Up Close With Hardrock Gunter
“I Claim To Have Named The Music [Rock And Roll]”
Dick Stewart’s Note: Born Sidney Louie Gunter but given the name Hardrock Gunter by his band mates after they witnessed a heavy-duty trunk lid crash down on his head that barely produced a flinch, he became hugely popular in and near his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, beginning in the early 1950s when he and his hillbilly band changed the meaning of rock and roll from just plain sex to that of a new genre of music that would soon after sweep the nation and later the world. According to Hardrock, he was the first to give rock and roll it’s new and present-day meaning via his 1951 vinyl release, “Gonna Dance All Night.” Says Gunter, “I certainly do think that the extensive use of the phrase ‘Gonna Rock and Roll’ over and over again on my record was the first time it was used referring to MUSIC. That is why I claim to have named the music.”
[Dick Stewart] So, Hardrock, are you ready to give me the lowdown on your historic rock-and-roll life?
Hardrock Gunter Okay, Dick. Please don't change my grammar. I want the flavor left in anything I send you. Thanx.
[Dick Stewart] Where and when were you born and how many brothers and sisters do you have?
Hardrock Gunter I was born in Birmingham, Alabama on Feb. 27, 1925. I have a sister, Kathryn four years younger and a brother four years younger than Kathryn.
[Dick Stewart] Did you grow up in a neighborhood or out in the country? Describe the surroundings and what your neighbors and childhood friends were like in terms of living conditions, importance of religion, raising kids, overall demeanors, etc.?
Hardrock Gunter I was raised in a lower to middle class neighborhood in the city. The section was called East Lake and was about seven miles from downtown Birmingham. Our living conditions were pretty poor. It was during the Depression and many were out of work. My dad worked for the Birmingham Gas Company all his adult life. We never missed meals, but they were plain food: cornbread, black-eyed peas, corn, 'taters and stuff like that—nothing fancy—just plain old southern home cooking.
I got along well with all my neighborhood friends and only remember a couple of fights I was involved in. I was smaller than most of the guys and certainly didn't pick on anyone, but when I was pushed I stood up for myself. Everyone in our neighborhood was in the same boat as far as economics was concerned and their living conditions were the same.
Dad went to work for the Birmingham Gas Company when they were putting in gas and he started as a pipe worker putting gas pipes under houses. He worked there all his life and retired as head of the department, which handles complaints about gas service. Mom was a housewife.
[Dick Stewart] While growing up in your birth family, were a lot of household chores required of you and your siblings?
Hardrock Gunter Chores for Kathryn and I were dusting, mopping and doing the dishes. Mom was really a stickler for cleanliness and we had to do our share.
[Dick Stewart] Was it fishing, exploring, kick-the-can type of outdoor games that occupied your free time, or did you and your buddies just plain horse around like most kids past and present like to do?
Hardrock Gunter We played Kick the Can, baseball, football, and "Annie Over," which is throwing stuff over the house and trying to retrieve it before the other kids could. Since I was small, I wasn't picked for the team all the time. I went fishing about five times [but never] hunted. I could never shoot any animal.
[Dick Stewart] When did you get interested in music and why? What was your inspiration?
Hardrock Gunter When I was four or five, there was a radio personality named "The Texas Drifter" who sang and played over a local radio station. I fell in love with his stuff.
[Dick Stewart] Were other members of your birth family interested in music, as well?
Hardrock Gunter Not really although my parents liked it that I liked the music. The Drifter was really quite a personality and became world famous as you probably know. A very good friend of his, Buck Weaver, worked at the gas company with Dad. Buck was responsible for having the Drifter get a "good" guitar for me from Gibson at Christmas in 1938. The Gibson model cost $50.00 but Dad could only afford me the Kalamazoo model, which cost $37.50. It was "flawed" in some way, but I couldn't tell it—probably in the paint job. To me, it was beautiful!
[Dick Stewart] Aside from the Gibson, what was your first guitar?
Hardrock Gunter When I was six I got a Gene Autry guitar for Christmas. It cost $2.95.
[Dick Stewart] What was the hot radio station that the kids listened to while you were growing up and who were the artists that got the regular spins?
Hardrock Gunter The most popular I remember was a DJ named Joe Ford who started a "Flat Foot Floogie Club." I think it was 1938 or '39. Flat Foot Floogie by Slim and Slam (Slim Gaillard, guitar and Slam Stewart, bass) was a very popular song then. I don't remember any country artists on record. They were live. We had Rex Griffin, The Delmore Brothers, Hank Penny, Zeke Clements and Texas Ruby, Curley Fox, Arthur Smith, Zeke Phillips, etc. as live local artists.
[Dick Stewart] Was your first love country music followed by an eventual dose of rhythm and blues?
Hardrock Gunter My first interest was the Drifter until I heard Hank Penny and the Radio Cowboys! WOW! What music! I really fell hard for the swinging sounds they made. By the way, Boudeleaux Bryant played fiddle and used to tell of me coming to the studio with my guitar in a "toesack" (burlap bag) pressing my nose against the windowpane that separated the fans from the studio.
For the life of me, I don't remember, but I don't doubt it either. The jukeboxes were loaded with black artists who got my attention too. Mostly they played blues and I dug them a lot! This was circa '38 and '39.
[Dick Stewart] Most parents want their kids to achieve in a preferred occupational skill that would aid in the laying down of stable roots. In the case of your Mom and Pop, was music as an occupation one of their recommendations?
Hardrock Gunter I don't remember that music was. Let me give you some background. Neither of my parents even graduated from high school and careers weren't usually discussed among poor folks. I do remember Dad saying I might get a job at the Post Office or some other government job that had pension plans.
[Dick Stewart] You would have entered high school in the mid-‘40s or so. What was the name of your high school and was the word “cool” a popular word with the teens?
Hardrock Gunter I entered high school at thirteen and went to work for Happy Wilson the next year. We played on the radio each morning before school and Happy picked me up each day after school to play a show date. I didn't take part in very many school activities. It's a wonder to me to this day why I stayed in school! At first I thought of nothing but playing and singing. I went to Woodlawn High. We had two semesters a year and two graduations.
“Cool” wasn't a word to us. I took ROTC mainly to get clothes to wear since the uniform was required two days a week. When I graduated in January of '43 I was the class President in a class of 256 and was the Cadet Colonel of the ROTC, the only Colonel in the entire state of Alabama. World War II was on and I started thinking that I might have a military career. But I never stopped playing music and thinking I would play for a living.
[Dick Stewart] When did you actually become serious about making it in the music business and what was the name of your first band? In addition, described the instruments used, the year the band formed, how it came about being formed, the venues, and the genre of music that was played.
Hardrock Gunter I formed my band at age thirteen . We lived in a section called Hoot Owl Hollow, so I named the band the Hoot Owl Ramblers. We had two guitars, fiddle, harmonica, and homemade bass. We played everything: “Hut Sut Song,” “Love Letters in the Sand,” “Beer Barrel Polka,” etc., and all the popular "hillbilly" songs of the day.
Birmingham had been blessed with a great deal of community centers being built by the WPA and we played them as well as a few local theaters—never for money, of course, just for fun for us and fun for the audience.
There was a Mickey Mouse club on Saturday mornings at the Alabama Theater, the largest in the state, and we played there on the sort of "variety show" with a cast of a dozen or so kids. We got so popular that one Saturday we were the only act on the show doing about 30 or 45 minutes before the picture, which followed. I think I was probably thinking I was going play music and sing forever at that time.
[Dick Stewart] During the ‘40s, way before rock and roll made its mainstream presence, there was the Hit Parade that charted mostly squeaky white songs such as “Let Me Go Lover,” “Doggie in the Window,” and the “Tennessee Waltz.” What was your impression of these tunes?
Hardrock Gunter We played all of these songs. I think we all loved them.
[Dick Stewart] I recall in the ‘40s that country-and-western music was called just plain “western music” (if you liked it), and “hillbilly” if you didn’t. How would you describe the actual differences between the two terms?
Hardrock Gunter Most of the bands in the Southeast were "hillbilly" bands a la Roy Acuff, etc. There were a few but very few playing "western" music such as the Sons of the Pioneers, etc. I always mixed in a little of the "pop" tunes of the day because the audience liked them! We did all of the most popular "hillbilly" tunes like “Worried Mind,” “No Letter Today,” Born to Lose,” “You Are My Sunshine,” “Steel Guitar Rag,” etc.
I think the "western" music really dealt with songs built around the cowboy and his environment and the "hillbilly" music just dealt with the trials, tribulations and successes of everyday life in the southeastern part of the country. If you looked at a map of where all the better-known stars of that time were born, they were almost entirely from the Southeast. Very, very few were from west of the Mississippi. Today TV and the record business have wiped out those lines.
[Dick Stewart] Who is Happy Wilson? Please fill our readers in on him and how did you met him?
Hardrock Gunter Happy Wilson was born in Haleyville, Alabama in 1918. He became popular enough that in 1938 he went to Hollywood and appeared in several pictures with Ray [“Crash”] Corrigan and the Three Mesquiteers. [Dick Stewart’s note: For a brief bio of the film releases that were inspired by William Colt MacDonald’s Three Mesquiteers’ western novels, check out: http://www.surfnetinc.com/chuck/trio3m.htm.] At one time John Wayne was one of the Mesquiteers.
When Happy came back to Alabama after the picture work, he was looking for musicians to start a band. I had won an amateur contest for thirteen weeks and the promoter of the show, Mrs. Si Wages, told Happy about me. Happy called me and we started The Golden River Boys. This was 1939.
Happy Wilson was a great entertainer. He recorded for DECCA and MGM but is best remembered as the co-writer of Little Jimmy Dicken's smash "Sleeping at the Foot of the Bed" and for finding Jimmy's next best hit, "May the Bird of Paradise Fly up Your Nose." Happy died in a car crash at age 59.
[Dick Stewart] If you served in World War II was it in the Pacific Front or the European Theater?
Hardrock Gunter I went into the Army six months after high school and was sent to Fort Benning, Georgia for Infantry training. At that time the Officer Candidate School was reduced to one regiment from three and the teachers went on 14-days leave. When they came back, they taught the exact same course as our basic training. I had been placed in the ASTP (Army Specialized Training Program.) The program was to make officers in highly specialized fields such as medicine, dentistry, engineering, etc. The courses were extremely hard work with long hours intended to give us a degree in two years!
Some well-known names, who were in ASTP, are Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State; Ed Koch, Mayor of New York City; Arch Moore, Governor of West Virginia; Mel Brooks; Andy Rooney, CBS 60 Minutes; and James V. Hartinger.
When we were in Basic at Benning, Jimmy Hartinger and I were tent mates for our pup tent, a two-man tent. We became extremely close friends, and we remained close until his death in 2000. Since Birmingham is less than 200 miles from Benning, we went to see my folks several times during training weekends and my sister and Jimmy became close. He went on to West Point and she was pinned to him for a couple of years, but they finally broke it off. After graduation he went into the brand new Air Force. When Sis, Sheila and I attended his retirement ceremony, he was FOUR STAR GENERAL JAMES V. HARTINGER, Commander of NORAD and named the first commander of the SPACE COMMAND.
[Dick Stewart] Did you get married during or before the breakout of World War II, and did you have any children?
Hardrock Gunter After ASTP was discontinued, and after a year of more training, I was sent to Europe. My Division was totally devastated during the Battle of the Bulge. I was surrendered by our commanders and captured along with 5,000 other soldiers and spent six months and lost 80 pounds in POW camps. I was liberated on March 30, 1945. During convalescent leave I got married and that marriage produced two sons. One is an architect in Birmingham and the other is a CPA in Dallas.
[Dick Stewart] Did the big-band sounds of the ‘30s and early ‘40s have an effect on you as a musician and were there some tunes and artists of that genre that you were particularly fond of?
Hardrock Gunter After Happy went into the service in January 1942, I started playing guitar in "big bands” as well as combos. I liked the "swing" music very much—probably too much for my own musical career. If you notice almost all of my records have the basic rhythm section of guitar, drums, bass and piano. Some, but certainly not most country music of the time, had drums and piano. I particularly liked the music of Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller and Harry James.
[Dick Stewart] Somewhere along the line you began listening to the efforts of Black rhythm and blues performers, which, I’m certain, turned you on to that genre of music and ultimately inspired your interest in what would eventually be referred to as rock and roll. Who were the artists that you listened to that got you excited about this new beat?
Hardrock Gunter I remember Lonnie Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson. I just need to think about it. It is a little hard to separate the exact years after all this time. Others I liked were Leadbelly (Huddie Leadbetter), Slim and Slam, and Clarence Williams (My Bucket's Got a Hole in It.)
[Dick Stewart] Rollercoaster Records’ bio of you states that Mrs. Si Wages recommended you to Happy because of your success in Birmingham in the late ‘30s masterfully covering Hank Penny songs: “Appearing under the pseudonym of ‘Goofy Sid,’ he dressed in a ‘Hee Haw’ comic style outfit; baggy pants, etc. On stage he told Hank Penny stories, and would play novelty tunes on the guitar.”
Hardrock Gunter After being introduced as Goofy Sid I would come on stage, tell about three or four short jokes, and play guitar and sing a novelty song. I didn't play songs on the guitar as instrumentals. I played guitar only to back up the singing.
[Dick Stewart] How did the Hardrock moniker come about?
Hardrock Gunter Happy, two musicians, and a girl singer came to pick me up for our first date to be played at the Princess Theater in the Atlanta suburb of East Point Georgia. It was about three or four on a Saturday morning. I started putting my stuff in the trunk of the car and while I was loading the trunk, the prop of the trunk lid slipped and the very heavy lid came down and whacked me on the head. When I didn't say a word but instead just turned to Happy and said, "Hand me the banjo," they all started laughing. I don't know what they thought was so funny. Happy said, "He didn't say a word. His head is as hard as a rock!" All the way to the date they called me Hardrock and when Happy introduced me to do my bit, he called me Hardrock Gunter. It's been that ever since.
[Dick Stewart] When the Golden River Boys first broke up in 1941, you went solo. Was that when you began to do some serious writing and recording of your first songs, or did that already occur with the River Boys? Also, did you have a personal manager during this period of time, and was it Happy or was your relationship with him more like that of a partner?
Hardrock Gunter No, I didn't do any writing at that time. I didn't record until later, after the War. Musicians didn't "lay down tracks" back then. All records were made in a single "take" using one mike. The music was "balanced" by having the musicians get into different positions and distances from and around the mike.
Records were "cut" on an aluminum disc covered in acetate. The recording machine had a turntable, which turned at 78 revolutions per minute while a "stylus" or needle scraped or cut grooves into the acetate and recorded the vibrations. That's how the term "cutting a record" came about. The phrase is still used although today no cutting is actually done.
I was still in high school in 1941 when the older guys went into the services.
I have never to this day had a personal manager. First, the radio station, WAPI in Birmingham let me keep the early morning time slot where the band had been scheduled. I was on solo with my guitar for 15 minutes followed by the great Delmore Brothers with band for 30 minutes. I sometimes stayed and played back-up guitar with them.
Molly O'Day and her husband Lynn Davis came to Birmingham and got on the same station, WAPI. The station dropped my solo show and I went to work with Molly O'Day and Lynn playing the morning radio show.
After the morning show I would go to school until Lynn and the gang picked me up after school to go play the show dates. I didn't book any dates for acts until we reorganized the Golden River Boys after the war.
[Dick Stewart] When Happy got out of the service, you and he reorganized the Golden River Boys in 1948 with you as the principal guitarist. At this point in time, I’m sure the studio activity was becoming very active. How would you describe the music that you were recording and what record labels began to show an interest and why? Was it because of a particular style of western or hillbilly songs that were significantly different from the rest in performances and arrangements, which hinted of early rock-and-roll roots?
Hardrock Gunter After we all got out of the military we did reorganize the band in 1946 and went right back playing the morning shows at WAPI and night show dates. In 1947, I quit the band and went to Indiana to sell insurance. I did very well in insurance; actually led the company in sales for one month. I only stayed in Indiana for about three months until the first snow came! I went home to Birmingham for Thanksgiving and didn't go back to Indiana.
[Dick Stewart] It has been stated that you worked as the Golden River Boys’ manager. You also had a booking agency, which began to include other acts besides GRB that kept you quite busy. How successful was the agency, and did it take away a lot your time as a performing artist? Did you book any high-profile acts?
Hardrock Gunter Happy offered me the job as manager which really meant booking the show dates and I took the offer. In addition, I booked some dates for Charlie Monroe and his Kentucky Pardners, Pat Buttram and Fiddling Arthur Smith. I didn't think of my booking activities as a "talent agency." I also started playing dances in and around Birmingham.
The Golden River Boys, with me on guitar, only did one session for the local Vulcan label. Happy recorded for DECCA and later for MGM, but they used the Nashville musicians to back him. My recording activities didn't start until 1950.
[Dick Stewart] So let’s talk about 1950. After listening to Rollercoaster’s release [RCCD 3013] of 31 of your recordings beginning in 1950, aside from being well entertained, the origins of rock ‘n’ roll in its earliest form was all there: the guitar riffs, your vocalization on a couple of tunes with an African American accent, the boogie woogie expressions, and the mentioning of the term “rock and roll” in some of your 1950 vinyl releases. Where did you first hear this term and what did it mean to you upon hearing it? Was it a preferred phrase at that time among black musicians, who specialized in the increasingly popular boogie-woogie genre?
Hardrock Gunter For the life of me I can't remember when I first heard the term rock and roll. It was a very long time ago and it meant sex. As far as the accent goes, I was raised in Birmingham and at that time, except for a little time in the Army, I had never left the South. Man, what ya'll heard when you heard me back then is plain ol' southern accent. It ain't black, white or in between; it's just the way I talked. I don't remember it being a preferred phrase among black musicians. It meant SEX. PERIOD.
When I played dances I would hear the phrase after a good up-tempo tune. It would be something like: "We are rocking and rolling tonight." I picked up on it and started saying something like it so I would be "IN" with the kids dancing. Before some tune I would announce, "Here's one you can rock and roll!” I decided to write a tune for that kind of response. I had trouble getting BAMA to release "Gonna Dance All Night"[because] my original title was "We're Gonna Rock and Roll." The music we played was the way we played then. We didn't do anything on the record that we didn't do all the time.
[Dick Stewart] So, in early 1950, because of your local success in Birmingham, you were contacted by a Mr. Manny Pearson, owner of Bama Records, which resulted in the release of “Birmingham Bounce” backed with “How Can I Believe You Love Me.” Describe this initial meeting, Pearson’s offer and his label’s overall success. Did he, in your opinion, live up to your expectations?
Hardrock Gunter Manny Pearson had recorded The John Daniel Quartet. It was a well known Gospel group out of Nashville. Manny was a member of the Jehovah's' Witness faith. I think at that time that they were the only artists he had on the BAMA label.
John and Manny came to me, and Manny offered to record me. John vouched for Manny and said he would treat me right. Manny didn't make any particular offer—just an offer to put me on record. I jumped at the chance.
I think he should have let DECCA have the masters. Instead he refused and it broke him when the returns came in after Foley hit so big. Manny then leased some masters to Jim Bulliett who put them out on the BULLET label. By this time I was back in the Army.
[Dick Stewart] “Birmingham Bounce” does indeed have the rock-and-roll term within it. What was the year in which you originally wrote the song, and was the inspiration of the tune due primarily to your strong Birmingham fan support of the time?
Hardrock Gunter The year was 1950. I was in my car going to record and needed another song for the session. I started thinking about a catchy format and decided to "showcase" the musicianship of my players. I started writing it in my head and by the time I got to the recording date, the song was done.
[Dick Stewart] Was it your idea to have the Golden River Boys back you on these recordings?
Hardrock Gunter At that time Huel Murphy, the piano man and I were working five nights a week at the Rose Room. On Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons we played a dance and I hired Charlie Duke on sax and Bobby Sanders on drums to play with us. To fill out the band for the recording I got Billy Tucker on fiddle, Ted Crabtree on Steel and Jim O'Day on bass from the GRB and didn't use Charlie on this session. So actually we had three GRB's and three who were not GRB, but I have always thought of the leads on the Bounce to be GRB backing.
[Dick Stewart] Because of the breakout regional success of “Birmingham Bounce,” A&R director for Decca Records, Paul Cohen, expressed a strong interest in the song, even to the point of Decca agreeing to pay for 500,000 copies whether they sold or not. Why did Manny Pearson turn down such a lucrative offer? Had you no say in the offer?
Hardrock Gunter I begged Manny to let Paul have the master. Manny was giving most of his earnings to his church and thought he was going to make a real killing with the song. His DECCA offer would only pay him a few pennies on each record, which of course was much less than he was making on his own label.
I did everything but commit suicide over his refusal because Paul kept telling me, "It will make you a STAR" and I could see my big chance drying up. That's exactly what happened, I'm sorry to say.
[Dick Stewart] When Paul offered to press a half million copies at Decca’s cost, did that include a guaranty to pay Manny his “few pennies” per unit regardless of the outcome of sales?
Hardrock Gunter I really never knew the details of the offer. I believe the money up front was really a minimum guarantee against actual royalties with no "chargeback" if the record failed to reach the guaranteed amount, but with additional money if the record sales passed that point. I was just interested in getting on DECCA because I did know that the record could go "all the way" on a major label. As you know, artists made their money from appearances not record sales. In those days most artists never got out of debt to the record company. Session costs kept them in debt. They made money from appearances.
[Dick Stewart] Yes, the majority of the artists from your time period through the ‘60s got the royal shaft in reference to reasonable royalty earnings on record sales, which caused a great deal of discontentment and burnout. Did this happen to you?
Hardrock Gunter I got the shaft and THEY got the MINE. I didn't quit though. And it is still possible that someday I will be recognized as the "man who named the music rock and roll," and possibly even put into the Hall of Fame! Who knows?
[Dick Stewart] So when Decca failed to lease “Birmingham Bounce” from Manny, the label quickly released a cover version by a popular singer named Red Foley, which hit number one nationally. In addition, your Internet bio states that a total of 21 cover versions were released by other artists by the likes of Lionel Hampton, Tommy Dorsey, and Tex Williams! So you must have done pretty well with mechanics and performance royalties, especially if you were listed as having 100% writer’s credits, right?
Hardrock Gunter One sad story on top of the other. Yes, I had 100% of the writers credit and I have never seen any others listed as writers. Unfortunately I did as almost everyone else did. In my ignorance, [I] trusted others and stupidity signed away most all of the rights to the money! I didn't even know there were rights such as performances, etc. I was ignorant. I use the word ignorant because it's kinder than some I can and do think of when I think about this period of my life. All I can say about “Birmingham Bounce” is that it did make me famous in and around the music industry.
[Dick Stewart] Did you remain friends with Manny thereafter? Is he still around today?
Hardrock Gunter I never thought Manny was anything other than nice, but like me, ignorant. Yes, we remained friends. I don't know if he is still alive or not. If he is, I wish him well.
[Dick Stewart] Who has the publishing rights on “Birmingham Bounce,” Manny?
Hardrock Gunter I don't know who has the rights to the song. It caused me so much heartache and almost heartbreak that I just sort of divorced myself from the legal side of things.
[Dick Stewart] Signing away one’s rights was a common practice by many an aspiring artist during the ‘50s and ‘60s because, as in your case, the majority of these artists were very young, ignorant of the mechanics of the music business, and very trusting. Thus, the promise of fame and fortune easily impressed them. Your thoughts?
Hardrock Gunter Shortly after Birmingham Bounce was released, John Daniel proposed that he should represent me and "handle" everything on the legal side since I was totally inexperienced. I thought that was a good idea and signed a manager’s agreement with him. I thought that he was a good religious man and would look out for me. I was wrong.
[Dick Stewart] When Decca released “Birmingham Bounce” by Foley, do you recall whose name was listed on the vinyl as writer? In addition, was a publishing company listed as well?
Hardrock Gunter I was always listed on every one of the cover versions as writer. I don't remember seeing a publisher listed on the vinyls. I do have a copy of the sheet music and the publisher was HOME TOWN SONGS.
[Dick Stewart] You released two more 45s with Bama in the summer of 1950: “Gonna Dance All Night” b/w “Why Don’t You Show Me That You Love Me,” and “Dad Gave My Hog Away” b/w “Lonesome Blues.” “Gonna Dance All Night” introduced the phrase, “rock and roll,” which was four years before rock and roll itself swept the nation. Could you say, without a doubt, that this is the first time that the phrase “rock and roll” was sung in an official vinyl release?
Hardrock Gunter The phrase "rock & roll" meant sex down south. I certainly do think that the extensive use of the phrase "Gonna Rock and Roll" over and over again on my record was the first time it was used referring to MUSIC. That is why I claim to have named the music.
[Dick Stewart] You signed with Decca and recorded some new numbers for the label in Nashville, and you were at the top of your game; but the Korean War changed all that because you were unable to go on tour to promote these releases, right? How long were you in and did you see active duty?
Hardrock Gunter In the early days of December 1950, I got notice that I was being recalled to active duty effective 16 January 1951. I was given several days to report to Ft Jackson, South Carolina. On my way from Birmingham to Ft. Jackson, I went through Nashville and recorded on the 16th of January at the Summit Studio in the basement of the Tulane Hotel. I was released from active duty on 30 November 1952, so I was in for a year and nine months. All of my DECCA stuff was done while I was in uniform.
[Dick Stewart] So being on active duty in Korea prevented you from performing musically while you were in the service, Rock?
Hardrock Gunter I was not in combat during the Korean War, so I was not in Korea. I was stationed at Ft Jackson, SC After that we went on maneuvers and changed stations to Camp Atterbury, IN. I was the company commander of the Headquarters and Headquarters Company of the 167th Infantry. The point is I couldn't get off to tour and play dates to promote record sales. I was, however, able to get enough time off to record.
[Dick Stewart] John Daniels obviously was a very important person in the success or setback of your ongoing music career. Please fill our TLM readers in on John Daniel’s background and what those “promises” were on which he didn’t follow through?
Hardrock Gunter John Daniels was the leader of a Gospel Quartet. They worked out of Nashville on WSM and the Grand Ole Opry. They were successful and very well known in that field. I can't remember any specific promise he made me that he didn't keep. It is just that somehow whatever arrangements he made on my behalf didn't make me any money. He did help get me on Decca.
[Dick Stewart] Are you a member of BMI, Rock?
Hardrock Gunter I joined BMI in 1952 and Gunter Music became affiliated later that same year.
[Dick Stewart] What was your direction musically upon your discharge from the service?
Hardrock Gunter After release from active duty in 1952, I went to WWVA in Wheeling, West Virginia. I became a DJ, bandleader for the staff band and master of ceremonies of the WWVA World's Original Jamboree.
[Dick Stewart] I understand that the WWVA World’s Original Jamboree was one of the top six country broadcasted shows? Was your desire at first to be a performer on the show rather than a D.J. bandleader?
Hardrock Gunter Yes, I went there thinking I could get on as an artist. They interviewed me and [I] did much better than I expected. As leader of the staff band I backed singers that didn't have a band and also did an early morning show five days a week, and had a solo spot on the Saturday Jamboree.
[Dick Stewart] When Decca decided not to renew your contract, you signed with MGM and had at least one session for this label in Nashville; however, your relationship with MGM was short lived. Why so?
Hardrock Gunter In those days an artist usually got to do one session of four songs. If they showed no promise, that was it! That was the story. My records at MGM just didn't shake up the public.
Candidly: Since so many ex entertainers were at that time working as DJs, many of them were too jealous to play the records of other DJs. That is why I recorded under a different name: First I used Sidney Jo Lewis to record "Bopping to the Grandfather Clock." As you may know, this song is still pretty popular in the UK. Next I used "Rhythm Rockers" when I did "Jukebox." Both songs got mucho play.
[Dick Stewart] Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Records in Memphis, wanted you to record for him, but you declined and sent him a couple of recorded songs (including a remake of “Gonna Dance All Night”), which Sam released as SUN 201. Presley’s “That’s All Right” was SUN 209. How did you get set up with Phillips and how significant is it that your record was eight releases before that of Presley’s? In addition, did you meet Sam? If so, how would you describe his demeanor at the time?
Hardrock Gunter I was in Birmingham working as a DJ at station WJLD. The program director there was Jim Connoly. He was Sam's brother-in-law. He contacted Sam and Sam came to Birmingham. We spent two days together and he came to a dance I played at the American Legion Hall to hear and see me work. He wanted me to come to Memphis and do a session, but I didn't have the money to do it! He asked me to do the session and send him the tape, which I did.
At that time, Sun Records didn't even have an Equalizer! I know this because a few days after I sent him the tape he called me and told me the release would be delayed until he got the new equipment and could master the tape with it. At first, he was very excited about the session, but as soon as Elvis had his release, Sam rightfully devoted all his time to the promotion of Elvis.
Sam was very intense. He seemed to be very busy whether he was having a cup of coffee or watching me perform or sleeping! I liked him very well. I thought he would promote my stuff, but "along came ELVIS!" Nuff Sed!
I think it is very significant that my record was the first "rock" record on SUN, since so many believe that SUN Records really made “rock” happen. I only wish that SUN had made HARDROCK HAPPEN!
[Dick Stewart] You had quit the Jamboree in 1953, but in the summer of 1954, you rejoined and stayed on for another ten years. It was during this time you signed with King Records. Summarize your music career for our readers during this period. What’s this about the gimmicks you employed while recording for King?
Hardrock Gunter I remained at WWVA full time until 1960. I went into insurance but still led the house band at WWVA until 1964. During this period from 1954 to '64, I continued making records. I signed with King and did a couple of sessions. After nothing happened at King, I asked Syd Nathan to release me, which he did. I continued making recordings hoping that something would cause enough noise in the business that I could lease the master to a label for distribution—hopefully King. I didn't use any "gimmicks" on the King stuff, but I did on some of the things I did after I left King.
[Dick Stewart] Sam Phillips wanted to lease the master for “Jukebox Help Me Find My Baby,” but butchered it by editing out some key parts in the recording. What was the result?
Hardrock Gunter At first I leased the master of "Jukebox" to a little label in Cleveland. The song took off because of Bill Randle at WERE. He liked it and played it with the result of it becoming a number one song on his show. I had two "gimmicks" in the original: One, I did a "bass" line with my mouth, [and] two, I uttered "baby" as if I had made a mistake. Actually it was put in, hoping kids would want to hear it over to hear the "mistake." They did! It created quite a bit of noise and that's when Sam got interested. Arrangements were made and the master was released to Sam. To my SHOCK and DISMAY, he edited the master and, in my opinion, CUT out the HIT, and released it. It fell flat!
[Dick Stewart] You and friend, Buddy Durham formed Emperor Records and then later, you kicked off Gee Gee Records out of Houston. How successful were these ventures and was your main motivation due to your disappointment with the labels with which you had signed?
Hardrock Gunter Buddy and I formed EMPEROR for two reasons: One, hoping something could be leased for distribution, and two, so that entertainers without a record contract would have a place to make records to sell [at] their live performances. Same hopes with GEEGEE. I believe that we recorded all of the Jamboree artists who were not contracted. The venture was very satisfactory. Also, Buddy did a bunch of "Fiddle Tunes" and sold them as an offer on "Per Inquiry" or "PI" all over the country very successfully. We recorded these at King studios in Cincinnati. We did 80 Fiddle tunes NON-STOP! Buddy also got on Columbia through the efforts. We took the band and went to Nashville to record for Columbia.
[Dick Stewart] In the late ‘60s, you finally gave up the music business and developed a successful insurance business. How is it that a southern boy like you ended up moving to a New Mexico neighborhood not far from me?
Hardrock Gunter Actually, I gradually retired. I made it final in 1990. We had lived on the first mountain west of Denver, Lookout Mountain for almost 40 years. After a few years in retirement, we decided to get into a one story home. After looking around and not finding what we wanted in the Denver area we decided to look at Albuquerque. Sheila had lived in Albuquerque as a youngster and had a lot of relatives in the area. We found exactly what we wanted in Rio Rancho, NM. We moved here in April of 2003 and have been very happy that we did.
[Dick Stewart] Rock, all performers have good and bad music experiences. Describe your all-time best and worst to our readers.
Hardrock Gunter My best of course was “Birmingham Bounce.” It made me well known all over. My worst is not having the brains to protect myself so that I could enjoy the financial fruits of my efforts.
[Dick Stewart] If you had to do it all over again, what would you have done differently?
Hardrock Gunter Without question I would hook up with Fred Rose and let him guide me. Fred Rose was first a great songwriter. He did pop stuff: “Honest and Truly,” “Deed I Do,” etc. Then he wrote country: “Roy Poly,” “Be Honest with Me,” [and] “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” Then he teamed up with Roy Acuff and started Acuff-Rose Publishing. He was the really honest man in the business.
On my way to Nashville to record, I dropped by Hank's house just to visit. Hank mentioned to me on the night I was to first record for DECCA to get with Fred. I should have listened to him!
[Dick Stewart] Thank you Rock for your very interesting and historic replies. What are your final thoughts?
Hardrock Gunter I have had a most happy and healthy life. I have enjoyed the company of wonderful friends. I am thankful and grateful for the life I have led. Thank YOU for this interview.
[For more information on Hardrock’s fascinating music catalog, go to
www.rollercoasterrecords.com and click the artist tab.]
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