Today is the 75th birthday of a legendary songwriter most people have never heard of, but as the story so often goes, you may not know the name but you know the song. The songs of John D. Loudermilk have been recorded by hundreds and hundreds artists over the last fifty plus years. From Rockabilly greats like Arnie Derksen, Marvin Rainwater, Jimmy Newman, and Billy Lee Riley to Country Music Hall of Famers like Webb Pierce, George Jones, Kitty Wells, Brenda Lee and Hank Williams Jr. to soul, jazz and funk artists like Nina Simone, Ramsey Lewis, Brother Jack McDuff, William Bell, Solomon Burke and even James Brown. In the rock world Loudermilk’s songs have been recorded by everyone from Jerry Lee Lewis to Jefferson Airplane to Jimi Hendrix and The Jayhawks.
John D. Loudermilk was born in Durham, North Carolina March 31, 1934. He wasn’t the only family member with some musical chops; his cousins are Ira and Charlie Loudermilk, better known to country music fans as the Louvin Brothers.
In the mid 1950’s Loudermilk got his start recording some of his own material on the Colonial Record label based in North Carolina under the stage name Johnny Dee. After signing with Columbia Records, he began using his own name and had a Top 20 hit in the UK with "Language of Love" in 1962. Though he continually recorded many solo albums and singles into the 1980’s, his lasting mark on music history is that of a solid first class tunesmith. Loudermilk not only could write some serious songs for serious people but he had an unusually successful career on the novelty side of things.
Starting in late 1956, Loudermilk’s songwriting career took off with "A Rose and a Baby Ruth" -- a top 10 country hit in 1956 for "George Hamilton and the Country Gentlemen." (Later to be covered by, of all people, John Fahey!) Later that same year Eddie Cochran recorded Loudermilk’s "Sittin' in the Balcony," becoming Cochran’s first top 20 single, which has since become something of a rockabilly standard. In 1959 Loudermilk scored his first huge international hit with the song “Waterloo” as recorded by Stonewall Jackson, which hit the top of the US Country charts but also saw chart action around the world.
But no doubt, Loudermilk's signature song is “Tobacco Road.” He likes to say it’s partly autobiographical, but I suspect that’s just good old fashion bullshit. Tobacco Road is a section in East Durham near to where Loudermilk grew up. There, bails of tobacco are rolled down the way to the warehouse, hence the name. According to almost everything I’ve ever read about it, Tobacco Road did have something of a bad ass reputation, and was known as quite the unsavory neighborhood and a part of town where after dark even the police department avoided entering. This song was a huge hit during the first British invasion, sung by the Nashville Teens in the summer of 1964. What works so perfectly in their version is the harsh, desperate spin they put to the lyrics and melody. It still sounds raw today. “Tobacco Road” has since been covered dozens of times from a wide variety of artists like Richard 'Groove' Holmes, the Blues Magoos, Jimi Hendrix and even David Lee Roth recorded a Spanish version, “La Calle Del Tabaco,” in 1986. Actually, any garage band worth its beans has rocked this classic tale of woe … I believe it's required playing.
Another top 40 pop-rock classic, "Indian Reservation," was originally written by John Loudermilk in 1959 and recorded by Marvin Rainwater, as "Pale Faced Indian." Later on Loudermilk reshaped some of the lyrics and released it in the mid 1960s as "The Lament of The Cherokee Reservation Indian." In 1969 Don Fardon shortened the title to "Indian Reservation" and scored a mammoth worldwide hit everywhere except here in the states, which was very fortunate for The Raiders featuring Mark Lindsay. Two years later their version mimicked Fardon’s interpretation almost note for note and scored a huge hit in the US. According to lore, Loudermilk was once asked by Casey Kasem of American Top 40 Radio about the back story of “Indian Reservation.” Loudermilk concocted a tall tale about being rescued by Cherokee Indians after crashing his car in a blinding blizzard only to be held captive by his rescuers. He was finally released once he promised he would write a song telling of their plight. The story appeared several times on the show; Kasem is quoted as saying, "one of the most incredible stories we've ever told on AT40." I bet!
One of my favorite John D. Loudermilk songs is “Torture.” Originally a top 20 hit for Kris Jensen in 1962, there is a slightly obscure 1980 version released as a single by the French cult artist Hermine Demoriane. I love her version! She sounds a bit like Nico, but pulls out a bit more drama in the delivery. I know very little about Hermine except she was supposed to be married to the English poet Hugo Williams and performed in the film Jubilee (1977). And though I don’t believe much of anything I read on the internet -- actually very little, and that includes my own blog -- Hermione supposedly studied and practiced tightrope walking and wrote a book about it called Tightrope Walker.
In 1969 Loudermilk temporarily tripped out, got hip and underground, and released the soon to be classic, neo-psych album The Open Mind of John D Loudermilk. Finally in recent years it has been re-released on CD. I recommend it, though it is ever so slightly peculiar, but in just … I don’t know … that peculiar, peculiar way.
John D. Loudermilk was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1976.
Here is a small list of some of his other classic songs:
“Angela Jones” -- Johnny Ferguson version peaked at #27 in Billboard's but the version to hear is by Milk and their bubble gum version from 1969
“Break My Mind” -- covered by both Linda Rondstadt and Gram Parsons
“Ebony Eyes” -- the Everly Brothers' perfect version was a huge tear-drop rock hit in 1961, reaching #8
“Google Eye” -- kind of a ridiculous novelty song, though it was a big hit in France, sung in French by the neo Ye-Ye group Les Lionceaux
“Norman” – Sue Thompson’s biggest hit peaked at #3
“Sad Movies (Make Me Cry)” -- another big hit for Sue Thompson, this one reached #5 on the Billboard charts. This song was also a hit in France, this time for Sylvie Vartan in the French version: "Quand le film est triste." During her career, the Ye-Ye singer Vartan recorded several Loudermilk songs.
“Talk Back Trembling Lips” -- A #1 hit by country singer Ernest Ashworth. This song has probably been covered a least a hundred times, and almost always by Country music artists.
“Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye” -- an absolutely great and beautiful song, probably the most recorded tune of John Loudermilk. There may be as many as 200 versions floating around; the most successful version was by The Casinos in 1967.
“This Little Bird” -- was once recorded by Marianne Faithfull in the mid sixties. Her version reached # 5 in the UK, but only #32 in the US. Later it was recorded by Nancy Sinatra and by Jewel.
“Thou Shalt Not Steal” -- from 1964, a classic track, became one of Dick & Dee Dee’s biggest sellers
“Turn Me On” -- Nina Simone did a great early version of this song, so incredibly laid back. Just a few years back, Norah Jones re-did it in a similar manner
Anyway, Happy 75th Birthday John D. Loudermilk!