Thursday, December 15, 2011

Magnum Studio-The Sound of The South

Jacksonville, FL in 1960 was a sleepy southern town of 200,000 presided over by Mayor Hayden Burns. The dirty, rat infested downtown situated on the banks of the St. Johns River. The riverfront was dominated by rundown wharfs and dilapidated warehouses. If you worked at minimum wage (and a lot of us did) you earned $1.00 and hour. You could buy a loaf of bread for .20, a gallon of gas for .30 and a BSA Super Rocket for less than $1,000. Less than 4 miles to the south, across the river sat a 20 X 40 frame building, yellow with brown trim. An unlikely location for history making music to be created, but this was a creative center for rock & roll, country, bluegrass & blues. Magnum Studios, home of Magnum Records was right there with industry giants like Sam Phillips's Sun Records, Detroit’s Motown and Nashville’s Bradley’s Barn. 
The great, near great and could be great passed through the modest portals of Magnum. If there were a Magnum Hall of Fame, the names listed could include:
Slim Whitman, Johnny Folkston, Tom Shealy, Carter & Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, Dave Meadows & the Neanderthals, Hoot Gibson, The King Crooners, Art Schill,
Rabbi Leftiwhitz, Johnny Tillotson, Ken Clark, Jim Sutton, Blair Springer, Elton Sewell, Jim Atkins, Harris The Welder, John Strickland, Franky Preston, Marvin Von Deck, John Rose, Godfrey McGiffin, Phil Cay & the Blue Notes, Lewis Weber, Ken Hodges, Charley Horton, Gertrude Doro, Little Junior Ace, Melanie Williams, Hoot Gibson, Bud Morrison, Helmet Ising, Robert "Ace" Lewis, Bob Newsome, Johnny Scoates. 

The engineering genius behind Magnum’s “Sound of The South” was Tom Markham who surpassed the rich sounds of the big NY, Hollywood and Nashville studios with real echo from “the tank out back”. Tom Rose was the cherf financial officer behind it all with his pay less, get more dollar leveraging system.

Probably the best way to relive that time and place is through the sounds that came out of the little studio on Lovegrove Rd. in South Jacksonville.

The King Crooners: The King Crooners visited Magnum often, just to drop by and hang out. Believe me it was a special time when those guys came by. From just standing around in a normal conversation they would break into a song, complete with dance steps and perfect doo-wop harmony. A sleepy summer day turned into a Broadway musical! Great stuff!
The Last Day of School, this song shows off the Crooners acapella doo-wop style.
Ken Clark: If Ken Clark had not been so dedicated to his day job as a dispatcher for the Great Southern Trucking Company he would be a country music icon today. He was a combination of Bill Monroe & Ernest Tubb. You would have to say a little Hank Williams too be cause of his song writing talents. Ken wrote over 300 songs. Ken Clark and his band, The Merry Mountain Boys played lots of shows and recorded for Starday Records in Nashville. He had his own recording studio but many of his records were recorded at Magnum. His signature song was Buckskin Coat which tells a tragic story of a girl who gave up the true love of a country boy for the money and prestige of a boy from town—bad decision. In Ken’s unique writing style he weaves several sub plots into the main story—it could have been a novel.
Buckskin Coat, Ken Clark & The Merry Mountain Boys

The Neanderthals made their debut April 11, 1960 with the release of Magnum Records Mag41160 45 RPM Angel. The song was written and recorded by Jacksonville's own Dave Meadows with backing and unique sound of the lead guitar of Blair Springer, rhythm guitar Jim "Big Jim" Sutton and the stand up base fiddle of Ken Hodges.  The recording soared high on the charts, particularly in Jacksonville and the South. It was favorably reviewed by Billboard and featured on a national telecast of Dick Clark's Dance Party. Magnum partnered with the National Recording Company of Atlanta, GA for distribution. Listen to the echo on this tune, provided by funnelling the sound through the "tank out back" with compliments to Harris the Welder. The Welding Shop on Wheels, $5.00 double or nothing. Yes, Angel truly exemplified the Sound of The South, the Magnum sound and Jacksonville, Fl in the 1950s.

Angel, Dave Meadows and the Neanderthals

Lewis Weber wrote and recorded another tune that was significant in the Magnum history book and symbolic of the times. Jean and Sweater of Love was the only Magnum production not recorded at the South Jacksonville studio. With the generous backing of Gertrude Doro Weber and Tom Markham traveled to Nashville to record at Owen Bradley's famous Bradley Barn (Deca Studio).  The band was one of the icon studio bands of the time, the Harold Bradley Orchestra which combined musicians from the Nashville Symphony Orchestra with country music greats like Floyd Crammer, Hank Garland and Lightning Chance. Arrangement by Cliff Parman. Published by Southern Bell Music. Released August 22nd 1960

Jean, Lewis Weber & The Harold Bradley Orchaster

Carter and Ralph Stanley began their career as old time musical performers right after WWII, known as The Stanley Brothers & The Clinch Mountain Clan, they were one of many bluegrass and country bands working show dates, radio, TV and recording in the 50s. When they scheduled their Magnum sessions who could have guessed that the Stanley's would become recognized as the premier example of the old time bluegrass and country music of the mountains. The Magnum sessions have become recognized as perhaps the finest recordings of the brothers and their band before the untimely passing of Carter in 1966. Here is one of the best known tunes to come from those historic Magnum Sessions, Rank Stranger

Rank Stranger. Recording Date:1960-05   Composer:York; Starday, BMI
Place:Magnum Studio, Jacksonville, FL  Master:3338 Instruments:Carter Stanley-g;

Ralph Stanley-bj; Curley Lambert-m; Ralph Mayo-g; Audie Webster-bs  Vocals:C. Stanley-L; R. Stanley-T; C. Lambert-B
The Beachcomber captured the very essence of Jacksonville Beach in the 50s.  The bar was patronized by a mixture of sailors from Jacksonville’s 3 Navy bases and the young civilian crowd. Live music and dancing, one of the most popular featured bands was Frankie Preston & the Beachcombers. Frankie and his group recorded at Magnum and their sessions were financed by record sales at the bar. The Magnum owners were frequent visitors and were always introduced as recording executives. It was a great atmosphere. Listen to a couple of their most popular recordings and relive a 50s Saturday night at The Beachcomber with Frankie Preston.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Wall of Death-Part II

The Wall of Death - American Motor Drome Co. - "a motorcycle thrill show caught in a time warp!"- (Leesburg Bikefest – April 2015), story and photos by motorsport journalist Tom Rose 

note: I first wrote about the Wall of Death in 2008 and that article can be found elsewhere in this blog and in the Oct 2008 issue of Road Bike Magazine

The Wall of Death is a motorcycle thrill show that began appearing at traveling carnivals and fairs about 100 years ago. The riders perform on the inside vertical wall of a large wooden barrel. Spectators view the show from a platform around the top of the barrel, looking down into the barrel to see the show.

Author H.G. Wells published his science fiction classic The Time Machine in 1895. Through the novel and later the movie millions became captivated by the idea time travel. Of course, the whole premise is just as categorized, “science fiction”.   However, the idea is indeed intriguing. There are a few instances where it is actually possible to go back to an earlier time and relive history.

Jay Lightnin' Bentley tells the story of his
American Motor Drome Co.
I had the unique opportunity for time travel at the 2015 Leesburg Bikefest, drifting back through the past 100 years talking with Jay “Lightnin’ Bentley about his American Motor Drome Company and the Wall of Death. The show has not changed. It is the same show your father and grandfather saw at the traveling carnivals of the 20s, 30s and 40s. It is the same 1928 101 Indian Scout motorcycle. The same wooden barrel motor drome. A real live time capsule right there in Leesburg, FL. A motorcycle thrill show caught in a time warp!

Jay Lightnin’ Bentley began riding the wall with traveling carnivals over 45 years ago. After 25 years riding for other shows Jay decided it was time to go into business for himself. He took out a 2nd mortgage to buy materials and went to work in his back yard. His neighbors thought he was building an ark.  No plans or blueprints, it was all in his head. The primary material is Douglas fir. It took 2 years but from Jay’s dream and hard work the American Motor Drome Co. was born.

Once completed Jay took the show on the road to bike shows, fairs, carnivals and race tracks. Crossing the continent keeping the tradition alive. Jay puts 2 riders on the wall at the same time, crisscrossing, requiring the ultimate in skill, precision and concentration.  He used have 3 riders on the wall but a tragic accident resulted in the death of a rider and Jay cut the 3rd rider from his shows. “Too dangerous!” says Jay. Over the years there have been accidents and injuries to riders. Wall of Death riders are not eligible for insurance. Bentley maintains a fund for injured riders financed by donations from spectators. During the show riders race within inches of the top of the wall and pluck donations for the fund from the hands of spectators in their teeth! He has been at it with his wall for some 20 years now. It is a dieing from of entertainment. His American Motor Drome is one of only 2 that work full time. In total only 4 such shows exist (once there were over 40).  


“We’re here to keep the Wall of Death tradition alive. When old timers show up with kids and grandkids memories are made that will last a lifetime. That’s why we are here. That is why we do it. To preserve history and let the youngsters of today see just what it was like in the 20s at the county fair.” Jay Lightnin’ Bentley

And that’s the way it was in Leesburg last week-end. Among all the rock bands, bikinis,  tattoo artists, and Harley-Davidsons…..Jay Bentley’s American Motor Drome time warp, a history lesson, physics class (centrifugal force) and a very entertaining thrill show all for on $5.00 ticket. Long live The Wall of Death!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Wall of Death

Rhett Rotten & The Wall of Death as reported in RoadBike Magazine October 2008

The Wall of Death is a true motorcycling classic. It is as much a part of

motorcycle history as Indian and Harley Davidson, Triumph and BSA. It is an outgrowth of the board track racing of the
early 1900s, a form of racing so dangerous and deadly that it was eventually outlawed.

"I'm no daredevel. A daredevel blasts off into the air over school buses & canyons. I am a racer & a stunt rider, I have a plan for everything I do." Rhett Rotten