Gary James' Interview With
Bruce Channel

He had a million-seller record with a song he co-wrote called "Hey! Baby". That record went to number one in the U.S. in March of 1962 and number two in the U.K. We are talking about Mr. Bruce Channel.

Q - Bruce, is it true that you started playing guitar at the age of five?

A - You can't actually say that I played guitar at the age of five. I started getting familiar with it, learning the guitar from a cousin of mine that lived with us and he could play, so he was showing me. So I started learning guitar before I started school.

Q - Is it true your big break came when you went with your father to Shreveport, Louisiana for an audition with Tillman Franks for the radio show Louisiana Hayride?

A - That is exactly true.

Q - And you got signed to the show where you remained for six months?

A - I did. I would travel every weekend. On a Saturday morning my dad would take me to the train station in Dallas and I would catch a train to Shreveport, Louisiana. It was about three and a half hours. They'd make stops here and there. So it took awhile. I do remember I worked The Hayride for six months and I'd go every weekend like that. When I'd come back Sunday morning early, my dad would pick me up at the train station in Dallas. They gave me $16.50 a show.

Q - That's not bad for those days.

A - And I paid $11.66 round-trip for the train fare.

Q - That's not so good.

A - I'd buy my lunch while I was there and I'd pay union dues which were $1.50. So I'd get home with a couple of bucks, but I got to meet so many people and I got an introduction to show business, being on the stage.

Q - And you got an introduction to the business part of show business. You're doing all the work and by the time all these people are done picking your pockets you end with nothing.

A - Well, I can't say that's true. (laughs)

Q - I can say it!

A - It is true for a lot of people. I thought you were asking me personally.

Q - It was more or less a generality about show business. You hear so many stories of people being ripped off. You hate to hear those stories.

A - Of course you do. There's always horror stories. It's better for a person to just keep their council. You do what's right on your side of the deal and hope those people do. A lot of times it hasn't worked out that way. I don't think you can actually hold somebody responsible. You can do whatever you want to do. If you're hungry, you're more eager to sign something too.

Q - When you got out of high school, and you graduated high school, didn't you?

A - Yeah. '59.

Q - Did you go right into a show business career of did you go off to college or work a non-show business job?

A - No. From the time I was young I'd always have friends and my brothers and I would play together. The whole family would sing together. Not like a show or anything, but just around home. So we were all musical. My dad played harmonica. I always loved to hear him play the old songs like "Pretty Red Wing" and "Old Spinning Wheel In The Park". He could do those really great. Really old Country songs, but I love to hear 'em. So I always had some friends and we'd put a band together and go play at each other's house or somewhere if we could from the time I was about fourteen. We started playing at youth centers. Finding more gigs to play. It just kind of went from there to whatever was available. Jergens Hand Lotion sponsored a talent contest at Lake Dallas, Texas which was just north of Grapevine, about ten miles or so. I'd heard about it and was asked if I wanted to go there. I said, "Sure." So, I went over and played my guitar and sang, I don't know, probably a Marty Robbins song or something. I won that contest and it got me a one night shot on The Big D Jamboree in Dallas. So I got to play The Big D Jamboree and that opened up another window of opportunity for me. I never played there on a regular basis, but I got to play there and went to a lot of shows to see different acts that came to Dallas to play.

Q - I don't think the opportunities you had still exist. Today, you're singing in front of a mirror in your bedroom and to be discovered you have to go audition for a show like The Voice or The X Factor in front of forty million people. That's a huge jump.

A - Yeah, it's an incredible jump. Well, with today's technology it makes it so much easier. Elvis was a big influence on everybody. His music really involved us. Dick Clark started his TV show and we had access to all the big acts that were happening, Frankie Lymon And The Teenagers and all the big singing groups. The Platters. It was just wonderful. We started hearing some success of what we considered local people in Texas. Buddy Holly out of Lubbock was having big success. Some things were happening and moving. I just always loved music and I always had a band of some kind. We'd be playing somewhere and just stay at it. At the same time if an opportunity presented itself like The Louisiana Hayride, I wanted to do that show but I couldn't take my band 'cause they wouldn't pay a band. They had their own band at those shows. So that made it difficult sometimes to keep a band together and go do a single act at the same time. But I'd always try to keep a band. I haven't had a band in years now. The last band I had I guess was about forty. Since then I haven't had a regular band. I have friends that play and if I'm going to do something, I can ask them to come. They know the songs I'm gonna do and we'll do that, but I don't travel so much and do so many of those shows anymore.

Q - You brought up Buddy Holly and Elvis. Did you ever cross paths with those guys?

A - No. I always wanted to meet Elvis. He played The Big D Jamboree in Dallas. I never got a chance to meet him. I haven't been there in years, but they used to have contracts with Elvis to appear there, but then when he broke open so big in '56 with "Heartbreak Hotel", everything just took off for him. They bought those contracts back. They paid the contract. Elvis paid them not to have to do those shows and they just put them in glass and have 'em as souvenirs on the wall. So, there was like three performances he never did do at The Big D Jamboree. He came later that year sometime I think and did the Cotton Bowl in Dallas where they played the national championship at the time. But he was always a big influence and we loved his music and liked to play it. My guitar player and I were riding around one night in his '56 Chevy, and this would've been '57 I think, and we had the radio on and it announced that that night at The Big D Jamboree would be Jerry Lee Lewis And His Atomic Piano. We had heard "A Whole Lot Of Shakin'", so we just turned that Chevy around and went straight to the place and got tickets and went in to see the show. It was great.

Q - Your friend Margaret Cobb helped write "Hey! Baby".

A - Yeah. Margaret was about ten to fifteen years older than me.

Q - Were you ever in a group with her?

A - No. She was a songwriter. I had worked at a company that her brother had worked at. He played guitar. So, we got talking and everything. We played a little bit together. He said, "I want you to meet my sister. She's a songwriter." So I went over with him to meet her and we started writing songs together and we wrote, I don't know, probably twenty to thirty songs together. "Hey! Baby" was one of those. I had been writing some songs alone. I had one called "Dream Girl" that I had finished which was on the B-side of "Hey! Baby" when they used to have B-sides. I actually went to the session to show this guy, Major Bill Smith, some songs that I had written.

Q - I know that name, Major Bill Smith.

A - At the encouragement of Margaret Montgomery who was my manager along with Margaret at the time. He said, "This guy in Fort Worth dabbles in music. He produces records. Take some guys and see if he likes them." So, I took him "Hey! Baby" and "Dream Girl" and played 'em for him. He said, "Yeah, I like those. We'll cut 'em next week if you want to." He said, "What I really need right now is a song for a girl named Trudi Coleman that I'm producing. I need an answer to 'Hit The Road Jack'," which was a hit at the time for Ray Charles. So I went home and wrote "Come Back Jack" and brought it back to him. It was okay. It was just a song I wrote, but he liked it and recorded it on her. He said, "We'll do your session next week." When I showed up at the studio I met Delbert McClinton and his band, The Straight Jackets. They were doing back-up work in the studio for Bill for most of the sessions he did. I showed him the songs I was gonna do and then we recorded them that day. Bill Smith called a friend of his and played it for him over the phone. He played "Hey! Baby" for him and said, "How do you like that, you cotton picker?" Everything was a "cotton picker" to Major Bill. He said, "How do you like that, you cotton picker?" And he said, "I like it." He said, "Well, do you like it $500 worth?" He said, "Well, I don't know if I like it that much." He said, "Well, it's a cotton pickin' smash, you cotton picker." So he hangs up and goes to work on the record. He got it up in the local charts and then it became number one on our charts in the Dallas - Fort Worth area. Then it became number one in Houston at KILT. So, we had major markets covered and it was number one. Mercury Records approached Bill to lease it from him, to release it nation wide. So, that's what happened. It was on the Smash label. It was a Mercury Records label.

Q - How long did it take you and Margaret to write "Hey! Baby"? Do you remember?

A - Not long because we were pretty quick with it. We were just kind of messin' around, tryin' to find something to write about. That phrase, there was something about it. "Hey! Baby", you know? (laughs) Finally we got some things going. Kind of got a little chorus going. We thought it was a chorus anyway. It turned out to be two bridges and a chorus. (laughs) I don't think we have a verse in the song. So we got the words down, just simple words, "Hey Baby, I want to know if you'll be my girl." Really simple, but then I got home and I started fiddling with it, trying to find a good chord progression to go with it. Up 'til then I had just been singing it with my brother and a friend who had a paper route. We'd ride in his car. I would sing him whatever I'd been doing. I sang him "Hey! Baby" and they started doing vocal group parts to it. (laughs) "Baby, baby baby, will you be my girl." Jim would sing. My brother would sing and then I'd come in singing "Hey! Baby" and then we'd all sing together. But when I showed the studio, there wasn't any of that. Just Delbert and his band and I sang it with him.

Q - Have you ever noticed how many songs throughout the years use the word "baby" in them? Even Justin Bieber's first hit was "Baby".

A - Yeah, well I must've absorbed it or something, the word. Everybody used to call everybody baby. "Hey baby, how you doing?" That kind of thing. It was just kind of a common slang to friends. It wasn't a big connotation. A guy flirting with a girl going by that he knows he's not going to get, but he wants to let her know that he's really interested. It had brass enough. "Hey! Baby, I want to know if you'd be my girl." I don't know why it sticks with people, but it has. God bless 'em. It saved our lives and careers. It's just been wonderful for the whole ride.

Q - Did you ever use that line: "Hey! Baby. I want to know if you'd be my girl"?

A - (laughs) I usually pick out different ones (girls) and sing to 'em in the audience. (laughs) Halfway through it I'll stop and let them sing it awhile.

Q - When you went into the studio to record it, did you think you had a hit record?

A - I thought it was a good song. I'd been writing for awhile with different people and writing songs myself. "Dream Girl" I knew was a good song. My main impetus in the whole thing was to try to get "Dream Girl" cut by The Platters. That's what I was really trying to do, but I had no idea I was going in to cut a number one record. It was another song that I liked real well, and everybody else liked it that I played it for, but nobody knew it was a hit. "Dream Girl" I thought was our best shot because I thought as a ballad it would be a bigger record by a good group like The Platters, whom I never got to with it, so it didn't matter anyway. (laughs)

Q - Is it true your harmonica player in "Hey! Baby" inspired John Lennon's harmonica playing?

A - Well, Delbert (McClinton) likes to say I taught him everything he knows, but he's just joking and he always says that. It's just a joke. We did some shows with 'em (The Beatles) when he and I toured England in '62. They were on some shows and we shared a dressing room, and Pete Best was their drummer. Ringo hadn't joined 'em yet. John had asked Delbert to play something for him. He said, "I really like your playing. Will you play something for me on your harmonica?" Delbert got it out and just started playing around and doodling. He said, "I love that sound. I want to use that sometime." And he did on a couple of songs, "Love Me Do".

Q - And "Please Please Me".

A - Yeah. He just loved Delbert's sound and was trying to reproduce that.

Q - How much of a role did Major Bill play in the success of "Hey! Baby"?

A - Oh, he was an integral part. The guy, I would say, couldn't be a singer and he wasn't a musician but he knew the difference in what his ears told him about songs and how they sounded. He enabled people to do what they could do. He would be in the studio constantly, cutting people. He cut a lot of people and didn't have as many hits as others, but he had his share. He would call Bob Sullivan, who was the engineer. Bob was the engineer at KWKH Radio over in Shreveport when I went to audition for The Hayride. Years later I met him again and he's the engineer when I cut "Hey! Baby".

Q - Did Major Bill ever talk to you about Elvis?

A - Oh, sure.

Q - Elvis was alive and he was going to be his manager.

A - I think he wanted to believe it more than anything. He had had some dealings if I'm not mistaken with Freddy Bienstock who ran Elvis' publishing and music part for him. So, he had a real attachment to him and probably had met him. I don't know that he really had. He just couldn't believe he was gone I guess. He had told me and I'm not out to make him sound crazy. He was a lovable man. I loved him. He's one of the old carny guys, you know? He worked hard. He didn't get it for free. He came and found you as a talent. He took you to his studio or recorded you and then he got the records made and piled 'em in his little Corvair car and took 'em to every radio station in five states and out of that effort he had "Peanuts" by Rick And The Keens, a pretty good record. The reason "Hey! Baby" was on Mercury is because that's who he had dealt with previously for the "Peanuts" record. So, when Charlie Fach came from Smash Records and Mercury and wanted to take "Hey! Baby" nationwide, worldwide, they made a deal and he did that. Then after that he had "Hey Hey Paula I Want To Marry You". You remember that one?

Q - I sure do. I interviewed Paul (Ray Hildebrand) from Paul And Paula.

A - Oh, he's a great guy. I love Paul. He's great. He had that and then he had "Last Kiss" by J. Frank Wilson. So, you know, he was a hard worker, no doubt about it. He put the elbow grease in to make it all go together.

Q - Did you believe Major Bill when he told you Elvis was alive?

A - No. See, Bill had a little age on him at that time. I think he may have had the onset of something. Who knows, man? Back all those years ago, I don't really know. I just loved the guy for what he did for me. I was always loyal to him. He was such a hard worker. You couldn't deny the effort he did. He was always selling, man. That was his deal. He'd show up at a gig with your record and try to sell it and pump something up for you.

Q - Major Bill was over the top on Elvis being alive.

A - Yeah, sure he was. In my mind, and I don't know everything, that boy (Elvis) is dead. His memory lives on forever and his music. He did something that nobody else will ever do and nobody else probably could have done in that position, but that's boy's gone. Major Bill, I never never did say that to him. I let him say whatever he wanted. He wants to believe he's alive, then he's alive. That's fine with me. He wanted to believe so badly I guess and to pump his book. Maybe he was falling for those people calling because they acted like and sounded like Elvis and he thought they were. Who knows? Any person in their right mind would think about it and say, "That fella's dead. He's not gonna come back."

Q - The people who say Elvis is alive make a convincing case.

A - Well, there's people that have seen aliens, but I've never seen one. People claim they see 'em. They've even been abducted by 'em. The mind is a powerful thing. It's a powerful thing to waste, but sometimes medical conditions can cause that. A right thinking person would gravitate toward a saner view of it.

Q - How did life change for you when "Hey! Baby" became a hit?

A - I was just working with a band wherever I could get a gig to play music. That's all. And try to make a record. Tried to do all those things to accomplish some of that any way, you know? So for about five or six years that's what I was doing. Then I walked in the studio and cut "Hey! Baby" and it became a hit locally, but I had been playing parties and gigs around that area for a long time. People knew me. I knew a lot of high school kids from different high schools that I had played for. They'd have a battle of records on the radio and they'd say, "We have a new entry this week. It's Burl Ives 'Little Bitty Tear' goes up against Bruce Channel's 'Hey! Baby'." KFJZ in Fort Worth would play 'em and the kids and whoever wanted to could call in and pick the one they liked. Whoever got the most votes, that's the record they would leave on the play list for that week. If you won for a week, you'd go into their Top 30. So, "Little Bitty Tear" beat us out, the disc jockey said, by one vote. The disc jockey told me later when he said that, the switchboard just lit up. (laughs) So it got to stay on. All those kids were callin' and kept callin' until they got somebody to say, "You've made a terrible mistake. 'Hey! Baby' is by far the best record." (laughs) So, it got to stay on. It became on their Top 30 play list. That means it got played every hour and you get that on all the major stations in our five state area that Bill worked. Mercury took notice and saw it going up the charts on Le Cam Records, which was Bill's label. They made a deal for the record. So I came from playing any gig I could get to still playing any gig you could get, (laughs) except they were a little better. The first gig I did was a thirty day tour with Fats Domino, Brook Benton, The Impressions. The Duke Of Earl was on. He (Gene Chandler) had just gotten out of the army and had joined the tour. We had a great time. He put on a great show every night. I enjoyed that for a month. We went from New York City to Houston, Texas on the tour.

Q - Was that the Dick Clark Caravan Of Stars tour you're talking about?

A - No. This was called a Spring Tour. He (Feldman) did a lot of big shows and toured 'em all over the country from New York.

Q - Did you ever tour with The Beatles in Europe. They backed you? Did they open for you?

A - Well, I always laughingly say, actually they didn't open for us, we closed for them, Delbert and I. I had finished the tour with Fats and those guys, but Delbert wasn't able to go with me. I couldn't take a band because they had an orchestra and I didn't get to take Delbert. So the thing came up to go to London and I said, "Look, I'm more than happy to do it. I'd love to do it, but I'm not going without Delbert. We gotta have the sound. We gotta take the sound with us, man." Everybody agreed, so Delbert came with me on that tour. That's when we ran into all these people. We had a backing band. I think it was Billy Kidd And The Pirates. Then there was The Dakotas with another group that was on and Jay and Tommy Scott. Sounded like the Everly Brothers. One of them ended up owning and operating Major Minor Records And Publishing. Became tremendously successful in London. Frank Ifield, "I Remember You". He was on with us and a comedian, Beryl Bryden. So, it was kind of like a troupe. We went all around England, playing theatres and shows. Some of those places we did a couple of shows with The Beatles. They were booked on the same bill.

Q - This was in 1962?

A - If I'm not mistaken it was June 4th to July 4th 'cause we came home just before the 4th of July celebration here.

Q - At that time The Beatles wouldn't have been wearing the Beatle haircuts, the collarless jackets or the Cuban high heel boots, would they?

A - Their hair was cut, not at a Beatles cut, but all their hair was long. I think on the show they were wearing leathers. In the dressing room there's a picture that Paul's brother took of us.

Q - You have that picture on your website?

A - That's right. We were in the dressing room and Delbert played for 'em. They were nice guys. They were real quiet. George and Paul were more quiet, to themselves. Pete was a nice guy. John was interested in the music and took most of the deal talking and going back and forth. But they just went out and did their thing and we went out and did ours and had to go to another one. But we had no idea they would be that big. They weren't writing songs at that time. If they were, they weren't recording them.

Q - How did they sound?

A - Well, their harmonies were really good. They were like The Everly Brothers with a little bit of Little Richard thrown in. They did a lot of cover songs, but they did 'em great.

Q - Would you have remembered Pete Best's drumming? Did you think he was a good drummer?

A - Yeah. Pete was a good drummer, you bet! He was an excellent drummer. I don't know the particulars about all of it, but I had read later that John had a little bit of angst because Pete got all the women.

Q - When I interviewed Pete Best, he told me to this day he has no idea why he was replaced.

A - It's because they wanted Ringo. They knew him. He was already in another band. They wanted him as their drummer. That's the drummer they wanted 'cause it fit what they were trying to do and they knew it. I'm sorry for Pete. That's the worst thing that can happen to you, but he's a great guy. He picked up his shoes and went on. That's what you have to do. I felt bad for Pete 'cause he couldn't be part of the deal, but I understand man how it goes. You're looking for a certain sound in your head and it's not there. That's all you've got to go on. All of it pointed toward they needed a different sound on their drums I suppose. I just love their music like everybody else. I kind of followed the story after we had made that close contact with 'em. I didn't pal around with 'em. Ringo has called me a couple of times. He cut "Hey! Baby" late '60s, early '70s, somewhere in there. I told him I appreciated very much that he had cut "Hey! Baby" and I loved the video. It was great.

Q - Did you leave the music business for awhile and what did you do?

A - I did. I had done those tours and I had been to England and I went back in '68 and I did another tour with a song called "Keep On". It was a hit over there and then I did another one called "Mr. Bus Driver" in '70 and went back on a tour on that and I did some shows with The Beach Boys. In 1970 I met a girl named Christina and she worked for Arthur Howe's agency that had booked the tour. She was doing business for Arthur and I was talking to her on the business end of it and I had asked her out a couple of times and she wouldn't go. I asked a friend of mine who worked there. I said, "Christina won't go out (with me)". He said, "No. She won't have anything to do with the singers." (laughs) The Stones and everybody came through there and she wouldn't have anything to do with 'em. (laughs) She called 'em, "Those dirty rotters." (laughs) My friend said, "Bruce is not like those other groups. He's a nice guy." She acquiesced and went out with me. So, after that tour I came back to Texas and we wrote back and forth for a few months. Then in late '70 she came over. I got her to come over and stay with my folks for awhile and myself at the same house. She'd been there for several months. So we decided we were going to get married and we did in August of 1971. We're still married now.

Q - You got the girl all the British guys were after!

A - (laughs) She wouldn't have anything to do with 'em. (laughs)

Q - What did that term, "dirty rotters" mean?

A - Scoundrels.

Q - They were rich. They were famous.

A - That's what she didn't like about it. She just likes people. She don't need a star. She sees them all the time at the office. They're all involved in their own lives anyway. She's not looking to open a conversation.

Q - She is different than most girls. Most girls would have loved to talk to all the bands of the day.

A - Well, she wound up with an old East Texas cowboy. (laughs)

Q - No. She wound up with a guy who had a number one record. So, she did marry a star.

A - (laughs) We really enjoy being with each other and have a great time. We love living here in Nashville. We've been here since 1978 and I got busy and wrote a handful of songs here that became number one. So we've done okay. We're great and the world's wonderful.

Q - Is that what you're doing these days? You write songs for other people?

A - Yeah. I still like to write. I try to write some every day. I have a friend I wrote with on the coast for about thirty years. He has a studio in his house in Franklin, which is about ten miles away and I'll go spend a day with him a couple of days a week. We put our songs down and write 'em. We used to be a trio. Larry Henley wrote a bunch of great songs, "Wind Beneath My Wings", "Shotgun Rider". But Larry, Ricky Ray and I got together and worked in the studio and put our songs down. We put an album out. We weren't trying to compete with anybody. We were just putting out songs that we liked and wrote. We produced 'em ourselves and did all the harmonies and played all the instruments. Original Copy is the name of the group. It was Larry Henley, Ricky Ray and myself. Larry passed away nearly two years ago.

Q - Did you guys ever do any gigs?

A - We used to do a lot of charity golf tournaments. We played one in Arkansas for Sam Walton, the guy who owned Wal-Mart. We got to meet famous golfers there, Lee Trevino. We got to meet Stan Musial.

Q - Do you consider yourself a "One Hit Wonder"?

A - No, I don't. I never considered myself as any kind of wonder. It's just another song I love, "Hey! Baby", and what it's done for me and my family for all these years. You can't thank the fans enough for that. It's strictly due to them that "Hey! Baby" has endured for generations of people really. Every so often somebody records it and it gets recognition again and I don't know why, but I'm grateful and I appreciate it so much.

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