Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Hardrock Gunter - That Bouncin' Man from Alabam

In early 1950, Hardrock Gunter was on his way to record his first record for the Birmingham based Bama label at piano player, Huel Murphy’s house. He was working out in his mind a way to introduce and showcase the musicians in his band, something like the great tune “Momma Don’t Allow”, popular at the time with both blues and country bands. By the time he got there he’d written “Birmingham Bounce” which the band recorded in Huel’s living room. After that fellow Bama artist, John Daniels, took the recording around to people he knew in Nashville, and reported back that they had a hit song, but not a hit recording. So Hardrock Gunter and his Pebbles (Huel Murphy, Billy Tucker, Ted Crabtree, Bobby Summers, Jim O'Day) recorded the song again at the WBRC radio station’s studio and it was released as Bama 104.
Click here to listen to Birmingham Bounce.

Sure enough Birmingham Bounce took off immediately and became a regional hit. Paul Cohen, A&R director for Decca Records, took an interest and tried to buy the master to reissue on Decca, which had national distribution. But the Bama release was selling well and Bama’s owner, Manny Pearson, refused the offer. So Decca released a Red Foley cover version that became a #1 country hit in 1950. In the wake of Foley’s hit, record dealers returned Hardrock’s Bama release in droves. A total of 21 cover versions of Birmingham Bounce then went on to be recorded by other artists including Tommy Dorsey, Lionel Hampton, Amos Milburn, Pee Wee King and Tex Williams.

Sidney Louie “Hardrock” Gunter, Jr. was born on February 27, 1925 in Birmingham Alabama, the eldest of Ola Mae and Sidney L Gunter Sr.’s three children. A high-spirited youngster, he was more interested in music than school subjects, and often ended up standing in the hall as punishment for his frequent cases of the giggles. His earliest musical influence was the hobo balladeer, poet and story-teller, the Texas Drifter who would broadcast a local radio show during his stints in Birmingham. Gunter recalls how he would adopt the drifter anthem “Big Rock Candy Mountain” for his radio sponsor, 7-Up: “In the Big Rock Candy Mountains there's a land that's fair and bright; Where the handouts grow on bushes and you sleep out every night; Where the boxcars are all empty and the sun shines every day; On the birds and the bees and the cigarette trees; Where the 7-Up springs where the bluebird sings; In the Big Rock Candy Mountains”.

Sidney’s third guitar, a Kalamazoo made by Gibson, arrived one Christmas and he got his first lesson from Buck Weaver, a close friend of the Texas Drifter, who also worked as a gasfitter with Sidney's dad. Sidney quickly set about mastering both the guitar and every nuance of his hero Hank Penny, also a native of Birmingham. Hank Penny’s Western Swing band was a novelty in Birmingham and Sidney was enthralled by everything about Hank, especially his slick Western costume and his flair for comedy. Hank had adapted the Vaudeville comedy routines of Weber and Fields and created the character of “That Plain Ol' Country Boy”. Years later, they would become friends and Hank would remember Sidney as the boy with the guitar in a toe sack who would come to see his band – and ask if he could get up and play with them.

By the time he was 13 Sidney had formed his first band, The Hoot Owl Ramblers. Sidney would play lead guitar, sing Hank Penny songs and tell stories with the band backing him up on rhythm guitar, homemade bass, harmonica and fiddle. They performed at local talent shows and became very popular. Inspired by Hank Penny’s “Plain Ol’ Country Boy” character Sidney performed as “Goofy Sid”, both solo and with the Hoot Owl Ramblers. In 1939, Goofy Sid had won an Irondale talent show for thirteen weeks running. Around that time Happy “Tex” Wilson phoned the show’s promoter, Mrs. Sy Wages, looking for talent for an act he was putting together and she recommended young Gunter for the job. Happy Wilson was a native of Haleyville, Alabama and had just returned to his home base in Birmingham from Hollywood where he’d been appearing in Ray Corrigan’s Three Musketeers movies. Sidney enthusiastically accepted Wilson’s offer and at the age of 14, would make his first professional appearance with Happy Wilson’s Golden River Boys in Atlanta.

Early on Saturday morning Happy arrived with another musician named Jack Baggett to pick Sidney up for their first show. While Sidney was loading his equipment into the trunk of the car, the heavy steel trunk lid came loose and hit him on the head. He re-secured the lid, then turned to Happy and said, “Give me that banjo.” Happy and Jack started laughing and then Happy exclaimed, “My goodness his head’s hard as a rock”. Sidney was kidded and called “Hardrock” all the way to Atlanta. The nickname would become his trademark from that day on.

In those days, Birmingham had 5 or 6 radio stations that would broadcast local country acts between 5:30 and 7:30 AM every day. Local bands including Happy Wilson and Hank Penny as well as touring acts would play 15-minute live sets. And there was plenty of work for Happy’s band which was booked 6 nights a week. Monday through Friday they would play at school houses in small coal towns throughout Alabama and then back to Birmingham to play a weekly dance at the Narrows Inn, just south of the city, on Saturday nights.

After World War II started, Happy and other band members were drafted into the Army, and Hardrock joined in 1943. Before the war was over Hardrock would lose his Kalamazoo guitar at the Battle of the Bulge and 80 pounds in a German P.O.W. camp. He was discharged in 1945, as a first lieutenant. After that he remained in the reserve and later became one of the youngest Army majors at the age of 27. The Golden River Boys got back together in 1945 and made a few records for the local Vulcan label. In 1948 Hardrock became their booking agent and manager but quit the band to pursue solo work.

During his long and multifaceted career Hardrock had a TV show in 1949 (he was the first country DJ on TV) on Birmingham’s first TV station WABT; was a DJ on WJLD (Birmingham) and WWVA (Wheeling); he released scores of songs on a variety of labels that include Sun, Decca, King, Starday as well as on his own Gee Gee label and has been anthologized on Charly and Rollercoaster Records collections. During the 1950’s he recorded rockabilly standouts “Jukebox Help Me Find My Baby”, “Whoo I Mean Whee”, “Rock-A-Bop Baby” and “Boppin’ To The Grandfather’s Clock”.

In their book, What was the first Rock N’ Roll Record? Jim Dawson and Steve Propes identify Birmingham Bounce as one of the earliest rock and roll songs; important because it used “rockin’” in the line “everybody starts rockin’ and shufflin’ feet, when a drummer lays down that solid beat”. Hank Penny was working as a radio DJ in Hollywood at the time and said he “played Birmingham Bounce so much you could hear the other side”.

But Hardrock wasn’t done making history just yet. His follow-up Bama release “Gonna Dance All Night” was the first song to use the blues vernacular term for sex, “rock and roll”, to describe music. (The song’s original title “Gonna Rock and Roll, Gonna Dance All Night” was vetoed by Manny Pearson for religious reasons.) Sam Phillips of Sun Records saw the band perform and asked Hardrock to record Gonna Dance All Night in Memphis. But Hardrock was so busy at his radio station job that he recorded a version for Phillips in Birmingham released as Sun 201 in 1953.

Click here to listen to Gonna Dance All Night (Bama).
Click here to listen to Gonna Dance All Night (Sun).

Years later country music scholar, Bob Pinson would ask Hardrock for a copy of Gonna Dance All Night on Bama for his collection. When Hardrock dug out the record and took a look at it he got the chills. He realized that due to Bama’s haphazard numbering system Birmingham Bounce was number 104 (sometimes mistaken for Bama 9) and the catalog number of the next Bama release, Gonna Dance All Night, was 201. Sun released its catalog in sequential order numerically and by a highly unlikely coincidence, Gonna Dance All Night was also Sun 201. It was 8 releases ahead of Elvis Presley’s first Sun release “That’s All Right/Blue Moon of Kentucky”.  And while Sam Phillips had intentionally set out to revolutionize popular music by merging country and rhythm and blues into rock and roll, Hardrock Gunter never thought about it at all, he just did it.

This article is based on interviews with Hardrock Gunter and the biographical article by Al Terry.

Many special thanks to Hardrock and to Randy Gunter of the Gunter Agency for their help with this article. You can watch the video of Randy Gunter's interview with Hardrock here:

To learn more about Hardrock Gunter, visit his website at HardrockGunter.Com

1 comment:

Randy Weldon said...

I didn't know if "Rock" was still alive or not...after going thru all of the info and pictures and all, if he is still with us...have him give "Randy King" a call or email at : 520-225-0258...or email: We're old
buddies..Thanks Randy.