King of the Hill

Jody Reynolds' gifts to rockabilly are endless.

In 1958, the world of popular music was much smaller than it is today. All the burgeoning forms of the day--Western swing, rockabilly, rock and roll--were mere infants, their practitioners sparse. It was indeed a time and place that embodied the fabled American Dream: if you worked hard enough at anything, even a career in popular music (comparable today to other pipe dreams like "movie star"), you could succeed.

At the same time, music was king. Television was just spreading throughout the land, so the unifying cultural magnet was radio. It wasn't uncommon for singles--7-inch platters of wax, usually played at 45 rpm (hence the nickname "45s") that consisted of an A-side (the hit) backed with a B-side--to reach into the millions of copies of sales. It was a new market, lucrative to those who got in on the ground floor.

None of these thoughts ever seemed to cross the mind of Jody Reynolds, one of the forebears of rockabilly music, and a man who has never been content to settle into a familiar groove, no matter how many he's unearthed in his 40-something-year career.

Settling into a life in Southern California in his early teens (he now lives just outside Palm Springs), Reynolds took to music early. He began his musical career as a way around what his future held for him otherwise; he had "a distaste for working in the fields," as he puts it. "Down there in Imperial Valley, every Saturday night a name band would come to town, usually a Western swing band--Bob Wills, Merle Travis, all kinds of people--and everybody would go. I particularly liked Bob Wills, so I decided to start playing that. Back in those days, music was music. Anything that came along, I'd try to play it."

And indeed, as evidenced by the 1999 release, Endless..., on his own Tru-Gems imprint (the only sampling of Reynolds' career currently available domestically), he delved into virtually every genre he heard. "On that double CD, there's some jazz (a pair of tunes recorded with Les Paul)," he says. "I once had an eleven-piece mambo band, in 1954." Still, he's best known for his rockabilly work, which was the first genre in which he recorded.

"Actually, the first rockabilly stuff I started doing was about 1953. I just took a couple country tunes and turned 'em into a beat, much like Elvis did a couple of years later. And then when I saw Elvis in Odessa, Texas, back in '55--Al Casey (Reynolds' longtime collaborator) and I were there--I thought, well, I'll start singing. This'll work. It's new, it's fun, it's simple. I liked the rockabilly right away, so I started learning that." (Incidentally, years later, when Reynolds owned a music shop in Southern California, he sold Elvis loads of instruments. The Gibson Super 400 that Elvis played on the '68 Comeback Special was Reynolds' personal guitar. "I'd like to have it back today," he quips.)

In 1956 Reynolds found himself living in Yuma, a short trip from a steady gig he and Al Casey had just across the California border. It was there that he wrote the song that would make him famous. "Endless Sleep" is the song for which Reynolds is still remembered. When it was finally released in 1958, it spawned a new form of songwriting, often called "teardrop rock." It was the first teen tragedy ballad ever released. At the request of his manager, Reynolds added a happier ending than the one he originally envisioned. It worked; "Endless Sleep" sold over a million copies. Though the follow-up, "Fire of Love" reached 42 on the charts, selling roughly a half-million copies, Reynolds would never again duplicate the success of "Sleep."

"It was the song," he says today. "It's always the song. I have about 600 songs I've written, in my library right now. I've written 20 or 30 that are better than 'Endless Sleep' musically. Commercially, back then I was in tune. They wanted that Southern, haunting, Elvisy type music. You can analyze it to death, but it must have been a solid song because my attorney came up with 65 people who have recorded it. The Judds did it on their first album, Billy Idol did it, Don Williams did it. It was Hank Williams Jr.'s first release, on MGM back in 1961." (Reynolds' songs have also been recorded by T. Rex, the Gun Club, MC5, Savoy Brown, and Hot Tuna, among others.)

Still, Reynolds never lost sleep over the fact that he would never enjoy that level of success again. "I had to live in Hollywood, and I got tired of that real quick," he says. "I just didn't like to live there; I was used to small towns so I just kind of took off. I didn't push very hard. I remember I wanted other writers to write songs for me, but the record company wouldn't pay them so we didn't get any. I particularly wanted Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller to write me a song, and they kept wanting me to write 'em. Well, I couldn't write then."

Amazingly, Reynolds contends that he "didn't learn to write until about five years ago. See, I can go in now, any day and any time, and write a song about anything. Because I've perfected it. It's just like learning to play golf or tennis or anything; you learn. But back then I think it was just a lot of feeling and a lot of luck. I'm not a good singer, I'm not a good guitar player--never have been--but I am a real good songwriter. My early records were not great songs. 'Stardust' is a great song."

In typical self-deprecating fashion, Reynolds is selling himself short. Some of the songs on Endless... are stunning; If "Ode to Love," an early duet with Bobby Gentry in her pre-"Ode to Billie Joe" days, were to appear on the next Chris Isaak album, no one would blink.

And though he performs roughly once a month these days ("just when a special event comes up"), he still writes every day, recording the results in his home studio. In fact, 19 of the 53 tracks on the Endless... compilation were written and recorded in the year before its release. "The record company wanted the old ones, and I wanted the new ones, so I managed to win 19 times," he notes. "The idea was to sneak 'em in like they were old 45s, but they're not. Those were recorded right here in my house. Some were recorded in multi-million dollar studios, some were recorded in my house, and I defy anyone to tell me which ones are which. I think people overdo working on songs. I hear about rock groups working a year on an album--aw, horsepuckey! I'll cut an album in four days!"

Reynolds, who was inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame in 1999, will be performing this weekend with his partner-in-crime over the years, Al Casey, best known from his 17 years as a rampant session musician for the likes of The Monkees, Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys, and Johnny Cash, among dozens of others. Reynolds picked Casey up back in the '50s in Phoenix when he was looking for a guitarist. "Even at that time, in '55, he could play steel guitar, banjo, mandolin, guitar and bass real well--I mean professionally. We've played many jobs together."

Reynolds also has kind words for his current pianist, Bobby Craig. "Wait'll you hear him! He is absolutely knocked-out! He does all of Jerry Lee and Fats Domino, Little Richard's stuff, and he does it reeeal well. He's played with Ricky Nelson, Elvis ..."

Toward the end of our conversation, Reynolds asks that I bring a copy of this article to him at Saturday's performance, and it's the second point in the conversation in which I catch him in a lie (the first being, "My early records were not great songs."). "You come find me," he says. "I'll be easy to find. I'll be the best-dressed guy there, but the one who can't play very well. Plays the worst, but looks the best."

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