voice, she sang beautifully, and often. As a teenaged professional entertainer, she moved easily between piano, guitar, and fiddle. By the time she met Bill Monroe, Wilene Forrester was a seasoned, capable and confident multi- instrumentalist and was very, very good.
But, if it was the post war determination to regroup and rebuild America that led Wilene to abruptly say goodbye to her dream, we will never know. She left the group, and along with husband, Howdy Forrester, started a family. She worked for the rest of her life as a civil servant, performing occasionally. Wilene Forrester passed away in Nashville from Alzheimer’s in 1999.
Even today, like many women artists and performers, Wilene is not given credit for her work, and not seen as standing alone,’glowing like a beacon in the night’. Instead, women have been presented as being only a mere reflection of light cast by men, who are promoted as the authentic sources of creative energy. Women have to prove that they are worthy of any acknowledgement by their associations with certain men. Critics are quick to discredit and second guess a woman’s accomplishments, qualifying and redefining how men actually made their accomplishments possible. Because men also have others through out their lives, helping them along the way, it’s clear that women are held to a different standard than men by having always to explain themselves and justify their accomplishments. Yes, if it hadn’t been for the loving Grandfather that taught her how to play the fiddle she likely wouldn’t have learned. Or, if not for Howdy Forrester, who recognized her talent and personality and wanted her by his side, as a musician and as a wife for 47 years, she may not have been there to take the next step (or maybe she could have and also would have remained in the music business awhile longer).
Bill Monroe also saw and utilized those attributes along with Wilene’s growing experience and professionalism, enlisting, “Sally Ann” (Monroe coined her name, as well) to perform with them from 1943 through 1946. He clearly saw her value and benefited from her talent and personality. It’s not an issue of whether she was paid, but rather that she has been made to seem that she was not really there, and simply “holding a place” for someone more valuable until he could return. We see her in photos and hear her on recordings, and because she was neither invisible nor silent, that should be enough to establish her presence in the band. What we are really lacking is her version of her own story. Wilene “Sally Ann” Forrester, either did not seize the opportunity to speak about herself, or any of her experiences, or was not offered an opportunity to do so. This is a sad loss for all musicians and for those interested in Bluegrass music.
The music industry should recognize and validate that, just as Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass “Boys” are given credit for “working through coming up with their sound”, Wilene was there, working through it, alongside them. It is her sound, too. Just as they own a part of that contribution, she owns a part of it, too. This is the legacy of Wilene Russell “Sally Ann” Forrester. She must be given credit, and not forgotten as “The First Woman in Bluegrass”.
Many thanks to Murphy Hicks Henry as my resource, for her insightful book about Wilene and other great women in Bluegrass: “Pretty Good for a Girl, Women in Bluegrass” (University of Illinois Press)and for her interviews on YouTube and in print.
By Christa T. for Accordion Americana The Carter Family, among the original Americana performers, were the first to become well-known outside of their region. Though they were unassuming and humble people, they had an enormous impact on music both within, and outside of America and brought American Country and Roots music to the forefront. Helen Carter continued their efforts with nearly 60 years as a musician, entertainer and songwriter. Her life and the lives of the Carter Family are a testimony of their love for each other, their regard for American Traditional music and their unfaltering efforts for the survival of both.
The original Carter Trio, Maybelle Carter, A.P. Carter and Sara Carter
Helen Carter was the eldest of three daughters born to Maybelle Addington Carter and Ezra Carter, a railroad worker. She was born in 1927, in Maces Springs, Virginia, the year that the original Carter Trio began their career in earnest. Comprised of her mother, Maybelle, along with her cousin, Sara Dougherty Carter and Sara’s husband, A.P. Carter (Ezra’s brother), the trio began performing around the Clinch Mountain area during the early years of The Great Depression. For 17 years, the three were intensely involved in recording and performing the music of rural Appalachia. In addition, Maybelle gave birth to two more daughters during that time, June (b. 1929) and Anita (b. 1933).
The Carter Family (clockwise), A.P. Carter, (Sara and A.P.’s daughter) Janette Carter, Ezra Carter, Sara Dougherty Carter, Maybelle Addington Carter, (Ezra and Maybelle’s children) June, Anita and Helen Carter.
Carter Family historians can pinpoint to Helen Carter’s radio debut as young as 10 years old, but, she formally began her career at the age of 12, when she sang backup harmony along with her sisters. She performed twice each week, and was paid $15 per week, for four years. The trio and children were known as The Carter Family Band when they were featured on XERA, the most powerful radio station in North America, ten times more powerful than any radio station in the country, in the late 1930’s. Because the radio program was heard by all of North America and beyond, the Carter Family Band performances were the first time that Country music was heard beyond the borders of America.
By 1941, times had changed. World War II was underway and the country was finally starting to recover from the Great Depression. The Carter Family moved to Richmond,Virginia in 1943. Sara and A. P. Carter had divorced in 1936, and Sara had already remarried a cousin of A.P. and Ezra Carter. The couple decided to move on to California, and A.P. Carter retired to run a general store in Virginia, signaling the end of the original Carter Trio.
June, Mother Maybelle, Anita and Helen Carter
But the show did indeed go on, only this time, as Mother Maybelle and The Carter Sisters. Anita Carter was usually the lead singer, with Mother Maybelle, Helen and June backing up the vocals, on guitar, accordion, and auto harp, respectively. The quartet was a successful act heard on “The Old Dominion Barn Dance”, a radio program based in Richmond, Virginia, later moving to Knoxville, Tennessee, as “The Tennessee Barn Dance”. From 1946 through 1948, the quartet could be heard performing compositions such as “Wildwood Flower” and “Will the Circle be Unbroken”, which was the Carter Family signature song, even then. Along with Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters, performed a very thin Chet Atkins, the legendary guitarist. He nearly starved with a duo called Homer and Jethro and was very thankful to have been hired for the show.
Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters with Chet Atkins
In 1949, the quartet recorded and released their first record, and in 1950, Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters were inducted into The Grand Ole’ Opry. The girls were among the youngest inductees, with Helen at age 22, June at 20 and Anita, age 17. That same year, Helen married Glenn Jones, a pilot, and through the 1950’s they had four children. During that decade, the Carter Sisters were very busy. They were the first nationally televised Country music act presented by a brand new medium, television, appearing on the “Kate Smith Show“. They were also the first Country music act to tour a Communist country, Czechoslovakia. Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters also performed as the opening act for Elvis Presley’s tour from 1956 through 1957. During those same years, Helen was contributing as a songwriter with ”Poor Old Heartsick Me,” becoming a hit song for the singer Margie Bowes in 1959. Another of Helen’s songs was a top-twenty hit for Ann-Margret, “What Am I Supposed to Do?”, released in 1962. Helen also collaborated with Dolores Dinning of the Dinning Sisters and they recorded songs for MGM, as well.
Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters
Throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s, Mother Maybelle and The Carter Sisters saw much success and received many accolades. In 1960, they began a long collaboration with Johnny Cash, recording with him as back up singers and musicians, as well as performing with him in concerts. Helen Carter, her mother and sisters enjoyed considerable notoriety with their most successful albums, ‘Sunny Side’ (1964),’Travelin’ Minstrel Band’ (1972) and ‘Three Generations’ (1974). In 1970 they were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame as the “First Family of Country Music”.The Carter Family Band received the “Favorite Country Group” award by the American Music Awards in 1973. The quartet made regular appearances on “The Johnny Cash Show“ in the 1970’s with June, who had since married Johnny Cash.
Along with her mother, Helen Carter was recorded by the Smithsonian Institution in 1975. For the next three decades, the Carter Family was honored for their work as gospel musicians (Music City News Awards, 1980). They were also inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1988, recognized as Bluegrass musicians (Bluegrass Hall of Fame 2001) and rewarded for their lifetime body of work (Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award 2005).
Helen Carter, throughout her long career, is credited as being the best musician and songwriter among the Carter Sisters. It was Helen who assumed the responsibility of arranging the group’s vocals. An unusual technique that Helen Carter worked into the vocal arrangements was the slick, seamless transfer of the lead vocal from one singer to the next. It was so subtle that the listener may not have been aware that a change of vocalist had occurred. It was also common for songs to have multiple key changes, which added complexity to the arrangements.
In addition to being an excellent musician, songwriter and performer, Helen Carter Jones was the mother of four sons, a wife of forty-eight years and by all accounts, a very capable, strong, and caring person. In the early years, when her Mother, Maybelle, was at a gig or on tour, Helen would care for her younger sisters, cooking, cleaning and providing for their needs, even though she was still young. Helen was the backbone, and the memory of the Carter Family. Her late sister, Anita, recalled, “Helen was like a book. She remembered everything….all the songs and all the keys”. Helen Carter cared about her family’s musical tradition and was dedicated to preserving it by recording a solo album in honor of her mother, with her son, David Jones. Rosanne Cash, the daughter of Johnny Cash and step-daughter of June Carter Cash, credits Helen Carter for the time that she took teaching her the guitar, and for being a major influence as a musician and songwriter.
Tragedy did not spare the Carter Family. In 1968, Helen Carter Jones’ son, Kenneth Jones, died in an auto accident when he was 16 years old. Ten years later, Maybelle Carter died at the age of 69 due to poor health. Helen ceased to tour in 1995 due to health reasons, and in 1998, she passed away at the age of 71. Her sister, Anita, followed her, passing away in 1999 at the age of 69. Both June Carter Cash and Johnny Cash passed away within four months of each other, June, age 73, in May, and Johnny, age 71, in September, 2003.
The late Chet Atkins said of Helen Carter, “She was the best musician in the bunch, I guess. She played accordion and piano and guitar just like Maybelle. She added a lot to the group. The only bad part of it was that I had to carry her accordion,” Chet said, laughing. “They’d say, ‘Helen, don’t you carry that old accordion—you’re down in your back. You can’t carry that. Chester, get that accordion!’” Although Helen Carter always primarily performed as an accordionist, she was seen less and less with the accordion and more often with the guitar throughout the latter 1950’s and 1960’s. By 1969, when Helen Carter was 42 years old, ‘The Carter Personnel’ lists Helen Carter as performing as a vocalist and makes no mention of the accordion.
Helen Myrl Carter (1927-1998)
By Christa T. for Accordion Americana Born in the tiny town of Norway, Michigan, Art Van Damme was not expected to become a serious American Jazz musician. Classically trained as a pianist and motivated to become a professional musician, Art was a performing musician by age nine in a local theatre in upper Michigan. His family moved to Chicago when he was fourteen years old where he became a performer on the Santa Fe Railroad between Chicago and California. By the time he was eighteen years old, he had a Swing band, with Art on accordion, along with a bassist and a guitarist.
Art Van Damme had a vision that the accordion should be a major instrument in Jazz music, and made it his mission to try to accomplish it in his lifetime. By the time he was twenty-one, influenced by Benny Goodman, Art was a band leader during a time when the Big Band concept was thriving. As a youth, Art was inspired by Benny Goodman and would study Goodman’s solos on clarinet and meticulously try to duplicate them on accordion. So, it was not surprising that, throughout his career, the style of Art Van Damme was often compared to the style of Benny Goodman, even though their instruments of choice were very different. Versatile, technically brilliant,charming and confident, Art Van Damme was cut of the same material as any of the prominent musical talents lionized in the 1940’s. However,in the midst of his success, he made a bold decision to leave the Big Band format and to become, first, a solo accordion act, then adding vibes, bass and a few years later, drums.
By becoming a small ensemble performer, Art began to try to fit his music into a niche market, away from the Big Band venues, focusing on more intimate settings such as small supper clubs and restaurants and marketing studio recordings of his work. This was a very smart move during a time when musical styles were responding to emerging tastes and lifestyle changes of Post War America. The Big Band Era was over as suddenly as it had begun. For twenty years and after, Art performed and recorded consistently. He was a recognized part of the Jazz mainstream, touring and playing his brand of a softer, more subdued style of Jazz than had been previously popular. Art also worked as a session musician, but was constantly booked as a live performer, and toured extensively with his quintet. He traveled to Europe some 40 times or more and appeared on television and radio programs numerous times, in the States and abroad.
When interest in the accordion began to mysteriously wane, around 1960 , and hoping to help counter act this trend, Art Van Damme opened a music store and an accordion studio in Chicago, while he continued to tour and record, mainly in Europe. Unbelievably, the accordion in America, almost overnight, went from being an enormously popular instrument to fading, fast, from the American musical landscape. While Art had been astute at finding the pulse of changing musical tastes of America, he and other musicians unfortunately, had become victims of it. Art continued to record and perform until as late as 2008. Today, Art Van Damme is critically acclaimed as the best Jazz Accordionist America has ever produced and was a genuine breakthrough artist for the instrument. Art passed away, peacefully, in 2010 in his adopted state of California.
(Art Van Damme, 1920-2010)