Born Jess Willard Griffin, 28 March 1916, Washburn, Texas
I must admit that I had never heard of Jess Willard before the release of his Bear Family CD in 2000. Though he recorded for a major label (Capitol), Willard always remained an obscurity and is ignored by the country music encyclopedias.
Jess was named after the boxer Jess Willard, who won the world championship heavyweight in 1915. Born in a small town in West Texas, he was one of seven children. His two big musical influences were his father, a skilled guitarist who passed onto his son his love for Western music and his technical ability, and his best friend, singer Jack Guthrie (1915-1948), whose early death was a great shock to Jess. By then Willard was living in Los Angeles where he began to appear with Ole Rasmussen and his western swing band. It was while sitting in with Rasmussen at Harmony Park Ballroom, singing Jack Guthrie's "Oklahoma Hills" (a # 1 country hit in 1945), that he was heard by Lee Gillette, then head of Capitol's country department. Gillette signed him to Capitol and produced Willard's first session, on June 14, 1950, in Hollywood. When Capitol decided to put Gillette in their pop division, his A&R hillbilly position on the West Coast was taken over by Ken Nelson, who would produce all subsequent Capitol sessions by Willard. Gillette and Nelson noticed that Jess had trouble staying in tune on slow songs, but his vocal limitations were less apparent on up-tempo material. Most of his recordings are good-time honky tonk country, with a touch of western swing. As Jess was no great songwriter, Capitol seemed to regard him at first as a vehicle for covers of other's hits (like Lefty Frizzell's "If You've Got the oney Honey"), but from his third session on, Willard sought original material from friends like Tex Atchison (a fiddler in Rasmussen's band) and Eddie Hazelwood. They were the writers of "Honky Tonk Hardwood Floor" (recorded on May 3, 1951, Capitol 1562), probably Willard's main claim to fame, especially after it was revived by Johnny Horton at the end of 1957.
The Capitol recordings benefited greatly from the work of well-known West Coast session men like Jimmy Bryant, Speedy West and Cliffie Stone, and from humourous lyrics ("Mail Order Mama", "Turn That Gun Around", for instance), but none of Willard's 13 Capitol singles made any significant commercial impact. After a session in September 1952, his Capitol contract was not renewed and Jess would not record again for three years. In the summer of 1953, Willard and Eddie Hazelwood headed to Korea to entertain troops, followed by a four and a half month tour of the Far East.
In 1954 Jess befriended Hank Cochran, who was working in duet with teenage guitarist and future rock 'n' roll star Eddie Cochran. Though they were unrelated, the duo billed themselves as the Cochran Brothers. In 1955, the Cochrans toured northern California with Willard, then joined him for a time as members of the California Hayride in Stockton. Jess recorded Hank's "Every Dog Has His Day" and his own "Don't Hold Her So Close" for the Ekko label in Hollywood, with lead guitar from Eddie. A fine record, issued in October 1955 (Ekko 1018), but unfortunately it would remain Willard's only Ekko release.
When the Cochrans split and left the Hayride, Willard stayed, settling in Auburn, near Sacramento. He was a popular local radio personality and recorded two one-off singles for small labels (Kay-Hi, Sundown) before he died of a heart attack on May 26, 1959, at the age of only 43. Willard was, as Hank Cochran put it, "solid country ... no pretense at all. He was as down to earth as you can get." In the late 1970s, some of his recordings were rediscovered by country fans, and one track, "Honky Tonkin' All the Time" was included on a Charly anthology in the early 1980s. Had he been alive, Willard would probably be amazed that people are still listening to his music in the 21st century.
CD : Jess Willard, Honky Tonk Hardwood Floor (Bear Family BCD 16256). 28 tracks, two previously unissued. Released in 2000.
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