Tommy Blake, Honky Tonk Mind
  
Tommy Blake

He was one of the guys who never really made it but got close enough to know what 'making it' was all about. Close enough to know that he wanted it badly. Some guys can give it a shot, accept that the public doesn't want to buy what they have to sell, then move on, happy that they at least tried. Not Tommy Blake. He couldn't accept the public's verdict with good grace". Colin Escott's depiction of Tommy Blake's career is certainly succinct and blunt, moreover, it represents the naked truth. No matter from which angle Tommy Blake's life is analyzed, one final conclusion is more than evident; the life and recordings of this tortuous performer were marred by disaster almost from the beginning. The potential existed but was thwarted by circumstance, self-induced or otherwise, at every corner. Despite this, Tommy Blake's desire to perform and write music has left a considerable legacy for any fans of the solid sound of the Big Beat.

Blake's beginnings proved to be a mirror image of the songs he would later write, as his earliest years were far less than auspicious. He was christened Thomas LeVan Givens when born illegitimately on September 14, 1931 in Dallas, Texas. The young Tommy never knew his father and, due to his illicit birth, was never looked upon kindly by his mother. This neglect seemed to instill a waywardness in Tommy's character, a trait that was born out completely during his teens when he was jailed for statutory rape. In 1951 he joined the Marine Corps and lost an eye, an injury that Tommy claimed was sustained during a tour in Korea, but, in all likelihood, occurred during boot camp training in North Carolina.

While with the Corps Tommy began nurturing the notion of becoming an entertainer. Presumably, he had taken up the guitar whilst still young and, by the time he had joined the services, was proficient enough on the instrument to occasionally play and sing to enlisted men. Following his discharge he pursued his musical ambitions further when he settled in Louisiana and began working as a performer and disc jockey on radio station KTBS in Shreveport and later KRUS in Ruston (Adam Komorowski alleges that Blake began working on KRUS as early as 1947. This seems unlikely, though). Then, after wedding Betty Jones (his first wife) in Carthage, Texas in 1954 Tommy formed the nucleus of his first band, the Rhythm Rebels. The Rebels initially comprised guitarist Carl Adams, whom Blake may have met while working in Shreveport, and spirited him away from Dale Hawkins (Adams would later record with Hawkins for Checker and was featured on a number of Hawkins' quintessential recordings, such as "Number Nine Train", "Baby Baby", "Juanita", "Tornado" and "Little Pig"). Guitarist Eddie Hill was also brought into the fold on bass and a mysterious character referred to as Tim was hired as drummer.
 

With such a formidable line-up playing hopped-up country music, Blake wasted little time in hitting the live circuit, playing a thirteen week engagement on the 'Big D Jamboree' in 1955, followed by an appearance on the 'Louisiana Hayride' and a ten month stay on Houston's 'Grand Prize Jamboree'. This broad exposure was invaluable to an infantile group as the Rhythm Rebels; further, the Rebels performance on the 'Hayride' may have proved more fortuitous to Blake than he first envisioned. At the time that Blake's group performed on the 'Hayride', a young hillbilly singer by the name of Elvis Presley was beginning to make waves on Louisiana's staid country program playing western bop to a stunned audience. Blake keenly noted Presley's new style and rapid rise to fame and, as with many aspiring teenage country singers of the mid-fifties, decided to adopt rock and roll in toto.

Soon after the Rebels' transition from a country band to rock and roll combo, they appeared on the 'Johnny Horton TV Show' in Tyler, Texas in 1956 and then cut their first record for Buddy Young's appropriately named Buddy label in Marshall, Texas later the same year. Only two titles were cut during a solitary session for Young's label; Blake's self-penned proto-rockabilly offering "Koolit", that featured a hitherto unknown steel guitarist, graced the top deck whilst the Rebels remained loyal to their country routes for the flip, "If I Am A Fool". Unfortunately, the disc (Buddy 107) seemed to fair poorly upon release that April and sank without a trace, despite Blake's charismatic vocal delivery and Carl Adams' nifty lead picking on the A-side tune.

Unthwarted by this incipient lack of success, Blake's drive to flourish in the music industry landed him and his group a contract with RCA, one of the nations major recording conglomerates, barely twelve months after the release of his Buddy label record. Once again, only a single session was held, this time on April 15, 1957 with Nashville kingpin Chet Atkins behind the glass overseeing the date. Atkins brought in Music Row stalwarts Buddy Killen, Farris Coursey and Floyd Cramer to bolster the rhythm section of Adams and Eddie Hall, with Coursey assuming bass playing duties, allowing Hall to display his prowess as a guitarist which was brought to bear on the four titles waxed, although it was Adams' seething riffs that were the highlight. "Honky Tonk Mind", written by the trio of Blake, Adams and Hall, was the first tune cut and was sure evidence that the chains tying country singers to that idiom were hard to break. Nevertheless, "Honky Tonk Mind" was a superb offering. So too was "All Night Long", a bare bones rockabilly effort. However, both cuts remained in the can as a result of Blake's desire to earn a fast dollar. Blake had offered "Honky Tonk Mind" to Johnny Horton a week before the April 15 session, which Horton duly recorded for Columbia on the 11th. When RCA executives heard of the Horton version, the situation rapidly deteriorated, particularly when competing music publishers became involved. Tillman Franks, Horton's manager at the time, who was more than aware of the ensuing conflagration between RCA and Columbia, decided to rush Horton's version onto the market (Columbia 4-40919) on April 22, but under the title of "The Woman I Need", with writer credits to himself and a Cedarwood Music publisher employee named Lee Emerson. Blake's version was then held back by RCA. Infuriated, Blake invoked a lawsuit over the composer credits to Horton's version of his song, which he eventually won, but to no avail. Unwilling to continue an association with Blake, Atkins was advised to release the two lesser efforts from Blake's session, "Freedom" and "Mister Hoody" (RCA 47-6925), then nullify his contract.

Due to the debacle over "Honky Tonk Mind", Blake's time with RCA did little to boost his ego. He was presented with the chance to achieve the fame that he was searching for and he let it fall by the wayside. Moreover, his song writing ability had evolved considerably during the twelve months between recording for Buddy and RCA, and the potential for becoming a success was certainly in evidence. Coupled with the resources that a major label as RCA could bring to bear, Blake could have become an artist to be reckoned with, much in the same way as Hank Williams with MGM, Lefty Frizzell with Columbia or Webb Pierce with Decca. Regrettably, this was not to be.

Luckily, another opportunity for Blake to record and take another shot at fame was beckoning. With Adams and Hall still in tow, Blake attended a disc jockey convention a few months after leaving RCA. Also in attendance at the convention was Memphis producer Sam Phillips, who Blake was fortunate enough to meet and converse with. During their confab, Phillips may have inferred an interest in recording Blake and the Rhythm Rebels as that Summer, Blake, Adams and Hall traveled to Memphis to solicit a recording session at Sun. Phillips consented and the trio, bolstered by Sun session drummer Jimmy Van Eaton, cut a brief session that spawned a solid re-working of TV Slim's Clif/Checker label recording of "Flat Foot Sam" and a further installment in the 'Hoody' saga with the very raw and unbridled "Lordy Hoody". "Flat Foot Sam" proved that Blake and his group now had a firm grasp on rockabilly, while "Lordy Hoody" was a perfect showcase of Adams' lowdown lead guitar work that he would replicate a few months later on two Dale Hawkins Checker sessions (shortly before Adams traveled to Memphis with Blake that Summer he cut two sides with Hawkins at Clifford Herring's studio in Fort Worth, "Number Nine Train" and an instrumental, "Daredevil"). Fortunately, Phillips noted similar merit in both cuts and released them back to back (Sun 278) on September 14.

"Flat Foot Sam" sold reasonably well in regional markets and proved to be Blake's first taste of success, however moderate. Further, the records prosperity may have instilled thoughts of greater fame in Blake, as he returned to 706 Union early in March the following year to record a demo session without the backing of his Rebels. Of the nine sides Blake cut at this session, "Ballad Of A Broken Heart" possessed the greatest potential, a fact that was realized when Johnny Cash recorded the tune just two months later (15 May) as "Story Of A Broken Heart". Blake may have prematurely dashed his hopes on the song, though, as Phillips waited over two years to release it and when he did, he assumed credit as the writer (Blake was probably experiencing financial difficulty at the time and sold the song to Phillips shortly before Cash recorded it). Only two other titles from this session have survived (or, at least, have been located and re-issued), "I Dig You Baby" and "You Better Believe It". Both songs illustrate Blake's creative and now tender grasp on the teenage idiom of rock and roll, but proved to be worthy of revival a few weeks later when he recorded his second full band session for Sun on March 16. Adams and Hall had departed company with Blake some time before this session, hence Blake was backed by a number of Phillips' prime house musicians, including Roland Janes, Sid Manker, Stan Kesler, Jimmy Van Eaton and Jimmy Wilson. Also, Ed Bruce, who had recorded a handful of sessions for Sun since March of the previous year, was added to the line-up on second guitar. "Sweetie Pie" and the reworked "I Dig You Baby" were the strongest cuts from this session, and sensing that the songs may have had some teen appeal, Phillips coupled them for release in June (Sun 300) with two other cuts from this session, a revised version of "You Better Believe It" and an adaptation of Ray Smith's "Shake Around", remaining in the can.

Blake's second outing on Sun was far more polished than his first effort on the label, in spite of Roland Janes' presence on the record. The arrangements were certainly memorable, although "Sweetie Pie" and "I Dig You Baby" lacked the hard edge of "Lordy Hoody", due, in the most part, to the noticeable absence of Carl Adams. Blake's busy take on "Shake Around" was the only tune from the March 16 session that possessed the same primitive nature as "Lordy Hoody" and "Flat Foot Sam". It seems that Blake's direction was beginning to change and, judging by the poor sales of "I Dig You Baby", he was heading the wrong way. The records lack of success was a clear indication that Blake's talents did not lie in writing pop songs, so he nullified his contract with Sam Phillips and immersed himself in the country music field.

Before leaving Sun, Blake may have bequeathed Phillips with Gulf Coast songwriter Jonas Ross, otherwise known as Gene or Jerry Ross. Ross supposedly recorded two titles for the yellow label during 1958 or 1959 and appears to have partnered with Blake as a song writer around the time of the latters second Sun session. This speculative claim is based on the fact that Ross co-inked "I Dig You Baby" with Blake, while both names also appear on "Sweetie Pie", a song that was originally written by Dale Hawkins and Carl Adams (Hawkins' originally unissued version of the tune was recorded in Chicago for Chess late in 1957 and featured Carl Adams on guitar). However, the two tunes that Ross cut for Phillips, "Everybody's Trying To Kiss My Baby" and "Little One" as by Gene Ross, offer sparse evidence as to the relation between Blake and Ross, due to the lack of writer credits on "Everybody's Trying...", which is the only title from Ross' session that has surfaced to date. The sole clue that solidifies the affirmation of a partnership between Ross and Blake is a seven-inch record that Ross cut for the Shreveport based Murco label in 1959. The top deck of the Murco single, "Everybody's Tryin'" (Murco 1016) as by Jerry Ross, is identical in every aspect to the earlier Sun version and credits Thomas Givens and Jonah Ross as the writers. Givens was Blake's given surname and provides ample proof that Blake and Ross did work together as songwriters. The flip of Ross' Murco disc, "Small Little Girl", may be a reworking of his still missing Sun demo "Little One".

Blake and Ross may have worked together on a handful of other tunes as well, indicated by the entry of "Alright" in BMI's online database, along with the curious "You And I", which was credited to the trio of Betty Givens (Blake's wife), 'Ross' Givens and Jerry Ross. 'Ross' Givens was, most likely, an input error on BMI's part and is actually Blake. Little else is known of Ross, aside from a few other records that appeared under the name of Gene Ross on Herald (the Al Silver owned label?), Indie, Spry (a re-issue of the Indie release) and Time. Furthermore, Ross' association with Blake seems to have ended some time in 1959 when Blake struck a second songwriting partnership, this time with Carl Belew.

Born and raised in Salinas, Oklahoma, Belew began his extensive music career in 1955 when Marvin Rainwater secured him a recording date for Bill McCall's Four Star label in California, which was soon followed by appearances on the 'Town Hall Party' and the 'Cliffie Stone Show' in Los Angeles. In 1957 he played the 'Louisiana Hayride' and the following year scored his first major success as a songwriter, when Johnnie and Jack recorded his "Stop The World (and Let Me Off)" for RCA (RCA 7137), taking the song to seventh position on Billboard's country and western charts during the first months of 1958. Around twelve months later his path crossed with Blake's when Blake pitched his "Cool Gator Shoes" to Belew, which Belew subsequently recorded for Decca later that year (Decca 30947), but not before scoring another major hit with "Am I That Easy To Forget" (Decca 30842), a song Blake misleadingly claimed to have co-written. Nevertheless, Blake may have seen the potential hit maker status in Belew that he was striving for himself and may have thought that associating and working with a fresh and vivacious talent as Belew could relegate him the success he had been searching for the past few years.

Retrospectively, the time Blake spent working with Belew was the most fertile of his career to date. Belew's aptitude as a country song writer was second to none, a trait that spawned a creativity in Blake that had began to wane during his time with Sun. Blake recognized this fecundity that Belew brought out in him, and quickly utilized it on his first record since leaving Sam Phillips and his Memphis based label the previous year. Signing with Recco in 1959, Blake cut "The Hanging Judge", one of the first tunes born from his association with Belew. For the top deck Blake waxed a number that he had deviously acquired while in Dallas almost four years earlier, "F-olding Money" (Recco 1006). Both tunes were raw honky tonk, albeit "F-olding Money" possessed a rhythmic boogie beat reminiscent of his period with RCA and Sun, and clearly illustrated the notion that Blake was far more comfortable writing country material rather than pop arrangements. Sales of the Recco disc told a different story, though. Fortunately, the premature demise of the Recco release failed to hinder Blake and Belew in their foray to pen a country hit. The pair was soon marginally rewarded in their efforts when they sold their recently composed "Tender Years" to Darrell Edwards, who pitched the song to his pal George Jones. Jones was quick to cut the tune for Mercury (Mercury 71804) under the auspices of 'Pappy' Daily, and saw a number one country hit with it in 1961. However, Edwards had assumed composer credit on the tune after purchasing it from Blake and Belew and the pair gained little monetary gain from the impressive sales of Jones' record. Additionally, James O'Gwynn and Reggie Lucas also recorded versions of "Tender Years", a fortuitous circumstance that would have held Blake and Belew in good stead if they had not sold the song out right to Edwards.

By this stage of Blake's life a firm pattern was beginning to emerge. He had already cheated himself of the benefits that Horton had reaped through the success of "Honky Tonk Mind", due to his misguided need to earn a few quick dollars, and with "Tender Years" he had cheated himself once again. He had sniffed the fame and recognition that he was striving for, but his desire to fill his pockets with greenbacks repeatedly out shone his longing for success, spurring him to become more bitter with each missed opportunity. It seems that Blake's growing bitterness was the one factor that provided the impetus for him to continue on his path to success, as he continued his partnership with Belew for at least another year, penning a creditable number of quality songs that, initially, remained on paper only, but in coming years would be recorded by a myriad of artists who would take these tunes to high positions on Billboard's country charts (among the artists to have recorded and charted with Blake/Belew compositions were Charlie Walker, Stonewall Jackson, Jim Reeves, Del Reeves and Mel Tillis). Blake cut a few more records himself, as well. After waxing a disc for Chancellor in 1960 (coupling two tunes co-inked by Belew), he signed with the West Coast based Four Star label, recording one disc for the company in 1961 ("Back Door To Heaven"/"I Try Harder", Four Star 1765). As with his previous recorded efforts, Blake's Four Star record sold poorly, despite the lyrical quality of both tunes, which were penned by Blake under the moniker of Van Givens, a name that he would temporarily assume as a songwriter over the next few years. Bill McCall may have recognized the propensity of Blake's compositions and decided to employ him as a Four Star staff writer.

After working with McCall for a period, Blake left Four Star and cut a few more records under the pseudonym of Van Givens for Bragg, Musicor and Paula into 1967, by which time he was becoming disenchanted with the field of songwriting. Even Stonewall Jackson's hit recording of the Belew/Blake penned "Stamp Out Loneliness" (Columbia 43966), that peaked at fifth position on Billboard's country charts in 1967, failed to provide Blake with any form of consolation for the hard road that he had trudged to unfound success over the last ten years.

Blake's records for Paula proved to be his last and, during the first years of the nineteen seventies, he was subsisting on work as a carpenter, all the while clutching the belief that he would still write that elusive hit song. The bitterness still lingered, too and in 1972 he suffered a heart attack. His now depreciated health was probably one of the factors, coupled with his well founded frustration at not finding the success he wished for, that spurred him to delve head first into a world of alcoholism and drug abuse. He was still with Betty, although their marriage was now surely on the rocks. After briefly settling in Carthage, Blake's outlook improved moderately when he traveled to Nashville in 1976 in the hope that being surrounded by the cream of Music City's talent would spur him to foster the writing ability that he knew he possessed, and pen the song that would gain him the prosperity and recognition that he deserved. He even overcame his alcohol and drug habits. This was not to be, though, and he soon found himself in Georgia, divorced from Betty.

This part of the original article is commented by Sondra Hall, who is best friends with Samantha (not her real name), and knows all about this first hand, because Ursula (her daughter) called her after her mother shot Van.

After meeting Samantha, his future second wife, in Georgia, Blake moved to (he and Samantha lived near Tyler Texas prior to moving to Bossier City, across the river from S-port) Shreveport and resumed his alcoholism(Van was an alcoholic, no drugs) and drug use, which had now taken a firm hold on him. Blake was at his lowest ebb. This paradigm continued into the nineteen eighties, much to the chagrin of Samantha (her real name? Is Luvenia Carter, Samantha is her oldest daughter, who identity & SSAN she took to avoid paying old debts) whom Blake was dragging down with him This is simply not true…Samantha was treated like a queen. Van received a military disability pension along with royalty payments, but Samantha was never satisfied with the money he brought in). Blake's character was deteriorating (This statement is ridiculous! He was writing and home-recording song after song. He was in contact with performers, notably Ray Stevens and happier than he had been in years. I have three 90-minute cassette tapes of unpublished songs written & recorded in a ONE MONTH Period). He bore out his resentment of the music industry and lack of sustained success on Samantha (Hogwash).

She could only withstand so much, and on Christmas Eve in 1985, (Samantha had been to the grocery market that afternoon – buying food with illegally applied for food stamps. Ursula and Tamara, her daughters went with her. Van was at home with Her cousin Dale and they were playing music and maybe even talking about the "truckstop" tape of nasty lyrics Van had taped & sold to buy Christmas for his family. He bought Sam a pair of diamond earrings) when (Sam & the girls returned home, not to a trailer park, but a beautiful 4-bedroom "Florida style home with master suite opening to a patio (this is important) Van was drinking beer with Dale. Neither of the men would help with the groceries and this pissed Sam off. Dale left, and Sam began to argue with Van. She slammed out of the kitchen, went into the garage, where she had her office—fancied herself a writer--, unlocked the door got her pistol, went out the garage door across the patio, entered the master bedroom, got the bullets and loaded the gun and went back to the garage. She called Van out there and he approached her with his hands behind his back. He asked her not to be made and reminded her it was Christmas Eve. He held out a small jewelers box to her and said, These are for you. She shot him. One time…thru the heart. He was dead before he hit the garage floor) Blake returned home to their trailer park in Shreveport and became violent (NEVER) with her, she retaliated. He drew a .38 pistol, brandishing it at her. A struggle ensued and Blake dropped the gun. Samantha picked up the weapon and pointed it at Blake, hoping that such a threat may calm his temper. Instead, she shot him. Samantha confessed later that she did not purposefully murder her husband, she simply wanted to take the weapon from Blake to prevent him from using it. (Samantha was never indicted. The charges were dropped. She has never been brought to trial, much less acquitted) Further, when her actions were contested in court, the eventual verdict was easily anticipated. Samantha Blake was acquitted of murdering her husband on the grounds of his previous history of alcoholism, drug abuse and occasional spousal abuse. As Colin Escott stated, Blake's past actions "...would have made any other verdict a joke".

After thirty years of chasing his ambitions, Blake eventually failed in achieving his ultimate goal of writing a chart topping country song that he could spend his retirement reaping the benefits from as other Nashville songwriters had done. What Blake desired so strongly - fame and integrity, but mostly acknowledgement - were well within his grasp on more than one occasion. He let it slip away at the last moment and then stood by and watched as others benefited from the prosperity that should have been his. The bitterness that he felt as a result was the cause of his own actions. He just couldn't see that. If his life had not have been as disjointed as it was, Blake could have witnessed and reveled in the affluence he strived so hard for.

[A note from Eddie Hall]

The "Rhythm Rebels" were in fact Carl Adams and "Eddie Hall" (real name Ed Dettenheim) and that mysterious drummer with the band was named Tom Ruple. Adams died in California of a drug overdose years ago. Tom and I still make a bit of music now and then.

Courtesy of Rock Therapy Records



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