Houston's Historic Starday Records: The Earliest Singles
Houston businessman Harold "Pappy" Daily's sons Don and Bud founded Cactus Records in 1975.
In 1952, Houston jukebox operator and record distributor Harold "Pappy" Daily and Jack Starnes, Lefty Frizzell's manager, formed their own record label. A combination of both men's names, the tiny Starday actually began recording operations in Starnes' house in Beaumont and released its first 45, Mary Jo Chelette's "Gee It's Tough To Be 13" b/w "Cat Fishing," in early 1953.
Over the next five years, Starday went from a bedroom operation to one of the most important regional labels in the country. Along the way, it would serve as a regional springboard for the popular new craze known as rockabilly as well as a label noted for its roster of important regional artists and eventual national country stars.
Daily and Starnes released 16 singles in their first year of operation, and seem to have skipped over No. 8 and No. 13, as no information is available on those series numbers. Several of these were by the same artists, as it was not unheard of to release several singles per year to feed the bulldog that is mainstream radio. While only one of the tunes from the first year caused much of a ripple outside the Gulf Coast area, they do give a fascinating representation of the sounds that certainly filled local joints and radio stations, and also offer a measure of how much talent there was in the local market.
Mary Jo Chelette, "Gee It's Tough to Be 13" b/w "Cat Fishing" Starday 101 featured a sometime performer of the Louisiana Hayride. Mary Jo Chelette (Campbell) has virtually vanished from the public record, but a deep Google search reveals that she, as part of the Chelette Sisters, had equal billing with Elvis Presley at a benefit show in Port Arthur in November 1953. Hank Snow was the headliner.
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Chelette also worked with Blackie Crawford and the Western Cherokees, Lefty Frizzell's backing band, so in all likelihood she was an artist in Starnes' orbit -- he was also a booking agent -- and came to Starday via him.
Blackie Crawford and the Western Cherokees, "Cherokee Steel Guitar" b/w Mariuch" Starday 102 was a jumping Western swing instrumental by Lefty Frizzell's backing band, so here is another Starnes talent/booking connection. Frizzell was a very big star, and after using musicians out of Dallas for most of his recording and touring, Frizzell formed the Western Cherokees in 1951.
They recorded a few sides for Coral before Daily and Starnes moved in to record them as a Starday act. Crawford cowrote Frizzell's 1951 No. 1 hit, "Always Late With Your Kisses." The Western Cherokees were based in Houston until Ray Price fired the Drifting Cowboys, Hank Williams' old band, and brought the Western Cherokees to Nashville to record with him. They became Ray Price's famed Cherokee Cowboys. Crawford worked a few months with Price in 1954.
Bob Heppler, "If You Don't Mind b/w I Don't Like It" Starday 103 featured another member of the Western Cherokees, fiddler Bob Heppler. Heppler played in a number of bands in the Dallas area, and even worked in Lawton, Okla. with Tommy Allsup for a spell. Heppler was another artist in Starnes' stable. Heppler has all but vanished except for the few sides he cut for Starday, none of which made much headway.
Arlie Duff, "You All Come" b/w "Poor Old Teacher" Starday 104 finally brought the label some public attention. Arlie Duff, also a member of the Western Cherokees, had been writing songs for years while he taught school by day and played music at night. He came to the attention of Port Arthur disc jockey Gordon Baxter, who knew Daily and Starnes well.
Duff cut "You All Come" (later shortened to "Y'all Come") at ACA Studios on Westheimer in 1953 with the Western Cherokees backing. The song went wildly popular, first in the Houston area before spreading across the South and then the entire nation. By 1954, Duff was so popular he was made the feature attraction of KNUZ's Houston Hometown Jamboree, and "Y'all Come" became the theme song. Bing Crosby, Patti Page, Bill Monroe, and George Jones were some of the dozens of artists who have covered the song. Duff later became a popular disc jockey at Austin's KOKE-FM during the '60s.
Starday 105 was another Western Cherokees single, "Hat Check Girl" b/w "Huckleberry Pie"
Starday 106 was another Arlie Duff single, "Stuck In a Mud Hole b/w "A Million Tears"
Starday 107 was another Bob Heppler single, "Handle With Care" b/w "One Step Ahead"
Patsy Elshire, "Two Can Play That Game b/w "Someday I Know He Will" Starday 109 was the first inkling that the fledgling label was going to be on the cutting edge of the rockabilly phenomenon. Patsy Elshire was a hot young firecracker with a bit of that Elvis hiccup in her delivery and that sexy growl that made Wanda Jackson a star. She recorded eight sides for Starday before getting an offer from Capitol Records, where she cut one single that went nowhere.
Bill Potter, "I Lost My Gal" b/w "Nobody Knows" Starday 110 featured KNUZ DJ Bill Potter. It is immediately apparent upon hearing the tracks that Potter, who was also known as Cactus Bill, didn't have the necessary pizzazz or sexiness to be a hit singer. Potter had stints at KFI-TV in Los Angeles and KPRC-TV in Houston, but found himself doing a daily television program in Corpus Christi called "Flying 22 Ranch" in 1954.
Starday 111 was another Potter single, "Honk Your Horn" b/w "Cry Not For Me"
Starday 112 was another Mary Jo Chelette single, "Son of Mexican Joe" b/w "You Can Be the One"
Story continues on the next page.
Sonny Burns, "Blue Blue Rain" b/w "Though You're In My Arms" Starday 114 was a hard country single by George Jones's hard drinking friend, Sonny Burns. Burns was a member of popular performer Eddie Noack's band when he recorded his first sides for Starday. But Daily and Starnes soon shifted Burns to the hipper rockabilly sound which was appealing to younger audiences.
A few years ago, Sleepy Labeef recalled Burns in an interview, noting that he, Burns, and George Jones often worked together and were briefly part of a gospel quartet. I'll bet the blood of the Lamb was flowing in that band.
Al Petty and Jack Rhodes, "Al's Steel Guitar Wobble" b/w "Gypsy Heart" Starday 117 was instrumental by one of the world's virtuosos of the steel guitar. Al Petty was a child prodigy and had written an instruction manual for steel guitar while still in high school when, living in Tyler, he worked with Jim Reeves.
By age 19 he had purchased Dunnagan Music in West Texas and was running a highly profitable operation. He recorded only a few sides for Starday before moving to California, where he ran the amplifier division of Fender and became a member of the A-Team, a group of musicians (including Glen Campbell) who were responsible for hundreds of hit records.
Sonny Burns, "Too Hot to Handle b/w "Paint and Powder" Starday 118 finds Burns with better material and Daily and Starnes still seem to be trying to get a handle on the sound that was coming out of Memphis and spreading into East Texas.
Come back next week for more on the history of Houston's first important record label.
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