|Bobby Joe Swilley, The Singing Drummer
New CD out now! "Delta Pride". Country Music with a touch of Blues.
I guess it all started seven miles north of Brandon, Mississippi on Hwy 471 in the small country community known as Langford, Mississippi. The dirt road led to a lot of walking and cotton fields with neighbors scattered here and there, party line phones, radio, fireplace, hard work, and lots of music. My mother, Leota Long Swilley, played piano at Oakdale Baptist Church for fifty years. I was the youngest of six children and would sit on the piano bench with her or on the first pew behind her, still within her reach. I was too young to read but knew and could sing every song. And sang in key, even sang harmony parts but didn't know what it was. I would beat on pots and pans and tin tops at home with kitchen knives. Drove my mother crazy. She finally moved me to the back porch. It didn't take me long to figure out the larger the pan, the deeper the sound. I also played the comb .... wrap paper around the comb and hum into it. The same applies, the larger the comb, the deeper the sound.
I guess that tells you something about our financial situation, but I didn't know any better and was very content playing my home-made instruments. That's when I developed my love for playing drums. I would play pots and pans and mother would play the piano. She played the piano almost everyday when I was a child. We listened to the Grand Ole Opry at night on the radio. I could almost see the singers and musicians and listened to every note. We were cotton farmers so I worked with our Black neighbors in the fields and would pass the black church (Truevine Baptist Church) on our way to Oakdale Church. I would sneak out and walk to the Black Church and listen to the music outside. We had good singing at our church, but this was really different, and I liked it. And I learned it. I spent many nights and Sunday afternoons at that Church. So, finally, they invited me in. I sat in the Amen Corner and became a regular there without my family ever knowing. I knew all of them and they knew me and they knew I loved that sound. I was very comfortable there. I loved that gospel, rhythm, harmony, and emotion in that music.
Probably this blend of white gospel, black gospel, blues, country, hillbilly, cotton fields, harmony influenced me to form my rockabilly music. I continued singing in church and played drums in the Brandon High School Band, directed by Byars Killion. Mr. Killon taught me the basics of reading music and allowed me to ad lib anytime. What a very nice man. He encouraged me to continue in music. He gave me my first drum and I accumulated them one at a time, all different colors but all were Slingerland. I had a snare, stand-mounted tom tom, bass drum, hi-hat, and one 14" ride cymbal. I was ready to play. My first band was Tina and the Tides with Colbert Irby (piano), Tommy Pittman (guitar, and Tina Ranaldo (singer). In 1963 we formed a band called The Starfires with Don Pittman, Tommy Pittman (cousins), Clyde Coley, and myself and played all around Vicksburg and Natchez, Mississippi and up and down the Mississippi River to include Louisiana and Arkansas.
We sure learned some music from some of those river towns. That's where we developed our "Fight Song". Yes, Fight Song. Every band who played those clubs had to have a fight song because the club owners would insist you play fast and loud when a fight would break out. Our fight song was "The Wildwood Flower" and we played it often and loud and fast. I can still see the guitar player hiding behind the juke box, the piano player ducked behind the piano, the bass man against the wall and me sitting behind the drums as low as possible. We never missed a lick. We cut our first record in 1963 at Delta Recording Studio with Jimmy Ammons. Jimmy was a promoter and built a studio in a single garage with egg cartons or something like it on the walls to hold the sound. He was a good friend to all the local musicians and a good man. We cut "Dream Lover" and "It must Be The Wine". We cut both songs in one take, live, no headsets, no over-dubs, no nothing, just play it. That's how you recorded, just play it. Every piece of equipment we had would fit in the trunk and back seat of the car including us.
Our PA system was state of the art: Two 12" speakers that locked together for transporting and fifty feet of speaker wire that wound around the back so we could hang them up in the clubs we played. It also came with a 20 watt amp and we could plug in four microphones. Man, compact and high tech. We were something! We even had band coats. We were sharp. I arranged to buy another tom tom from a friend and now had four drums that didn't match. No problem, Mr. Von Baker, a painter and great guy lived down the road from me and he helped me paint them all chartreuse and we sprinkled glitter on the paint before it dried. Man, now I'm a Real Cat. Matching drums and a band coat. I left glitter on every band stand we played for at least a month. Man, life was good, playing music and making $15.00 to $20.00 per night. We loved every minute of it and our music was pure rockabilly. All that melt of cotton fields, church, rock 'n' roll, Mississippi River and blues. We didn't know it was rockabilly, but we loved playing it.
As we grew in our music, so did our equipment. We even had echo, then reverb, round microphones, goosenecks and worked 3 to 5 nights a week. Man, we were hot. We began to work around the Jackson, Mississippi area. Jackson was loaded with great musicians. Clubs all over town but mostly in the outskirts in the county. Some of the clubs I remember are the Satellite, Embers, Wagon Wheel, Hat and Cane, Peppermint Lounge, Arena Club, Silver Spur, Rotissiere, Whitehouse, Hilltop, Red Lantern, Mr. Rays to name a few. This was a real awakening for us. The musicians working in Jackson were good, real good. They scared us to death and man, could they play. In fact, having traveled all over the country working and playing and listening to music, there was no place you could hear this overall quality of musicians. Jackson just drew the best of music and musicians I, personally, ever heard.
They were truly great talents and they absolutely deserve mentioning and remembering: Bucky Barrett, Richard Thames, Bill Guthke, Jerry Puckett, Key Traylor, Jay Stricker, Alton Lott, James Bailey, Buddy Rogers, Woody Coats, Wray Hixson, Murray Kellum, Howard "BB" Boone, Peggy Paxton, Joe McGuffie, and many more. There was no liquor by the drink so all the clubs were brown-bag supper clubs. Then, there were the County Line Clubs all over the South, especially, Mississippi. Some counties, Mississippi has 82, were dry and others were wet, beer only. So, you simply drove across the nearest county line and fouund a club, we were there. Those were the county line clubs. Most were located out in the country and the wooden chairs, tables, and floors would fill up on Friday and Saturday nights. Man, where did all those people come from. Don't forget the fight song. I worked those clubs with Howard and Robert Roland (Howard, Robert, and Bobby Joe). What a name! We played pure rockabilly, played it loud, and filled up the clubs around Canton, Hwy 16, Carthage, Kosciusko, up and down the Natchez Trace in Mississippi. Don Pittman, Alton Lott, and myself and sometimes Margo Holliday played around Jackson for a few years. We had a good band, played small clubs, but we played that same ole rockabilly and played it good.
Alton decided to move to Kansas City. This left a tremendous void in our band. He was such a vital part of the sound, guitar, vocals, comedy. He would be hard to replace as a musician and a friend. So, we formed the bobby J Trio with Don Pittman, James Bailey, and myself and played local clubs, then signed with The Ralph Gibbs Agency. Ralph was a great musician (Ralph and Lois) and booked us all over the State of Mississippi. We played a lot of conventions from the Gulf Coast to Memphis. Again, we played that same ole rockabilly. Then, I spent a couple of years with Dewey and Leon Miller, One Way Street, (If You're Looking For A Fool). Dewey and Leon are brothers and have some of the best harmony I've ever heard. Great musicians. I now live in Fayetteville, North Carolina and still play music, but not on a regular basis. I play with Bob Jones and the Bobcats. In September, 1998, I was honored to have recorded with Alton and Jimmy back in the original Sun Studio in Memphis, TN. We cut "Rockin' in the Shadow of Sun". This song was released in January, 1999 on the Rockabilly Hall of Fame CD Vol. #2. Man, what a kick that was. This combination and blend of music is very special. And the musicians who played it are equally special. Without a word spoken, these pickers can give you a look, or smile, or some form of communication, that says it all.... "Man, I dig your music". Having worked with and associated with this quality group of musicians has had a profound effect on me and my music.
I'm not sure this music will ever be duplicated. It comes from within the person, the core, the background, the mix of country, rock, hillbilly, blues, gospel. I just don't hear it anymore. I am blessed to have grown up like I did with these tremendous influences and sincerely hope people all over the world can be exposed to this music, the heritage and roots of what it really is, and learn to truly appreciate the music and the musician because they won't hear it anywhere else.
Courtesy of Bobby Joe Swilley, 2001-2002
Bobby Joe was inducted in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame in 1999