Nashville Conspiracy? The Strange Story Of Bobby Helms.
In 1957, he was named both the Most Promising New Vocalist and the Male Vocalist Of The Year by Billboard Magazine. His song "Fraulein" stayed on the charts for one year and was named Song Of The Year in 1957 by both Billboard and Cashbox Magazine. He appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, The Patti Page Show and Dick Clark's American Bandstand to name just a few. His song, "Jingle Bell Rock" has sold over 120 million copies. But with all the success came something else...trouble. Big trouble.
Was someone in Nashville jealous of all the success Bobby Helms achieved?
Sound incredible? Bobby Helms died on June 19th, 1997, but in this interview, conducted on November 14th, 1986, you'll read for the first time anywhere, what was going on behind the scenes with Bobby Helms' career.
Q - Bobby, you had three hits in a row and then you stopped making records. How come?
A - I had a lot more than that.
Q - I'm talking about 1957.
A - I had "New River Change", "Jacqueline" and "Just A Little Lonesome". See, they all sold a million records.
Q - Why did the hits stop?
A - See, in 1962, my producer left Decca Records. There was big hassle there, so I just kind of got away from it and I never did get in the swing with it 'til about 1969, 1970. The I had "Mary Goes Round", which was Top 20 on the Billboard Country charts. Then, I'm just getting ready to go into recording for Polygram Records.
Q - So, when your producer (Paul Cohen) left, that was it?
A - Yeah. I stayed with 'em (Decca Records) two more years, but I just couldn't get into the swing of things with different producers. It didn't seem like we matched each other.
Q - How about the pressure of touring? You must've gone on tour, right?
A - Oh, yeah.
Q - Touring in the 1950s was a lot harder than it is today. You didn't have these custom tour buses.
A - Well no, that didn't get to me as bad as the pressure of recording. See, after six Gold records in a row, it's kind of bad. Really, even the three songs put a lot of pressure on me and Paul (producer) in the studio, especially with the record company, 'cause what are you gonna follow with three songs like that?
Q - You went back home after that, didn't you?
A - Yeah. I moved back to Indiana. I was down there in Nashville about three years. The pressure of recording didn't bother me, they changed songs around. He took me out of the Country field right after "Fraulein". It went into the Pop field too. People think "Special Angel" was the first crossover record I had, but "Fraulein" was. See, "Fraulein" went number sixteen in the Top 30 in the Pop field.
Q - Did you realize in 1957 that you were involved in the cutting edge of a musical revolution?
A - No, I didn't. I didn't know anything about the recording business 'cause naturally you wouldn't. I didn't even dream of making a record. "Fraulein" changed the whole business. At that time, Country music was about as dead as it could get. I knew that. So, when they called Tommy Jackson in to play fiddle on "Fraulein", and that's the first session he'd done in two years because the Top Ten was full of stuff like "Mabelline" and "That's Alright Mama" and Jerry Lee Lewis had "Whole Lotta Shakin'" or "Great Balls Of Fire". The charts didn't have no Country music at all. So, when we cut "Fraulein" with just a fiddle and no voices, no nothing...just something about it just took hold and stayed in the charts longer than any other record in history.
Q - What kind of music are you recording these days?
A - I got a lot of material now. I just don't know which way to go. It could go either way. It depends on how they cut me. If they cut it with a Pop sound, it might cross over.
Q - Do you have a say in your production?
A - Oh, yeah.
Q - Did you write "Jingle Bell Rock"?
A - I wrote the music, but I didn't get the credit. See, "Fraulein" was wrote in Waltz time. It was give to me and I just told Paul, "I can't sing this song. It's too low." They wrote it for Ernest Tubb or somebody like that. So, I changed the melody. Then when I got "Special Angel", it didn't have no high parts in it, so I changed that. "Jingle Bell Rock" didn't have no bridge in it. So, I changed that. They said you just sing it however you want to. Change it, 'cause I got the publishing. You just change it however you want to. It don't matter about that.
Q - You made the changes, but never realized any money from the contribution you made?
A - No, I never got no credit because I didn't know that much about it. Now today, I'd make some different arrangements. But you know, at that time I just thought, well, here's what I'm singing and they said sing it that way. "Special Angel" was done with just a guitar and a couple of guys trying to sing it. It didn't have a bridge in it, just like the ending and there wasn't enough there to sing. And of course "Jingle Bell Rock" didn't have no bridge at all. It was just a straight through song. It was done with just a guy singing with an electric organ. Two of the songs I didn't even want to cut. "Jingle Bell" and "Fraulein" I didn't even want to do.
Q - So, you wrote the music to "My Special Angel"?
A - I wrote the music to all of 'em. Changed the music around. Back then they didn't make demos. They had maybe one guy with a guitar singing. You know what I mean?
Q - In front of a microphone...
A - Yeah, or a little ol' home tape recorder and they'd send these tapes out, you know. If a good producer heard a good song, he would know it...know what certain singers could do with it.
Q - Brenda Lee recorded "Jingle Bell Rock"...
A - In 1962.
Q - Did she hear your version of it?
A - Oh yeah. They've all got the same kick-off. Chet Atkins cut it instrumentally. It's been cut I don't know how many times.
Q - As you listen to today's performers and watch their stage shows, what goes through your mind?
A - I think it's terrible.
Q - What do you think is terrible?
A - See, Bob Seger had me, two or three years ago, had me meet him here in Indianapolis. His group come out with no shirts on. Not just him, but different groups. Some of 'em wearing shorts. Same in the Country field, walking out with an old pair of faded jeans and maybe a t-shirt on. I don't see that either.
Q - You're from the school that likes to see a performer come onstage dressed up.
A - Yeah. Back then I wore Western, flashy clothes. I don't mean that it would have to be that. The music that I done in the 1960s with the strings and everything like "Hurry Baby" and "Schoolboy Crush" and "Ball Of Dreams", well, if you take that right now and take it out of the field they put it in which was Rock or Pop or whatever they called it back then, that would be exactly what they're calling Country today. If you take my records, they wouldn't play Country back then. See, they didn't want to play "Special Angel", the Country disc jockeys back then, on account of the voices. But, if you take my records today, that I cut in the early '60s and put 'em right in the Country market today, you'd be exactly what they called Rock back then would be Country today. I'm the only one that I know of that used a lot of strings because (of) Paul Cohen. They thought he was crazy by going in and recording "My Greatest Weakness", which was a big Pop song. They all went to Top 30 in Pop. But, they wouldn't even put 'em in the Country field. Said that's not Country, so you're not Country anymore. We're gonna put you there, which today would be exactly what they're doing in Country, which I don't call it Country either.
Q - Do you like the music of some of the top recording artists of today?
A - No. I don't like the songs that's out. I think some of the songs are terrible. I throwed away better songs.
Q - Give me an example.
A - Well, in the Country field, Don Williams new record. I can't think of the name of it. They're playing it. But, the words are terrible. Sounds like a three year old kid writing "You're all to me" and "I'm so in love with you... all tied up in love" Ricky Scaggs had a record not too long ago and it was like the Rock field, "I was born in the U.S.A." That's all the guy says all the way through it.
Q - You wouldn't write a song like that, would you?
A - Oh no. I got songs that have a story or I just throw it away. Something on the order of "Special Angel". I mean, not like that, but it would be a song that meant something. You'd be saying something instead of just hollering out "I was born in the U.S.A." It's great if it does it for them. I'm not knocking their success. I think that's why the 50s songs stayed so long, because they had some good songs back then. I mean, like The Everly Brothers. They had some great songs. The Beatles. If you listen to songs like "Yesterday", they had some great songs.
Q - How about some of the people around today...Bruce Springsteen?
A - I think their songs stink!
Q - Madonna?
A - I think she stinks!
Q - Michael Jackson?
A - He can't sing.
Q - (laughs)
A - I mean, you asked me. I like to be honest. I don't think they can sing. I don't think they have songs that can be put out.
Q - What accounts then for their popularity?
A - Their success is advertisement. Their success in promotion. It's not their singing.
Q - What was it like to be on The Ed Sullivan Show?
A - I was scared to death. They had me scared of him before I went. They told me "Man, he's a bastard." A lot of 'em told me that...artists that had been on his show that he wouldn't talk to. When I got there, he was so nice to me, him and his wife, that had they not been, I don't think I could've done the show, I was so nervous. Ed Sullivan Show was it, when you reached that. But, what I meant about those other singers when they just holler? Well, to start with, I don't know what they're singing. Unless you get the record and listen real close, you don't know what they're saying. But, I don't listen much to that stuff anyway, so it don't matter.
Q - Who do you listen to today?
A - I don't listen to anything. There's a bunch in the Country field that can't sing either. I think music stinks period. That's my own opinion. It's a lot of people's. Start with big disc jockeys. They don't know what to think about the whole deal. Here's the worst thing, I know three artists, I won't mention their names right now, they couldn't make it in any other field, so they went into the Country field. They said they didn't like Country. The only way they could be successful was to go into Country.
Q - And people buy their records and they do become successful.
A - That's right. And the disc jockeys know they said this and they play the records! That's what throws me.
Q - Who did you share the bill with on The Ed Sullivan Show?
A - OK, the second show was me, Buddy Holly, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, Lloyd Price and Della Reese.
Q - That's an all-star line-up.
A - Yeah. Now see, the first time I was on his show, the reason I was so nervous, there was nothing but movie stars on there. Remember when he used to do the cavalcade from Hollywood? The first time I was on there, they had George Sanders, Clark Gable, Betty Grable, Harry James and George Raft. And a couple of movie stars. I was the only singer on there the first time. Then, the second time I had to go to New York. The first time I had to go to California and do it.
Q - Second time around, you weren't as nervous were you?
A - No. I already knew Ray Block, which was the orchestra. He was a real nice guy. But Ed Sullivan was about one of the nicest guys I ever met. Him and Dick Clark.
Q - What did you think of Sam Cooke and Buddy Holly?
A - Oh, I thought they were great. They had good songs. They were good singers. I thought Jackie Wilson was great. A great singer.
Q - What about Sam Cooke? What do you know about him? I've heard he was killed because he owned the publishing to his songs.
A - I heard two stories like that too. I heard he was shot, kind of like a syndicate deal. And then I heard some woman shot him outside of a motel. See, I've been getting threatening letters, about if I went back in the business they was gonna kill me or my wife or my kids. I just got a letter two weeks ago.
Q - Where did the letter come from?
A - Well, it comes from Nashville. They don't want me back in Nashville because "Fraulein" changed the business from last time. And see, the people don't like it.
Q - They feel like your gonna rock the boat?
A - That's it. They feel I'm gonna rock the boat or something. See, I first got a letter stating "We have stopped your career for twenty years and we won't let you get started now and we'll put out a contract on you that won't be cancelled." That was the first letter I got. In August, the FBI guy come and picked that up. The second letter I got was just two week ago. It said "We see that you have paid no attention." See, 'cause of "Fraulein" they just put my suit and guitar in the Hall Of Fame two weeks ago...in Nashville. So, see somebody in Nashville didn't like that even. They said "If we have to, we will kill you or your wife or your kids."
Q - What can you do about it?
A - I don't know. The FBI is gonna come and pick up this letter. The first (letter) one was typed. This one here is written.
Q - That's kind of a strange, bizarre story you're telling me.
A - I know it is. It's stupid. Since this contract with Polygram Records, I got the first letter.
Q - You don't feel it's just not some nut?
A - No. It's somebody in Nashville. It's people in Nashville. Nobody but the people in Nashville would know where I live. I couldn't step on anybody's toes but only in Nashville, or rock the boat like I said. It has to be Nashville. I don't know who. But it has to extend back to when I done it before.
Q - It's incredible that somebody could keep a grudge that long.
A - There's some weird people in this business.
Q - Are you frightened?
A - Well, I'm not really frightened. It enters my mind all the time. My wife and my kids...they was scared. But as far as for me, I just figure if you're gonna get it, you're gonna get it.
Q - Besides the letters, have you ever been followed?
A - Well, I don't know. I don't know if they'll try anything. You just never know. It's a heck of a story that nobody's ever dreamed possible. See, I had over fifty tours cancelled in Nashville. I'm talking about foreign tours. I've never been back to Germany in twenty years, or England. "Fraulein" stayed on the charts in Germany for ten years.
Q - That's incredible! Fifty tours cancelled?
A - Fifty tours cancelled in Germany and England. Just overseas tours. I've never been back over there since 1966.
Q - Whose fault would that have been? The promoters?
A - No. It had to be somebody who wrote this letter. I'd never thought about it until I got this letter that said we've stopped your career for twenty years.
Q - Maybe you could narrow it down by going over people you worked with in your career?
A - See, there's people in Nashville who think it concerns several artists. Some of 'em, Decca even dumped 'em when I started hittin'. I hit so big with them songs, Paul dropped a lot of 'em. So, I know they're bound to feel hard at me, which wasn't my fault. Just like when The Beatles hit, Capitol Records dropped everybody and just concentrated on them. You just never know how many people was involved 'cause I don't know who all Decca even had at the time I signed with 'em.
Q - I hope this matter gets straightened out.
A - I do too.
Q - If your tours have been cancelled and you haven't gotten any money from publishing and you haven't made any records, how have you made money to live?
A - Oh, I had money. I done some work. The tours overseas is what I'm talking about. I've lost millions of dollars overseas. I still work in the States.
Q - If you got handwriting samples from this letter, perhaps you could get to the bottom of the whole mystery.
A - The FBI is gonna come up. They've called us three or four times. They was very concerned. They sent a special agent here. He told me that it was a conspiracy. The first FBI guy told us this. They spent some time in Nashville evidently. They picked the letter up four weeks after we called 'em. They wrote down exactly what it said and said "let us check into this, OK?" They checked into it and they sent a special agent here, not just a regular FBI guy. You know, a secret service man. All he did is with conspiracy, espionage and terrorism. He told me it's definitely a conspiracy. He told me the only thing we don't know is how many is involved in it. He said it has to be artists or people who had a lot of money invested in groups back then. We could be talking about a hundred people or a thousand people. He said with a conspiracy, you could be talking about ten people to a hundred.
Q - Now the only problem with that Bobby is, the more people involved, the greater the chance there will be a leak and someone will talk.
A - That's right. Jeff Hubbard has read both letters. It's weird. They know ever move I make.
Q - Is your phone tapped?
A - No. I've had that checked. I went out to the mailbox one day. Nobody knew I was trying to get a record contract except Doris (Bobby's wife) and Nashville. A letter left in the mailbox said "There will be no record contract." It was left in my mailbox. Somebody drove and put it in there. It wasn't delivered by the mailman. It didn't have no postmark like the other two. So see, it had to come from Nashville.
Note: As previously mentioned, this interview with Bobby Helms dates back to November, 1986. In June of 1997, Bobby Helms passed away (of emphysema). Whether Bobby Helms or anyone got to the bottom of this mystery is unknown.
"My Special Angel" spent 15 weeks on the Billboard Pop chart, where it reached #7. It made #1 on the Country chart.
"Fraulein" went to #1 on the Country chart during a nearly one year stay. It also made #36 on the Pop chart.
"Jingle Bell Rock" rose to #6 on the Pop chart in 1957, #35 in 1958 and #36 in 1960.
"Jacquelin" charted at #63 on The Billboard Hot 100 in May 1958 and #20 on UK Singles chart.
"Just A Little Lonesome" got as far as #57 on The Cash Box Singles chart in March 1958.
"New River Train" reached #26 on the Country chart in April 1959.
"He Thought He'd Die Laughing" (1967) and "So Long" (1968) reached the upper levels of the Country chart.
"Mary Goes Round" went to #13 on the Country chart in 1970.