NARVEL FELTS (By Tony Wilkinson)
Born Albert Narvel Felts, 11 November 1938, near Keiser, Arkansas
It was October 1997 and Narvel Felts took the stage at the bi-annual rock 'n' roll festival at Hemsby, England, backed by one of the top UK groups, The Rimshots. After singing his heart out for around 60 minutes with a carefully selected blistering rockabilly based set and leaving the massed gathering yelling for more, he concluded his act with a rattling shaking version of "Tongued Tied Jill" and then performed a series of press ups on one hand and holding his guitar aloft in the other. With this performance, Narvel had entered into the ranks of the Hemsby elite alongside the likes of The Collins Kids, Ronnie Dawson and The Cadets/Jacks. The consummate professionalism demonstrated by his quasi vibrato high soaring country tinged rockin' vocals and working of the stage was a joy to the eyes and magic to the ears. Felts is clearly a dedicated performer who is intent on giving the audience what it wants and it is little wonder that he has scored hits in every decade from the fifties through to the nineties.
Born on 11th November 1938 in a community near Keiser, Arkansas, Narvel like so many of his contemporaries grew up listening to the honky tonk sounds of Ernest Tubb and Hank Snow and obtained his first guitar at the age of 13, a Gene Autry model which he describes as being held together with a Prince Albert tobacco can and baling wire. The family relocated to the small town of Powe near Bernie, Missouri in 1953 and after picking cotton, he purchased a new guitar from Sears & Roebuck for $15.95 that he still has to this day. Early 1956, Felts entered a high school talent competition and sang "Baby Let's Play House", and "Blue Suede Shoes" as an encore (just imagine being allowed to perform such numbers at any school gathering at that time in Europe, Gilbert and Sullivan was as close as we were allowed to rock out!). Weldon Grimsley, a disc jockey from radio KDEX in nearby Dexter, Missouri, was in the audience and this led to Felts and his friend J.W. Grubbs securing a regular live Saturday afternoon broadcast on the station. On March 24 that year, Narvel met musician Jerry Mercer and proceeded to sit in on some of his gigs, eventually joining up with Mercer and The Rhythm & Blues Boys on a full time basis in July 1956. The outfit had a regular Saturday afternoon broadcast on radio KTCB and, for these, Mercer would record in advance on a portable tape machine. Fortunately some of these tapes have survived and have been issued on the CD "More Radio Rockabillies" (Rockstar RSRCD 012). They demonstrate the emerging fledgling talent of Felts.
1956 was the year that Matt Lucas joined up with Narvel as the drummer for the first time, but the position only lasted two weeks. The guys were on their way back from a show at the B&B Club when they stopped off at a fair in Kennett, Missouri. One of the stalls featured a hootchy kootchy dancer and Matt got a bit carried away and joined in the hootchy kootchying. The original drummer rejoined The Rockets.
Arranged by Roy Orbison, Narvel secured an audition with Sun Records in either August or September 1956. Jack Clement was in charge and told Narvel to write some more songs and come back with the whole band. This did not happen until 23rd January 1957, by which time Jerry Mercer had left the band and they had renamed themselves Narvel Felts and The Rockets. Five songs were cut at that session, which was followed by a further recording date on 5th April at which the boys laid down another five tunes. Clement advised Felts that he thought they had a record worthy of release but that it would take around a year to issue as they had so much other material in front.
Orbison, who was at the session along with Conway Twitty, recommended that both guys look elsewhere for a contract. In March 1957, Narvel had met Fred Varney who had a connection with the Chicago-based Mercury Records and wanted to arrange to sign him to the label. This had to be declined due to the existing Sun contract, but when the pair met up again later that year, the way was clear for Narvel and The Rockets to audition and sign with Mercury. Coincidentally, Twitty also signed with Mercury.
There were three recording sessions for the label between 13th May 1957 and 23rd June 1958 at which a total of 14 sides were laid down and four singles released. One of these was an instrumental titled 'Rocket Ride' (c/w 'Dream World') featuring the sax playing of Jerry Tuttle. A DJ incorrectly played this disc at 33 1/3 rpm and this was heard by Mercury president Art Talmadge who thought it made a great stroll record. Accordingly the disc was re-recorded as 'Rocket Ride Stroll' and reissued with the original flip. Although this is credited to Narvel, the lead sax player on the re-recording is the late Sil Austin. All the Sun and Mercury recordings by Narvel, along with some others, have been gathered together on the Bear Family CD 'Did You Tell Me' (BCD 16220 AH).
Come January 1959, Narvel Felts and The Rockets secured work on the east Canadian circuit as a result of the recommendation of Conway Twitty. The outfit proved so popular that they spent large chunks of 1959 and 1960 in Canada. Back in January 1959, Narvel along with Leon Barnett and Jerry Tuttle wrote the song 'Three Thousand Miles' which they recorded at the CKSL Radio Station, London, Ontario the next month. They also laid down the first attempts at 'Darling Sue' and 'Cutie Baby'. Felts sent the recordings to Mercury but David Carroll, head of A&R, passed and gave Narvel his release from the label. Feeling very strongly about the matter, Narvel accepted the situation and hawked the tapes to Chet Atkins at RCA and Joe Cuoghi at Hi Records. Atkins was reasonably positive whilst Cuoghi was enthusiastic. He called the band to Memphis to re-record the titles and signed Felts as a recording artist. This was the first of Narvel's pactings with Hi. The session duly took place at the Royal Studio, Memphis in May 1959 with Ray Harris producing. It featured Leon Barnett on guitar, J.W. Grubbs on bass, Jerry Tuttle on piano and Memphis drumming legend James Van Eaton. Whilst "Cutie Baby" was successfully completed, the attempts at "Three Thousand Miles" did not come off and so it was decided to stick with the earlier Canadian recording. Joe Cuoghi had an association with Walt Maynard and the disc saw the light of day on the latter's Pink label (# 701). It made waves and was a minor hit in Canada.
This naturally led to a call for follow-up recordings and so Felts and The Rockets fitted in a return to Hi's Royal Studio in the summer of 1959 in between their successful Canadian shows and laid down a further five tracks with Jack Clement and Walt Maynard producing. Two tracks, "Honey Love" c/w "Genavee" were overdubbed at a separate session by the Anita Kerr Singers and selected as the follow-up and issued in November 1959 as Pink 702. This was reasonably successful and gave him his first national chart entry in the US (# 90). Meanwhile up in Canada, Narvel and the boys were experimenting with new songs and laid down some tracks in the studio of CHUM Radio, Toronto including "Lonely Hours". Unfortunately these appear to have been lost as does the recording of "Rosie", which was a home recording by Narvel.
Another two tracks, "Tony" and "Darling Sue" from the summer of 1959 recording session were provided with overdubs by The Jordanaires in 1960 and released as the third Pink single (# 706) the same year. Unfortunately the record failed to chart. Also overdubbed at the same session was the remaining track "Cindy Lou", but this did not see the light of day until 1978 when released in Europe on the White Label.
This effectively terminated Narvel's first period with Hi, as later in 1960, he signed with MGM Records and cut three tracks on 15th September 1960 in Nashville. However, the cuts remained in the can until 1987 when issued on the vinyl album "A Teen's Way" on Bear Family. It was also around this time that Narvel was called up to enlist in the USA Armed Forces. He had to serve for six months in the army and then spent periods for the next six years in the Missouri National Guard. He made his return to the recording studio in late January 1962 and laid down two titles "I Swear By Stars Above" and "Little Miss Blue" which appeared on the small Starline label. This is Narvel's hardest record to locate. In the summer of 1962, Narvel linked up with Roland Janes, the legendary engineer and guitarist who is justly famous for his days with Sun. This association lasted until 1966 and saw seven singles released on several of Roland's labels such as Renay and Ara. One of these, a revival of "Mountain Of Love", started to make waves locally and was leased to the RCA subsidiary Groove Records. Many other recordings were also made, some as demos, for Janes at his Sonic Studio. Matt Lucas had rejoined Narvel as the drummer for the band in 1962 but then he hit big with his revival of "I'm Movin' On". As Narvel describes it, 'one day it was the Narvel Felts band with Matt Lucas on drums, then the next day it was the Matt Lucas Band with Narvel Felts on vocals and guitar'. Matt eventually left the band in 1963 to start out on a solo career.
By mutual consent, and with no recriminations, Narvel left Roland and resigned with Hi Records in 1966. The first session took place at the Royal studio with Ray Harris again producing. "What's The Use" and "Tonight You Belong To Me" were recorded with Bill Rice on piano, Roland Terry on bass and Al Jordan on drums. This was followed by a session with Willie Mitchell producing and featuring Reggie Young and Travis Wammack on guitars and others of the Hi house band such as Bobby Emmons, Tommy Cogbill and Gene Chrisman. Sandra and Donna Rhodes, along with Allen Reynolds who went on to secure fame and fortune in Nashville, handled back-up vocals. The titles were "If I Didn't Care", "It's Too Late" and "To Each His Own". All five of the aforementioned tracks cannot currently be located but they may turn up. But the next session, using basically the same musicians but a different unknown chorus produced the release on Hi 2110 "I'll Trade All My Tomorrows" c/w "The Greatest Gift". This proved to be popular in the Memphis and mid-south area and was soon followed by Hi 2118 "Bells" and "86 Miles", again a local success.
The first Hi release of 1967 was "Don't Let Me Cross Over" c/w "Like Magic" (#2126) , which was followed in the same year by the very popular "Dee Dee"/ "Starry Eyes" (Hi 2137). The final release of this particular signing at Hi came in 1968 and was Narvel's superb revival of the Ivory Joe Hunter song "Since I Met You Baby" (Hi 2141). This was coupled with "I Had To Cry Again". Between 1966 and 1968, Narvel recorded regularly at Hi's Royal Studio with Ray Harris producing and there are at least fifteen titles (such as Sea Of Heartbreak", "Day Dreaming", "Baby Jane", another attempt at "Four Seasons Of Love" and "Sault St. Marie") that have never been issued and currently cannot be located.
Come the seventies, things at Hi Records had changed with the death of Joe Cuoghi in 1970. Nick Pesce had taken over the running of the company with Willie Mitchell producing many of the sessions. The label was developing into one of the leading soul labels out of Memphis but Pesce had his eye on the lucrative country market and so launched the Hi Country label in 1972. Narvel was contacted and re-signed with Hi Records for the third time. There were at least three sessions in that year but this time they took place at the Allied Studio in Memphis with Lewis Willis producing. The core of musicians included Buck Hutcheson (later with Jerry Lee Lewis) and Wayne Cox on guitars, Bobby Stewert on electric bass, Gary Adair on drums and Jimmy Creason. The Rhodes girls (Sandra and Donna) were the back-up vocalists. The first release was "Endless Love" c/w "Walking To The Pearly Gates" on Hi Country 8001. A minor point is that the record when released had the flip as "Walking To The Pearly Gate" but this was a cock-up by Hi Records. This was followed on Hi Country 8002 by one of Narvel's most popular recordings at that time, his revival of the Jarmels' "A Little Piece Of Soap" coupled with "You're Out Of My Reach". This was a big record in Memphis and the immediate tri-state area and even today, when Narvel plays shows in this region, he receives as many requests to sing this song as his subsequent big national smashes.
Sensing that revival of previous hits was a rich vein to be mined, the next release (Hi Country 8003) was Narvel's interpretation of the Charlie Gracie/ Andy Williams hit from 1957, "Butterfly". "Chased By The Dawn" was the flip- side. Again this was a mid south hit and only missed making the national charts by one position. As with his previous tenure at Hi, Narvel made frequent recording trips to the recording studio and there are many recordings, at least ten, remaining unissued. The titles of these include "Blue Darling", "Sound Of The Wind", "Ivory Tower" and the first stab at Troy Shondell's "This Time". As the securing of a national hit by Hi Country proved elusive, the label was folded. Seemingly this was the termination of Narvel's association with Hi Records but read on.
Hi of course did eventually secure some country hits but these were by Jerry Jaye in 1976, the main one being "Honky Tonk Women Love Redneck Men". This is available on the similarly titled compilation of Jaye's country rock output (Edsel EDCD 629).
In 1973, Narvel joined the Nashville base Cinnamon Records and the honey days began. His first release for the label was his version of Ray Smith's "Rockin' Little Angel". Interestingly enough, Smith was signed to Cinnamon at the time and the label had recorded his updated version of his earlier hit. However the label manager and producer Johnny Morris decided to put Narvel's vocals on the same backing track and release as a single, thus securing a minor hit. However it was with his revival of Dobie Gray's "Drift Away" that Narvel went on to core out the mother lode. In 1974, Cinnamon folded and ABC/Dot Records adopted Narvel's contract. This yielded many country hits including his updating of "Reconsider Me" (# 2 country, # 67 pop), originally a R&B come soul hit for the tan canary Johnny Adams and which was voted the number one record of the year in 1975 by Cash Box. His second biggest national hit was a marvelous reading of Jackie Wilson's "Lonely Teardrops" (# 5 country, # 62 pop). Lou Hobbs led the Narvel Felts band around this time.
When Narvel makes a friend, it is usually for life. This is demonstrated by his fourth (unofficial) association with Hi. Feeling a debt of gratitude for those who had persevered with him earlier on, Narvel quietly returned to Memphis between Christmas and New Year 1975 and re-recorded six of his earlier Hi tracks using top Nashville session musicians such as Buddy Harman. The tracks laid down at this session were "This Time/Since I Met You Baby/No One Will Ever Know/Sound Of The Wind/It's All In The Game". Contrary to popular misconception, these titles were not alternative versions cut previously but were fresh recordings. These cuts, along with earlier recordings of "Butterfly/You're Out Of Reach/Chased By The Dawn/A Little Bit Of Soap", resulted in the album "This Time", released in 1976 on Hi SHL 32098. The re-recordings of "This Time" and "I Had To Cry Again" were issued as a single on Hi 2305, also in 1976. It is worth noting that "It's All In The Game", a giant hit in 1958 for Tommy Edwards, was originally written in 1912 by Charles G. Dawes, the later vice-president of the USA under Calvin Coolidge. After his golden days at ABC/Dot, Felts continued to record for a variety of labels and secured regional hits right through to the nineties. At this time of writing (2002) he remains very much in demand as an act to see and his records are constantly played. His most recent CD is "Super Songs Narvelized", released in September 2002. There is no stopping the man.
The foregoing is based on the liner notes for the (UK) Hi CD "Narvel Felts - The Hi Records Era 1959-1973" that I had the privilege of writing. These were a joy to do and the co-operation received from Narvel was above and beyond the call.
Suggested CD listening :
Tony Wilkinson, November 2002
More info : http://www.rockabillyhall.com/NarvelFelts1.html
Discography / sessionography : http://countrydiscography.blogspot.nl/2011/01/narvel-felts.html
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