The 1950s was an exciting time in American pop music as rock and roll was emerging and taking root all over the country, and not just on the East and West coasts. Big things were also brewing in Arizona on the music front in both rockabilly and rock and roll, but before the mid 1950s, most of the pop music from this part of the country was in danger of languishing in obscurity because local musicians and others in the music business did not have easy access at that time to national record distribution channels. All that changed when Floyd Ramsey, Lee Hazlewood and others started setting up recording studios in the Phoenix area so that Arizona-based bands and artists would not have to drive all the way to California in the blazing heat every time they wanted to cut a record.
In Rockin' in the Desert, author Robert D. Morritt gives a detailed and fascinating history of the Arizona music scene from the mid 1950s through the late 1960s. He talks about all the movers and shakers in this area during these years that included not only performing artists such as Alvie Self, Duane Eddy, Sanford Clark, Donnie Owens, and Lee Hazlewood (to name a few), but also the people behind the scenes who were crucial in bringing the music from this emerging region to national and international prominence. ("Rockin' in the Desert" was published on October 22, 2012 by Canaan-Star Publishing.)
Robert D. Morritt is an author, historian, and musicologist. He was born towards the end of WWII in Carlisle, England to a Canadian father and an English mother. When he was very young, the family moved to Penarth, a small seaside town just outside Cardiff, Wales. He spent his early years there and was exposed to both early British skiffle (mainly associated with Lonnie Donegan) and rock and roll. He lived in an environment similar to the one that the early Beatles experienced (what the British then referred to as a "working class district"). A few years after his mother died (at 34), his father, who had his own construction business, moved back to Canada, and both he and his sister went with him. Morritt's "second life" was as a young teen in Toronto, a busy city with a thriving music scene where he witnessed the transition from beatnik culture and folk music to rock and roll. It was also around this time when he learned about some of the music being made in Arizona and became curious about this musically fertile area.
In this interview, Mr. Morritt gives us a glimpse into the local music scene in the Phoenix area during the early 1960s from a first-hand perspective and discusses the roles certain key figures played in putting Arizona pop music "on the map." (This interview was conducted by email from Nov. 6-12, 2012.)
Update: Mr. Morritt has written another book, Guitar Men, which covers the greatest guitarists of the past 50 years. This new book will be released on April 7, 2013.
Update: Mr. Morritt has written and released a book about popular music in Canada, "Rockin' Up North."
Update: Mr. Morritt has written and released a book about popular music in Britain, Rocking In Britain.
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Amy Gold: What is "Rockin' in the Desert" about?
Robert D. Morritt: "Rockin' in the Desert" is about the advent and history of recording in Arizona, from the mid 1950's until the late 1960's. It covers the inception of recording studios, the recording sessions, the musicians and a generous discography of session dates, record labels and titles. Also included are biographies of numerous artists such as Duane Eddy, Al Casey, Lee Hazlewood, Sanford Clark, etc.
AG: Tell us a bit about what inspired you to write this book.
RDM: I was inspired to write "Rockin' in the Desert" due to my personal experiences I encountered on several visits as a teen to Arizona and subsequent exposure to musicians and my collection of recordings from that area and era.
AG: You mention personal experiences as being an inspiration behind your book. Could you give us an example?
RDM: I worked at that time with the Toronto Daily Star newspaper and had a three week vacation. I was a teen and took a Greyhound bus for about three days southwest to Arizona. I visited Arizona two years in a row. My first visit (1961) was to Prescott in Northern Arizona where I met Alvie Self. Alvie is nowadays highly regarded by record collectors in Europe where his records fetch high prices when listed on the internet due to their "rockabilly" style. On this trip, I got to sing back-end to his group at the Palace Hotel which was situated along Whiskey Row in Prescott.
On my second trip (1962), I did not meet Alvie as he was singing in Utah on local TV. I went to Phoenix and met Don "Ray" Bennett, owner of Don RAY records. This trip was where I absorbed the recording background. In fact, I made some recordings with Don of two songs I wrote, "The Crash" and "Blackmail." "Blackmail" was a duet by Don and me, "The Crash" Don sang and played guitar on. Don introduced me to important people in the recording industry like Floyd Ramsey, owner of the largest recording studio in Phoenix, and briefly the late belated Loy Clingman who once owned VIV Records and a studio he purchased from Lee Hazlewood he operated with Buddy Wheeler.
Don had two boxes of 45rpm records of Alvie Self made for me which I took over to Europe in May of 1963 to try to promote them, along with my own recordings and some promo records of other artists from other record labels.
AG: It must have been exciting to play with the great Alvie Self and be a part of the musical scene in Arizona on your first trip there. Tell us some more about your performance with him at the Palace Hotel. What songs did you play?
RDM: I sang "The Battle of New Orleans" and I believe "Kansas City." A year later, I recorded in Phoenix two songs I wrote, "Blackmail" and "The Crash." The music was by Don Bennett and he sang with me as a duet on "Blackmail."
AG: Tell us some more about your songs. Are they also rockabilly?
RDM: My own compositions are not rockabilly. Their direction is more popular music, for instance, "The Crash" referred to an airplane and the loss of the singer's "fiance" as she was on her way to him for their wedding. The latter part of the song is
Who can I turn to at this moment,
when my heart is full of pain,
Fate has taken my darling's life,
On the 3pm plane.
"Blackmail" refers to a girlfriend who decided to tell his new girlfriend about her. He loves the new girlfriend more than the ex. His ex hopes that his new girlfriend will dump him so she can have him back.
AG: You recorded these songs at the famous Audio Recorders Studio in Phoenix, right?
RDM: Yes, that is correct, the recordings were made by Don Bennett on his Ampex Recording machine and the acetates were made by Floyd Ramsey at the famous Audio Recorders Studio then located at 3703 N. 7th Avenue in Phoenix.
AG: Did you record any other songs?
RDM: Yes I did. "Johnny Willow" and the other side, "It's Only the Beginning" at Les Smith Studios in Toronto backed by Mike Murray on guitar, but it was not released other than as an acetate record.
AG: Tell us some more about the Audio Recorders Studio. Was it the main recording studio at that time for big names in music in the Phoenix area?
RDM: Audio Recorders was the main studio. Floyd Ramsey, at first before the studio was built, worked out of his father's radio and electronic store and they produced local recordings (78rpm), later 45rpm on the Old Time label mainly of square dances, and many featured a young Al Casey who was not featured on the label. This was the era ca. early 1950's. Any recordings were made in California. It was in the mid 1950's that Floyd opened Audio Recorders at 3703 N. 7th Avenue and that is when local artists could finally make recordings without driving all the way to Los Angeles to any company there. It was the main studio for big names such as Duane Eddy, Ted Newman, Sanford Clark, Gary Paxton and Skip Battin of Skip and Flip (and later of the Byrds). Their big hits were "It Was I" and "Cherry Pie."
Audio Recorders was the only recording studio until Lee Hazlewood (at that time a DJ), together with local country and western musicians (from Prescott), set up the early VIV recording studio on East Indian Road in Phoenix. Many of the earliest obscure rock 'n' roll recordings were made at either Floyd Ramsey's studio or at the VIV studio.
Later, Loy Clingman set up his own (out of his residence) "Garage" studio where an individual singer or small group could record out of his garage (that's where the term "Garage" records originated). He made numerous different label names for those recordings such as Sola, Elko, etc.
AG: Would you say these recording studios were a major factor in putting Arizona "on the map," musically speaking?
RDM: In the opinion of producers, musicians and record collectors, Audio Recorders was the main studio to put Arizona "on the map," musically speaking. However, the others were also instrumental in doing the same but in a more localized way.
AG: Tell us some more about Don RAY Records and their role in the Arizona music scene.
RDM: The owner of Don RAY Records was Don "Ray" Bennett. He was originally one of the first musicians to play at Madison Square in Phoenix. He and internationally famous Al Casey and other guitar players were known as "The Sunset Riders" and played to capacity crowds each weekend in Phoenix. Their repertoire was country music. Don later wrote a song "Hey Little Freshman" which local Phoenix area singer Ted Newman, who later had national fame, had a nationally released record of "Hey Little Freshman" on RCA Victor. The funds from Bennett's share as composer gave him enough to purchase his own equipment from where he recorded many Phoenix musicians, and at the Audio Recorders studios he had his records dubbed from his tapes. He actually just told me that the (later) million dollar seller "The Fool" was originally recorded by Sanford Clark and he recorded him. Then Lee Hazlewood had it mastered and produced it within the famed Audio Recorders studio. I met the owner Floyd Ramsey who said they (at that time) wanted to have Elvis record it mainly due to the royalties they could have made from that to assist as they started up in the "Valley."
Bennett's recordings on Don RAY were popular. I bought my own copy in Buffalo, NY in 1960, which was over 2500 miles NE of Phoenix, so they did make an attempt at national distribution which was not as easy in those days as it later became. Don RAY recordings, especially "Let's Go Wild" by Alvie Self, enthused not only his local audience (then) but in the past ten years in Europe where there exists at present, especially in Britain, Germany and France, a rockabilly craze where his records are sought after on eBay and can average $75 to $100 each. So I would say that Alvie's Don RAY recording now has international status.
AG: Right below I have posted the trailer for your book, "Rockin' in the Desert." Is the song playing in the background by Alvie Self?
RDM: Yes, the song playing on the book trailer is "Let's Go Wild" by Alvie Self.
AG: Earlier, you mentioned taking a trip to Europe in 1963 to meet with some record company executives over some records by Alvie Self. Tell us some more about that trip.
RDM: As I was getting ready to leave for Europe, Billboard Magazine published an article about my upcoming trip and what all I planned to do when I got there.
When the article was published, I immediately received promo records from American record companies. I recall one was Dick Dale's ("The Surfin' King") first record "Let's Go Trippin'" on the Gardena label, Paul Revere and the Raider's first recording "Like, Long Hair" also on Gardena, and one by Sugar Pie DeSanto, "Goin' Back to Where I Belong" on Veltone.
I flew to Europe in May, 1963. My first stop was to visit a large British record promoter, "Bunny" Lewis at Ritz Records in Knightsbridge, London. He played the Don RAY records of Alvie Self and was impressed. He mentioned to me that Alvie's "Young Singer" was reminiscent of Tommy Roe's "The Folk Singer." I told him Alvie made his record a full year before "The Folk Singer" by Roe was released. Lewis then recommended I visit his music colleague in Cologne, Germany. (This I did a few days later.)
My next stop was to visit EMI. Roland Rennie, the recording engineer at EMI who was in charge of a new group, The Silver Beatles (later The Beatles), took me into what later was called the Abbey Road Studio and previewed my own recording of "Blackmail" b/w "The Crash." Also, Rennie previewed Alvie Self's "Let's Go Wild" and "Nancy" which he considered had "promise," but with the advent of the British beat groups, they put any American repertoire aside for later and nothing I presented at that meeting was issued.
I then flew to the Netherlands and met with Dureco (Barclay Records), the label that recorded Bridget Bardot, before finally heading off to BFN (British Armed Forces Radio) in Cologne, Germany. Dureco liked the Don RAY material but tried to have me issue their records in the U.S., rather than issue Don RAY products. They offered me at eight cents a record the opportunity to release "Hawaiian Tattoo" by the Waikikis. Don and I both thought Hawaiian guitar music would not be a big seller, and how wrong we were as Jack Kapp (KAPP Records, New York) released it that summer and "Hawaiian Tattoo" sold over a million copies.
AG: What an interesting piece of music history! After 1963, did you continue to work with musicians and others in the music business based in Arizona?
RDM: Due to my earlier career at the Toronto Star, I moved to England in 1964 to work for the national daily tabloid newspaper, the Daily Mirror. The job was so satisfying that I stayed with them until 1971. Later, I returned to Canada with Anne who I met during my career at the Mirror.
AG: About how long did it take to research and write "Rockin' in the Desert" and what all did your work on this book entail?
RDM: I had been adding notes for several years but seriously started work on it around the year 1996 when I found Alvie Self and other Arizonian musicians. Some had moved out of Arizona as in the case of Don Bennett who became a minister and was back East for years. Similarly, "Ritchie Hart" (Ritchie Gearhart) moved back to Kentucky where he was born and raised as a young child and started the well known 1970's group "Goose Creek Symphony," a folk-rock group that toured nationally in the U.S. and in Canada.
AG: What was the most rewarding part of writing "Rockin' in the Desert"?
RDM: Just the fun of reliving the experience and finding many musicians after so long.
AG: Bob, thank you so much for taking the time to interview with me. It was a real pleasure and I think people will be looking forward to reading "Rockin' in the Desert."
RDM: No .. The pleasure is mine, you conducted an excellent, professional interview and I am glad to have been given the opportunity to share this with all who recall those good old days, when the music was fun. Thank you, Amy, for a good interview and presenting this so others can relive those good old days in the West.