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Charlie Louvin Part 2

PART TWO: …Mr. Louvin discusses the great Fred Rose…The Louvin Brothers work the Grand Ol’ Opry…Elvis Presley and the early seeds of rock and roll…

One of my favorite Louvin Brothers CDs I bought, although I had a friend who let me record a lot of his Louvin Brothers collection on vinyl, but Songs That Tell A Story. That was recorded around 52. You guys already made a few records by then. Talk about how y’all hooked up with Hank Williams’ songwriting partner, Fred Rose.

Well, Fred was our publisher. We met him through a man named Eddie Hill. We were working with Eddie Hill in Memphis—worked with him for five years—starting in 1947 and we didn’t know any publishers, but we were writing songs pretty often. Eddie said I know a publisher so Ira and I got us a reel-to-reel recorder and recorded about 20 songs on that. Eddie brought it to Nashville and took it to Acuff-Rose and they accepted all 20 songs. Only thing was Eddie put his name on them also as one-third writer. That wasn’t right for him to do that but he did it anyway. We were afraid we’d lose a job if we griped about it.

Through that introduction when we met Mr. Rose he was one that got our Decca record deal set up, and that didn’t pan out because Decca wanted us to record songs that they sent us. We had plenty of songs of our own so Fred seen that wasn’t going to work so we signed a one year contract to cut two songs. Every time a session would come up, we’d get sick and couldn’t make it. We did that until the contract ran out at then end of the year. Then Mr. Rose got us a deal with MGM. We cut 12 songs there and I thought some of it was pretty good. One day Fred said if your name ain’t Hank Williams or Patty Page you don’t have any business being on MGM records. So, I’m gonna try and get you another deal. So he got us a deal at Capitol Records. He actually produced the first session—The Family Who Prays—I forgot what the other three were—that one deal lasted for the rest of the Louvin Brothers career, and way beyond that…

How did your stints in the military affect your career? 

Well, in 1945 I joined, because I couldn’t get a job, and the music wasn’t feeding us. Everybody kept saying the draft will get you before you learned anything musically. I got mad and joined the Army air force, but I got out 14 months later I got out and in 1947 that’s when we went to work with Eddie. Then we were doing quite well, and then I got my greetings from the draft board in Memphis. I marched down there to tell them how stupid they were that I’d been there and done that. They said we know all about that—but you didn’t have 24 months active duty so you’re subject to the draft. So they drafted me. I was three weeks away from being 27, which was the cut off. My wife was four months pregnant. They said she could do that without me here; she’d do just as good if I was there or not. They shipped my butt to Korea. I stayed over there pretty close to 14 months all together.

While I was there Ira worked at the post office, and did a DJ show on WMPS in Memphis. Then when I got out of the Army that time I was a civil service regular employee at the post office, but I wasn’t a substitute clerk like when I left. Ira said I know where we can make a killing. I said where’s that? And he said Birmingham. On WBOK there. They’re gonna pay us $100 a week sponsor money and we’ll hire a couple of pickers for 50 bucks a week and everything we make on the road is ours. Well, that was a bad mistake because there was a duet that had been in Birmingham for years—Rebe and Ray. They had sung Louvin Brothers songs so much that when we went to Birmingham all the people thought we were impersonating them. So, we didn’t do well at all, almost lost our shirt.

We were truly gonna quit the business. I said to Ira—because we auditioned a half a dozen times at the Opry, but we auditioned for Jim Denney—he was a stage manager. We thought he was the boss, and nobody corrected us. I called Ken Nelson from a payphone—we’re already lost our phone. I ask him if he knew anybody. He said I know Jack Stapp—that was a new name to me. I said, well Ira and I are gonna quit the business if we can’t get on the Opry. We won all the awards gospel music had to offer, but in those days the gospel people didn’t like us because we played stringed instruments. They thought of us as a carnival act. The country folks didn’t dig us that much because we would quiet an audience, actually make them feel guilty that they were out instead of in church. Anyway, Ken said, give me your number, I’ll call you back. I said we don’t have a number Ken, but I’ll stick right here by this pay phone until you call back. It wasn’t any more than an hour when he called back. He had talked with Mr. Stapp and told him I got this duet that I’d like to have on the Opry. I don’t know what Jack Stapp said, but he must a stuttered cause Mr. Nelson said, ‘If you don’t want em, then the Ozark Jubilee does’—that was a television show out in Springfield, Missouri, that the Opry was afraid of because they were the first country show on television. So, through a bluff Jack Stapp said okay, tell em they’re on. They’ll start this Friday night. And that was on a Tuesday. It took six months to talk Ken Nelson into allowing us to mix our music—part secular, part gospel and we recorded “When I Start Dreaming Late”, in late 55 and that did more for us than 20 years of trying we’d put into it.

That song is on your new CD…

Yes sir. It did well. It put us in a place we didn’t even know existed. We did extremely well there for four or five years I’d guess. 

Y’all had a nice run there in 57, 58, 59…how did the rock and roll scene affect the Louvin Brothers? 

Well, it was late 55. We worked 100 days with Elvis Presley. Actually, when we first started the tour Elvis was opening for us. Hank Snow was on that tour and so were some of the Carter Family. See, Hank put up fifty-percent of the money to buy Elvis’ recording contract and his manager’s contract. Mr. Parker played dirty, very simple. For example, he’d give away 30 or 40 tickets to the little Woolworth workers and say ‘you don’t have to pay nothing to get in. all you have to do is yell ‘We want Elvis.’ They did that to Hank Snow for three or four days and Parker’s dream came true and Hank said, ‘I don’t want anything to do with the punk. Just give me my $25,000 back and I’m out of here.’ Of course, that’s exactly what Mr. Parker wanted to hear. So he got him out and that gave him fifty-percent ownership of Elvis for the rest of Elvis’ life. Even after he died until Elvis’ ex-wife sued him. You can’t keep getting fifty percent of something when the star is dead.

read on to Part 3

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