Trouble in Jingle Bell Square

bell-39024_960_720 I’ve written before about the controversy surrounding the authorship of “Jingle Bell Rock.” Here's an update.

Singer Bobby Helms and renowned session guitarist Hank “Sugarfoot” Garland maintained till their dying days that they wrote it but were denied songwriting royalties. (See my 2013 post, “Jingle Bell Robbery.”)

This week I spoke with Hank Garland’s younger brother Billy and heard for the first time about the threats against Hank's life when he began speaking out against the music publishing scams and overall corruption of the Nashville music business in the 50s. (Such corruption was not limited to Music City of course, but Nashville had its own “small-town” brand of it.)

According to Billy, the career-ending auto crash that Hank suffered at the wheel of his Chevy Nomad station wagon in 1961—and the many electro-shock treatments he received during his recovery—were all part of the fix to keep him quiet. (Hank believed a gunshot blew out his tire, an eyewitness saw a man nearby with a rifle, and photos of his damaged car show bullet holes in the window.) The story is captured—with some artistic license—in the 2008 independent movie, “Crazy,” starring Waylon Payne and Ali Larter. Meanwhile Bobby Helms, who also complained about lost royalties, had numerous threats against his career and never regained his stature as a recording star.

Hank was partially paralyzed for the rest of his life, never recovered his guitar-playing dexterity, and passed away in 2004. Bobby Helms died seven years earlier. Neither received any of the multi-million dollars in songwriting royalties they believed they were due. Billy has been on an indefatigable crusade for nearly six decades to vindicate his brother’s claims, despite repeated threats on his own life.

Hank Garland was considered by many (including Chet Atkins) to be the greatest and most innovative guitarist to ever hit Nashville. His country, rockabilly, rock, and even jazz accompaniment can still be heard on: Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” and “I Fall to Pieces”; the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love” and “Wake Up Little Susie”; Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” and “Only the Lonely”; dozens of Elvis Presley songs; and numerous hits by country artists. (His riffs on Elvis’s “Little Sister” are rock and roll at its finest.)

It’s tough to hear “Jingle Bell Rock” now without thinking about the surrounding controversies and tragedies. I’ll be writing about this more in the future—as well as other instances in which songwriters of famous hits were purportedly bilked out of millions of dollars.

***

Now that you've been thoroughly bummed out, let me end on a (slightly) cheerier note. You may be interested to know...

• The Singing Nun's "Dominique"—a reverential ditty about Saint Dominic that sold 1.5 million copies in the US—began a four-week run at #1 on the singles chart on this day in 1963. This is noteworthy because "Dominique"—in my opinion—signified the end of the pablum pop era before The Beatles blew up the music charts forever a few weeks later. There hasn’t been a song quite like "Dominique" at the top of the Billboard charts ever since, which some of us are eternally grateful for, notwithstanding our genuine appreciation for the Singing Nun, who in the end turned into a true rock & roll martyr. See my earlier post on her star-crossed life: "Twisted Sister."

• Tom Waits—the gravelly-voiced bar room crooner, composer, and actor—was born 67 years ago today. Waits is the author of “I Hope I Don't Fall in Love With You," The Eagles’ “Ol’ 55,” and “The Heart of Saturday Night”—a classic about universal longing that belongs on anyone's list of the greatest songs of all time.

• Otis Redding finished recording his Grammy Award winning hit, “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” on this date in 1967. The song, which Redding started writing months earlier while getting high on a houseboat in Sausalito, was completed with the help of famed Memphis guitarist, Steve Cropper. Three days later Redding was gone, after his chartered plane went down near Madison, Wisconsin. This soulfully sung tune, however, is a timeless wonder, covered by dozens of major artists, and will be heard for decades to come (assuming we make it out of this one alive).


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7 Comments

  1. His riffs on Elvis’s “Little Sister” are rock and roll at its finest.

    Indeed.

    Somehow I was hopelessly ignorant of Garland's playing. Your educational mission for today has been accomplished, thank you very much.

    1. Well, Hank left the scene rather abruptly due to his automobile "mishap." No less a country star than Brad Paisley has said: "I can't even imagine what he would have become had he not been in that accident. You're talking about 40 years of lost innovation that could have come only from him." Paisley recorded Garland's famous "Sugarfoot Rag." Check out Hank's version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XDSr_eGX6Wo

    1. It's good for me to be reminded, from time to time, of the darker side of the music biz, especially in the early days when the mob ran the show in certain cities. But Billy Garland's story has inspired me to shine a light on other cases where songwriters were cheated out of serious money. Also, it's a good reminder of the importance of IP. It will be interesting to see how intellectual property laws adjust to a changing future.

    1. Yes, of course. That's the worst musical death for me personally. I think I'm in denial about it.

      But, now that you mention it, it may soon be time for me to do some "Lennon channeling" to get his thoughts on the PEOTUS and the changing of the guard in Washington.

  2. I always thought around this time of year Tom Waits should release his magnificent song, "Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis." It deserves to be a smash and I can't quite see why it doesn't get any airtime...

    The b-side (I'm showing my age here) could be, "This Piano Has Been Drinking" - another tip top but slightly out of key toe-tapper.

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