78 Project: An Odd Find
When our friend Walt brought me the latest batch of 78s from his cousin Wes he made a comment about one of the records being from Sam Phillips’ famous Sun Records. The record was Sun No. 250, Warren Smith, with “Black Jack David” on the A side and “Ubangi Stomp” on the B side.
Now I’m not a big fan of ‘50s pop rockabilly, I was familiar with the name, Warren Smith, but couldn’t place any songs with the name. I do know both of the songs on this record, and I was a bit surprised to see them on a record from Sun. I did a little research and found that Warren Smith was somewhat of an “also ran” artist.
Warren Smith was born on February 7, 1932 in Humphreys County Mississippi. After a stint in the Air Force, he moved to Memphis looking for his big break in music. The Snearly Ranch Boys were regular performers at the Cotton Club in West Memphis, Arkansas. One February evening in 1956 the band was joined by a young country singer from Mississippi with a powerful, bluesy voice. Stan Kesler, the band’s steel player and songwriter, felt that their new singer had potential to do more than sing with a house band in West Memphis and called Sam Phillips. One night, Sam Phillips showed up at the Cotton Club with Johnny Cash to hear this singer themselves. During a break in the music, Warren Smith joined Cash and Phillips at a table. The story goes that Cash offered to let Smith record a song that he thought was more suitable for Smith’s style. The song, “Rock 'n' Roll Ruby”, was recorded by Smith and the Snearly Ranch Boys at the Sun studio. Sam Phillips was pleased with the record and released it (Sun 239) with the country tear jerker, “I'd Rather Be Safe Than Sorry” on the B side.
Thanks to lots of air play from local DJs and plenty of personal appearances, “Rock 'n' Roll Ruby” was soon number 1 on the Memphis charts. To promote the record Phillips sent Warren Smith, along with Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Eddie Bond, Roy Orbison, and the Teen Kings on a week long tour around the Memphis clubs. The record sold an amazing 68,000 copies in the first two months, more than any of Sam Phillips’ artists, including Elvis, had sold as a debut release!
Sam Phillips thought he might have another major star in his fold and sent Orbison and Smith on a summer tour of Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi to raise an interest. On his return from the whirlwind tour of the South, Warren Smith determined that he was a fast rising star and didn’t need the Snearly Ranch Boys any longer. He broke with the band and assembled a new band. It was this new band that accompanied Smith in the studio for a second release. Sun 250 with a restyled take on the old English ballad “Black Jack Davey”, and a song from Charles Underwood, a student at Memphis State University with some racist lyrics that Smith wasn’t all that comfortable with, “Ubangi Stomp” was released on September 24, 1956. The record sold only 38,000 copies despite good reviews from Billboard.
Once again, Warren Smith hit the road. 1957 started with another tour of Sam Phillips’ artists. This time Warren Smith was joined by Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, and a cocky newcomer that pounded his piano and stole every show, Jerry Lee Lewis.
Smith continued to remain on the edge of fame with a few more moderately successful releases over the next few years. Around 1959, Smith had decided to try his luck in California. He moved out to Sherman Oaks, following his buddy, Johnny Cash, and recorded a few albums with Liberty Records. During 1960 and ’61 he had a few hits, peaking out around number 7 on the charts. Even though he was finally starting to see some success from his music, things began to unravel for Warren Smith. He had always been bitter about Jerry Lee Lewis stealing his thunder on that early tour, in fact he seemed to blame others for his lack of stardom. Under Cash’s influence, he became addicted to amphetamines. He started missing shows and was arrested on a regular basis. Liberty had plenty of popular artists turning out hits and didn’t need the risk of an addicted, unreliable country singer. Liberty dropped Smith from their roster.
On 17th August 1965 in LeGrange, Texas, Smith skidded off Highway 77 landing hard on an embankment. Smith was hospitalized and spent most of a year recuperating. After his recovery he recorded a few records on small independent labels that didn’t have the sales force or distribution of Sun or Liberty.
Warren Smith took a job as a Safety Director at a factory in Texas playing music at local clubs on weekends. In 1976, he was invited to perform at a rockabilly revival show in England. The show was a success and gave Smith hope for a renewed career. Unfortunately, he suffered a massive heart attack and died at the age of 47, before he could return to England for a tour.
That out-of-place Sun record in Wes' collection reminds me to enjoy the things that I have. Most of us don't get a second chance. It has long been my philosophy to make the best of, and enjoy what you have. Warren Smith had more than most of us can ever hope for and it was never quite enough.
Once again, thanks to Wes for sharing his collection with the riders on the Bus.