For today’s edition of Country Catalyst, the GMC Special Feature that tries to bring new fans into country music, we have a Western Swing classic from the king, Bob Wills. In fact, “Take Me Back to Tulsa” became such a popular hit for Wills and his Texas Playboys in 1941 that his biggest rival, Spade Cooley, later recorded it and even performed it in a musical Western movie.
The song actually started life as just one of the many fiddle tunes Bob had played in the past, but when he teamed up with Tommy Duncan and added lyrics, it ended up being a big hit for the band. But like many songs of the era, the lyrics ended up changing in later years to reflect changing times.
For example, the line that originally read: Darkie picks the cotton, white man gets the money.
Was later changed to: Poor boy picks the cotton, rich man gets the money.
And later still, to: Little man picks the cotton, big man gets the money. (You can hear this version in the rare video below, featuring Bob’s brother Luke doing the vocal — Bob’s up on the stage, doing his usual fiddlin’ and verbal comments.)
There have been other changes through the years, but the most fun alteration was probably when the song picked up a little bit of risque humor in live performances by Asleep At The Wheel, the modern Western Swing masters.
But whatever the era, it’s a lively, fun song that just might make a few new fans for country music.
Asleep At The Wheel – “Take Me Back To Tulsa” (You can also access music in left column.)
Bobby Sherwood’s “Elks Parade” has always been one of my favorites from the big band era and it’s probably the best known song from his bandleader days. But it was just the tip of the iceberg for this multi-talented performer, who could play many different instruments, sing and dance like the vaudeville trouper he once was, compose and arrange music, and even do some acting from time to time.
Although Sherwood was born in Indianapolis, his parents were veteran vaudeville performers who mostly lived on the road and it wasn’t too long before they included young Bobby in the act. At first he played trumpet, but as the years passed he also did his share of singing and dancing, and eventually learned other instruments too — especially the guitar, which he played so well that by the time he reached adulthood he was able to snag a job as Bing Crosby’s accompanist.
It was the early 1930s by then, and even though Sherwood would continue to work with Crosby on both radio and records for many years, he also kept his eyes open for other opportunities. In the years leading up to World War II he stayed busy in the Los Angeles area, appearing in nightclubs, working on various radio shows, and furnishing music for movies. Before long he was even leading bands behind stars like Eddie Cantor and Judy Garland. (Of course, by then he was married to her sister, which might have helped a little.)
During the war years Sherwood formed his own band, and became one of the first to sign with the newly-formed Capitol Records. It wasn’t long before “Elks’ Parade” came along, and the record became a million-seller for Sherwood, who continued to fly high for a while with songs like “Moonlight Becomes You,” a hit for singer Kitty Kallen. Unfortunately, wartime musicians’ union problems held back the band, and things sort of went downhill over the next few years. However, Sherwood soon began finding success in the new medium of TV, appearing on variety and game shows and working with top comedians like Milton Berle. He also found the occasional acting job on TV and in movies, and eventually became a very popular DJ in the Los Angeles area. He was 66 when he died in 1981.
Bobby Sherwood – “Elks’ Parade” (You can also access music in left column.)
You would think that a singer who had two #1 hits in the same year would be a familiar name, but I have to confess that I didn’t know much about Evelyn Knight until I ran across her story recently. Of course, I was pretty young when she rose to fame in the post-war years, and I don’t think we had either of her chart-topping records around the house. But the fact is, both “A Little Bird Told Me” and “Powder Your Face with Sunshine” rose to the top position on the charts in 1948.
Born Evelyn Davis in the Washington D.C. area, she began her career while in her teens, appearing on radio and in area nightclubs during the pre-war years. Within a couple of years she’d married a newspaper photographer named Knight, and began using her married name professionally. (She continued to do so throughout her career, even though she later divorced and remarried.)
By the end of World War II she’d worked in clubs in both New York and Los Angeles, gaining a lot of experience as a singer (while also finding time to have a baby boy), and was well-positioned to take the next step in her career, a recording contract with Decca. It didn’t take long for her to find success on the charts, with her debut — “Dance with a Dolly (With a Hole in Her Stocking)” — climbing into the Top Ten, but even though a follow-up also did well, she was unable to keep her momentum going for the next couple of years. However, that ended when she recorded “A Little Bird Told Me” with the Stardusters in 1948, and it created a stir in a couple of ways. It became a #1 hit for the singer, but it also instigated a lawsuit by Supreme Records, whose own Paula Watson had already had a hit with the song (although a lesser one). They contended that Knight’s version was too close a copy, but lost in court.
Meanwhile, she had continued to make records and it wasn’t long before her second big hit came along. “Powder Your Face with Sunshine” shot to the top of the charts and eventually became the singer’s biggest seller, leading to a number of successful records over the next few years. Unfortunately, the 1950s brought a downturn in her popularity, although she did have a successful duet with country singer Red Foley. She also made a number of appearances on TV variety shows, but her career was definitely winding down and within a few years she’d pretty much left it all behind to raise her family. She was 89 when she died in 2007.
Evelyn Knight – “Powder Your Face with Sunshine” (You can also access music in left column.)