Teenager in the 1950s
In the beginning, there was no rock’n’roll, and one of the few privileges of being a teenager in the 1950s was to be present at its birth. Unsatisfied with country/western music, Frank Sinatra, and syrupy urban orchestral songs, a friend and I often went out to the garage in the shadow of the Hurley, New Mexico copper mill and sat in the front seat of my parents’ Buick at 9:30 p.m. MST, to tune the AM radio to KWKH Shreveport, La., where Gatemouth played black rhythm music and the blues. Imagine a middle class white kid of 15 with acne, listening to Howling Wolf’s lyrics, “I asked her for water, but she gave me gasoline…I asked her for water, but she gave me gasoline. Now that’s the dirtiest water-ohooooo that I ever seen.”Obviously, here was a musician who understood interpersonal relationships, but it was music that I never thought of performing. That all ended that year when Elvis Presley married black rhythm music to hillbilly instrumentation and a miracle occurred. When I heard Elvis sing “That’s All Right”on Sun Records, it was instantaneous conversion in a language that was innate to me, and I knew I had to somehow play and sing that way, praying that if I could only play that rhythm and sing just that one song, I would have achieved a lifetime goal—very profound thinking for someone about to become a junior in high school. Even today, I still play that first Elvis song when I pick up the guitar as a touchstone to the music I love. A history of Sun Records tells the story of the birth label of rock’n’roll
It was only after leaving high school and going off to the Texas A&M cadet corps that I began to develop a rudimentary competence on the acoustic guitar at a time when stage music was an amplified microphone, amplified electric lead, standup acoustic base and drums (if you got ‘em). During three years at Texas A&M, I was vocalist in a band we named The Jesters with several musicians including prominently Gene Hicks and Gary Allen. We played the honkytonks of Bryan, Texas and ranged to play East Texas as far as the Houston area and San Marcos. We learned at that time (and nothing has changed) that inebriated patrons just want to hear “Kansas City.”
Outlaw Records #1
It was on my return to New Mexico when I transferred to New Mexico State University in 1960 that I began writing my own songs while living in army barracks converted to temporary dormitories on the campus. I was majoring in journalism, and I met Dennis Adams, an English major who worked as a DJ at radio station KGRT in Las Cruces. He was also an audiophile with sophisticated (for 1960) microphones and Ampex recorders. He was interested in my recording ambitions, and we eventually recruited musicians to back me for Outlaw Records #1 “Long Grey Highway” and “Evening Shadows.” The campus radio station at that time was piped into the dormitories and was in a small studio in a quiet section of the campus. Dennis set up an unusual recording session at night on the lawn of the radio station, controlling audio levels by placing the musicians a varying number of feet from each other in the glow of the radio station porch light. Recorded on the radio station’s Ampex 600 recorder, we had to use the 7.5 ips speed to record. The accompaniment was provided by Mike Wright and the Lyonals
That first record was released in June 1961 and it sold well in southern New Mexico, reaching #1 on the weekly KRGRT hit parade. With that success, we spent months recording other original songs, sometimes with other college musicians, sometimes just me and my guitar. Dennis still has many never-released original songs on tape, most of them eminently forgettable.
Outlaw Records #2 was an instrumental heavily influenced by Link Wray’s style and with the titles “The Troubled Streets” and “Lonely Before Dawn.” This record was sent out to radio stations nationwide and got a fair amount of play as bumper music leading up to the news, but was a disaster financially, with almost no sales. This is a rare release, and I have only one or two remaining in my big box of vintage 45 rpm records.
From Music to the Real World
When I graduated from NMSU with a journalism degree, Dennis and I set out on a road trip east up U.S. 66 and across the Mississippi for the first time in my life. We were determined to promote Outlaw #2, and it was a memorable trip resulting most importantly in the discovery in a Rochester, N.Y. music store of Stephen Englert who was selling the only guitar I ever really wanted—my Gibson J200N that I have used ever since and keep in my living room.
That trip to Rochester was the end, not the beginning of our musical adventures. Dennis moved back to Rochester to start a family and a computer career with General Motors while I went into journalism, the military, and then to teach journalism in Canada. Fast forward a dozen years or so…
The Hidden Fan Base
Because life tends to be circular by its very nature, I eventually returned from Canada to live again in New Mexico. It was in 1977 that Dennis alerted me to an interest in our first release, a record that had become valuable in the collector’s market. It was his idea that we should release a 45 extended play album “Frank Thayer Back in New Mexico”and response to that album of the original two 1961 releases plus two other original songs from that period showed that there was interest all over the United States as well as across the Atlantic as far east as Finland.
For the next year and a half I began to write new rockabilly songs until the idea congealed that we should produce a definitive album dedicated to that style of music that had almost disappeared after the music field was dominated by the Beatles, The Rolling Stones and the succeeding generations. Such accomplished groups as The Stray Cats did much to keep rockabilly alive, yet there were few who remembered those heady early years. I can still remember vividly all the sensory data of driving to football practice at Cobre High School in Bayard, N.M. and hearing Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” for the first time.
A Return to Outlaw Records
Married to Becky Smith at that time, I will always be indebted to her and her generous family for making it possible to organize a return to Rochester, N.Y. in 1979 on two occasions where we met area musicians and located the definitive sidemen for a rockabilly revival.
George Bedard understood the style created by Scotty Moore, Elvis’s original lead guitarist and, on George’s reputataion alone, Dennis and I had to drive to Ann Arbor, Mich. from Rochester to recruit him to the project. Brian Williams was both a stand-up guy and a stand-up bass player in Rochester, N.Y. who was interested in making music too.When we were able to get all three of us together, only a few numbers were needed to make it clear that only a studio was needed to make an album a realtiy.
Dennis and his friend John Ward had picked out a small studio where it might be possible to emulate the Sun Records studio ambience, and so we went to the Al Wilcox studios with the added value of Jim Symonds who played drums on some of the cuts. It was during this period that then newly formed group played several dates in the Rochester area in clubs and at a popular folk and blues festival with thousands of spectators. It was almost as though we had been playing together for years. I still have a mounted sepia-tone photograph of the rock’n’roll revival of March 1979 in Rochester with more than a dozen friends, family and supporters who enthusiastically assisted in the performances, the recording, and the general excitement that surrounded the project.
Like the intermittent streams of the desert, it was fated that our music would go underground again after the LP album achieved a modest distribution both in the United States, in Canada, and in Europe. Lean on the FF button for two more decades…
Outlaw Records—From Vinyl to CD
It was on that same New Mexico State University campus in Las Cruces in 2006 that a group of rockabilly enthusiasts began to insist that the Frank Thayer LP had to find a new incarnation as a CD. A journalism student in my department was insistent, and he wrote two feature articles about the Frank Thayer rock’n’roll roots. Mike Doiron and Jon Cone, engineers with KRWG-FM radio station on campus were dedicated and eager to perform the digital mastering of the old songs, and the CD Frank Thayer, Outlaw 8001B is the result. A number of other people have contributed time and energy in the production of the CD and in the promotion of it. The Rochester connection is alive and well, with Dennis Adams putting on his manager’s hat to see that people involved in Outlaw Records in 1979/80 would be brought back into the spotlight for this particular encore.
A number of anthology albums both here and in Europe have included Frank Thayer cuts among their “oldies,” and somewhere along the line, a “Rockabilly Hall of Fame web site was created. Check it out for some of your favorite artists:
If you like rockabilly and if you have ever thought that Don McClean was right in his allegory about the music going off the tracks in 1959—if you think there was something magical about the sandy sound of those old golden-yellow label Sun Records from Memphis, then I have something that’s worth your investment. You’ll be glad you got a copy of this CD. If you’re a collector, I can even provide you with a mint, sealed copy of the original vinyl LP as well!