How I Uncovered a Bit of Local History (and discovered some great music in the process)
A few months back, I was surfing on the internet, looking at the Rockabilly Hall of Fame’s web site. I enjoy visiting that site from time to time to discover new music and to daydream about being alive when it actually was new music.
Anyway, on that particular day I happened to check out the page for Billy Adams. I had never heard of Adams, but upon reading his biography I was astonished to learn that he had recorded much of his music at Nau-Voo Records in West Portsmouth, Ohio.
I live in Lucasville, Ohio (most famous for a 1992 prison riot) and West Portsmouth is roughly 10 to 15 miles away from my home. Yet I had never heard of Nau-Voo Records or Billy Adams.
I have been working for several months now on the University Chronicle, the newspaper of Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio and apart from my curiosity about hearing the recordings, my second thought was to get in touch with Adams. After all, its a small town college newspaper and its not often that there is any good music features to report on.
So I e-mailed the administrator of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame website and within a few days had received a reply from Adams’ daughter who the e-mail had been forwarded to. Through her I set up a phone interview with her father, who now resides in Tennessee. I was able to speak with Mr. Adams for over an hour about his career, the music that influenced him, and various aspects of southern Ohio/northern Kentucky in the ’50s era. He was extremely friendly and answered all of my questions fully.
The full article is below, but one more thing first. Before contacting the Hall of Fame, I had listened to some of Adams’ work and if you are interested in hearing it, I will say that it is certainly worthwhile for rockabilly fans. He has two discs available: Rockin’ Through the Years, a compilation of his ’50s sides for various labels, and Legacy, a 1999 work featuring new material.
The following appeared in the (Shawnee State) University Chronicle, October 28, 2009. As such, it contains several references to local communities which will leave the overwhelming majority of you clueless. Please remember that it was intended for a local audience.
Scioto County and the Foundation of Rock & Roll
Many residents of Scioto County know of this area’s rich musical legacy. Most famously, perhaps, is Roy Rogers, dubbed the “King of the Cowboys,” a 1988 inductee to the Country Music Hall of Fame who was raised near McDermott.
But this “singing cowboy” is not the area’s only claim to fame. Kathleen Battle, who was a soprano with New York’s Metropolitan Opera, was born in Portsmouth. Earl Thomas Conley, who had 18 number one country hits in the 1980s, is from West Portsmouth. Most recently there is Marti Dodson who grew up in Franklin Furnace and is now the lead singer of the band Saving Jane.
What many residents may not know, however, is that Scioto County played a role in rockabilly, perhaps the earliest form of rock and roll.
Experts disagree on what the first rock recording actually was, but most acknowledge that rockabilly, the fusion of early rhythm and blues with country or “hillbilly” music, began in 1954 with the release of two songs– Elvis Presley’s “That’s All Right” and Bill Haley and His Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock.”
The music soon took off with those artists, as well as Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Gene Vincent leading the way. Small independent record labels soon sprang up all over the country to capitalize on the new sound.
In 1958, Glenn McKinney opened Nau-Voo Records on Sixth Street in West Portsmouth. The label released only 10 singles during its two year existence by artists such as the I-V Leaguers, Deacon and the Rock and Rollers, the De Villes, and the Jades. But Nau-Voo’s real star was Billy Adams.
Adams, an inductee to the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, was already a veteran of the music business when he first stepped into McKinney’s studio at the age of 17. Born in Red Bush, Ky., in 1940, he and his family moved to Greenup when he was 8 years old.
When reached at his Tennessee home, Adams recalled growing up surrounded by music, saying he listened to Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Webb Pierce and Bill Monroe while growing up. Other early influences included Chet Atkins, Merle Travis and Moon Mullican.
Yet his biggest influence was “The First Family of Country Music”.
“My dad taught me and my brother to play like the Carter Family when we listened to them on the 78s we had,” Adams said.
In 1952, at age 12, Adams made his performance debut on an Ashland, Ky. radio station performing Ray Price’s “I’ll Be There.” During the performance, he said, “I broke away from the standard rhythm [of the song] and the first time I heard Elvis doing ‘Mystery Train’ and ‘I Forgot to Remember to Forget’, I felt the same way I did when I sang that on the radio”.
Adams began playing at the 440 Club in Portsmouth at the age of 13, despite not legally being allowed inside the bar. Adams said that Charlie Dixon, the owner of the club, allowed him to play because “he knew we were just trying to keep food on the table.”
In 1955, Adams made his recording debut in Cincinnati with “Rock, Pretty Mama”. The single would not be released until two years later on the small Kentucky label Quincy Records.
He recalled contacting Sun Records, the legendary label owned by Sam Phillips, around this time and requesting an audition. Unfortunately, his car broke down on the way to Memphis. Ironically, another singer named Billy Adams recorded several singles for Sun in the mid-60s. (After the other singer’s death in 1984, there was confusion among some fans. “I once signed a copy of my obituary,” Adams said).
Adams continued playing in bars in Portsmouth and that is when he met Glenn McKinney. Adams recorded “You Heard Me Knocking” at McKinney’s West Portsmouth studio in 1957. The recording was sold to and released by Hollywood’s Dot Records.
For the next two years, Adams continued to record for McKinney’s Nau-Voo label, releasing such songs as “That’s My Baby,” “Return of the All-American Boy” and “You Gotta Have a Ducktail.” He later switched to the Fern label in Ashland and continued to perform, playing for as many as 125,000 people while on tour with the Fleetwoods and Bobby Bare.
In 1965, Adams stopped recording and performing to become a Pentecostal minister. He preached his first sermon in Ironton the following year. But he never completely abandoned music and continued to write gospel songs such as “I Saw the Man” for the Kingsmen Quartet and the Happy Goodman Family. Adams said he first heard the Grand Ole Opry on the radio in 1947 and “dreamed about being on that stage.” Years later, he participated in the Opry’s Gospel Night at the famed Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.
Adams made a return to rockabilly in 1997 when he recorded an entire album of new material at Sun Studios in Memphis. Since that time, he has continued to tour in both the U.S. and Europe. Adams said he has two new albums ready to be released, a gospel album and an album of secular music.
There is also a documentary planned on his life and work, Adams said. The film will feature footage of Adams in concert and will follow him as he returns to his childhood homes in Red Bush and Greenup.
Adams also remains active in the ministry, serving as a pastor in Tennessee where he is overseeing the construction of a new church building.
Adams has returned to the Portsmouth area several times in the past few years, playing at Lucasville’s Southern Ohio Opry, as well as in Huntington, WV. Next year he will be performing at Old Fashion Days in Greenup, Ky.
Looking back on his career, Adams said, “I used to look at those mountains and think about how I could one day go beyond them and break the chains of poverty. Finally I did”.