When music historians write of the origins of rock and roll, most of them settle on Chuck Berry as the master architect and rightfully so. Berry was a singing, song writing, guitar playing phenom who bent the chords into twangy distortions that paid homage to the likes of, Webb Pierce, as well as mentors T-Bone Burnett, Muddy Waters and Johnnie Johnson. According to Etta James, Berry’s creative juices were fueled as much by ambition as they were by inspiration.
His songs were smart because, unlike most of us, he was aiming straight at white teenagers, the saddle show crowd. He had a marketing mind; he sang and wrote to sell. –Etta James
While Berry is arguably the greatest of the great, there were many other prominent architects and a hot bed of them, led by creative genius Buddy Holly, came from the red clay of the Panhandle and the barren western plains of the same state–Texas. In fact, another Buddy, hailing from the tiny farming community of Happy, Texas actually predated Holly’s success.
Buddy Knox taught himself to play the harmonica and guitar as a means of entertainment. Other than laboring on his parents farm and playing a variety of sports, there wasn’t anything else to do. His parents home didn’t have electricity.
It was the 1950’s. Stuff like that still happened.
Not that he was poor. Hardly. Knox went to college at a time when only 14% of the population completed a four year degree or higher. He went there with the intent of becoming an accountant.
At West Texas A&M he met bassist, Jimmy Bowen and Bowen’s childhood friend Don Lanier–both from Dumas. The trio began to experiment with the music of their youth, Texas swing and Tijuana music, mixing it with r&b. Together they formed The Rhythm Orchids and pioneered the Tex-Mex sound. In remarkably short order, they had financial backing of a gentlemanly, well to do oilman, Chester Oliver. Oliver put them right in the recording studio.
You see, there was a gold rush going on in music at that time. And the gold rush (not the run up to the gold rush, which was also very important–but the gold rush) started in 1955 when Elvis Presley began touring the South and the Southwest. At that time Elvis only had a couple of regional hits That’s Alright Mama and Good Rockin’ Tonight, but he was rapidly becoming a sensation on the road. Jimmy Bowen saw Elvis at the Amarillo coliseum in ’55. He was a freshman in college.
The girls became hysterical when he came onstage, grabbed hold of the microphone and started to sing and gyrate. I could barely hear any of it above the shrieking and wailing, but what I heard–a mix of country, gospel and rhythm and blues–was unlike anything else around.–Jimmy Bowen
In truth, there was a lot of stuff like what Bowen heard from Elvis Presley around, only he and his contemporaries hadn’t heard much of it. That’s because it was r&b, or what white people called “race music.” Rhythm and blues was taboo. It was performed by Black artists who made their living on tour where they perfected high energy stage shows. Elvis Presley was a visionary connoisseur of this music. There was no r&b record ban in the Presley house hold in Memphis, Tennessee. Mr. and Mrs. Presley rarely said no to their son at all. He was so beautiful and talented.
Elvis mimicked the Black artist he admired. He spent hours and his parents hard earned money on Beale Street where the blues thrived. He also experimented with the hillbilly music his parents favored, putting his own unique spin on it.
So, yes, like Pat Boone, Elvis Presley introduced r&b to white teenagers; but the way he and producer Sam Phillips did it was vastly different. It revolutionized music. In fact it’s probably safe to presume that Elvis did virtually nothing the way Pat Boone did it. That was a big part of his appeal.
At any rate, The Rhythm Orchids viability was a by product of Elvis Presley’s huge success. It was 1956 and by now Elvis was a national sensation. All over the country, business minded people (especially business minded people with an ear for music), were on the look out to invest in the gold rush.
That’s how The Rhythm Orchids were able to fast track their rockabilly single Party Doll, recorded on their own label, Triple D Records at Norman Petty’s tiny cinder block studio, in Clovis, New Mexico. Roy Orbison recorded there. So did Buddy Holly and The Crickets, but The Rhythm Orchids beat them to the studio. They would have the have the first number one single too, but it would be the last time The Rhythm Orchids eclipsed Holly or Orbison.
Party Doll became a regional hit. Buddy Knox, Jimmy Bowen and Don “Dirt” Lanier became local celebrities. They got their first taste of good, fast money and good, fast girls. But it was Dirt Lanier’s sister, Teddie, that proved catalyst for the group’s short but eventful foray into the big time.
Teddie Lanier was a very beautiful young fashion model in New York. She was also friends with Morris Levy the owner of the New York Jazz club, Birdland. Charlie “Bird” Parker was the house act at Birdland–hence the club’s name. Harry Belefonte played there. So did Lester Young. And Miles Davis. And Ella Fitzgerald.
Billie Holiday played Birdland.
Levy had a genuine love for Jazz. He also had an ear for a hit record. It didn’t really matter the genre.
Always seeking to capitalize on his assets, he expanded into the recording business with his own labels, Rama, Tico and Roulette. Knox and Bowen were Roulette’s first artists. With Levy’s deep pockets and influential friends, Party Doll became an #1 American Top 40 hit for Roulette, selling over a million copies.
The Rhythm Orchids hit the road on an ambitious tour where they made good money–very good money that dwarfed their previous middle class sustenance. The sudden, dramatic influx of cash immediately changed their lives and the lives of family members and friends. There were new cars and flashy, expensive clothes. And there were lots of young women. They ate well and lived nice.
But they received no royalties.
As a powerful associate of the Genovese crime family, Morris Levy was quite notorious in NYC and in Florida. And while Buddy Knox and Jimmy Bowen were naive to major league mafia entanglements, some of the friends they made in New York were not.
Bobby Darin and Connie Francis tried to warn the two about Levy. It’s kind of funny how it happened. They were in a rehearsal studio near Times Square when a guy burst into the room asking if he could borrow a guitar for a friend. Knox let him borrow his. The guy’s name was Don Kirschner. The guy he borrowed the guitar for was Bobby Darin. Darin’s girlfriend was Connie Francis. They all became friends.
Understandably Knox, Bowen and Lanier had stars in their eyes. But they weren’t stupid, either. Since they all had studied accounting they were aware they were getting screwed sooner rather than later–and that was sooner than most of Levy’s artists. When the trio asked their new friends if they knew anyone–a lawyer, perhaps–who could help them get their missing royalties, Kirschner told them about his friend Allen Klein.
Accountant Allen Klein had gotten his feet wet working as an auditor for a prestigious accounting firm. There he got a glimpse into the music business while auditing a publishers trade group. Ready to advance his career into serious money, he started his own firm for which he invented the position of Entertainment Business Manager. Buddy Knox and his bassist, Jimmy Bowen, who also had a solo hit with the Rhythm Orchids, were two of his earliest clients. Other early clients were Bobby Darin, Connie Francis, Llyod Price, Neil Sedaka and Bobby Vinton.
And just what did Allen Klein do for his clients? He found mathematical errors in their contracts. Then he convinced his clients that their record labels were screwing them over.
And that took zero convincing. Especially since that’s why he was hired in the first place.
Furthermore, his clients probably were getting screwed over by the record companies. Klein would ride in and recoup some of their money, which he would hand over in a large, glorious chunk. Then, ever dutiful, he would turn around and screw his clients even worse than the record companies after cannibalizing their assets through the restructured contracts that he drew up. But, before he did that, he got his clients outrageous front money. That’s how he got them hooked.
Seemingly, things turned out well for Buddy Knox and Jimmy Bowen–Levy coughed up the royalties. That’s the official story. Yet, in a 1989 interview with Gary James, Knox said:
I haven’t received a royalty check from Roulette in well over 25 years and my records are still on the market and I had 27 or 28 records on the charts over the years, so that tells me we have money due. We couldn’t do much about it in those days because we didn’t want the company to get mad at us. We got word back that Levy has been convicted on several charges, so talks have started again about getting back royalties and even getting our masters back.
And in Rough Mix (1997), Jimmy Bowen’s memoirs about his prolific career in the music industry, he writes about this time:
In the end I hired an aggressive music industry lawyer named Marty Machat, who had worked for James Brown and knew his way around the business. He managed to negotiate a little more money and avoid a costly lawsuit we would have never won. It was time for us to move beyond the madness with Morris, get on with our lives and make some more music.
Strange that Bowen barely mentions Allen Klein in his memoirs. And the one time he does, he describes him as just the accountant. But that is disingenuous. Bowen knows full well that Klein was the power broker, not Machat.
It would seem that, when the dust settled, Knox and Bowen received very little, if anything, from their royalties with Roulette.
So if they didn’t get the money, who did?…
Well, yes, Allen Klein certainly did get some it…But the crux of the money stayed right where it was in the first place. It stayed in the family.
In the end Buddy Knox and Jimmy Bowen made out pretty good, considering what happened to a fellow Texan who was negotiating with Roulette right after Klein ripped The Rhythm Orchids from Levy’s grip. Bowen did especially well and he took his friend Dirt Lanier with him…But Buddy Knox did alright too. He got about eight months of the high life and 10,000.00 cash, which equals roughly 90,000.00 in today’s money and place in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
And he got out with his life. And that’s a lot better than Bobby Fuller, of The Bobby Fuller Four, did.
To be continued…