Bill Robbin & The Blue Jays – White Christmas

Pink 708

After this one popped up on the ol’ Christmas jukebox last night, I started thinking about who might be playing that funky organ. We had featured the flip, Rockin’ Bells, a couple of years ago and, after I posted it, Charlie Chalmers chimed in and told us that was him on sax. Way Cool! I mentioned the obvious Bill Black influence, and he told me it was really the other way around! Bill Robbin was actually a Memphis guitar player named Bill Robley, who had come up with that ‘pencil’ method of whacking the guitar strings with his band, The Blue Jays, and Bill Black saw it and brought the concept back to Reggie Young at Hi. I asked Reggie about Robley, and he said he’d never heard of him, which is entirely possible. Satch Arnold told us Bill Black had him and Reggie over to his house to practice the Smokie Part 2 riff before they cut it, and pretty much as soon as the record hit, Reggie was drafted and sent to Ethiopia.

Bobby Manuel then commented, “I’m pretty sure that’s Bill Robley on guitar playing or ‘slapping’ it with a pencil. He was the leader of Bill Robbin and the Blue Jays. He was a kind hearted guy who took time with a 13 year old kid trying to learn how to play… surely no one can take away from Reggie’s creativity and craftsmanship. He was and is the best and he taught us all.” As you all know, I’m right there with that.

Both sides of the record were given a (B) in Cash Box when it was released in November of 1960, agreeing that it was a ‘strong Bill Black Combo-flavored reading’ and had a ‘sound that will interest the kids’. There ya go. The review goes on to say that the Pink label was ‘handled’ by Ace Records, as in Johnny Vincent Imbragulio, Jackson Mississippi Ace Records? Hmmm…

I was able to get a hold of Charlie Chalmers again (bless his heart) and ask him about the personnel on this ‘sock-rock vehicle’, and he told me it was no small wonder that it sounds like a Bill Black record, because in addition to Robley on guitar and Bobby Stewart on bass, it features the aforementioned Jerry ‘Satch’ Arnold on drums and Carl McVoy on the organ – in other words, half of Bill’s combo! He went on to say that they cut the record at Hi which, in light of the fact that the record’s producer, Quinton Claunch, had recently left the company seemed nothing short of amazing.

Despite repeated attempts on our (and many others) part, no-one has ever gotten Quinton to talk about the actual circumstances of his departure. We spoke a little about all this in our Clarence Nelson investigation, and I’d like to feature an excerpt from the case here:

In Sweet Soul Music, Peter Guralnick says “By this time Claunch, to his eternal regret, had left Hi for a number of cogent reasons…” Huh? According to Colin Escott in Good Rockin’ Tonight“Claunch left Hi with considerable ill will on all sides in 1960 after he recorded a Bill Black sound-alike for another label.” Which is echoed on a Black Cat Rockabilly page where it goes on to say that “Carl McVoy bought Claunch’s share for $7000….” According to Colin Escott, “Cantrell and Claunch had something to do with Walter Maynard. …”

…Maynard had released a Christmas 45 on Robbin, featuring the same kind of ‘untouchable’ arrangement, this time called Rockin’ Bells… By then, Claunch’s name was printed plainly there on the label for all to see, so I imagine the final break with Hi (and the sale of his share in the label to Carl McVoy) must have come somewhere right around in here. It is also interesting to note that Pink (which had been originally distributed by Ember) was now a part of the Johnny Vincent Ace empire…

Let’s just pause here a moment and consider how important a figure Quinton Claunch really is. Perhaps the most independent of the ‘independent record men’, when he didn’t like the way things were going at Sun, he had no problem leaving Sam Phillips behind and starting up his own label with his friends. Then, as far as Hi Records is concerned, in the liner notes of The Complete Goldwax Singles Volume 1, Claunch says “I did not think things were moving along fast enough, so I moved on to some independent projects…”  I’m sure Quinton felt that what was good for the goose should have been good for the gander, and if it was OK for Cuoghi to lease copycat records to other labels, then his projects should have been given the green light as well. When they weren’t, he cashed in his chips and walked away. This idea that he was somehow ‘muscled out’ appears to be a misconception… one which Claunch has done little to dispel over the years. After all, why should he?

Why indeed. Quinton turned 99 on December 3rd. Imagine that… he said “When I reach 100, I’m gonna start over!” I’ll tell y’all what, if he makes it we’re gonna throw one hell of a party!

So, anyway, in light of all this, the question of how on earth Quinton could have cut this at Hi, in the midst of all that ‘considerable ill will’ appears to be answered. As part owner of the company, Carl McVoy was now calling the shots, and could do whatever he wanted… I can almost see the sardonic grin on Claunch’s face.

Merry Christmas, folks!

…and don’t forget to check out the red kelly Christmas Index – Ho-Ho-Ho!