Gary James' Interview With
Joe Dowell

Can you believe it, it's the fiftieth anniversary of Joe Dowell's recording of "Wooden Heart" going all the way up to number one on the Billboard charts? It was back in 1961 that Joe recorded that song. Originally, Elvis had a hit with it, but in Europe, not the States. Joe Dowell would go on to have two other successful records, "The Bridge Of Love" and "Little Red Rented Rowboat".

Joe Dowell talked to us about his hit record and his music career.

Q - Joe, I'm just guessing that after your success with "Wooden Heart", your record label, Smash Records, didn't promote your follow-up records. Would I be right about that?

A - Yeah. It disturbed me that they only promoted two or three and when they didn't get to be giant hits, they dropped me from the label.

Q - That's always the problem, if you don't have anybody banging on doors promoting your product, no one is going to hear about you.

A - That's right. You gotta promote it. You got to let people know your song is out there.

Q - You started singing in Junior High School?

A - Yeah. I enjoyed it so much. I started in junior high with a choral group and high school with a choral group and also as an aside I was in the Madrigal singers. Singing really became my life. It was something I enjoyed so very much.

Q - You entered a ninth grade talent show and were singing?

A - Right. My first song I ever sang was "Unchained Melody", which was a lot of fun. Good audience. It was on a stage in a church activity room and that was my first talent show.

Q - Did you have a band back you?

A - Just guitar.

Q - Who was playing that?

A - I was.

Q - After you entered that ninth grade talent show, then the show biz bug bit you?

A - It really did. I was about thirteen years old and got a ten dollar Stella guitar. I had a paper route with a kid named Ronnie Ryder. He invited me home to a pancake breakfast and he suddenly said "Joe, would you like to buy this guitar of mine for ten bucks?" It was the quickest sale ever made on earth. I had the guitar in my hands, brought it home, bought one of those Learn To Play The Guitar In Ten Easy Lessons.

Q - The Mel Bay books?

A - Right. Mel Bay was one of them. And so I began and I had a stack of 45s from Elvis to Johnny Cash and all the big hits from the early '60s. No, I'm sorry, this was back in my high school days, when I went to college, which was my Freshman year. So, from the age of thirteen to eighteen, it was a dream of getting a number one hit. I learned everything I could. My dear mother bought me a beautiful Gibson (guitar), $180 to take to the campus, the University Of Illinois. I don't want to get ahead of your questions, but this is kind of a time line of how things happened before "Wooden Heart" hit number one in August of '61.

Q - So, when you went to the University Of Illinois, you studied what, music?

A - You're close. I studied radio and television, which is just a step away from professional music and broadcasting. It was in the school of journalism, but specifically radio and television was my major. But along with me came that nice Gibson my beloved mother bought me. It was a great guitar. Then the doors opened. I began to sing for every other fraternity and sorority on the campus and the dream got bigger and bigger.

Q - Was that an eclectic guitar you had?

A - A beautiful Gibson acoustic.

Q - So, now you're singing around campus. How did that lead to a record deal with Smash Records?

A - It's a very fun story. Around January of 1961, now this is about eight months before the song went to number one; in January when I was 21, I was ready. I felt inside there was something. Go to Music City, Nashville, Tennessee. So, a friend and I borrowed his mother and dad's Volkswagen and drove to Nashville. And fortunately, a month or two before that I was invited to do a concert at the Hoopeston, Illinois Sweet Corn Festival. I know it sounds crazy, but it happened. Don Merrill owned the Lorraine Theatre, a famous historical theatre in Hookston. That's where the annual Sweet Corn Festival was held... is held. Don knew about me. I'd gone over to audition for him. He liked my singing and he knew that Loretta Lynn, George Hamilton The IV and Billy Grammar were going to appear on the stage of the annual Hookston Sweet Corn Festival. If this hadn't have happened, I don't think I ever would have had a hit record. All three of those great singers loved my voice and they opened doors for me with a few phone calls. When I got to Nashville a few months later, in January of '61, all the people were ready, the publishers, the producer, the songwriters, and for one solid week I knocked on doors and sang. Two to three appointments a day. I began to get depressed because Friday came and no contract. Of course I was naive and ridiculous to think that I could get a major contract within five days. Well, guess what happened. On Friday, the day before I was to return to the U. Of I. for finals the next week, I met the Wilburn brothers, Teddy and Doyle and they were very famous on The Grand Ole Opry. I sang for them. They loved my voice and in particular on my new Bear Family CD, which is a re-release of thirty-four songs and has a thirty page book within it. It's really a nice package. There's a tune called "The One I Left For You". When I sang that for the A&R guy, Shelby Singleton, who produced "Harper Valley P.T.A." and "The Ballad Of The Green Berets", the Wilburns called him at Mercury, right across the street. Shelby came running over, heard me sing and said "I'll give you a contract with Mercury for five years." I fell over and about broke my guitar. The session was set for May. Shelby came over again to the office with Elvis Presley's album "G.I. Blues". There was a giant record on there called "Wooden Heart", which was huge around the world, but for some unknown reason, RCA Victor did not release it in the United States. Shelby, as sharp as he was, a great producer, he knew there was a vacuum for "Wooden Heart". He said "Joe, you've got to record Elvis' tune "Wooden Heart". It's gonna be a huge hit for somebody." And so we added it to the session and then even hired a German speaking guy named Eddie Wilson to teach me the German half of the song. As you know, Elvis sang to Julia Prowse in the movie in a German circus. As an interesting aside, there were five other people who recorded "Wooden Heart". Shelby and all the people at Mercury knew that I had to hit the road bad, big time, and they hired a guy in a Thunderbird named Danny and we took off and hit every single city east of the Mississippi for one solid month. Every town from Chicago to New York to Syracuse to Philadelphia to New Orleans to St. Louis. Because we did that, the disc jockeys were welcoming. I shook their hands and went to the record hops. The people at Mercury watched something astounding happening. Every time we went to a city, let's say Philadelphia, and I met, shook hands and went to the record hops with all the disc jockeys, the volume of record sales shot to the sky because they began to play my version of "Wooden Heart" and thus people began to buy it. They could trace the track of my trail as every town we went to, the sales of "Wooden Heart" just burst to the ceiling. It was astounding. They knew where I was according to the volume of record sales.

Q - Danny was an independent promo guy?

A - Absolutely.

Q - Did you ever see Payola then?

A - Oh, I knew it was there, but I didn't see any specific elements of it. It was active, but I didn't see money going under tables and turntables.

Q - Going in person made all the difference in your career!

A - It was quite startling. The five other competitors; Dick Biondi on WLS played Gus Backus' version. I knew Dick Biondi, but for some reason he chose Gus Backus. His version of "Wooden Heart" sold a few. We really had great volume, a tremendous number of radio stations and disc jockeys that we met and sang for, and that was reason "Wooden Heart" shot in ninety days to number one in August of '61.

Q - When you recorded "Wooden Heart", Ray Stevens was in the studio?

A - (laughs) He was on the organ, let's say duplicating the accordion, the real live accordion that Elvis Presley used when he sang "Wooden Heart". So the genius of Ray Stevens imitated the accordion on his organ. The guy who played bass guitar, a tremendous bass guitarist named Bradley, he imitated the tuba. Of course Elvis had the real tuba, it was imitated by Bradley on a bass guitar. We had people like Floyd Cramer on piano, Anita Kerr Singers, The Jordanaires. Very top stars. I was fortunate to have some great pickers and singers on the session. You might find it interesting that very same day, on the same microphone, Ray Stevens recorded his hit "Ahab The Arab".

Q - How many takes did you do of "Wooden Heart"?

A - I'm very fortunate that it came very quickly. It was under five takes to get it down the way we thought we should have it. After it was finished, we gathered around and listened to the speakers and my version. We all thought it was good enough to really make some noise. Fortunately it was so different and well done that we were right.

Q - Of the five other people that recorded "Wooden Heart" beside yourself, anybody else we would have heard of?

A - No. I believe Bear Family, what a remarkable company, they are the biggest on the planet of doing "oldies", of re-releasing "oldies but goodies". Bear Family I think has some answer songs to me, a couple of girls recorded "I Know You Don't Have A Wooden Heart". So, they were answer songs to my song "Wooden Heart". But every song can be found on my website

Q - When your version of "Wooden Heart" went to number one, what did Elvis think about that? Did you ever hear from Elvis?

A - To my great sorrow, some people said that he knew of course, but I never had the privilege of meeting "The King". To say a little bit that sounds extremely bragging, but is not meant to be immodest, it was my privilege in the history of Pop music, with Elvis, to be the only guy who was lucky enough to record an Elvis Presley song and sold more than he did in the U.S., more of "Wooden Heart" than he did and that was really a good part of publicity for me. So, it outsold Elvis Presley's version in America.

Q - Did you tour behind "Wooden Heart"?

A - The most interesting thing is, I got a call from Jimmy Dean's manager and Jimmy Dean loved "Wooden Heart" and they invited me with Patsy Cline and George Hamilton IV to travel to every province of Canada. And so for one solid week I had the privilege of singing with Jimmy Dean ("Big Bad John") and Patsy Cline ("Crazy") and that wonderful group of people. It was an exciting adventure to travel all across Canada with Jimmy Dean and some other hit singers.

Q - What was Patsy Cline like?

A - She was just a very beautiful and gentle lady. Very humble and lived the way she sounded as she sang. I never had the privilege of getting to have lunch with her and talk with her that way, but I was on the stage for one solid week and enjoyed hearing her sing.

Q - What did you do after that Canadian tour?

A - I had agents booking me. I did shows with big stars like Bobby Vinton, Bobby Rydell on Steel Pier in Atlantic City. Tony Orlando and I did a show in New York. He came up and asked me to autograph my album, which I felt honored by. Then I went to see Pat Boone in person and met his manager, Jack Spine. Jack Spine took me out to meet Pat and his wife and four daughters. They were rehearsing in a big ballet studio for a Pat Boone show. After the rehearsal I walked down the back stairs with Pat Boone and he got in his Rolls Royce. He asked me a question and I never forgot it. He was a very humble Christian man. He said to me, "Joe, do you think that this is spoiling my Christian Witness testimonial by driving such an expensive, gorgeous car, this Rolls Royce?" And I looked at him. He smiled at me and I said "Pat, can you afford it?" He smiled and said "Well, of course." I said "Pat, you just go on and drive it and enjoy it because you can afford it." And boy, he gave me the biggest smile and drove away proud of his Rolls Royce.

Q - You wanted to be a songwriter but Mercury Records or Smash Records prevented that. Why?

A - They did and yet "Just Love Me" is one of my best. It became number one in Fargo, North Dakota. Tragically, Mercury took a dumb song called "Bridge Of Love" and tried to be a gimmicky thing like "Wooden Heart". It had French in it and it was just a lousy song. But it only got to Top 50. On the other side was "Just Love Me" and it's really a good song. If you would happen to get the latest release by Bear Family called "Wooden Heart", you could hear the strength of "Just Love Me". And so "The One I Left For You", they didn't release that, which I believe could have been big. There were only a few of my own songs that Mercury let me record. "Little Red Rented Rowboat", which was a Top 20, I didn't like that.

Q - Now see, I thought that was a pretty catchy song, funny and told a story.

A - (laughs)

Q - So when your recording contract was up, you did not pursue songwriting. You went into advertising?

A - Yeah. I was very disappointed that they dropped me, but one day in the kitchen with my dear Mom, I said "Mom, I can do singing commercials." I heard the Firestone commercial and I knew I could have a career. So I began traveling coast to coast doing singing commercials and soon I had twenty-three some banks from California to Connecticut. It was amazing. Going town to town with my guitar, and "Wooden Heart" didn't hurt. The radio stations took me around to six or eight different advertisers. I was making some awesome money just doing jingles from '63 to roughly '72 when I moved back to Bloomington, Illinois, my home town. But during that time I was able to meet people and wrote a theme song called "Big River" for The National Wildlife Foundation. I wrote a World Hunger song called "When I Was Hungry" that wound up in six or eight different hymn books from Church World Service, also known as CROP, and then I wrote a ballad called "The Egg Hall Of Fame", Farmers Hall Of Fame out of Bonner Springs, Kansas. So it was fun doing singing commercials and also songs for causes I composed. And then I kept on doing a few bank commercials when I moved back to Bloomington. I wanted to be an author and got a book or two that was published. Then came along a wonderful girl and I got married. I have two daughters. Once in awhile I do church concerts, so I said good-bye to advertising and ad songs and began to do more of the church concert approach to music.

Q - So, how many church concerts do you perform a year?

A - That has now dwindled down to very few because I've gone from the stress and push and press of performances, of endless promotion, and of calling and getting your pictures out, to just a quiet life of being a writer.

Q - What are you writing?

A - I'm writing a book called The Breaking Of A Wooden Heart. It's an autobiography of my life.

© Gary James. All rights reserved.