Gary James' Interview With
He was an original Rock 'n' Roller who was the first Texas Rockabilly artist to received a Gold record. He was the first artist of the 1950s to write and perform his own number one hit song. That song was "Party Doll", which remains popular even today, with sales of over ten million. In fact, it was voted one of the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame's 500 songs that shaped Rock 'n' Roll.
Buddy Knox died in 1999, so take a step back in time with us for this 1989 interview.
Q - Buddy, you were born in Happy, Texas, but call Canada your home these days. What kind of a place was Happy, Texas and how did you make the adjustment to Canadian living?
A - Happy, Texas is just as it sounds really, a nice small town to grow up and go to school in. Almost ideal. I was born and raised on a wheat farm about 13 miles out of town. But, all my early school years were spent there and some of my life-long friends were from there. It was a farm town and full of cowboys and football players. I did a lot of both and loved every minute of it. I lived a lot of places before moving to Canada; New York, Hollywood, Nashville and Macon, Georgia, plus a short time in Florida. I enjoyed all of them, but Canada is my home now, for the past 17 or 18 years. I like it here too, except for the winters. They really know how to have a winter up here. Winters and summers are very different from Texas. It took me a while to get used to them. It doesn't slow the Canadians down at all, but 8 or 9 months of warm weather might shake them up a little.
Q - Did you envision a career in music?
A - The idea of making a career out of music didn't really come to me until I had been doing it for several years. Once I got my feet wet in it, then it was very hard to get out of and impossible for me today. I finished college before I cut my records and was working on my masters degree and almost got it. Then we cut "Party Doll" and "I'm Stickin' With You", a song I wrote for my bass player, Jimmy Bowen, that I also got a Gold record for. I had planned to go to work for an oil company in New Mexico as a management trainee, but music came along and I never looked back since then.
Q - How did you get Roulette (Records) to sign you?
A - My lead guitar player's sister, Tuddie Lanier, was a model in New York and we think she took the record to Morris Levy (then President of Roulette) and he offered us a recording contract and we signed. Before we went with Levy, we formed Triple D Records in Texas and released about 1,500 copies that sold out right away and became a hit in that part of Texas. Then, when we decided to go with Levy, he formed Roulette Records and we were the first releases on his new label.
Q - When "Party Doll" became a hit, how did that change your life? What was the biggest change?
A - When "Party Doll" hit, it changed the lives of all of us and a lot of people around us. It took us out of a life we were familiar with and put us into a life that we knew nothing about. It changed all of our plans and even some of the plans and lifestyles of our families and a few friends. It's hard to name the biggest change because it changed about everything. It's like stepping into someone else's shoes that you've never seen before. Everything was brand new to us and we had to figure it out as we went along, not without a lot of mistakes.
Q - Did you receive royalties on your records?
A - 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.
Q - What do you remember about your appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show?
A - The first Sullivan Show was in '57 and I'm not sure of the date of the second show, but probably again in '57 or early '58. His show was tops of the day and needless to say, it was a huge thrill for us. He took good care of us and made us feel at home. I really liked him. Marlo Lewis was stage manager or production manager then and he knew we were nervous and took a lot of trouble with us to put us at ease. I believe while on the second show I was in the Army, stationed at, of all places, Fort Knox and was in uniform. I was an officer while in the service and while serving my military time, all my big hits went up and down the charts and I never had the chance to get into the big money from working on concert tours while the records were hot. The Army didn't allow me t work tours or even on TV. The agreed to the Sullivan Show only if I wore my uniform.
Q - You knew Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly and Elvis. Give us an inside look at those people.
A - I first met Roy Orbison when he and his band, The Teen Kings, played for us at my university one night. I really liked his music and found out he was playing the same type of music that we were, so I had to meet and talk to him and it started a long friendship. I met Buddy Holly and The Crickets right after I cut "Party Doll" and it became a hit in North Texas. He and his band came to my home to meet me and my band and we became friends. Roy, Buddy and I were about the only bands that we knew of that were playing that type of music, Tex-Mex / Rockabilly style, as it was later called. Over the years I worked a lot of shows with both Roy and Buddy. I took my band to see Johnny Cash in Amarillo, Texas one night and Elvis was a warm-up act for his show that night. We found that he was playing pretty much the same music as we were, but with more of a Blues feeling. So, we had to meet him...and we did. We stayed friends and I visited him several times over the years, but never played a show with him. It wasn't smart to be on an Elvis show. Everyone only wanted to see and hear him and you could get things tossed at you while trying to do your part of the show. They only wanted Elvis. I liked Holly and we were good friends and worked a lot of shows up until '59 when he was killed. He was ambitious, more so than most of us and a little hard to deal with sometimes. But, he was just a kid like the rest and really enjoyed doing what he was doing and didn't want to do anything else. A lot of us only figured it would last for a while and then we would go back home and do what we planned to do in the first place, before our music started out. But, Holly wanted to be a star and he seemed to be a little hard to be around sometimes. But, for the most part, he was a good guy and fun to be around with. None of us ever competed with each other because we all wrote good songs and had good bands and good shows, so that never came up. Holly thrived on the road work the same as I did and still do and music was about the biggest part of his life as far as I could see.
Q - Do you like what you hear in today's music?
A - For the most part, I like today's music, both Pop and Country, but prefer the older style of Blues compared to today's Blues music and wasn't very much interested in Jazz and Big Band stuff. I grew up on Gospel music, so I'll always like that type. I've seen so many changes in music since the 40s, that it's hard to keep up with it, especially during the past few years. Technology changes and improvements have completely overpowered me. I can't imagine how one person can completely keep up with improvements being made now. There is almost no limit to what can be done in a good recording studio and film studio. Also, the people in the business today are better than we were and at a younger age. But, bear in mind that in my day, we had to invent what we did and today the people in our business have about 35 years of our music to learn from and improve on, so they are bound to be better.
© Gary James. All rights reserved.