OUTSIDE OF Roy Orbison and the Gatlin Brothers, BILL MYRICK (Aug. 6, 1926 – March 12, 2011) is probably the most significant music figure in the history of Odessa. Myrick relocated to Odessa on the advice of a prospective employer, Hank Williams, and he’d already spent time in Bill Monroe’s band and on the Louisiana Hayride before relocating with wife and daughter to Odessa in 1948, where he took a steady job as a motorcycle cop. Myrick, who’d previously formed the first bluegrass band in Texas, became known across West Texas as “the Singing Policeman,” although his activities extended beyond performing to radio and concert promotion. Myrick had significant Nashville connections via his career as a performer and disc jockey, and was instrumental in the careers of Orbison, Buddy Holly, Patsy Cline and Elvis Presley. Early in his career, Presley performed frequently in Odessa and other West Texas towns and received his first significant radio airplay via Myrick’s Pioneer Jamboree, which was both a live monthly Grand Ole Opry-style event and the name of Myrick’s radio program on KOSA. Myrick had known Presley from their days with the Louisiana Hayride and was a lifelong supporter of the Memphis phenom. Myrick has been credited with jump-starting rockabilly via his early-on promotion of Presley’s cover of Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” According to Myrick’s daughter, former Miss Texas Belinda Myrick, her dad took Elvis to the Ector Theater (where my mother worked when she was in high school) to see Jailhouse Rock, Presley’s first starring role. After working with Bob Wills, Rex Allen and rising star Jimmy Dean, Myrick, who looms large in SONY/RCA historian Ernst Jorgensen’s tale of “the lost year” of Presley’s career rise, eventually left the music business and put in 30 years with Big Three Industries. After retirement, Myrick produced the NPR bluegrass program Silvergrass and Purple Sage.
AL PERKINS was born in DeKalb Jan. 18, 1944, but spent his childhood and teen years in Odessa, where he was considered a child prodigy of the steel guitar. In 1958, Perkins’ parents purchased him the first Fender 1000 series pedal steel guitar, which, according to Perkins, at the tender age of 14 “placed me in demand by all the Country & Western groups.” Perkins was so good as a young teen, in fact, that his parents allowed him to travel by himself by train to Los Angeles to appear on a radio program. Perkins played professionally in numerous West Texas bands while still in high school and was discovered by Mickey Jones and Kenny Rogers of the First Edition about the time he entered the military. After leaving the service in 1970, Perkins joined East Texas band Shiloh, which also included future Eagle Don Henley. After a relocation to California, Perkins immediately caught on with an incarnation of the Flying Burrito Brothers and was featured on their live album The Last of the Red Hot Burritos in 1972. Along with Chris Hillman, Perkins joined Stephen Stills’ ensemble Manassas. During that period he played steel guitar on the Rolling Stones’ classic Exile on Main Street and on the Eagles’ mega-hit album On the Border (1974). Perkins moved into studio production and sessions in the latter half of the ’70s. He moved to Nashville in 1986 to join Dolly Parton’s touring band. Perkins reunited with Emmylou Harris, whom he recorded with in Los Angeles on a couple of Gram Parson’s projects, and they formed the Nash Ramblers. Perkins won a Grammy (he has three) in 1992 for the Nash Ramblers recording Live at the Ryman. He moved into Christian music in the 2000s, but also continues to play secular music with the HiPower Band. The Gibson guitar company refers to Perkins as the most influential dobro player in the world and has produced an Al Perkins signature model since 2001.
LARRY GATLIN and brothers Steve and Rudy were relatively famous in Odessa long before Larry was imported to Nashville by country star Dottie West. In fact, due to his pitch-perfect falsetto voice, Larry annually sang the lead part in the Christmas production Amahl and the Night Visitors. At the time, he and his brothers were also singing as a vocal group in church and cut a gospel album for the Sword and Shield label. After college at the University of Houston, where he played football, Larry became part of a well-known gospel group, the Imperials. Dottie West spotted Gatlin in Las Vegas in 1971 when the Imperials were performing as part of a Jimmy Dean package show. West was impressed with Gatlin’s ability at writing commercial country tunes and recorded two of his songs. She also bought Gatlin a ticket to Nashville and began to circulate a demo tape to record labels. Gatlin became a backup singer for Kris Kristofferson and snagged his own recording contract with Monument Records in 1973, releasing his first official album The Pilgrim. While neither single from the album charted, Elvis Presley recorded Gatlin’s “Bitter They Are, Harder They Fall.” In 1974, Gatlin’s second record Rain/Rainbow found paydirt with the single “Delta Dirt,” vaulting Gatlin into the national consciousness for the first time, and in 1975 his first true hit, “Broken Lady,” reached No. 14 on the charts; the song brought Gatlin his first Grammy in 1977. He scored his first No. 1 hit in 1978 with “I Just Wish You Were Someone I Love,” and had two other tunes, “I’ve Done Enough Dyin’ Today” and “Night Time Magic” reach the Top 10. Gatlin’s brothers had made appearances on his albums, but in 1979 Gatlin moved to Columbia Records and began to bill the act as Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers. The brothers released Straight Ahead in 1979, which contained the biggest hit of their career, “All the Gold in California.” The tune went to No. 1, and the album was certified gold in mid-1980. Gatlin won the Academy of Country Music’s Top Male Vocalist award in 1980. The band’s popularity peaked between 1980 and 1984 as they recorded numerous charting songs, many written by Larry. In 1983 they recorded their last No. 1 hit, “Houston (Means I’m One Day Closer to You).” The brothers also sang the National Anthem prior to game 3 of the 1989 World Series; before the game could begin, San Francisco was hit with a massive earthquake, and the game was delayed 10 days. But by then the Gatlins’ star had begun to wane as neo-traditionalist acts like Dwight Yoakam and Randy Travis ascended to the top of the genre and shoved the countrypolitan sound onto the ash heap of music history. The brothers undertook a farewell tour in 1992 before “retiring” to their own club in Myrtle Beach, Fla. Larry has most recently been seen on Fox News as an informal commentator.
After bouncing around East Texas as a picker in Jim Reeves’ band, as a song-polisher for the infamous Jack Rhodes, and after several recording sessions with stellar bands that just never went anywhere, FREDDIE FRANK moved to Odessa looking for action and a place to play what he called true hillbilly music. His former bandmates, fiddler extraordinaire Red Hayes and steel guitar virtuoso Al Petty, also followed Frank to Odessa, where they formed a band that, in spite of only slight recording success, found a happy hunting ground in the high-energy honky tonks of the booming oil town. Frank had already had record deals with the Abbott and Starday labels, but nothing ever really hit, although Gene Vincent recorded Frank’s tune “Five Days, Five Days.” Frank also recorded a ripping version of “Trying to Be My Baby,” but after cutting two sides for Starday in Beaumont, Frank migrated to Odessa and, with noted Abilene disc jockey, performer and songwriter Slim Willet, formed the Permian label. Permian released three Frank singles, “This Old Rig,” “I’m a Tool Pusher from Snyder” and “Another Woman Looking for a Man.” One listen to Frank’s singles supports the idea that Odessa was an important incubator for the raucous new rockabilly sound and that Frank was on the cutting edge of it.
When it comes to steel guitar players, before there was Al Perkins there was AL PETTY. Petty worked for the Potts music store, where he sold instruments, sheet music and guitar lessons. Petty was not yet 21 when 9-year-old Perkins became a student. Petty recognized Perkins’ talent and ear and began to give him private instruction. Petty played steel in Bill Myrick’s country ensemble and would frequently allow young Perkins to sit in with Myrick’s seasoned veterans. Originally from Overton in the Big Thicket, Petty was, like Freddie Frank, in Jack Rhodes’ sphere of musical influence and played with both Frank and Rhodes. Starday issued two of Petty’s instrumentals, “Al’s Steel Guitar Wobble” and “Steel Mill,” which reveal some of the earliest psychedelic possibilities of the instrument and demonstrate Petty’s way-ahead-of-his-time virtuosity. After some years in Odessa working at the music store and in bands like Frank’s, Petty met Leo Fender and moved to California to manage the amplifier production line for a number of years. He returned to performing after California and eventually relocated to Overton, where he invented the Guitarchestra, an odd contraption that had over 20 pedals and has been described as “more complicated than a synthesizer.” Petty spent years trying to promote interest in his invention; only two were made, and he sold none, although he did play the instrument on a segment of Jim Bakker’s PTL Club televangelical program. Relocating back to Overton, he began to record and perform under the alias “Al Perry” and released a few sides with the Rainbow Riders. A consummate schemer and egomaniac, when he finally gave up on the Guitarchestra ever being a financial success, Petty invented a telemarketing pyramid scheme called Telecom 2000 that took in over $16 million before the FBI stepped in. Petty eventually got a 292-month sentence in federal prison, where he died on Memorial Day, 2017.
LARRY HENLEY was born in Arp, Texas, but grew up in Odessa. While Henley initially found success as the singer for a Shreveport, La., ensemble called the Newbeats, he would go on to be a highly respected Nashville songwriter. Henley auditioned as vocalist for the Newbeats in 1964. “Bread and Butter,” co-written by Odessan Larry Parks from Roy Orbison’s band, went to No. 2 on the pop music charts and has since been used in numerous movie soundtracks. The Newbeats toured Australia in 1965 as part of “The Big Beat,” a package tour that included Orbison and the Rolling Stones. The Newbeats were never a close-knit group, and Henley eventually left the band after one more charting single. In Nashville, Henley quickly adapted to the practice of co-writing, with his first major song being “’Til I Get It Right,” a co-write with Nashville veteran Red Lane sung by Tammy Wynette. The tune was also covered by Barbra Streisand and Kenny Rogers. A succession of hits rolled off Henley’s pen: “Is It Still Over?” (Randy Travis); “Lizzie and the Rainman” (Tanya Tucker); and “He’s a Heartache (Lookin’ for a Place to Happen)” (Janie Fricke). Henley also wrote “Shotgun Rider” (Delbert McClinton); “You’re Welcome to Tonight” (Lynne Anderson, Gary Morris); and “The World Needs a Melody” (Carter Family with Johnny Cash). But outside of “Bread and Butter,” Henley is best remembered for the Bette Midler smash hit “Wind Beneath My Wings.” The Midler version, originally recorded in 1982 by Roger Whittaker, has received over 6 million radio spins. Henley was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2012. He passed Dec. 18, 2014, in Nashville and is buried in Gilmer, Texas.
LONG JOHN HUNTER wasn’t originally an Odessan. Born in Louisiana, Hunter was already fully grown when a chance B.B. King concert convinced him to take up guitar while living in Beaumont. He soon became such a showman he was called to Houston, where Don Robey cut some sides for Duke-Peacock. But Hunter eventually found a home in Juarez, where he ruled the town from the stage of the Lobby Bar. Hunter became such a draw and celebrity, the owners of the Lobby hired body guards (possibly handlers) and put him on an expense account. Hunter became known for grabbing the rafters and swinging while playing guitar with his other hand. For part of his stint on the border, Hunter partnered with Houston wild man and blues legend Little Joe Washington. When the Lobby closed, Hunter hung on in El Paso for a few years and cut an album for the Boss label that went nowhere. He relocated to Odessa in 1985, where he put together a crack band that played all over West Texas. While in Odessa, he cut Ride With Me (the joke is that Hunter, like Albert King, always insisted on driving his tour RV) for the Spindletop label in 1993. The album received national attention, but Spindletop also folded. Along the way, Hunter came to the attention of Chicago label Alligator Records, who released Swinging from the Rafters in 1997. The album resulted in mountains of critical praise, which brought invitations to the Chicago Blues Festival and a slew of international tour dates. The label reissued Ride With Me in 1998, and Hunter followed in 1999 with Lone Star Shootout, which featured Hunter dueling with Lonnie Brooks and Phillip Walker. Hunter eventually parted ways with Alligator and moved to Phoenix. He made two more albums in the 2000s, the last in 2009. Hunter died in Phoenix on Jan. 4, 2016.