Obituary: Charlie Feathers

Spencer Leigh
Tuesday 08 September 1998 23:02

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.

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