Up Close With Keith McCormack And Aubrey DeCordova Of The Legendary String-A-Longs
Responsible for an Instrumental Giant that Helped Inflame the Guitar-rock Band Instro Craze of the Early ‘60s
By Dick Stewart, The Lance Monthly [01-06-2004]
Interviewer’s Note: Toward the end of the ‘50s, renowned record producer Norman Petty of Clovis, New Mexico, began to make room for a new expression in rock, and it would not be dependent on a vocalist. In fact, for the first and only time in rock history, this new expression would furiously compete with the vocal rock artist worldwide and inspire an onslaught of instrumental-rock garage bands. Although the Ventures firmly took the lead in this genre in 1960, there had already been a number of notable hit instrumentals produced by Petty that today are considered by many rock historians to be principal contributors to the birth of the guitar-rock instro craze of the early ‘60s. One of those instrumental classic standouts is "Wheels" by The String-A-Longs and it put the group solidly on the mainstream rock ‘n’ roll map—but only in popularity; the monetary reward never materialized.
The following in-depth interview with guitarist Keith McCormack and bassist Aubrey deCordova of the legendary String-A-Longs contains some riveting and candid admissions of a series of rough turns taken by two gifted musicians who, together with their equally talented band members, once relished in worldwide fame . . . but, alas, only for such a short period of time.
[Lance Monthly] Keith and Aubrey, where and when were you born, and where did you spend most of your time as a youth?
Keith McCormack Dick, I was born on October 19, 1940, in Dalhart, Texas, went through the second grade and my daddy died. My mother, little brother (Terrell), and I moved to Plainview, Texas to be with my aunt and close to my mother's parents. There I started in music early in high school, graduated, and married there. My mother remarried after a couple years and later had another boy. Her husband deserted us after we moved from Plainview to Wichita, Kansas. We came back to Plainview to live with my grandparents.
Aubrey deCordova I was born in 1941 in L.A., California, but moved back to Texas as a baby [during which] my dad joined the Army Air Corps and went to the Pacific. He was MIA near the end of the war. My mother remarried, and I grew up in Plainview, Texas and graduated from Texas Tech in Lubbock.
[Lance Monthly] Were your birth families big in members, and were there other aspiring musicians in your birth family?
Keith McCormack It was three boys and my mother. Terrell wound up as a writer and musician, too. My daddy played the fiddle.
Aubrey deCordova I have a sister who is a year older [than me] and a half brother who is 19 years younger. I was the only one with an interest in music.
[Lance Monthly] What was it like growing up in your birth families?
Keith McCormack It seemed like a tense thing growing up and it got more intense as time went by. The reason being, we were pretty poor. We lived in one side of my grandparents’ duplex. The four of us slept in one room, and as I got close to my teens, it was a point of embarrassment. My mother was a very tense person, and as I look back, I see she must have been miserable every day, trying to support three kids from the salary of a variety store. There were good moments, though. There was a lot of fried potatoes and gravy (and they were good), but we never went hungry, and I always had new, great smelling Levis at the first of each school year.
Aubrey deCordova I had kind of an average youth; we didn't have a lot of money, but we weren't poor.
[Lance Monthly] What kind of music did you frequently listen to before the Buddy Holly era?
Keith McCormack I was focused on baseball before Elvis and Buddy, but at night when we had to go to bed, KVOP was our only entertainment. This was a year or two [before] TV. I used to lay in bed listening to Sergeant Preston of the Yukon and anything they had to offer, but they would eventually have to play a little music and it would be Slim Whitman's "Love Song of The Waterfall" and Stuart Hamlen's "Grasshopper McClain." I enjoyed the music, but it didn't push my button, and I felt no connection then.
Aubrey deCordova The first music as I remember that Keith and I really got into was Hank Williams, and then Elvis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. We were really crazy about Elvis.
[Lance Monthly] At what age did you first pick up the guitar and was that the first instrument of interest to you?
Keith McCormack Aubrey started taking guitar lessons from a local music store. I really can't remember if this was pre-Elvis or not. Anyway, I wanted to learn too, but there was no way I could afford lessons. My grandma knew I wanted a guitar, so she bought me a $14.00 Regal when I was thirteen. Aubrey would go take lessons and come home and share what he had learned. I liked the guitar, but only because it gave me a way to write. I was never a hot guitarist, although I had to do a little picking as third guitarist in The-String-A-Longs. As you know, we did a lot of complex counter melodies and harmonies.
Aubrey deCordova The first instrument that I thought I wanted to play was the fiddle, but I went to a country music show and decided that I liked the guitar. I have always regretted that, as I am now trying to play the fiddle and it is tough, but I'm really enjoying it. I got my first guitar when I was in the 5th grade, and still have a J-45 Gibson that I bought in 1965.
[Lance Monthly] Keith, what were some of the earliest songs that you’ve written?
Keith McCormack I will say the first two songs I wrote were "Honey Babe" and "I've Searched Everywhere." Never published.
[Lance Monthly] Was the String-A-Longs your first band or did you play in others before you became members of this group? In addition, give our readers a little take on your relationships with your band mates.
Keith McCormack Aubrey was a special friend. He was the best friend one [can have while being a] teen [especially] in the early, early, teens. We roamed the alleys until late at night during the summer, barefooted and shirtless. We stole fruit from the neighbors' trees. We rode bikes for eight hours at a time during the day. We walked miles to get to one of the local swimming pools to swim all day. We spent the nights together, either in the back yard or Aubrey's bunk bed, munching saltine crackers and mayonnaise. His big sister taught us to do the "bop." He was one of those special friends you never have after mid-teens, because that's when life gets too serious and the fun starts fading away. Richard [Stevens] was the same kind of friend, but I didn't have the pleasure [of knowing him] as long as I did Aubrey.
Aubrey deCordova The String-A-Longs is the only band I have played in, although we had various other names, and a couple of different drummers.
[Lance Monthly] How did the String-A-Longs form, and who were the original members? In addition, give our readers a little background on each member and describe the instruments they employed.
Keith McCormack The String-A-Longs originally were The Patio Kids, The Rock 'n' Rollers, and The Leen Teens. As we go along, you'll see how it worked, but it was always Aubrey, Richard, and me. After a few months of Aubrey's guitar lessons and my picking up stuff from him, I started running a little with Richard. Aubrey and I both knew him, but had never run with him. We actually started playing baseball together in a little neighborhood team. We found out that Richard played the guitar. He did a little picking where I just played rhythm. Aubrey [originally] only played rhythm too, [but] we really thought Richard was good. We thought about trying to play a little together.
My uncle, who had been a professional musician as a bass and steel guitar player, took an interest in what we were doing. Everyone agreed that we needed a bass. My uncle offered to contribute his standup bass. Aubrey showed more interest in playing it than Richard and me; in fact, he had grown bored with the guitar. We started practicing on my uncle’s patio with the help of my uncle. He helped Aubrey get a good start on the bass and Aubrey took it and ran. He loved doing the "slap." We practiced a lot.
My aunt and uncle's home was home to every kid in the neighborhood. I've literally seen twenty kids sitting around in the living room talking or watching T.V. Back in those days they had baseball on [television] in the afternoon and no one was a bigger fan than my aunt. My uncle was a great cook and he was always cooking outside on the grill. Aubrey, Richard, and I always had an audience.
Aubrey deCordova Keith can probably answer this better than I, as he was always the main force that got us started and kept us playing. Music was always his main interest.
[Lance Monthly] Was it the String-A-Longs’ intentions to specialize in guitar instrumentals, and what and where were the group’s typical venues before you scored your first hit?
Keith McCormack We were strictly a vocal band with me doing the singing. We did rock 'n' roll, country, blues, and anything [else] we could learn. Though we were getting smoothed out, we knew we wanted a drummer and we knew we would have to go more "plugged." We started spreading the word that we were looking for a drummer. That's when Charles Jay Edmiston came on the scene. He was a good drummer, though he could never do a roll.
After we worked Charles in, Richard bought a Les Paul. Aubrey and I remained acoustic. My uncle started taking us to sandwich sales in which he would make and sell sandwiches containing the meat he sold. We would set up and play little thirty-minute sets. By then I had an amplifier with a mike. I guess we were "cute." People liked us. My uncle starting expanding our bookings to the VFW’s, ELK’s, and the American legion clubs where the adults drank and generally showed their asses. The dances were four hours long and we had to repeat [songs] a lot. My uncle started playing steel with us.
Some sort of little argument or something made Richard think about quitting, so we started looking for another guitar player. Charles played in the high school band and he knew a guy [Jimmy Torres] that played horn, but heard he also played the guitar. Eventually we all got together. By now we were practicing in Charles' garage. Richard hadn't quit, but I guess he thought we were pushing him out.
We were really impressed with Jimmy Torres. He had a different style than Richard, but he was very good. I'll always give Jimmy the credit for straightening me out on my timing and teaching me harmonies. We used to sit for hours doing the Everlys. Richard actually quit for a week and we played a Jr. high school assembly without him. We were still friends [and] we still ran together. I could tell Richard was sorry he quit, so I asked him to consider coming back. That was when the three-guitar thing started that was so identifiable with The String-A-Longs.
Aubrey deCordova We intended to be a vocal band kind of like Elvis and his band. We played school dances around the area, talent shows, school assembles, and grand openings for business, and at grocery stores on flatbed trailers. Keith's Uncle (Johnny Voss) was a wholesale meat salesman and a base and steelguitar player. He helped us get instruments, took us to area dances, and we played his grocery store promotions. He taught me to play the bass and bought my first upright bass. He was a great guy. He loved Bob Wills, but we didn't think that was cool, though I love [his music] now.
[Lance Monthly] When and under what circumstances did you meet Norman Petty?
Keith McCormack After we had gone to Amarillo and cut our first record in a radio station, everyone seemed to be more serious about this music thing. The record, "My Heart's For You" and "Boy I Think It's Really Love," sold a little locally, but it was made through the efforts of Travis Venable, a friend of my uncle's who gave guitar lessons in Hereford, Texas, and [to] my uncle. It was on the Ven [label] and, of course, there was absolutely no distribution. The record wasn't that professional anyway, so it was only a small success locally. My mother and I wrote the songs.
A couple years before the Leen Teens went to Norman's, my uncle asked if I would like to go to Clovis with him on his meat selling route and meet and audition for Norman. We all knew of Norman because, by then, we had played on Pop Echols' breakfast show in Clovis on a Saturday morning. Pop was a fierce competitor of Norman's. Pop had gotten the Four Teens--a group we admired so from Lubbock--a record deal with Challenge Records. We knew too that Roy Orbison had been recording at Norman's. Anyway, my uncle set the deal up.
When we arrived, the studio was just about the way it is today, just not nearly as nice. I sat on a faded, maroon couch with the springs showing and sang a couple songs for Norman. He told me he thought I would be a good writer someday. One of the songs I sang was an original, but he thought I sounded too much like Elvis. This was just a nice way to tell me to go home and chop cotton. I was disappointed, but it didn't rattle me too much. We were there later recording along side Buddy Holly, The Fireballs, and Wayland Jennings. I don't think he even remembered who I was.
Aubrey deCordova When we paid him $150 to record two songs. I don't remember the year. I think Keith's mother paid for the session. He can help better on this.
[Lance Monthly] How well did you know Buddy Holly and the other high-profile Norman Petty artists, and can you give our readers a little take on each one?
Keith McCormack I did not know Buddy very well, personally. He was always on tour or had just been there. I met him a few times, but he was killed very early in The String-A-Longs era. I took our first two records, The Ven record, and the first record with Norman, to Wayland, who was a disk jockey at a country station in Lubbock by the call letters KLLL. It was a country station, but since we were so local he'd play it a little.
The Fireballs, of course, were great friends of ours, and I became lead singer for them in 1968.
Clovis was a small town and Norman usually recorded artists one at a time, so there wasn't anyone around, hardly, when we were recording. Johnny Duncan, who wrote lyrics for "Wheels" and recorded a vocal version, lived there as well as Bob Montgomery. Bob was helping Norman run things. He has been a big producer in Nashville for years and Johnny became a big country artist during the late sixties and early seventies.
Aubrey deCordova I never met Buddy Holly; he was killed a couple of years ('58 I think) before we met Norman. As for other artists, we only knew Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs really well. They were a great bunch of guys, and really talented. I saw George and Stan at the Clovis reunion this summer. We did meet Johnny Duncan and Waylon Jennings when he was at KLLL, but that's about all I can remember who recorded at Clovis. We toured the Midwest with Del Shannon--a lot of the same places as Buddy Holly's last tour. We played the dancehall in Clearlake, Iowa, where Buddy was killed. Del Shannon was a really good guy; kind of crazy, but we had a lot of fun on that tour. We played on shows with a lot of other stars, but never really met many of them.
[Lance Monthly] How did it come about that the String-A-Longs recorded "Wheels" and who wrote it?
Keith McCormack Our first recording with Norman was "So Shy," written by my mother and me, [and] backed with "Dream Around You," written by my mother, Richard, and me. Norman, in exchange for a management contract, placed us on Imperial Records. One of the benefits of the contract was [that] we didn't have to pay for sessions anymore. Doesn't seem too beneficial, now that I look at it, when "So Shy" and the flip cost $150.00, whether [or not] it had taken three hours or three days. It took us three hours.
The record, however, didn't do well, so we went back a few months later to record another three or four songs. [I recall] recording, "Am I Asking Too Much," "For My Angel," [and] "Cute Little Frown," [which were] written by my mother and me. Norman went back to New York to try to place them on another label, [but] no luck. We [returned to the studio] three months later and recorded "The Big Fall," “Mean Woman," and "I'll Never Sing a Sad Song," [all] written by me, and "Mary Mary Quite Contrary," written by Bob Montgomery. Again, no luck [in Norman finding a label], so when the time came to [record] again, I developed a cold on the way to Clovis.
When we got there, I could hardly speak. As opposed to going back to Plainview without accomplishing anything, Norman suggested we record an instrumental. Richard and Jimmy had put together a little instrumental we had been playing at dances. It was called "Wheels." Norman had written one by the name of "Tell the World." He had tried to get the Fireballs to record it, but they didn't like it. Jimmy immediately got it. It was right up his alley. So, having two instrumentals recorded, we went back for the routine wait.
A couple months later, we got a letter from Norman in New York stating he had taken the liberty of changing our name to The String-A-Longs. He didn't feel The Leen Teens was classy enough. We didn't see it [that way] at the time, but now I can see he was trying to direct us toward being an instrumental group with a soft sound [doing] instrumental covers of big pop hits, which wasn't that bad of an idea. Of course we hated it, especially Don, having to play cardboard boxes.
A week or so later, Norman called us all over to Clovis and instructed us to bring our parents. When we got there he informed us that Warwick Records, subsidiary of the big film conglomerate Seven Arts, wanted to release the two instrumentals. He went on to say that they were shady and we might get screwed out of our royalties if it hit, and, he added, it will hit. Our parents threw a fit and said no. We pleaded with them for hours to co-sign because having a hit was better than having no hit at all, regardless of the possibility of getting cheated. We finally won. The record was released, but the labels had been switched. Now "Wheels" was "Tell the World" and vice versa.
Instead of recalling the records, they left it like it was, and Norman had to make up an agreement between Richard, Jimmy, and himself stating the mistake. So, "Wheels" was originally "Tell the World."
Aubrey deCordova I believe that Keith had a sore throat and couldn't sing, so we recorded a couple of instrumentals. Jim and Richard had one that they were messing with ("Wheels") and Norman had one ("Tell the World") he suggested we do. The record company actually pressed the labels on the wrong side, so that Norman's song became "Wheels" and Jim and Richard's became "Tell the World." So Norman wrote the song, but we named it, as Jim and Richard hadn't named their song until the night after we recorded it. So the short answer is that Norman wrote the song that is now known as "Wheels."
[Lance Monthly] How high did "Wheels" chart nationally, and did The String-A-Longs earn much in the way of royalties for it?
Keith McCormack When they released the record, both sides took off and we thought both sides were going to hit. The record company was greedy, so they decided to split it into two records. The only things we had in the can were vocals. They put "Am I Asking Too Much" on the flip of "Wheels" and "For My Angel" on the flip of "Tell the World." "Tell the World" died shortly thereafter, but "Wheels" went to number two on the US charts and was number one in every country except Germany. Billy Vaughn's version was number one there. After the record peaked, we quickly recorded an album called Pick a Hit, which charted and included "Brass Buttons," written by Norman and was released as a single that got into the top 30. After that, it was " Should I," a cover of an old ‘40s hit.
Time came for payday and guess what? Warwick had no money to pay us, The Fireballs, Johnny and The Hurricanes, and all the other artists. We were on the New York court docket for nine years awaiting a judgment for somewhere around $500,000.00. The dockets were just getting more crowded, so some judge finally threw it out. Out of all the hits we had with Warwick, the only money we got was our hotel bill being paid in New York when we went on the first promo tour, which, of course, was free gratis on our part. We played as many as four or five sock hops a day in and around New York State.
Aubrey deCordova I believe that it made number three on Billboard or Cashbox; I can't remember which one it went the highest on. I think that we got two advances of $5000, of which Norman got 50%, but we might have just gotten one advance; I can't remember for sure. If we did get two advances, Norman only paid us for the first one ($500 each) and kept the second one for us in the agency. He was pretty good at taking care of our money for us--so good that we hardly ever saw any of it. Anyway, then the record company (Warwick) went bankrupt, and that was it for "Wheels."
[Lance Monthly] What is your take on Norman? Do you believe that he was fair in his business dealings with The String-A-Longs? Who was the spokesman for the group?
Keith McCormack Norman was not fair to anyone. He was a musical genius and very creative, though stubborn. He could have had even more hits had he been willing to follow the trends a little closer; however, the hits he did have were giants. "Wheels" and "Sugar Shack" were the biggest ones and became classics. Buddy Holly made a lot of those songs huge and, of course, the influences that Buddy had over the music world is phenomenal.
Norman had an apartment in the back of the studio. He would allow "privileged" people to stay there while they recorded, but you had to hoe weeds and mow the grass, empty the garbage, and wax and polish the green plants that Vi, Norman's wife, had everywhere. One day Norman asked Buddy and his band to meet him in the back of the studio. This was after "That'll be the Day" and "Oh Boy." He handed Buddy a rake and asked him to rake some weeds. Buddy literally threw it back to him and said, "I've made you enough money, so hire someone else to do it." That was the start of a downward spiral of their relationship.
Anyway, this is just an example of how he treated his artists. When we would come from Plainview to record, he would make us sit in the car for hours waiting for him to come down and let us in. He had outhouses out behind the studio for us to use . . . winter or summer. NO! Norman was not fair to anyone. He bought jewelry stores, radio stations, and spent a ton on a new studio that was hardly recorded in while the artists went without.
Norman never wanted an artist to be big. I know for a fact he turned down the Perry Como Show and several overseas tours for The String-A-Longs. He did this with several other groups. He would play one artist against another. He would [even] release you and then take you back within a day. Personally, I think he walked that thin line between a genius and an idiot. Some days he would be on one side of the line, the next day on the other.
Aubrey deCordova I don't think we ever had an official spokesman. Richard and Keith both acted as spokesman on stage at different times. As for Norman, he had everything rigged to benefit Norman. Our contract with him gave him 50% of all record royalties, and an additional 10% of our 50% to manage our money for us, plus he had all publishing rights of everything we did. All monies were to be paid into the agency and Norman would dole it out to us to "keep us from blowing it." The only problem was there wasn't much doling out. Our contract was for five years with a five-year option. But he could break it with us for about any reason he chose, [and] we were stuck for ten years.
We paid all our expenses on tours, yet he got 50% of record sales. He would not let us buy a new station wagon to tour in, but made us take my car on our first promotion tour and then sold us his four-year-old station wagon for an inflated price. We were under age, and he had our power of attorney, so I don't really know what all went on, but I know we had a record that was a hit all over the world, and received very little money for it.
I could go on and on, but I do give Norman credit for being very talented, and without him, we probably would never have sold a record. I think that is the way he looked at it also, and thought we were lucky to get what we got. I think that Norman truly believed that he was such a good person and would make better use of the money than we would. We drank, smoked, and chased women, so as a good Baptist, Norman felt we didn't need or deserve the money. That is just what I have come to believe, after thinking about it over the years.
[Lance Monthly] Was Norman treated as a high-profile celebrity in Clovis because of his numerous successes?
Keith McCormack Norman was probably respected to a certain extent because of his huge successes, but I was never under the impression he was liked. I don't think he had a lot of friends, but I know he wouldn't [have] cared. In the beginning, he was very respected in the industry, but toward the end I'm told, he couldn't get an appointment with hardly anyone in the business. I don't want to sound so totally against Norman. If I could write a book there would certainly be some favorable things said for the man.
Aubrey deCordova I can't ever remember thinking of Norman as a celebrity and it doesn't seem like he was ever regarded with awe or as a celebrity in Clovis. I know that we [The String-A-Longs] didn't seem to be. I don't believe that I ever signed an autograph in Clovis. It's like Clovis was unaware of what was going on in that little studio out on 5th street.
[Lance Monthly] After the success of "Wheels," what other recordings and releases did the group produce?
Keith McCormack After Warwick put everyone off for so long, then finally cried bankruptcy, Norman found us a new home with Dot Records. We released several records with "Mathilda" and "My Blue Heaven" bubbling under the charts. Dot re-released the same old album under different covers several times. Norman had a habit of getting with one record company and putting every artist on it, so I was on Dot with my vocals, as well as all the other artists. I don't think we made enough money from Dot to worry about getting paid so . . . who knows. Ace Records from the UK put out a CD [reissue] a few years ago of most everything the String-A-Longs had. "Am I Asking Too Much" was released on a CD called Fabulous Flips.
[Lance Monthly] You indicated that mechanics’ royalties from the labels were slim to none from your hits. Surely, you received some fat BMI performance royalties for being the author of the Fireballs’ smash hit, "Sugar Shack."
Keith McCormack Dick, yes . . . let's all applaud BMI. If it wasn't for BMI, I don't know what I would have done all these years. BMI has always been good to me. I've never called them (I've called a lot too) and [I’ve] been treated with the up most respect. I joined BMI in 1957. [It’s] the greatest organization in the world, in my opinion. As far as mechanicals go, I never really made a lot from Norman. I'm not saying he shorted me. The money that comes from sales of a record is really not much. The performance pay is where it's at for a writer.
[Lance Monthly] Keith, here’s a question from one of your fans: "Keith, since you wrote the number one song of the year ‘Sugar Shack,’ why didn’t you ever do it instrumentally? For that matter, why didn’t you ever release the song [with you doing the vocal] . . . at least, [on] the demo that Gilmer picked up on?" ("Duke of the Discs" - George Feist of Fresno, California)
Keith McCormack In answer to George Feist of Fresno, it was done instrumentally by Percy Faith and Lawrence Welk. It was [also] covered by the Safaris. It's been in several movies (Jimmy Gilmer's and The Fireball's version) and it was a country hit by a country artist. In 1990, a girl from Jamaica had a version with steel drums. I messed around with it a couple [of] different times in the studio in California and with Norman Petty, however it just didn't come off. Thank you, George, for the interest.
[Lance Monthly] So what’s the history around "Sugar Shack?" How did you come about writing it, Keith?
Keith McCormack I wrote Sugar Shack one early morning after cruising until about four in the morning. My aunt was up drinking coffee, and watching television, [and] I started fooling around with the song. I couldn't remember what they called the tight pants (leotards), so I asked my aunt. She told me, so I told her she was part writer of a song. I put the song on tape a few weeks later along with [some] others and sent it to Norman. He played it for Jimmy Gilmer and Jimmy liked it.
[Lance Monthly] So how did The String-A-Longs finally make its break from Petty? Did he dismiss the group unceremoniously? In addition, when did The String-A-Longs break up and in what direction did each band member go after the group’s demise?
Keith McCormack In 1963 we (The String-A-Longs) had had it. We were broke. I tried to rescue the situation by going to California and trying to find a new manager while the name was still lukewarm. I found a guy that used to play with the Champs, a well-known instrumental group from the late fifties. His name was Bob Morrison. He supposedly had a tie in with Fender, and he had a studio in Chino we could record in. I thought this might be the answer, so after begging and pleading, I talked all the guys into coming out and giving it a try.
I remember they all came out on the train. Bob took us to the studio and we started trying some recording, but the studio wasn't up to par and the Fender connection didn't come through. We were all living in a one-bedroom apartment in Hollywood and it wasn't going well. Soon Don and Aubrey went back. Jimmy had his French-Canadian girl with him, and they sort of went on their own.
Richard and I hitchhiked to Phoenix where Richard made a turn to Colorado Springs, and I went on back to Plainview. That was the breakup of the original group, but I was stubborn, so I tried to keep the group going. I pleaded with Norman to help. He was very indifferent and a lot of it was our fault because he knew what we had done in California. So with a drummer, formerly of the Fireballs, we attempted some more recordings. We tried a harder sound. We tried to cover the old "My Babe" and it was released on Dot, but nothing happened. We finally gave it up. By then, "Sugar Shack" had hit.
Jimmy Torres and I tried to get the group going again, but, by this time, Richard had gone back to Colorado Springs to get into real estate and Aubrey wanted to finish college. I sold vacuum cleaners and welded for a couple years, then Jimmy Torres and I somehow wound up in Corpus Christi playing for a club as the String-A-Longs. We had recorded a song called "Mary Ann Thomas" with John Sands, a player in the music business we had met locally in Plainview. "Mary Ann" actually started charting in and around the area of Corpus and it started bubbling under nationally.
Norman started threatening suit. He was in his rights, so we changed the name to The Strings of Fortune. The record finally fizzled. We were starving in Corpus, so we went back to Plainview. Before I knew it, Jimmy had gone to Dallas with his brothers and started playing clubs there. He called me and invited me to come. My brother was there working for Trans Texas Airways and Jimmy wanted him to play in the group too. I headed for Dallas. We played there for several months until we ran out of jobs. I went to work for the same people my brother had been working for, Trans Texas Airways.
After three or four months, George Tomsco of the Fireballs called and asked if I would take Jimmy Gilmer's place as lead singer for the group. I was in Clovis the next day. We rehearsed to get ready for a "Bottle of Wine" tour for a few weeks. My wife transferred from the company she was working for in Dallas to Lubbock, Texas, which was only a couple hours from Clovis. She and my son would come over on the bus to see me on the weekends. We only toured for about a year and the money was getting so bad George and Stan wanted to do something else entirely. I tried to convince them we should go into the club circuit. They refused, so I went to Lubbock and started selling vacuum cleaners again.
Six months later, George called and said he and Stan had gotten a local club job there and wanted me to join them. From there we wound up in Missouri where I played clubs with George and Stan until 1974. I got tired of Kansas City, so I got my own band and played in Springfield, until 1992. That's when I quit the club thing and put in a studio at home because my wife was handicapped with MS.
In 1999, I saw that I couldn't make it with the studio, so I decided to capitalize on a skill that I had gotten through the years of flying. I sold out and came to Prescott, Arizona, and started flight instruction at a flight school. Aubrey is now retired from Bell telephone, [which] he joined when he graduated from college. Richard is still in Colorado Springs selling real estate. Don Allen is still in Plainview doing carpenter work. I've been out of touch with Jimmy, but he was in Oregon last time I talked with him in 1999.
I still write a little and I keep in touch with George and Stan. They are in Raton, as you know, and do a few gigs a year. I'm in the process of moving to Texas in the Corpus Christi area. I've been working on a novel, and I'm "semi-retiring" and leaving the aviation business. I'm planning on setting my studio up wherever I light. I'll still be writing songs and I would love to find a garage band to produce. I don't really have a lot of hope of doing much commercially, but with some royalties, social security, and some luck, I'll be able to take care of my wife and create. My wife has put up with me for 43 years and always put my musician plans first, and now it's her turn to be put first.
Dick, I haven't mentioned the little two-year thing with George, Stan, and me as [a band called] Colorado. Legally I couldn't sing as a Fireball on recordings, but I could sing with them on the road, so George, Stan and I went to Hollywood and recorded a total of six sides for Uni Records. We almost made it with "Country Comfort," which was a cover from an Elton John album. When ours came out, it started doing well in the secondary market, so they suddenly re-released Elton John's. Rex Allen Jr. put out a version as well as Rod Stewart. I think the program directors got confused. They didn't know which one to play so they just didn't play any.
Aubrey deCordova We never really made a break from Norman. We just kind of stopped recording after our releases got less and less play, and we all kind of went our separate ways. We did get together once in a while for the next two or three years when we would get a good gig and also booked a tour on our own in Canada. As for what we did: I returned to college [and], Keith kept playing and toured with the Fireballs after Jimmy Gilmer left. Jim kept playing off and on, but I kind of lost touch with him (no one was able to find him for the reunion this past summer). Richard married and started a family. Don stayed in Plainview, never married, and had lots of problems with drugs and booze. He still lives there and is a yardman. His time in the String-A-Longs was about the only successful part of his life, and it is still very important to him.
[Lance Monthly] What is your take on the mainstream music of today, and do you think guitar instrumentals will shine once again like it did in the late '50s and the early '60s?
Keith McCormack Dick, for the most, I love today's music. I like rock 'n' roll mostly, but I like some of the country. With the exception of "Everlast," I just don't care for rap, hip-hop, etc. I've been thinking instrumentals will make a comeback for years, but the more time that passes the more doubtful I am. I would love to see it happen. I've been a vocalist, and a lyric and melody writer, but I would love to see the charts sprinkled with instrumentals. I'm sure there are [instrumental] albums being sold that I don't know of. Kenny G. is great.
Aubrey deCordova I don't have much regard for the mainstream music of today, and don't think guitar instrumentals will ever make a comeback. It is kind of amazing to me when I think of all the instrumentals that were on the charts back then. It would be neat, but I don't look for it to happen.
[Lance Monthly] Keith and Aubrey, thank you so much for this interview. I appreciate your straightforward, honest answers. Do you have any final thoughts?
Keith McCormack Dick, I want to reiterate my appreciation for your interest. Keep in touch, and email me occasionally and I will too.
Aubrey deCordova Yes. Even though we never made much money, I wouldn't take for the experience. As an 18-year-old kid, I got to see lots of country that I would never have seen. We toured the East Coast, the Midwest and Canada and stayed in New York City twice for two to three weeks each time. We were on American Bandstand twice and played the Steel Pier in Atlantic City. I feel very lucky to have had the experience and the small amount of fame for the short time that we enjoyed it. All in all, it was a lot of fun and a great experience.
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