Marvin Rainwater: Rock’n’roller who led the US invasion of 1950s Britain

 

In April 1958 Marvin Rainwater was one of the first American rock’n’roll stars to tour the UK, and when he came on stage at the Liverpool Empire he wore his buckskins and beaded headband, admittedly with only one feather.

He joked to the audience, “I get more money if I say I’m bringing my band on stage,” and he commented on the weather. “A lot of people say I brought the rainwater with me. They ought to be glad that my name’s not Hailstones.” Feeble stuff to be sure, but these were different times. A contemporary review in Melody Maker said that Rainwater, in his 30s, was “too old to rock”, but he was still performing his UK No 1, “Whole Lotta Woman”, 50 years later.

He was born in Wichita, Kansas to Percy and Sally Rainwater in 1925. He was raised in Oklahoma and although he loved country music he played classical music on the piano. After injuring his right thumb in an accident he switched to guitar. During the Second World War Rainwater was in the navy and he sang country songs to entertain his colleagues. On demob he wanted to be a professional musician and his friends called him “Starvin’ Marvin”.

When Hank Williams died on New Year’s Day 1953, Rainwater made a tribute record, “Heart’s Hall Of Fame”, which was released on Williams’ record label, MGM. “The president of MGM thought that I sounded like Hank Williams,” Rainwater told me during a UK tour in 1996, “and he took me under his wing. He wanted me to sing like Hank but I had to be myself.”

Rainwater had success on a TV talent show hosted by Arthur Godfrey in 1955 and the song he wrote and performed, “I Gotta Go Get My Baby”, became a pop hit for Teresa Brewer. In 1957 he wrote and recorded the infectious “Gonna Find Me A Bluebird”, which became a country music standard with over 100 different recordings. He recorded a duet with Connie Francis (“The Majesty Of Love”) and he helped his cousin, Brenda Lee Rainwater, start her career as Brenda Lee. Left to his own devices, Rainwater’s records could be astonishingly eccentric – he’s whinnying on “Albino Stallion” and yelping on “Tennessee Hound Dog Yodel”, but the prize must go to the combination of distorted vocal effects and Link Wray’s guitar on “Boo Hoo” (1961). Rainwater was certainly a one-off, though that might not be a recommendation.

Inspired by rock’n’roll, Rainwater recorded the beaty “Whole Lotta Woman” in 1958 but several radio stations would not play it because they considered it sexually explicit. The BBC, known at the time for preserving standards, let it through and the single, which only had limited success in America, topped the UK charts for three weeks in April 1958. “It wasn’t dirty at all,” Rainwater told me. “That song was just how I felt about women. They are beautiful and wonderful and marvellous.” He added that it had taken him years of hard work to become an overnight sensation.

When Rainwater topped the bill on a UK variety tour in 1958 the promoter emphasised his American Indian ancestry. “It wasn’t quite true,” said Rainwater, “I’ve got a little bit of Cherokee blood in me and I got into all kinds of problems when promoted as a full-blooded Indian chief, which was ridiculous. Just look at me. I’ve got blue eyes and all American Indians have brown eyes. Everyone was getting mad at me and it wasn’t a problem of my doing.” Rainwater sometimes recorded songs which went with this image, including “Half-Breed” and the original version of “Indian Reservation”, both written by John D Loudermilk.

Unusually for a visiting American of the 1950s, Rainwater recorded in the UK and had a Top 20 hit with the beaty “I Dig You Baby”. Rainwater never consolidated his success in Britain or America, although he found himself in demand for rock’n’roll, rockabilly and country festivals. In 1970 he contracted throat cancer but his voice recovered and he continued to perform at festivals and on club dates. Rainwater was a strong believer in family life and had five great-great-grandchildren.

Marvin Karlton Rainwater, singer and songwriter: born Wichita, Kansas 2 July 1925; married three times (two sons, three daughters); died Aitkin, Minnesota 17 September 2013.

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