Part 62: Riley Talks
Today is Sunday, January 24th, 2021. There is a new strain of the COVID-19 virus that seems to be more contagious. N95 masks and KN95 masks are recommended over cloth masks and surgical masks. I talked to one of my doctor clients on Saturday, and no one is sure what will happen with this new mutation. Over 400,000 people have died in the United States so far.
Joseph Biden and Kamala Harris were sworn in...I think on Wednesday, but each day has rolled together again and I've lost track of time. The House will transmit its articles of impeachment, charging former President Donald Trump with "incitement of insurrection" to the Senate on Monday.
I wanted to add some links that are relevant to the times were living in, even though in a previous blog I said I was "done with links". Just this once, (as I've said so many times!) I've curated a short list of podcasts and recordings that I've been listening to.
This interview with Dr. Bandy Lee on Bill Moyers intrigued me because some are gobsmacked (I know I am) that so many people seem to be unable recognize dangerous personality disorders. The interview is here.
Here's the full audio of Trump's phone call to Brad Raffensperger, Georgia's secretary of state. I tried to find a source with no pay wall. Here is one link. If you get the Washington Post, or can get a free article, here's the full transcript and audio.
When you listen to Trump's phone call, he sounds like a mob boss, not the leader of the free world. It's interesting to me how most people I know had an immediate and intense negative reaction to Trump's behavior right away, back in 2016, while others embraced it or decided he was just "telling it like it is". Others believe that Trump was brought to the United States by God as his "imperfect vessel". I've been messaging with Tamara Miles, a writer who is working on a book about her family history, and she reminded me about the phrase "flimflam" as a term to describe fraud or "deceptive nonsense". It is a solid word. It sounds like what it means. Flimflam. Flimflamming. Flimflam man. Flimflammery.
There's the flimflam side of my father, and then the very real career he had. I've added six clips to this blog from "The Riley Shepard Show". My father looks back on the time when hillbilly music was making the switch to country western. There are stories about Gene Autry and Roy Acuff. I cut Gene Autry's name off, but he was at the breakfast table in Chicago with the others. I hope you can get why we adored Riley. My entire childhood was spent listening to his show business stories, sometimes while watching old movies. When I got to college, I realized that most of what I'd spent time thinking about didn't help me at all in the real world, but I loved Dad's stories. I hope you do, too.
These were filmed in 1998 in Porterville, California, and then again by me with my iPhone yesterday...
This is the last one...
Way back in 2016, well before I ever imagined that I would impulsively submit a story idea to my favorite podcast, "Hidden Brain", Kevin Coffey wrote me an email about the British Archive of Country Music (BACM) and the plan to produce a Riley Shepard CD.
"Hi Stacya --
Hope this finds you well. I finally think I'm in a position to compile a Riley Shepard CD for BACM -- finally got hold of just about all the recordings I'm missing from the period when he was recording under his own name. I assume you're still happy for this to happen. The hardest part will be the liner notes. The format of BACM releases allows for about 1200-1400 hundred words -- and how the hell do you condense Riley Shepard into that? Oh well. I'm almost tempted to ask you to write them, or at least add a little something to them. Anyway, unless I hear from you otherwise, I will get the ball rolling and hopefully something will be out before the end of the year."
I was thrilled for this to happen. I have a copy of the CD, and it's fantastic. Kevin was the first person who stated the facts about my father's career without sugar coating anything-- how Riley broke contracts, and "pulled the wool over" the eyes of those he owed money to. As mentioned in a previous blog, Kevin and I connected before my father's death, way back in 2007 or around then. I was still grappling with the scope of what Riley had been up to--- the flimflamming that has cast a shadow on his career and brilliance. It was hard for me to absorb, even though, years ago, my own mother told me that he was a con man. Back then, I just couldn't accept it. Still, listening to him in the videos, I think about how corrupt the music business was and probably still is, and wonder how my father decided who to "fuck with".
Sometimes, I "pulled the wool over my own eyes" convincing myself that he was just "bad with money", other times I viewed his compulsive behavior with money as if he was a gambling addict and couldn't help himself. I also thought that if I worked really hard, and sent him my own money, that he'd stop with the flimflamming.
I wanted to save these liner notes on this CD in this blog, as I thought Kevin succeeded in getting all of this information in a limited amount of space. The notes include some research into Billboard's write-ups and other music history based on Kevin's painstaking research. I didn't want his notes to get lost in the shuffle. So here is Kevin Coffey's liner notes for the Riley Shepard CD, below.
Riley Shepard + Many Other Names...
Liner notes by Kevin Coffey for BACM CD:
British Archive of Country Music, Riley Shepard
There are few more fascinating elusive characters in country music history than Riley Shepard. He is not elusive in the sense that we know little about him or what became of him after his brief period in the spotlight just after WW11—thanks largely to the efforts of his daughter Stacya Silverman, we know a lot about him and his activities— but elusive in another sense: who was he really and why was he constantly running from his past?
“It’s hard to write about who my father was,” Stacya writes. “Growing up with him, we moved from place to place about every year or so— he was not an easy man for people to track down. By the time I was born in 1965, he had used 18 different names for songwriting, one for writing pornography, another for ASCAP royalties, some for various radio shows he hosted, and the rest, who knows. The names he is known to have used include: Dickson Hall, Dick Scott, Richard James, Ben Thomas, Johnny Rebel, Hickey Free, Dick Gleason, Riley Cooper, Klym Hawley, Rex Cross, Zachary Quill, Paul Lester, Richard Alexander, Albert Reilly, Richard James, Floyd Riley Shepard, and Jean Gilmore. As a teenager, when he sang and danced in the Vaudeville circuit, he used the stage name Lanky Bill. I have been searching for who my father really was, and along the way I’ve met four half-siblings I’d never known, each with their own stories of how my father disappeared from their lives.”
While it might be obvious why Shepard used a pseudonym for writing about sex (in the 1960s), other pen-names were clearly adopted to keep one step ahead of those whose eyes he’d pulled the wool over, or those he owed money to— or both. The schemes and the ever-shifting focus that characterized his musical career were driven by forces that Riley Shepard himself was probably not able to fully comprehend. When he was “on”, he possessed boundless, infectious creative energy - Billboard called him “the one-armed paperhanger of…folk music” - and even when he was compulsively scamming everyone in sight and part of him was probably thinking he was getting away with murder, another part of him was probably struggling to understand the compulsions that torpedoed his promising career.
Riley Shepard had been largely forgotten by the middle ‘50s, when DJs were asking Billboard if anyone knew whatever had happened to him. Some years ago, the German-based Cattle label made some attempt to acknowledge Shepard’s brief heyday with a 20-song CD reissue, but ironically, Riley Shepard remains best known these days for 1950-60s recordings that have never been widely acknowledged as his - western and historical recordings issued under the pseudonym Dickson Hall. With this issue, BACM attempts to further explore Riley Shepard’s original legacy from the 1940s, before his compulsions derailed his career.
He was born Richard Riley Shepard in Wilmington, North Carolina on 21 October 1918.
Largely self-educated, he’d left school by the end of fifth grade. He was playing guitar by age 12, performing professionally by age 13 as a black-face minstrel-show inspired character named Lanky Bill. By his mid-teens he’d appeared on Raleigh’s WPTF and in the mid-30s made occasional appearances on Charlotte’s 50,000 watt WBT, where he forged professional relationships that would be renewed during his postwar recording career when he cut a session with Charlotte’s Briarhoppers for Sterling Records in 1947. He later worked with Daddy John Love, Ollie Bunn and others in the Dixie Reelers and told this writer that he recorded with the Reelers on Bluebird in 1936 (one early Billboard bio actually claimed that Shepard was Daddy John Love.) He also toured as an actor during the latter half of the ‘30s with the famed Bert Bertram Players.
By the early ‘40s, he was in Chicago, where by 1944 he was billing himself as Dick Scott and claiming in adverts to be a “Cowboy Philosopher” (a tag he would use to the end of the decade) as well as “the worst act in show business.” This approach - half tongue-in-cheek, half acknowledgment of his limitations as a singer - would inform but not define Shepard’s work for the rest of the decade. While he did not have a great voice, he knew what to do with it and when he played it straight could be a very effective performer. When he chose to play it the other way, he could occasionally be almost unlistenable (as in his “comedy” version of Born to Lose.) Alongside his performing career, Shepard also began working behind the scenes during this period, in booking and management, and was a driving force behind the Federation of American Folk Artists (FAFA), and early organization that strove to bring greater prestige, pay and respect to professional country musicians.
Shifting gears, as he would so often in the coming years, Shepard headed east and dropped the Dick Scott pseudonym in favor of his real name. He was soon appearing on Philadelphia’s Hayloft Hoedown on WFIL, where he began an association with Shorty Long’s Sante Fe Rangers that would last on and off at least through the 1960s. He signed to the new King label and cut his first session, probably in New York, in the fall of 1945. At the same time, he also began working for Leeds Music Publishing.
This set opens with Shepard’s final release for King, cut with backing that included steel guitarist Eddie McMullen. But he was gone from King almost as soon as he’d signed with the label, moving to the New York-based Musicraft label, first as an A&R man. He cut his first session for the label as a singer in April, with Shorty Long and crew, with Long on accordion and the underrated Rusty Keefer on electric guitar. By the end of the year, things had gone awry with Musicraft and Shepard moved on to a similar assignment with Majestic, acting as both country A&R man and performer. At the same time, he cut a lone session for Sterling, using his old North Carolina buddies The Briarhoppers as backing. He cut his novelty Who? Me? for both labels. The Majestic version was the flip of his cover of the smash hit Jole Blon, featuring the great jazz violinist Eddie South.
The associations with both Sterling and Majestic were not surprisingly short-lived, and, though still under contract to the latter, Shepard was soon doing similar work for another New York label, Signature. For his first session, cut in conjunction with another ill-fated performer, Buck Nation (see BACM 343), he used the name Rex Cross, which combined Nation’s real first name and the last name of Shepard’s new publishing associate at American Music, Sylvester Cross. He was soon recording under his own name again, using Shorty Long’s band (his Signature releases included a square dance album.) For a few months in ’47, he was based out of Oklahoma City (he took along his friends The Thomas Family Trio, with whom he recorded at Musicraft and Majestic) and hosted the weekly CBS broadcast of The Oklahoma Roundup.
From Oklahoma, he went to Chicago, where he abandoned Signature for the Vitacoustic label, cutting one session before waxing for the Banner and Regent labels during the 1948 musician’s recording ban. He was backed by Shorty Long again on the former label, for which he also waxed several recitations included here. The Regent session found him backed Rosalie Allen’s backing group, including fiddler Buck Lambert, and accordionist Johnny Newton. He cut a version of Blue Christmas for the label, a song whose publishing deal he’d helped broker. By the time the recording ban was over at the end of ’48, Shepard’s constant shifting and dealing had worn out his welcome with many and his recording career, at least under his own name, was essentially over. He placed 8 religious sides with London in 1950, then disappeared from sight, surfacing in the coming decade (and after) only under pseudonyms, most notably, Dickson Hall. He also worked as a DJ as Riley Cooper. He struggled to make a living most of the time.
“After I was born,” Stacya Silverman recalls, “Dad was devoted to compiling research for an encyclopedia of folk music, which he worked on with a man named Joe Tanzman. He turned the work into a large manuscript that has never been published.”
Shepard’s last forays into the recording industry appear to have been in the early ‘70s, after which he disappeared again, his name and story only surfacing in the years before his death through the efforts of his daughter who writes in closing “Many things about my father remain a mystery to me, though we were in close touch until the end of his life in 2009. The inconsistencies in his life and his struggles with mental health issues bled into his work. Perhaps he best revealed himself in his art. I hope you enjoy this CD. Music sure does soften the rough edges.”
Songs on the CD are as follows:
- Those Precious Love Letters
- (I Could Tell By) The Look In Her Eye
- Hoosier Baby
- Train Whistle Blues
- Texas Blues
- The Leaf Of Love
- Who Me (1)
- New Jole Blon
- Who Me (2)
- Air Mail Special On The Fly
- Baby Can You Laugh At That
- Your Last Goodbye
- I Hang My Head And Cry
- That Aint Right
- I Trusted You
- 40 Miles At Sea
- What Else Can I Do But Love You
- Conversation With A Mule
- I Love You Best Of All
- Born To Lose
- Till The End Of The World
- Scrappin’ (Instr.)
- Will You Be My Darlin
- Got A Dolly Down In Dallas
I think there might be a few copies of this CD out there, but it was a limited edition. I am so thankful I met Kevin Coffey, and that he had that interview with my father before he died.
Next, blog 63: Food insecurity, recipes, and Paul Wyatt, Riley's BFF.