By Bob ‘The Record Guy’ Paxon
Today is going to be a 78 Friday! It’s still a ‘single’, but this one came out in 1953, before the 45 rpm single came into vogue, and so is only found on the fast-spinning shellac slabs!
Ramblin’ Lou’s name and legacy should be familiar to any Western New Yorker with a passing interest in Country music or local radio (or just the popular culture of the regular folk, as found at the Country Fairs and local events of Upstate New York).
Lou’s career began as a DJ at Buffalo-area radio stations, starting in 1948 at WJJL where he worked alongside George ‘Hound’ Lorenz – at that time known as Ol’ Man Lorenz. It goes without saying that Lou was a Hank Williams Sr. fan but it may be surprising to some that George was also! They worked together promoting Country & Western shows in Tonawanda. These Jamborees were the C&W equivalent of the sock hops of R&R, but Country fans liked live music so bands and singers were needed. And I think that’s how Ramblin’ Lou became a singer – I think he was DJ first and put together a band out of sheer necessity!
A local rumor states that, similarly, non-musician George Lorenz played string bass behind Lou at that time. It’s probably JUST a rumor, but in the Country field at that time, bass players were usually not ‘musicians’ either; they were the clown act of the band, the bass couldn’t really be heard and as long as they could thump a single note close to the proper key it was good enough!
Lou later worked at WWOL whose Jamborees took him further afield. He was billed as Ramblin’ Lou and His Twin Pine Mountaineers. Eventually he would meet hot-shot picker Joanie Marshall and form a musical partnership as well as a family. His band came to include his childen, his wife and his friends. One of them was Accordion Zeke Cory, who I think is the one heard on this recording. Zeke was a beloved character in his hometown as well as in the band; he was maybe not a ‘clown’ but certainly a comic foil for Lou.
The local Country music scene owes a lot to Lou, it’s impossible to see him in any other light than the Father Of Country Music in WNY. Between his many appearances, his bus trips to the Opry-type destination of Wheeling, W.V., and last his long-running WXRL radio station, he’s been a constant promoter of true country music – tastefully and with an eye toward the tradition.
Today we visit Lou as he was – 60 years ago! And what was happening in 1953 was an event that shook the C&W world- the death of its beloved Hank Williams. His audience went far wider than Country music – his records were found in homes belonging to a wide spectrum of people, across all lines – but his Country audience had followed him closely and knew of his struggles with booze (they maybe didn’t know about the drugs though), his firing from the Grand Ol’ Opry, his painful divorce, and his subsequent wedding to the young Billie Jean Jones in front of a paying audience at New Orleans Municipal Auditorium.
Hanks’ death (on the road, in a Cadillac) added to his myth. His funeral was held at the Montgomery Auditorium in Alabama, with 2,750 mourners attending, but an estimated 15,000 to 25,000 people passed by the silver coffin in the public viewing.
[ Sidebar- Johnny Horton was something of a mentor of Hank’s in his early career. Running into Horton after Hank’s wedding to Billie Jean, Hank predicted Horton would one day marry Billie Jean. Within a year of Hank’s death they were indeed married. Seven years later Horton also died in a car; in an accident traveling from a show at the Skyline Club in Austin, Texas – the same venue as Williams’ last show! ]
Dozens -if not hundreds – of artists recorded mostly mawkish tributes after Hank’s death. Lou’s in not unique but it’s more touching than many, as it references the ups & downs of Hank’s painful life. It seems to be based on a folk song (“Jesse James” – another outsider hero!) and it’s obvious this is from a time when Country music was still Country & Western music.
There are things hear you’ll probably never hear again in the field of Country music- the accordion, the Western elements, the twang in the heartfelt vocal. If you played this to a fan of Modern Country music I doubt they’d even recognize it as being from the same genre.