Obituary: Charlie Feathers

MUCH HAS been made of the professional jealousy Salieri felt for his contemporary Mozart. A 20th-century equivalent is the way Charlie Feathers regarded Elvis Presley.

To hear him talk, you might think that Feathers created the rockabilly sound of the early Sun Records, gave Buddy Holly his hiccup, encouraged Carl Perkins to sing "Blue Suede Shoes", taught Jerry Lee Lewis how to play piano, and a whole lot more besides. Charlie Feathers was a legend in his own mind and if a reporter challenged his memories, he would say, "You do want this interview, don't you, boy?" Researchers have poured scorn on Feathers' claims but he was in Memphis at the crucial time, even if no one took much notice of him.

Feathers was born of Irish and Cherokee descent in 1932 into the rural community of Myrtle, just outside Holly Springs, Mississippi. He was influenced by the black babysitter who tended him as a child, and he learnt to play the guitar from a black sharecropper. After leaving school at the age of 10, in future years he could write little more than his name.

The family moved to Memphis and when Feathers was laying pipelines in 1949, his pipedreams took control and he determined to become a professional musician. He played in honky-tonk bars, but he also suffered for many months from spinal meningitis, which only strengthened his resolve.

Feathers befriended Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Records, and would have you believe that he took artist control of the label, "I brought Elvis to Sun Records in 1953, man. Not only did I get him there, but I got him doing rockabilly. Bill Monroe had done `Blue Moon of Kentucky' but I showed Elvis how to do it his way, so I arranged that record. I didn't play on it but I was at the controls." Feathers also claims to have played on Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes", but in truth, his sessions consisted of playing spoons for the Miller Sisters.

It was the steel guitarist Stan Kesler who wrote "I Forgot To Remember To Forget", yet Feathers, having recorded Elvis's demonstration record of it, also received a composing credit; he later claimed to have written the song around Kesler's title. "I Forgot To Remember To Forget" topped the US country charts for five weeks - 43 weeks, according to Feathers - and Elvis moved to RCA and international stardom.

"The Elvis I knew died in 1955," said Charlie glumly. "They didn't know how to record Elvis and I did. The band he had when he died was a dime a dozen band, and the Memphis Mafia wasn't his friends, they were just his bodyguards."

Elvis Presley's early success prompted Sam Phillips to start a country- music subsidiary, a non-union label, Flip, in early 1955. Feathers' first single was a intense country ballad, "I've Been Deceived", coupled with the bluegrass "Peepin' Eyes", but he wanted to sing up-tempo rockabilly music. "Rockabilly is hard to control because there's a lot of jumping up and down and a lot of highs and lows." Feathers told me in 1991, adding, "Buddy Holly would listen to me and he wanted to get on Sun, man. Then he went to Clovis, New Mexico and did `Peggy Sue'. A lot of people say we sound alike, but he heard me do the hiccup, so who copied who?"

Feathers sounds like Buddy Holly on speed. He sings faster, hiccups at a furious pace and goes into adenoidal whines. His whoops and hollers are often hysterically funny, though this was never his intention. After Sun Records, he recorded some key rockabilly sides for King Records including "Bottle To The Baby", "Everybody's Lovin' My Baby" and the frenzied "One Hand Loose", which features an intense exchange between Feathers and his lead guitarist. The song eventually became a rockabilly anthem and is as much about being free-spirited as it is about dancing.

Few of Charlie Feathers' records were released in the UK and none of his songs were picked up by the British beat groups of the early 1960s. He had poor management but his own reasons for lack of success would put conspiracy theorists to shame. He was ignored until the 1970s when some neo-rockabilly fans in the UK created a demand for his records. In 1969 he cut the classic rockabilly single, "Stutterin' Cindy", and in 1973 made the album, Good Rockin' Tonight, with his long-suffering son Bubba on lead guitar and his daughter, Wanda, on lead vocals.

Feathers came to the UK in 1977 for a concert at the Rainbow in London with Buddy Knox, Warren Smith and Jack Scott. He was used to small Memphis bars and he was so disturbed when he saw the size of the theatre that he threatened to return home. Bizarrely, he refused to rehearse, leaving the British musicians at a loss. Nevertheless, from the moment he stepped out with his white suit and silver-grey pompadour, he was treated as a sensation by the rock 'n' roll audience.

Feathers' vocals became even more eccentric with the years, and his glorious version of Jim Reeves' hit "He'll Have To Go" bears only a passing resemblance to the original. "Uh Huh Honey" on his 1991 album Charlie Feathers is, in its own way, every bit as outlandish as Yoko Ono's recordings. Feathers, incidentally, was in two minds about recording that album for Elektra's Nonesuch subsidiary. With a rare joke, he told me, "When it comes to payment, they're going to say there's none such company."

By then Charlie Feathers was a sick man. He had diabetic complications and he lost a lung through cancer. He continued to perform and make records for several more years. He never took the advice of his own record, "Defrost Your Heart" (1955), and his reminiscences grew more crotchety with the years.

Ignore the skewed history: "Tongue Tied Jill" (1956) and "Wild, Wild Party" (1961) are amongst the greatest rockabilly records. In keeping with his personality, his epitaph could be a line from "Wild, Wild Party" - "It was a wild party and I know I'm lucky to be alive." As Sam Phillips recalls, "Charlie Feathers was always difficult to work with and that's why we never got the best out of him. That's too bad because he could have been a superb top country artist, the George Jones of his day."

Charlie Arthur Feathers, singer, guitarist: born Holly Springs, Mississippi 12 June 1932; married (one son, one daughter); died Memphis, Tennessee 29 August 1998.

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Creep show: Tim Cockerill in ‘Spider House’

TVEnough to make ardent arachnophobes think twice

Arts and Entertainment
Steven, Ella Jade and Sarah in the boardroom
tvThe Apprentice contestants take a battering from the business mogul
Arts and Entertainment
TV Presenters Ant McPartlin and Dec Donnelly. Winners of the 'Entertainment Programme' award for 'Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway'
musicAnt and Dec confirmed as hosts of next year's Brit Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Jewel in the crown: drawings from ‘The Letter for the King’, an adventure about a boy and his mission to save a medieval realm
Arts and Entertainment
Juergen Wolf won the Young Masters Art Prize 2014 with his mixed media painting on wood, 'Untitled'
Arts and Entertainment
Iron Man and Captain America in a scene from
filmThe upcoming 'Black Panther' film will feature a solo black male lead, while a female superhero will take centre stage in 'Captain Marvel'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Imperial War Museum, pictured, has campaigned to display copyrighted works during the First World War centenary
Arts and Entertainment
American Horror Story veteran Sarah Paulson plays conjoined twins Dot and Bette Tattler
tvReview: Yes, it’s depraved for the most part but strangely enough it has heart to it
Arts and Entertainment
The mind behind Game of Thrones George R. R. Martin

Will explain back story to fictional kingdom Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Dorothy in Return to Oz

film Unintentionally terrifying children's movies to get you howling (in fear, tears or laughter)
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Robert James-Collier as under-butler Thomas

TVLady Edith and Thomas show sad signs of the time
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
The Dad's Army cast hit the big screen

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning?
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
    How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

    Turn your mobile phone into easy money

    There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes
    Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs:

    Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs

    "I have never regarded anything I have done in "the media" as a proper job"
    Lyricist Richard Thomas shares his 11-step recipe for creating a hit West End musical

    11-step recipe for creating a West End hit

    Richard Thomas, the lyricist behind the Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole Smith operas, explains how Bob Dylan, 'Breaking Bad' and even Noam Chomsky inspired his songbook for the new musical 'Made in Dagenham'
    Tonke Dragt's The Letter for the King has finally been translated into English ... 50 years on

    Buried treasure: The Letter for the King

    The coming-of-age tale about a boy and his mission to save a mythical kingdom has sold a million copies since it was written by an eccentric Dutchwoman in 1962. Yet until last year, no one had read it in English
    Can instilling a sense of entrepreneurship in pupils have a positive effect on their learning?

    The school that means business

    Richard Garner heads to Lancashire, where developing the 'dragons' of the future is also helping one community academy to achieve its educational goals
    10 best tablets

    The world in your pocket: 10 best tablets

    They’re thin, they’re light, you can use them for work on the move or keeping entertained
    Lutz Pfannenstiel: The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents

    Lutz Pfannenstiel interview

    The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents
    Pete Jenson: Popular Jürgen Klopp can reignite Borussia Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern Munich

    Pete Jenson's a Different League

    Popular Klopp can reignite Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern
    John Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

    Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

    The use of the British hostage demonstrates once again the militants' skill and originality in conducting a propaganda war, says Patrick Cockburn
    The killer instinct: The man who helps students spot potential murderers

    The killer instinct

    Phil Chalmers travels the US warning students how to spot possible future murderers, but can his contentious methods really stop the bloodshed?
    Clothing the gap: A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd

    Clothing the gap

    A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain

    The Fall of the Berlin Wall

    Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain