BENNIE HESS (By Klaus Kettner with Tony Wilkinson)
Born 10 February 1914, Chriesman, Texas
There have been many colourful characters in the record business and Bennie Hess is way up there on the list. Some, but not all, of his traits were as a hillbilly singer and guitarist, fanatical follower of (country) Jimmie Rodgers, an avid Ernest Tubb stylist, a persistent eccentric record man for over 30 years, a born optimist, a natural hustler and a raconteur of tall stories - this and much more was Bennie Hess. His story telling, imagination for promotion (including 3-D recording) and productions are legendary. Whilst Hess probably had a bit of the "carny" in him much as Colonel Tom Parker or Major Bill Smith, his schemes and ideas were generally in the name of promotion and like the legendary circus man H. B. Barnum, were on the fun side of show business.
The song 'Long Tall Texan' could have been written for him as he was 6'6" tall and weighed around 230 pounds full of dynamic power packed entertainment. Born on 10th February 1914 in the small town of Chriesman, Texas, he was the third of four children sired by father Vestral (or Festo) 'Cap' Hess (of German descent). Vestral had worked on the railroad with the legendary 'Singing Brakeman' Jimmie Rodgers, who had stayed at the Hess household. Rodgers allegedly entertained the young Bennie with songs well into the night. Jimmie taught Bennie to play the guitar and Carrie Rodgers (Jimmie's widow) later bestowed Jimmie's guitar upon Bennie. This became Hess's most prized possession that, according to the serial number, was the first Martin Guitar ever made! It is an established fact that Bennie hero-worshipped the musician.
It comes as no surprise therefore that the influence of Rodgers' famous yodelling and blues style can be distinctly heard on many of the records that Bennie produced for himself and others. At the age of 14, he left school and started travelling on trains, hitchhiking with just his guitar for company, entertaining in every town and state many times. Due to a shortage of money, Hess was frequently forced into eating raw vegetables that he found on the sides of streets. He subsequently formed The Rhythm Wranglers and had his first radio show on station KFYO in Lubbock, Texas. As a side note, Hess is credited for providing the first show on 43 different radio stations in Texas. Bennie has laid claim to opening the first Texan recording studio, pressing plant and plating plant for phonograph records around 1943 time. This is perhaps unusual as the second world-war was raging and there was a shortage of vinyl. Hess has also stated that he produced Harry Choates on his classic song "Jole Blon" for his Gold Star label in Houston Texas. It is known that that the song was recorded on 31st March 1946 in the studio of Bill Quinn. It is conceivable that Bennie was involved in some way, but, as is often the case with his biography, one can never be completely confident. Around the time of this recording, Hess was performing on Radio KRLP's Cornbread Matinee sponsored by Hal Horton of the Hillbilly Hit Parade fame in Dallas, Texas.
Venturing out to California in 1947, Bennie secured a contract with the new Black & White Record label. This same company featured blues and Rhythm & Blues greats such as T-Bone Walker. The first release by Hess was 'Someday You'll Know/You Just Won't Do' (# 10018) a and this appears to have gained him roles in B-movie westerns appearing as a singing cowboy alongside the likes of Tim Holt. The second record was 'Blue Monday Night/Wastin' My Time' and was a commercial failure. However, Hess was preparing to launch his own Opera Records. Probably because he was still under contract to Black & White Records, Hess released his first record on Opera under the name of Georgie Harrison with the Nation's Play Boys in 1948.
The union recording ban took effect in 1948, forcing many labels to close down. However unconcerned by the union, Hess recorded a string of releases during this year ending up becoming his busiest period. In addition to his own releases, he produced the first recordings by Iry LeJeune and secured a territorial big seller. This was the start of the resurgence of the accordion in Cajun music. Three more records followed on Opera before he gained a deal with major label Mercury, who released his 'Tonight And Every Night' (#6121) that became hit and went to number 1 on several local charts in July 1948. With this success, Mercury decided to release the follow-up record 'With You I'd Be Satisfied/Come On Home Where You Belong' (#6147) in late 1948. However, Bennie ran into trouble with Mercury when they discovered that he had bootlegged this release on his own Opera Records with the result that they terminated his contract. With characteristic exaggeration, Hess later recalled that he was on "the brink of stardom" when this setback occurred. He followed this with seven more of his own releases on Opera through to 1951. For the last Opera release he offered the dealers, in a March 1951 advertisement, a sure-fire hit or 100% returns on records purchased. However, the dealers were unmoved. His Opera label artist Floyd LeBlanc left by signing with Virgil Bozman´s new OT label whilst Iry LeJeune pacted with Eddie Shuler. Despite having good distribution in key markets, Hess did little more to develop his label beyond its being an outlet for his own recordings. It is interesting to note is, that the label's address switched back and forth between Houston, Texas and Los Angeles, California. Back in Houston, he recorded some of his songs at the ACA Studio, a facility known for its high quality sound.
Once again he out manoeuvred himself by renting a hole-in-the-wall building on Washington Avenue, down the street from ACA Studio. Bennie and a welder named Leo Holmes launched Bennie Hess & Co. Inc. 'Voices & Music Recording' by investing a total of $1.500.00. Even back then, this was not a lot of money to start up a recording facility as, for example, the main tape machine alone at ACA cost more than that. This provides some idea of the quality of the recordings produced by Hess at this set-up. Around 1953, he launched the OK'ed label that at a quick glance resembled the old Okeh label, which at this point was defunct but shortly afterwards was reactivated by its parent company Columbia. One record (that Hess recorded) was issued under the name of Buddy Page accompanied by C.F. Pevoto on accordion. The latter was given the credit on the instrumental A side.
Again, only a limited amount of records on the label were by other artists such like Ok´'ed 1022 by Bennie Leaders. The B-side of this record was 'Hey Miss Fanny', a cover of the Clovers Rhythm & Blues song and is well ahead of its time. It brings to mind the Cat Music that was going to sweep the world in a musical avalanche. In late 1954 he started his Jet label, upon which he had four own releases, but closed down the operation in late 1955. Other artists on the label were old time country and western singers like Marie Corley, Houston Slim, Sleepy Skidmore and Doyle Jones. For his recording of Jimmie Rodgers' 'Travelling Blues' (#1914) he used Jimmie's old band including fiddle player Shelley Lee Alley. He returned to the ACA studio and recorded some good artists. The time was right as the independent Texas scene had started to boom.
A relatively unknown fact is that the performing career of Elvis Presley really launched in Houston in late 1954, when disc jockey Biff Collie took up Elvis's management and brought in his first hit on Radio KNUZ, Houston with "That's All Right Mama". He secured bookings for Presley at Magnolia Gardens, the Eagle's Hall, the Palladium Club, Cooks Hoedown, etc., as well as the Louisiana Hayride and the dee jay´s own Collie´s Corner. Biff Collie firmly believed that Hess also had what it took to succeed. Bennie and other of his recording artists appeared on the shows Collie promoted, right behind the King. The problem was that Jet Records was small, even when compared to Sun Records, and thus lacked effective distribution. The sole distributor for the recordings made or produced by Hess was H. W. Daily who spent the majority of his efforts in promoting his own discovery, George Jones. Hess recalled that Jones was a member of the Hess band for a few months in 1949 before he set about launching his solo career. Bennie performed on the Louisiana Hayride with his portion being sponsored by radio KWKH radio for quite a while and when he relocated to Nashville, he has repeatedly stated that he received an A#1 rating at the Grand Ole Opry when he performed on the show. However, his backing band of Texas musicians would get homesick and so they returned to Texas playing the clubs, theatres and auditoriums. In early 1956, he formed a new label called Spade which has subsequently become much sought after amongst rockabilly collectors. The reason for this is that Hess recorded some great rockabillies such as Royce Porter, Jack Prince and Ray Doggett The last mentioned cut 'Go Go Heart' (Spade # 1928) in August 1956 and 'It Hurts The One Who Loves You' (Spade #1932) in January 1957. These titles are included on the Ray Doggett album 'Doggone It Doggett' (Hydra LP BLK 7709). In mid-1956, Bennie met talented Vern Pullens at a radio station in Missisippi and added him to his artist roster. Working as a bricklayer, Pullens could only record at weekends with the result that on 27th September 1956, 'Bop Crazy Baby' was laid down at the KTRH studio in Houston. Today, this is justifiably regarded as one of the all time great rockabilly recordings. A second session produced more songs but which remained unissued at that time. Royce Porter had sent Hess a demo tape that, upon hearing, resulted in Bennie driving almost instantaneously from Houston to Brownwood, Texas to sign him for Spade. However, after a meagre five releases, it was all over for Spade Records and the label folded in December 1957. Hess would reactivate in the seventies to satisfy the cravings of European collectors by re-releasing some of his older recordings and productions along with some new recordings by artists such as Carl Gillion, Paul Cross and Vern Pullens again. Also included were recordings by Tarapin Jackson, an alter ego for Bennie.
Broke again, he found a new love by the name of Pearl, married her and named his new label after her. He had two releases on the Pearl label till early 1958 and also was the singer on two issues released under the name of Idaho Bill Westfall with his Smokey River Boys (Pearl #707) and Rocky Night singing with his Night Cats (Pearl #708). The last mentioned is one of Hess's strongest rockabilly recordings. In May 1958, he released another record by Ray Doggett, 'That´s The Way Love Is' (Pearl #717). Come August 1958, another label, this time called Major. This saw the release of what is probably his best known song, namely 'Wild Hog Hop' (Major #1001). Bennie went on to re-record this title a further four times as well as leasing the original cut as well. (It gets confusing tracing the recording history of Bennie Hess). His second and last release, on Major, was 'Walking That Last Mile/Life's Meditations' (#1006) that came complete with a picture insert and was alleged to have been recorded in a prison cell. Hank Snow later covered this disc.
He also wrote the rockabilly type song 'Is There No Woman For My Love' which was recorded by J. McAdams. After two releases on Tap, he recorded for Musicor under the name of Big Ben Hess. Additionally, he also had a release under the name of Little Boy Bluehorn on Space # 1963 that was recorded in his home town of Chriesman, Texas. From here on out, Hess often used the year of release as the record number on his various labels. He also established his own publishing company Granwealth, and later Showay to enable him to collect his composer's royalties. In the mid-sixties he married again and his wife Dorothy gave birth to their sons Troy and Roger plus daughters Colleen and Jan. He retired from active travelling engagements in 1964 and opened the very successful Sportsman Capitol Hunting Resort near Caldwell, Texas, where hunters were entertained in a real western atmosphere by Bennie and his Jimmie Rodgers guitar out under the Texas stars.
Another nom de plum he used was Sol The Yodelling Voyager for his 1969 Star Tone (#1969) release. Ever the hustler, Bennie returned to Houston briefly around 1970 and called on Bill Holford, whose ACA Studios had expanded. Bill recalls: 'Bennie possessed several tape recordings of when Biff Collie interviewed Elvis in 1954-55. He had worked out a script whereby he wanted me to edit Elvis's words so that when they were played in the sequence he worked out, Elvis would appear to be congratulating Bennie for discovering him, rather than Biff! It wasn't possible to do. Even if it had been, I wouldn't have done it. I don't think his intentions were honest'. Hess returned to Nashville where he remained for several years.
Through the seventies and early eighties, Bennie concentrated on two labels. One was the aforementioned Spade Records for his rockabilly efforts and the other was Showland that was used mainly for his own releases, as well as several for his son Troy Hess. On Showland 1313 he re-released "Wild Hog Hop" and promoted it as a true story, declaring it to be one of the 'most sought after records of the entire world'. He spent most of the rest of his life promoting his son Troy as the world's youngest country and western singer. Seemingly, the public was not ready for a six-year old honky tonk singer. Troy was already a veteran at the age of seven when he recorded 'Please Don't Go Topless, Mother'.
Reputedly, Troy had made his first stage appearance at the age of two and had recorded his first record at the age of four. Bennie fronted the band acting as emcee for the shows that were popular at fairs and sometimes even performed magician tricks. He played on most of Troy's recordings as well as dueting with him. Some of the songs released on Showland by Troy were: 'Money Tree', 'When My Blue Moon Turns To Gold Again', 'Bayou Boogie', 'Old Sam', 'Jambalaya', 'You Oughta See Pickles Now', 'Mystery Train', 'I Forgot To Remember To Forget' and 'Troy Hess Boogie'. Troy still performs in Texas with his latest band called Zebra Three. In 1974 Bennie underwent a successful open heart surgery in Nashville's Baptist Hospital and afterwards still played the occasional date. In the late seventies, the BBC from England made the documentary series 'All You Need Is Love' and included Bennie Hess singing one song in the episode titled 'Folk Music Made In USA'.
Bennie died in 1984 and was buried at the McClelland Community Cementary, Texas beside his mother and father in law, sadly without achieving the success that he constantly strived for. Noland Porterfield investigated and interviewed Bennie Hess for his book 'Jimmie Rodgers: The Life And Times Of America´s Blue Yodeller' about the two mysterious acetates he owns of the unknown Jimmie Rodgers recordings of 'Tennessee Mama Blues" and "I Love You Yet'. Porterfield concludes in his book that these sides, which Rodgers supposedly gave to the young Hess, are legitimate whilst other music historians believe that they are actually Bennie Hess recordings, which he released on his Showland label 0001. UK music researcher Derek Glenister relates a story where Hess sent him some albums on Elvis Presley. They seemed to be portions of Louisiana Hayride shows and interviews. The first interview was supposedly of a young Elvis at the age of 13 in 1948 'apparently at a filling station' but the voice sounded as it may have been speeded up to make the speaker appear young. Doctored photographs were also part of the production. Allegedly, there was a warehouse full of these albums but these were either discarded and/or legally stopped. Whatever the veracity of the stories of Bennie Hess, the music industry was enriched by this hyperbole character. The industry benefited immensely from his character and he inspired many to look into learning guitar tabs in an effort emulate the country legend. Certainly, the scene would certainly have been much poorer if there had not been Bennie Hess. He recorded some great country and rockabilly songs and produced some timeless music on other artists.
By Klaus Kettner with Tony Wilkinson.
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