Although running into the California rockabilly singer Glen Glenn backstage at the Henry Fonda Theatre last January was no surprise — it was the Elvis birthday bash at which he faithfully appears — his sleek, black-leather-clad, fighting-trim appearance was. The 72-year-old Glenn’s characteristic mixture of down-home congeniality and tenured rocker’s cool is boundlessly engaging, and any time spent with him inevitably yields a high-impact barrage of reminiscences. Whether it’s Johnny Cash, Tex Ritter, Elvis Presley or Glenn’s cousin, Porter Wagoner, the singer has a trove of deep-inside stuff, all of which he recalls with a zealous relish.
Fifty years ago, Glenn was the purest homegrown salesman of rockabilly primitivism in Los Angeles, but held such allegiance to country music that he almost never made the upshift. In 1954, Glenn and his high school pal, guitarist Gary Lambert, were working a straight hillbilly act, the Missouri Mountain Boys, and had little trouble getting a start, as the area’s full-time slate of C&W radio and television shows had literally dozens of hours to be filled. “Cliffie Stone put us on the Hometown Jamboree the next Saturday. Gary was so nervous that he dropped his pick but Jimmy Bryant jumped right in and played for me.” They had soon won a regular slot on Foreman Phillips’ County Barn Dance, a live TV broadcast from a Baldwin Hills dance hall. By then, “Eddie and Hank Cochran had started playing,” Glenn recalls, “and they tried to be just like us, copying us, followed us around everywhere we went, tried to take our jobs — but they never did.”
Glenn and Lambert went nonstop, playing their spot on the 7 p.m. TV broadcast, then rolling over to the El Monte Legion Stadium, where Hometown Jamboree originated (“I’d hang out backstage and bug all the artists”), then back to Baldwin Hills, where they would play until after midnight. Phillips had been running the L.A. scene since World War II, when he promoted the fabled Santa Monica Pier Swing Shift dance with Bob Wills and Spade Cooley, and routinely featured the biggest stars: Hank Snow, Tex Ritter, Lefty Frizzell and California’s top-drawing sensations, the Maddox Brothers & Rose. “That was where I really got to know the Maddoxes,” Glenn said. “I was writin’ a few songs, but we hadn’t recorded at all, and Maddox liked the way I entertained.”
Fred Maddox was a kingpin in the West Coast country realm, already a legend whose cracked, off-color sense of the absurd, high-octane showmanship with his bass fiddle and inimitable zest for after-hours roaring both endeared him to and deeply influenced just about everyone in the business (not least among them, Bill Black, the bassist for Elvis Presley, both of whom knew Maddox well from their Louisiana Hayride days). To Maddox, Glenn and Lambert were prime fresh meat crying out for exploitation, and he took full advantage of them. Soon, Glenn and Lambert were invited up to the rented house the Maddoxes shared on North Curson Street. Glenn was dazzled. “Fred tore me up. I was just a young singer, got real nervous,” he said. “I’d go home and couldn’t sleep.”
“Fred was telling me about this guy down south, Elvis Presley, and I said, ‘Who in the hell is that?’ They didn’t play him out here, no Sun Records available. So, I ordered ’em through the mail and the first time I heard it, well. ... ‘This isn’t hillbilly, it’s a different sound.’” The stone-country Troutman (Glenn’s family name at birth) initially didn’t want anything to do with it, but he and Lambert were intrigued enough to accept Maddox’s invitation to meet Presley at his California debut at the San Diego Arena. The effect, as Maddox had counted on, was immediate: “I just changed my style, started doin’ that — and one of the reasons was the girls. They liked you more if you did one of those rockabilly songs, they really went nuts, and Gary liked fast songs, and the crowd seemed to like us better.”
More pussy and bigger paychecks were hard to beat, but the Elvis-infused Troutman recognized an important aspect: “I know who started rockabilly,” he stated. “It was the Maddox Brothers & Rose. It’s just hillbilly with a beat; Hank Williams did a little rockabilly, but the Maddoxes were before Hank, doing that stuff.” Ironically, Troutman had done his first recording session only weeks before, straight-up hillbilly numbers of the type that, he now found, no one in Los Angeles had the slightest interest in. “I took ’em to all the record companies in town and they said, ‘We don’t want country, we want Elvis music.’”
Necessarily reborn as Glen Glenn, he and Lambert began cutting some uniformly superior rockabilly. With “One Cup of Coffee” and “Blue Jeans and a Boy’s Shirt,” Glenn demonstrated a masterly absorption of the idiom’s requirements. He was innovative, with an extravagantly knocked-out manner of exaggerated phrasing: He would flatten the “a” in “date” to rhyme it with “yet,” or yank it down, like Sinatra, to make “dancin’” into “dahn-cin’”; then follow that hint of sophistication with a low-down “eggzackly.”
His lyrics displayed unusual sensitivity; in “One Cup,” Glenn’s “gonna cry if she don’t show up,” where most rockabilly swains would “die” and still make the rhyme; with Lambert’s coolly cutting guitar, the songs were redolent with a calculated, R&B tinged sloppiness that elevated their music to the psycho-acoustic dimension where sound not only seemed to produce corporeal sensations, it demanded a physical response on the dance floor.
His first release was “Kathleen,” a mushy girl-song with tremendous commercial potential, but Glenn would not reap the reward; he carelessly left the demo at Imperial Records, and it was reborn as Ricky Nelson hit “Poor Little Fool.” But he had an ace in the hole. “Porter Wagoner said, ‘Why don’t you come back to Missouri? I’ll take you on the road.’ I did several tours with him in ’57, more or less as front man. But Porter hated rockabilly, he hated Elvis, and they’d worked together quite a bit. He’d say, ‘That’s not music — why don’t you just do country?’ He’d tease me like crazy and really didn’t want me to do them songs, but he couldn’t say nothing, because I was tearing the house down for him.”
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Between Porter Wagoner’s road shows and Fred Maddox’s perpetual nightclub hustling, the career accelerated steadily. In California, they were regulars on used-car titan Cal Worthington’s live Cal’s Corral TV show, which provided invaluable opportunities to plug their own club dates. In the studio, things just got tighter and brighter; with the cult-prized masterpiece “Everybody’s Movin’,” a song with a devastatingly simple, frosty and unforgettable two-note guitar pattern that carried it from deadpan lulls to shatteringly intense peaks, Glenn and Lambert achieved a measure of rockabilly immortality. Once they added the song to their show, everyone in town recognized it. “Eddie Cochran wanted to cut “Everybody’s Movin’,” Glenn said, “but I wouldn’t let him.”
Naturally, such a measure of explosive rockabilly expression could not go unpunished. In January 1958, just weeks after recording “Everybody’s Movin’,” Glenn was drafted; Lambert enlisted so the pair could stay together, and they were assigned to Special Services together. After completing basic training, the duo returned to Los Angeles and recorded “Laurie Ann,” another calculatedly commercial softcore girl-song. “Lew Bedell at Era Records fell in love with ‘Laurie Ann,’ thought it was the greatest, but I was in the service,” Glenn said. “It was pick of the week on American Bandstand, but Gary and I were stationed in Hawaii, and they wouldn’t even let us play. It was getting airplay on KFWB in Hollywood, and Dick Clark sent a telegram to Lew Bedell asking me to be on Bandstand, but the Army said, ‘You can’t do that, you’re a soldier.’”
The moment passed as quickly as it had come, never to be reclaimed. By the time he was discharged, rigor mortis had set in on rockabilly. Glenn kept working, singing country, working for Maddox, who now operated his own minicircuit of four nightclubs, scattered from Pomona to Carpinteria, and occasionally toured with Wagoner. By the mid-60s, Glenn settled in Ontario, California, married and started a family, and just let his musical career evaporate. The late-20th-century rockabilly revival brought him back onstage, and, almost 50 years later, “Everybody’s Movin’” remains an open-ended invitation to tour the world. The song is also familiar to rock & roll royalty: Bob Dylan has frequently performed “Everybody’s Movin’,” and even used Glenn as his warm-up act at the Hollywood Palladium in 1992. “Dylan told me that he, George Harrison and Paul McCartney got together and jammed on it one night,” Glenn said. “I don’t really care for any of those guys’ music much, but I wish I had a tape of that one.”
Glen Glenn performs with Mac Curtis, the Phil Friendly Trio and Captain Jeffrey and the Chumbuckets at Safari Sam’s on Saturday, May 17.