In this internet world it is almost impossible for a public figure to disappear from view, but, in less hi-tech times, that is what happened to the British country singer Houston Wells. For 30 years, country fans were asking, “Whatever happened to Houston Wells?” and not receiving any answers.
“When I left the music scene in the UK,” Wells told me in 2008, “I never dreamt that there would be much interest in what I had done. I certainly didn’t expect my old records to be reissued. I had never received any royalties and nobody told me that they were being reissued. I was surprised when my son Robert told me that they were out again in the UK.” As a result, Wells came out of retirement for a double CD, Then And Now: From Joe Meek To New Zealand.
He was born Andrew Smith in 1932 in East Woodburn, a small village 40 miles north of Newcastle upon Tyne. His mother’s family was Irish and he joined in family sing-songs, learning the traditional songs. He began work for the Forestry Commission, married and started a family. In 1958 he moved to Canada and became a lumberjack. When his marriage broke up he joined his brother in Wickford and began singing in Leigh-on-Sea, forming Andy Smith and the Marksmen. He acquired a manager, Terry McGrath, who placed him with the maverick producer Joe Meek.
Working as an independent, Meek leased his product to the major labels and although EMI was interested in Andy Smith, they didn’t care for the name. “They told me that there were too many Andys around,” said Wells, “They gave me a choice of Houston Wells or Chuck Wells, and I wasn’t having Chuck.” The transformation was complete: an American name, an American sound and the look of a riverboat gambler.
The first single, released on Parlophone in 1962, was “This Song Is Just For You”, and within the first 20 seconds there were echo-drenched guitars, changes in tempo, high notes and yodels. It was an impressive début, although Record Mirror described it as a “nasal whiner”. The follow-up “North Wind”, though not a big seller, sounded like Frankie Laine on speed with a rock backing.
Wells made the Top 30 for the first and only time with his third Parlophone single, “Only The Heartaches”, but both that and “Above And Beyond” (1966) were Top 10 singles in Ireland, and Meek produced an album, Western Style (1964). “Joe was nuts about country music,” said Wells, “but we could hardly recognise ourselves. We sounded like the Chipmunks because he sped up the tracks and I could never understand why.”
Houston Wells and the Marksmen were regularly on tour, firstly on beat shows and then working with such country legends such as Jim Reeves, Hank Locklin and Johnny Cash. Although Houston Wells and the Marksmen was the UK’s top country band it was not lucrative, and he moved to Ireland and worked with a showband, the Premier Aces.
“I was struggling in England as country music was a hard sell back then. I was offered a job in a showband working around Ireland and it was regular money. I battled on for some time but I was replacing band members as their wives didn’t like them being away from home. It became ridiculous so I folded up the band and moved to New Zealand.” As none of his records had been released there he went back to logging and working with earth-moving machinery.
Smith’s hobby was shooting and he was part of the New Zealand team for the World Sporting Championships in 1996. “ I didn’t do as well as I wanted to as I did a silly thing,” he said. “I was having trouble with my gun and I changed it at the last minute. That was a mistake as I wasn’t used to it.” Smith considered his Houston Wells day were over but following the release of Then And Now he did perform in New Zealand. His final recording was a cover version of “Almost Persuaded” in 2012.
Andrew Smith (Houston Wells), musician: born Northumberland 25 February 1932; married Jean Jolley (marriage dissolved; five children), partner to Dorothy Kerr (three children); died Taupo, New Zealand 28 December 2013.