Born Lewi Werly Fairburn, 27 November 1924, New Orleans, Louisiana
Werly Fairburn was basically a country singer who flirted with rock & roll for only a few years (1955-57). Unlike a lot of post-twenty year old country artists, who sounded awkward trying to reach out to the youth market, he took naturally to rockabilly and the recordings he made during that period are held in high regard by fans of the genre.
Fairburn was born in the Charity Hospital in New Orleans but his parents lived on a farm near Folsom, Louisiana. His father (who died when Werly was only 13) had bought a guitar for his three sons but Werly was the only one interested in playing the instrument. An old black farmer living nearby taught him how to play “blue guitar” (as Fairburn later called it in an interview).
Farming was not for Werly and he left for New Orleans, working in a shipyard. In WW II he was enlisted into the Navy and sent to Honolulu, Hawaii. After the war he enrolled in Muller’s Barber School in New Orleans on the G.I. Bill. Werly began playing hillbilly music on the side and became known around New Orleans as the Singing Barber. Later he got a show on WWEZ in the Crescent City. In the early 1950s he decided to learn music formally and took courses at the Gruenwald School of Music. Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers were his main influences. Photos from the 1950s show him to be a good-looking guy with dark slicked back hair and a rakish moustache.
In February 1953 Fairburn cut four numbers for Lillian McMurry’s Trumpet label. This resulted in the single “Camping With Marie”/“Let’s Live It Over” ; the other two songs are unissued and considered lost. The next year his contract was picked up by Capitol’s Ken Nelson. Three singles appeared in 1954 (among them a cover of Al Terry’s “Good Deal Lucille”) but sales were poor and Nelson lost his interest in Fairburn. One of the Capitol sides, Werly’s self-penned “I Feel Like Cryin’”, became a # 7 country hit for Carl Smith in 1956. Meanwhile, Fairburn’s popularity increased through appearances on the Grand Ole Opry, the Louisiana Hayride and the Big D Jamboree in Dallas.
Werly's next stop was Columbia Records. Sessions were held in June 1955 and April 1956. It was his first Columbia single, “I Guess I’m Crazy”, that would become his meal ticket. First Tommy Collins cut it for Capitol (a # 13 country hit in 1955) ; then Jim Reeves recorded the song in May 1964. After Reeves was killed in a plane crash in July 1964, it leapt to # 1 on the country charts, staying there for seven weeks.
The second Columbia session had Werly try his hand at rockabilly for the first time, though he didn’t particularly like rock & roll. Both “Everybody’s Rockin’” and “I’m Jealous” (unissued at the time) were excellent rockers. But Columbia didn’t pick up their option to renew his contract and Fairburn moved to Savoy, the New Jersey-based R&B and jazz label. “All the Time”/“I’m A Fool About Your Love” was his debut single on Savoy. A classic rockabilly double-sider, with memorable double bass introductions and sprightly piano work from an unknown keyboardist. It even got a surprise release in the UK, on the London label (HLC 8349). The second Savoy single, recorded in early 1957, coupled “My Heart’s On Fire” with “Speak To Me Baby”, again a very good two-sider. Savoy kept the faith and released “Telephone Baby”/“No Blues Tomorrow” in September 1957 but they were out of their depth in the country/rockabilly market.
Disillusioned by his lack of success, Fairburn moved to Los Angeles, where he co-founded Milestone Records in 1959. He recorded poppy material for the label, both under his own name and as Jack Hammer (not the “Great Balls of Fire” guy). Distribution and payment problems caused the label to fold, despite scoring two hits, “Diamonds and Pearls” by the Paradons (# 18, 1960) and “Lover’s Island” by the Blue Jays (# 31, 1961).
Fairburn divorced and remarried, settled in the San Gabriel Valley (east of L.A.) in 1965, formed a new label (Fair-Lew) and, a few years later, a country band but success kept eluding him. In 1972 he developed the painful Reynauld’s Syndrome, which affected his guitar playing. Lung cancer was discovered in 1982. He fought the disease for three years but died on January 18, 1985, at the age of sixty.
More info :
Discography / sessionography :
Acknowledgements : Colin Escott, Craig Morrison, Bruce Eder.
Dik, January 2016
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