Exclusive interview for Rockabilly Bash with bass player of Bob Luman and Ricky Nelson - James Kirkland.
Rockabilly Bash. When and why did you start playing bass?
JK. I tried playing fiddle, guitar, and mandolin and none of them seemed to be working out. The bass was just natural to me. First time I picked one up, a week to ten days later I was working. Playing well enough to get along, but it was a learning process from there. I had just turned fifteen years old, so it was 1949.
RB. Who were your main influences?
JK. My step dad, whom I called dad, was my biggest influence. He gave me more support than anyone else ever did.
RB. What was the first band you have played with?
JK. The first band I played professionally with was a group out of Texarkana. I had a little trio in high school for a couple of years called the Bearcat Playboys. The guys in the band were classmates and friends of mine: Bobby Allday and Bobby Cargile.
RB. Did you always play the honky tonk and rockabilly? Have you ever tried any other styles?
JK. I play anything. I play old standards, gospel, light jazz, rockabilly, rock and roll, country, western swing, and bluegrass. I donít do acid rock because I just donít like it. Thereís nothing to it. Anyone can turn up a knob and get loud.
RB. How did you came to "triple slap" style of playing?
JK. I began playing bass like Bill Black. In 1956, I met a guy named Curly Johns, who was stationed at the Air Force bass in Bossier City. I liked what he was playing, so I bugged him until he showed me how to play what he was playing. Curly told me he had to pay someone $500 to have the tricks taught to him, but he would show me for free, but only once. It took me six months to get it down to where I wouldnít make a mistake. I took what I learned from him and gradually kept adding to it.
RB. Have you ever tried to play other musical instruments besides the upright bass?
JK. I have tried and can play today the guitar, fiddle, and mandolin.
RB. How often could you hear "rockabilly" word in the 50's? I guess this description of music is more popular nowadays than back then or am I wrong?
JK. In the 50s, every now and then someone would refer to it as rockabilly. Rock and roll was associated with Elvis but when country musicians started adding a beat to their songs; they called it rockabilly.
RB. As we know you are not only talented musician, but also great song writer. Do you still compose any songs?
JK. Every now and then Iíll write a little old song. I donít do anything with them, but Iíll still write one or start one. Iíll run across songs I wrote twenty-five or thirty years ago, and Iíll take them and do a little more with them. You get beat out of what youíre written, so I donít care to do anything with them nowadays.
RB. Your musical life was very interesting. You have played with many musician, backed many famous singers, appeared in movies, radio and tv shows. So lets remember step by step how it was... What would you consider to be your first real move to music business?
JK. My first real gig was the Louisiana Hayride.
RB. What did it give you working at Lousiana Hayride? Do you have any special memories from those times?
JK. I got paid $12.65 every Saturday night for working on the Hayride. I was a staff member, and it gave me exposure and experience. I met Bob Luman and James Burton on the Hayride. One memorable experience I had was back in 1957 where I got to sing. A girl by the name of Martha Lynn had heard me sing from somewhere. I was playing bass for her, and she just called me up and introduced me that I was going to sing a song. That was the first time I had ever sung in front of an audience of that size. The song was a country number called ďAfraid to Love You.Ē My step dad used to sing that all the time, and that was the reason I picked it. I got a good reaction from singing it.
RB. What was your first impression of Bob Luman?
JK. Bob had a lot of talent. Good entertainer. Even when he started, it was all excitement. When he hit the stage, he didnít just stand there and sing. He did a lot of moving around. No dance steps like Elvis though. He interacted with us musicians. He was exciting to watch because he was so energetic and never stopped. He enjoyed himself, which is what youíre supposed to do.
RB. When was the Shadows formed? When and where the first recording took place?
JK. In 1955, Bob worked with a group called the Shadows. They were from Weatherford, Texas. They all had families and didnít want to tour. They decided to leave Bob, but Bob wanted to keep the name. Somebody notified Bob that he couldnít use the name because someone already had a copyright on it. He would have to get their permission. He just quit using it instead of going to all that trouble. Butch White, the drummer, had played with Bob and the Shadows. He hadnít quit when the other guys did, so the drum head kept the name painted on it. I know we are referred to as the Shadows because of the movie, but we were really never known as that.
RB. In 1957 you were involved to the movie "Carnival Rock". Can you think about it like the big step in your career?
JK. There wasnít any money made out of Carnival Rock. I never thought of it as a big deal, just another day to play. It was a trip to California. I thought when I saw the big Hollywood sign that I had arrived. Thatís the most disappointed I ever was in my life. Everyone out there lives in a dream world.
RB. Why did you stop playing with Bob Luman and becoming the part of Ricky Nelson's band?
JK. We werenít making any money playing with Bob that amounted to anything, so thatís why we quit. I even took out of my pocket to help Bob pay his expenses because I thought that was the thing to do. I donít know how it would have turned out had I stayed with Bob. Bob might have done to us what Elvis did to Scotty, Bill, and DJ.
RB. What was the reaction of Bob Luman? Who he went on to play with?
JK. He understood and actually expected it. He said that he didnít blame me. That was one of the hardest things I had to do in my life because I thought a lot of Bob. I had rather take a beating than quit Bob. Bob ended up hiring Joe Osborn to play bass and Roy Buchanan to play guitar. Roy was one of the finest guitar players ever. He could play everything.
RB. You have known personally and played with such popular singers as Bob Luman and Ricky Nelson. Was it easy to play with both of them? Was their relation to the music the same?
JK. Yeah, it was easy to play with both of them. Bob liked the stuff that was exciting plus a good ballad where Rick on the other hand experimented with lots of stuff. I didnít particularly like that. A&R man Jimmie Haskell told us what to play and how to play it. That takes away from the feel. We were playing old standards at the time. When we went into the studio with Bob, we knew what we were going to play beforehand and stuck to it. Rick would go over the songs with us too, but Jimmie Haskell would change it. Rick wouldnít go against what Jimmie said. We had to play what Jimmie said. Ozzie had some control too. He made Rick change the lyrics for ďMy Bucketís Got a Hole in It.Ē The line was changed from hold no beer to hold no more.
RB. When did you return to Bob Luman? What was the reason for leaving Nelson?
JK. I quit Rick in the early summer of 1960. We only worked during the summer on tours and then in the studio or on the show. Half the time was spent back in Texas and Louisiana, so it was a waste of time for us. We didnít play enough, and we couldnít work with anyone else because of our contracts. We refers to me and James Burton. He originally quit Rick too.
RB. Have you tried being the lead singer?
JK. When the Blue Boys and I played clubs with Jim Reeves, the band and I would play for an hour. I would sing for the most part. We also did some instrumentals. Then Jim would come on and do his hour. Then we had an intermission. The band and I would come on again for another forty-five minutes, and Jim would end the show with a forty-five minute set. I sang a little bit of everything: old standards, rockabilly, country, and Bob Willsí songs. I used to sing ďShake, Rattle, and RollĒ and ďSuzie Q.Ē
RB. Have you ever thought to form your own band and sing vocal in it?
JK. Yes, I had my own band for three or four years in the mid 60s. I did the majority of the singing.
RB. After Bob Luman got drafted into the army, you went to work to Grand Old Opry. Playng the bass was your normal job, but how difficult for you was to start making comedy routine?
JK. It was difficult, hardest thing in the world to do. Just because you laugh at the jokes doesnít mean they are funny. What we did was a hit. Everyone laughed. It was entertaining, a throwback to slapstick comedy. We added new stuff and changed the routine around frequently. Jim never knew what we were going to do or when we were going to do it.
RB. When and why did you quit the music business?
JK. Around 1965, I quit the music business professionally. I moved from Nashville back to Texas. I had gone from 180 pounds to 120. I was thoroughly sick and disgusted with giving all I had, and it didnít seem like it was appreciated. The musicians felt like if they paid a salary then they didnít need to say thanks. I had had enough.
RB. What have you been doing since then?
JK. I had my own welding business for several years.
RB. What kind of the upright bass do you own now? Is it still the same you have played years ago?
JK. I still have my Kay that I bought used in 1958. Itís the same one I played with Rick. I no longer have the one that was used in Carnival Rock. That was the bass that was lavender and had my name on it. It was sold many years ago without my consent.
RB. What do you think about rockabilly music nowadays? Have it changed?
JK. I havenít heard enough of it to make a comment.
RB. Can you name any musician from nowadays you probably would enjoy to play with?
JK. Again, I canít really say because I donít really know any rockabilly musicians of today. I would enjoy playing with Suzy Dughi and her husband Buddy again though. I would also be up to playing with Rickís sons. I have never met them.
RB. On the 13th of October your rockabilly show took place in California. You have not performed for 47 years! Were you nervous?
JK. I wasnít really nervous, more excited than anything. I had butterflies at first, but thirty seconds after I was playing they were gone. Then I was enjoying myself. If you donít have butterflies, you need to stay at the house cause youíre missing the whole deal.