A Shining Moment
Five decades later, songs from historic Foley session still resonate in the ears of country fans
By Randy Fox
NOVEMBER 8, 1999: Fifty years ago, Red Foley was one of country music's movers and shakers. Host of the "Prince Albert" portion of the Grand Ole Opry, broadcast weekly on the NBC network, he helped catapult the Opry to nationwide prominence. He also played a hand in establishing Nashville as a center of country recording: With the opening of Castle Studios in the summer of 1947, Foley's presence here, along with that of Ernest Tubb, convinced Decca Records executive Paul Cohen to move his recording operations to the future Music City. At the time, both Foley and Tubb were two of the label's hottest sellers.
In today's modern recording world, where artists routinely take months or even years to complete albums, it's easy to forget that some of the most innovative and influential recordings of the 20th century were laid down in just a few hours with no overdubs, no digital manipulation, and no caterer--just raw talent and craftsmanship. Foley's own work can be counted among these recordings.
Some of his most unforgettable and lasting songs were cut 50 years ago this week: On Nov. 7-10, 1949, the singer spent a little over three days in the studio and emerged with eight Top 10 hits, including the first million-selling country record cut in Nashville. Of the innumerable sessions that have taken place here in the years since, Foley's '49 dates remain among the most important in Nashville music history. The records that resulted from those three days are still considered undying classics, songs that will continue to resonate long after Chris Gaines has been consigned to the cut-out bin.
Before Foley's move from Chicago to Nashville in the spring of 1946, his records had been drifting more toward the pop mainstream--light Western swing or cowboy numbers that were firmly in Gene Autry territory. But the relocation to Nashville brought the Kentuckian back to his Southern roots and opened new creative avenues. "Red recorded 'Tennessee Saturday Night' with Zeke Turner playing that great boogie lick," remembers Harold Bradley, a former top session man and the brother of Decca producer Owen Bradley. "That was the first record [on which] he had that style. I guess with the move to Nashville, a lot of things happened: Paul Cohen found better songs, he found the musicians, he found the studio--something just started going in the right direction."
The right direction indeed. Foley, his band, and Paul Cohen turned out a series of records that mixed elements from pop and rhythm and blues while remaining undeniably hillbilly. By the fall of 1949, the singer's regular band included Grady Martin on lead guitar, Billy Robinson on steel guitar, and Ernie Newton on bass. With this basic lineup, augmented occasionally by other musicians, Foley entered Castle Studios in the Tulane Hotel at Eighth and Church to begin the three days of historic sessions. The first day, he recorded five songs, including two Top 10 hits--"I Gotta Have My Baby Back" and "Careless Kisses"--along with what would become one of the biggest records of his career.
"Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy" was a playful boogie composed by legendary songwriter and music publisher Fred Rose. In one of those notorious under-the-board song publishing deals, Rose signed over the writer's credit to Opry's managers, Harry Stone and Jack Stapp--reportedly as a tradeoff for their agreement to sign a young singer by the name of Hank Williams to the Opry. But Rose, being the smart businessman, retained the publishing rights through his company Acuff-Rose Publishing. It would turn out to be a good deal for all concerned.
Originally dubbed "Boogie Woogie Shoe Shine Boy," the song's title was changed at the last minute to capitalize on Foley's recent string of Volunteer State-related hits. (In the previous two years, "Tennessee Saturday Night," "Tennessee Border," "Tennessee Polka," and "Sunday Down in Tennessee" had all hit the country Top 10.) Although Paul Cohen was still officially producer on the sessions, Owen Bradley had been assuming more creative control at Decca--working out arrangements and playing piano or organ as needed. He had a definite sound in mind for "Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy."
"My brother had a dance band, and I was working with them," Harold Bradley remembers. "There was a drummer named Farris Coursey. Owen and him were boyhood friends, and I lived next door to Farris. Owen came up to us in the hallway [at WSM] and said, 'We're going to do this song about a shoeshine boy, and see if you can come up with a sound like a rag popping.' We got to the session, and Farris came up with playing his thigh. Actually, he bruised one thigh and ended up on the other one."
Aaron Shelton, one of the recording engineers and one of the owners of Castle, also recalls the unique percussion. "It took quite a long time to get a take to our satisfaction. Ferris Coursey almost wore his leg out."
"Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy" is an example of the developing Nashville Sound at its finest. Over the foundation of Ferris Coursey's thigh slapping, Owen Bradley's austere but dead-on arrangement serves as the perfect showcase for Foley's vocal performance. And the reserved but precise interplay of Grady Martin's and Billy Robinson's solos gives the song an energy that still sounds fresh 50 years later.
The next day's session concentrated on religious material for Decca Records' new "Faith" series. Teaming up with backing vocalists The Jordanaires, a new gospel quartet that had only recently joined the Opry, Foley cut "Just a Closer Walk With Thee," which became a Top 10 hit in July 1950, and "When God Dips His Love in My Heart." He finished the gospel selections with the recitation "Steal Away." Standing at the mic with his eyes closed, Foley delivered a moving rendition that reportedly left Paul Cohen, Ernest Tubb, and Foley's wife Eva in tears. That song too would become a Top 10 hit in May 1950.
Despite the lateness of the hour and the fact that Foley had been singing since the mid-afternoon, the session continued on, with Foley and Ernest Tubb laying down the first two in a series of playful duets--"Tennessee Border No. 2," and "Don't Be Ashamed of Your Age." Both songs soared up the charts only two months later, in January 1950.
Foley took most of the next day off but returned just after midnight for an early-morning session on Nov. 10, this time with a slightly different band--and with stunning results. Guitarist Hank Garland, only a day shy of his 20th birthday, was already considered one of the hottest pickers in Nashville. Not three months before, he'd recorded "Sugarfoot Rag," a hot, self-penned instrumental. Now Garland joined Foley to rerecord the tune, this time with lyrics by Vaughn Horton. The resulting session yielded a swinging, sophisticated, hillbilly number that spotlighted both Foley's unique vocal style and Garland's impressive guitar playing.
Decca released "Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy" backed with "Sugarfoot Rag" on Jan. 23, 1950. The A-side debuted on Billboard's country singles chart the same week of its release and quickly shot to No. 1, spending 13 weeks at the top. The record soon crossed over to the pop chart and ended up spending eight weeks at the top spot. Meanwhile, "Sugarfoot Rag" proved to be more than just a B-side. The song entered the country charts just four weeks after "Chattanoogie" made its debut, spending 20 weeks on the chart and reaching No. 4. It too crossed over to the pop charts, hitting No. 24.
While Foley had been a steady hit-maker for over five years, no one expected the incredible success of "Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy" and "Sugarfoot Rag." "I was only 19 at the time, and I was on top of the world," Billy Robinson recalls. "After 'Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy' hit, I was paid $50 a week not to record with anyone else. Looking back, I guess it was a mistake, but it seemed like a good deal at the time. Grady Martin didn't take the deal, and he made a lot of money recording for other people."
The success of "Sugarfoot Rag" also raised Hank Garland's stock in the music scene. It would forever after be known as his signature tune--a fact that both Foley and Grady Martin respected. "Red would get Hank Garland to play 'Sugarfoot Rag' when he did it on the Opry, because Grady wouldn't do it," Robinson recalls. "It wasn't that Grady couldn't play the part, but it was Hank's tune."
Foley would go on to record many more hit records, including "(There'll Be) Peace in the Valley (For Me)," the first million-selling country gospel record. But even as his career was marked by numerous successes, his life was riddled by a series of tragedies, including the death of his first wife, the suicide of his second wife, a crippling alcohol addiction, and costly battles with the IRS.
Foley died an untimely death in 1968, at the age of 58, but he left behind a legacy of influential recordings. While many of his peers moved in the direction of pop or borrowed from the blues, Foley's best recordings were a perfect mix of these elements while firmly remaining country. In the mid-'50, Elvis Presley, along with many other young rockers, would reconfigure this mixture of country, pop, and R&B into a brand-new style. But when Presley turned his hand to gospel music, he would follow Foley's lead almost exactly.
Sadly, relatively few listeners today recognize Red Foley's lasting influence. But even so, that influence can still be felt, filtered through a thousand subsequent pop-culture innovations. And even if those momentous few days at Castle Studios have long since faded into memory, the beauty of recordings is that as long as they exist, the music is always with us--waiting for the drop of a needle or the flash of a laser to bring it to life again.
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