Born Boyd Byron Bennett, 7 December 1924, Muscle Shoals, Alabama
Boyd Bennett’s time in the national spotlight was relatively brief, with only one major hit, but he was among the first white performers to play rock ’n’ roll and helped to pave the way for the breakthrough of the genre. Like Bill Haley and Freddie Bell, he belongs to the school of what Charlie Gillett called “Northern band rock ’n’ roll”.
Born in Alabama and raised in the Nashville area, Boyd Bennett got his musical education from his grandfather, a horse trader and music teacher. A multi-instrumentalist, Boyd could play a bit of everything, guitar, sax, bass and drums. Before WW II, he was associated with Pee Wee King and later with Nashville singer Francis Craig, who would score a # 1 pop hit with “Near You” in 1947. During the war, Bennett served in the Navy for four years and participated in the Normandy landings on D-Day.
Upon his discharge, Boyd resumed his musical career, performing in bars and honky tonks with various dance bands, mainly in Western swing and country styles. He also worked as a disc jockey and announcer on several radio stations in Kentucky.
After a failed audition for Columbia in 1951, Bennett landed a deal with King Records in Cincinnati. His first release was “Time”/“A Hopeless Case” (February 1953) and he formed his own band, the Southlanders. The first five (unspectacular) King singles were a mix of Country and Dixieland. Then, in January 1955, Boyd and his band (renamed “The Rockets”) started playing rock and roll, after noticing that white high school kids were listening to so-called race music. The first single to be released from that January session was “Poison Ivy”, which failed to make the charts. Bennett tried to persuade King boss Syd Nathan to release “Seventeen” as the next single, but he was told that the recording was “crap”. While Nathan was vacationing in Florida, Henry Glover was in charge of King and Bennett managed to talk Glover into releasing “Seventeen”. It was the first and biggest hit of Boyd's career, peaking at # 5 in September 1955 (also # 7 R&B and # 16 UK, his only hit there). Covers by the Fontane Sisters (# 3) and Rusty Draper (# 18) also sold in massive quantities. In late 1955 Boyd Bennett and his Rockets scored their second hit with the very similar “My Boy Flat Top” (# 39) ; this time they were outsold by covers by Dorothy Collins in the USA (# 16) and Frankie Vaughan in the UK (# 20).
Bennett told Adam Komorowski : “Unfortunately I didn’t hit with “Seventeen” until I was 27 years old. The 15 and 16 year old kids thought I was an old man!” It was the same problem that was to face Bill Haley.
After 1954, Bennett rarely performed the vocal duties on his recordings. Nathan had told him that his voice was “too good for rock ’n’ roll”. So he left most of the singing to “Big Moe” (Joe Muzey), later to Cecil McNabb. Other prominent members of the band were Roy Ayres on guitar and Bobby Jones on tenor sax.
In January 1956 Boyd and his Rockets recorded eight songs with Moon Mullican, including several good rockers like “Seven Nights To Rock” and “Rock and Roll, Mr. Bullfrog”. A few weeks later Bennett and his guys covered the big Carl Perkins hit “Blue Suede Shoes”. Their rather tame version made # 63 on the Billboard charts ; the flip, “Mumbles Blues”, was the better side. Other tasty rockers from the 1955-57 period include “Right Around the Corner”, “The Groovy Age”, “Tennessee Rock ’n’ Roll” and “Hit That Jive Jack”.
Bennett’s last single under his King contract was “Move”/“Click Clack”, issued in February 1958. “Move” was written by Cecil McNabb, who also took care of the lead vocals. Where most of Bennett’s rockers sound dated nowadays, the exuberant “Move” still sounds fresh and is by far the most popular Boyd Bennett track on Spotify. Shakin’ Stevens recorded a strong remake of “Move” in 1980 (“Marie Marie” album, produced by Stuart Colman). McNabb recorded two further songs with Bennett and his band, “Clock Tickin’ Rhythm” and “Nothing Like This”, which were coupled for a King single under McNabb’s own name.
From 1958 until 1961 Bennett recorded for Mercury. Seven singles were released, of which one, "Boogie Bear” (1959) entered the charts (# 73, his last hit). A little later he had a few releases on his own labels, Benjon and Kernel. By 1964, the year of the British Invasion, he had left the music business, realising that he was too old to compete on the then-current music scene.
He invested his money wisely, first in night clubs, then in a TV station, which provided the capital for Hardcast Manufacturing, an international concern with offices in Europe. For most of his musical retirement, Bennett lived in Dallas, Texas. Apart from an occasional charity concert and a Christian album in the 1980s, he never re-entered the music business. However, in 2002 he seemed set for his first appearance in the UK, at the Rhythm Riot in November. But the grim reaper had other ideas and Bennett died on June 2 of that year, from complications with pulmanory fibrosis. He was 77.
More info : http://www.rockabillyhall.com/BoydBennett.html
Official website : http://boydbennett.com/index.htm
Discography / sessionography :
CD : Rockin’ Up A Storm : The Best of the King Recordings (Ace CDCHD 1039). 24 tracks from 1955-58. Released in 2005. Liner notes by Tony Rounce.
Acknowledgements : Adam Komorowski, Jon Hartley Fox, Jean-Marc Pezet.
Dik, December 2015
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