On This Day #36 – Don Law

Don LawOn This Day ……

On December 20, 1982, Don Law, producer, died in La Marque, Galvaston, Texas.

Don Law was the producer of some exceptional recordings by stellar bluegrass acts Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys and Jim & Jesse and the Virginia Boys.

Born in West Ham, London, England, on February 24, 1902, Donald Firth Law sang with the London Choral Society as a young man, at the same time as developing an early fascination for the USA and becoming predisposed towards American roots music.

Law emigrated to the USA in 1924 after holding various jobs overseas, including work in Poland. He eventually wound up in Dallas, Texas, and started working as a bookkeeper for Brunswick Records but gradually moved into A&R work.

In 1931 Brunswick was bought by the American Record Corporation (ARC).This led to Law to work for Art Satherley, who would become his mentor.

In 1938 (the year that ARC was acquired by CBS), he recorded San Antonio Rose with Bob Wills for Columbia.

In 1942 Law was called to Columbia’s New York office to oversee the children’s music division, but his time in that position didn’t last long. From 1945 until Satherley’s retirement in 1952, Law took over Columbia’s country division, although it is thought that Law may have continued to report to Satherley. In 1945 Columbia divided its country music department, with Law supervising the territory east of El Paso, Texas, and Satherley supervising territory west of El Paso.

At first, Law focused much of his activity on Dallas, where he recorded at the Jim Beck Studio. However, in 1956, Law turned more of his attention to Nashville, where he helped build the city into the music centre that it is today.

In the Fall of 1950 Don Law offered Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs, then with Mercury Records, a contract with Columbia Records, which the duo accepted.

The Old Home Town - Flatt & ScruggsTheir first session for the label was on November 21, 1950, and the duo, assisted by Curly Seckler, Benny Sims and Charles Johnson, aka Little Jody Rainwater, waxed six songs. These included The Old Home Town, I’ll Stay Around and We Can’t Be Darlings Anymore.

The partnership, lasting through to May 1967, went on to produce innumerable outstanding recordings and to take bluegrass music to a higher level of popularity. They recorded songs like Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’, Get in line Brother, Mother Prays So Loud In Her Sleep, Blue Ridge Cabin Home, Some Old Day, Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down, Angel Band, Take Me In Your Lifeboat, If I Should Wander Back and instrumentals such as Earl’s Breakdown, Flint Hill Special, Randy Lynn Rag, Foggy Mountain Special and Shuckin’ the Corn.

Additionally, they enjoyed great chart success with singles ‘Tis Sweet to be Remembered and Cabin In the Hills [both peaking at #9 on the Billboard best sellers chart]; Polka on a Banjo; Go Home; The Ballad of Jed Clampett [a #1 Country hit and a #44 Pop Chart hit early in 1963], Pearl, Pearl, Pearl; and You Are My Flower.

The Foggy Mountain Boys during this period included ‘Howdy’ Forrester, Benny Martin, Paul Warren, ‘Buck’ Graves and Jake Tullock.

Flatt and Scruggs stayed with Columbia Records until they disbanded in 1969.

However, Don Law continued to work with Scruggs during sessions for the Earl Scruggs Review, the band that he formed with his sons.

Jim & Jesse McReynoldsNot only were Satherley and Law instrumental in the recording careers of the so-called bluegrass Holy Trinity, Law took on one of the other great early bluegrass bands, Jim & Jesse and the Virginia Boys.

After representations were made on their behalf, Don Law signed Jim and Jesse McReynolds on the December 1, 1960, and within a week they were all together in a recording studio.

With Law at the helm, Jim and Jesse recorded 26 songs/tunes for Columbia and then its subsidiary label Epic. This working arrangement lasted for a little over two years and in this period they recorded Gosh, I Miss You All the Time, Ira Louvin’s Stormy Horizons and two songs that featured the twin banjos of Allen Shelton and Don McHan; Beautiful Moon Of Kentucky and My Empty Arms.

In March 1967 he was forced to take mandatory retirement from Columbia. However, some Columbia artists were allowed to continue working with Law as an independent producer at his Don Law Productions company.

When Art Satherley heard Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper, who were with Rich-R-Tone at the time, he dispatched Fred Rose, who was working as a talent scout for Columbia, to their base in Wheeling, West Virginia, and on 26 April, 1948, they signed a deal promising a minimum of six sides.

Walking My Lord Up Calvary Hill - Wilma Lee and Stoney CooperUltimately, they recorded 23 sides for Satherley, beginning on 8 April, 1949, and 15 for Don Law – during three sessions ending with that on 28 December, 1953. Among the songs that they recorded are Willie Roy (The Crippled Boy), Thirty Pieces of SilverLegend of the Dogwood Tree, Walking My Lord Up Calvary Hill, The West Virginia Polka, The White Rose, Moonlight on West Virginia, I Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow and Are you Walking and A-Talking for the Lord.  In all the company released 21 singles.

Law recorded blues legend Robert Johnson’s entire 29-song body of work direct to disc in a San Antonio hotel room in November 1936 and in a Dallas warehouse in June 1937.

He died 20 December, 1982, in La Marque, Galveston, Texas, at the age of 80.

He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001.

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics.

A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe.

He wrote the annotated series I’m On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.