Charlie Feathers - Biography
By Charles Reece
Charlie Feathers might not have invented rockabilly, but he perfected the template that has come to be seen as its most authentic expression. While rock and roll was losing its blues and country roots, becoming a more easily marketable passion for suburban teens everywhere, Feathers defiantly kept his own unique brand as rooted in the deep Southern tradition as the cotton-field blues and bluegrass whence it sprang. Regardless of which genre one chooses to align him with, he was undoubtedly one of Americana’s great vocal stylists, with a voice that could register the honky-tonk pathos of Hank Williams, capture the dentures-removed hillbilly warbling of bluegrass to crooning in a manner that would later become the definitive singing style of both George Jones and Johnny Paycheck. It was, however, his tendency to punctuate verses with hiccups and induce an echo chamber effect with his low-level rumbles on words like ba-ba-ba-baby that would become his most identifiable – and most often copied – techniques.
One of 7 children (5 brothers and 1 sister), Charles Arthur Lindberg Feathers was born to Leonard and Lucy on June 12, 1932 in the small sharecropping community of Slayden, Mississippi (located about 50 miles South of Memphis, Tennessee). As with most families in that region and time, a premium was placed on surviving, not education, so Charlie dropped out school after the third grade and began working in the fields, resulting in his being functionally illiterate for the rest of his life. His real education was in the regional music, primarily the Delta blues from the black workers in the fields and the forms of country he heard on the radio. He learned guitar by the age of 9 from Obie Peterson, a blues-playing tenant farmer, whose wife babysat young Feathers. His love of country and bluegrass came from listening to the Grand Ole Opry radio show and he began singing in the local church. He developed his playing further by practicing in his teens with future blues legend David “Junior” Kimbrough, whom he met while working in the fields. The two remained lifelong friends, eventually recording together in the late 1960s [on “Release Me (And Let Me Love Again)” and “Feel Good Again”]. Feathers could not master the complex bluegrass playing, but he did manage to assimilate Bill Monroe’s high-pitched singing style into Hank Williams’ phrasing over a basic 12-bar blues structure. In terms of this blueprint, it was the blues that Feathers cited as being the most important ingredient in the musical style he would help develop.
After a brief stint working the oil pipelines with his father in Illinois and Texas. Feathers settled in Memphis in 1950 with a job at a box manufacturer. The job ended when he was hospitalized with spinal meningitis. Having little to do during his months-long hospital stay, he began to work on his music in earnest. He had already started playing clubs on the side while working in Texas, and this period of convalescence cemented his desire to be a professional musician. Shortly thereafter, he married Rosemary Hardy on March 19, 1951. Now firmly committed to a singer career, Feathers looked for any sort of work that would help further that goal. By 1954, he found such a job with Sam Phillips’ Memphis Recording Service, with the intention of getting a contract at Sun Records. His job with Phillips has become a major source of controversy for Feathers’ legacy due to a dispute over what he actually did while there.
Feathers filled in on whatever Sun sessions he could, including playing spoons for the Millers Sisters and helping with demos for steel guitarist Stan Kesler. His collaboration with Kessler led to a co-writing credit on Elvis Presley’s first #1 country hit, “I Forgot To Remember To Forget” (the B-side to “Mystery Train”). Kesler has disputed the legitimacy of this credit, claiming it was payment for Feathers’ demoing, not for any actual songwriting contribution. The biggest controversy, however, came in the 1970s when Feathers began to claim a primary role in arranging Presley’s Sun recordings to the fan press. As his own recordings were becoming highly prized fetish objects in the collector’s market, Feathers became increasingly vociferous about his supposed contributions, claiming that he arranged “That’s All Right” and had recorded “Good Rockin’ Tonight” months before Presley. Any large role in his helping shape the King seems largely a matter of confabulated braggadocio, since many of the people who were around at the time, including Kesler, do not recall Feathers even being there for the sessions. On the other hand, Johnny Cash remembers Feathers’ controlling the boards on “Baby Let’s Play House,” so it is unlikely we will ever have a definitive conclusion to Feathers’ autobiographical mythology.
On the strength of Feathers’ session work, Phillips gave him his first shot as a singer on the newly formed Flip label, which the producer used for trying out new artists. Framing him as a country stylist, Phillips paired the singer with the session players and songwriting team of Bill Cantrell and Quinton Claunch to record in 1955 their “I’ve Been Deceived,” backed by one of Feathers’ own, “Peepin’ Eyes.” They recorded 5 other tracks for that session, but all have been lost (most likely due to Phillips’ reusing old tapes to save money). The single garnered enough regional attention for Feathers to finally get his chance recording for Sun Records proper. His second single, “Defrost Your Heart,” was as close to sounding like Hank Williams as anything Feathers ever recorded. It is a solid country song, if somewhat unremarkable. Despite recording other Sun demos more befitting his rockabilly desires, Phillips insisted on Feathers being a country singer. Thus, with a new trio consisting of himself on rhythm guitar and vocals, string bassist Jody Chastain and lead guitarist Jerry Huffman, Feathers jumped ship and sought his fortunes at rival Memphis label, Meteor Records.
His first and only single for the label, “Tongue-Tied Jill” (1956), is the point where Feathers’ influences coalesced into his own unique style. The hiccup punctuation becomes prominent and the slapback echo on his voice (developed by Phillips) creates a percussive effect when singing the mangled syllables of the song’s protagonist. It is one of his greatest moments and the closest he ever came to a hit. However, the trio received no royalties from Meteor’s owner, Les Bihari, so they decided to sign with the Cincinnati label King Records. The 8 sides recorded there by Charlie Feathers with Jody & Jerry (as they were billed) are generally considered to be his classic period. In particular, it was his first two singles in 1956 – “I Can’t Hardly Stand It”/”Everybody’s Lovin’ My Baby” followed by “One Hand Loose”/”Bottle To My Baby” – that have gone on to secure his reputation as the hiccupping king of rockabilly. The remaining 4 songs – such as the A-sides “When You Come Around” and “Nobody’s Woman” – were recorded in Nashville in the style of Elvis Presley’s RCA hits, including Jordanaire-styled back-up singers led by Johnny Bragg. These singers were used at the behest of King in an attempt to siphon off some Presley’s popularity, but the effort was to no avail. Feathers would never achieve popularity past his status as an underground favorite among devoted rockabilly connoisseurs.
After the King contract expired, the trio officially broke up, but Feathers continued to write and record with bassist Chastain for a variety of small Memphis labels as the decade ended. There are some oddball gems from this period, including a folk song, “Dinky John,” recorded under the pseudonym Charlie Morgan for Wal-May Records, and the echo-ridden “Jungle Fever” (Kay Records), which approaches the hypnotic qualities of minimalism in classical music. Kay also released Chastain’s single “My My” with Feathers playing guitar only.
During the 1960s, rockabilly was all but dead and the British Invasion took rock and roll in a direction that Feathers had no interest in pursuing. Thus, when he was not playing in Memphis clubs or working odd jobs, he spent his time racing cars and pitching for a softball team. He released only 3 singles during the decade: “Wild Wild Party” (1961 Wal-May), a cover of Jimmy Davis’ “Nobody’s Darlin’” (1963 Holiday Inn Records, another of Sam Phillips’ labels) and a cover of Johnny Burnette’s “Tear It Up” (1968 Philwood Records). It is his return on the last song that Feathers began the second major phase of his career. Although horribly out of fashion when he recorded them, and not as well recognized as his 1950s work, the songs he recorded at Tom Phillips’ Select-O-Hits Studio and Sam Phillips Recording in Memphis are some of the best examples of Feather’s purist aesthetic. In fact, Feathers preferred these recordings to his classic King ones due to the failure of latter’s production to properly replicate Sam Phillips’ slapback echo effect. With Sam’s brother, Tom, doing the production on songs like “Stutterin’ Cindy,” “Rain” and “Uh Huh Honey,” this phase is as close as Feathers ever got to releasing rockabilly through Sun Records (even though the majority of it came out on non-Phillips-associated labels in the mid- to late 1970s, such as That Rockabilly Cat on Barrelhouse Records in 1979).
Feathers' last great recording came from a session he did for Ronnie Weiser’s Los Angeles label, Rollin’ Rock Records, in late 1974. “That Certain Female” is probably the only rock song to feature a stapler (played by Weiser) as a principle instrument. The echoing gallop of the makeshift instrument was a perfect complement to the Sun sound Feathers favored (as it would be right at home on the early Johnny Cash recordings). For the remainder of the decade, Feathers held down day jobs and played the local clubs with his son, Bubba (né Charles Arthur), on lead guitar and his daughter, Wanda, on backing vocals and tambourine. In the mid-1970s, they served as house band for the Phoenix Club, which Feathers partly owned at the time. Any recordings he made (such as the ones for his own Feathers Records) were either covers or reworkings of his own songs.
Due to the growing European trade in his bootleg recordings and the success of Rockabilly Kings (a 1974 English compilation of his and Mac Curtis’ King recordings on Polydor Records), Feathers regularly toured Europe with his son Bubba from the late 1970s through the 1980s. The popularity of rockabilly revivalists The Stray Cats during the 1980s surely did not inhibit the renewed interest in classic rockabilly artists like Feathers. His cult status in Europe led to two new releases on the independent French label, New Rose Records (home at the time of other notable cult artists such as The Cramps, Roky Erikson and Johnny Thunders). Featuring a combination of new songs and covers, Honky Tonk Man (1982) and The New Jungle Fever (1987) are solid, admirable efforts, but both were closer to pure country music than the driving rockabilly vigor of Feathers’ glory days. If not for the occasional hiccup, some of singing here could be easily mistaken for Johnny Paycheck’s (cf. “Blame It On Time”).
With a new, eponymously-titled record in 1991 for Elektra (his first major label recording) and the collections of his back catalog, alternate takes and acoustic demos that Norton Records released during the early 1990s, Feathers seemed primed for a comeback. Unfortunately, his failing health made it difficult for him to capitalize on this growing interest. He had a cancerous lung removed in the 1980s and growing health problems stemming from diabetes effectively rendered him retired from touring. Resulting from complications related to a stroke, Feathers died at age 66 on August 29, 1998 in Memphis. He is survived by his wife Rosemary and their 3 children, Bubba, Wanda and Ricky.