On this day …
On August 17, 1926, Cecil Surratt was born in Premier, near Coalwood in McDowell County, West Virginia. He was one of eight children. There were about ten generations of guitar pickers on his father’s side.
So, it wasn’t any surprise that Surratt as a 12-year-old learned while at school and in church, and very soon he was invited by Lee Moore, the “old coffee-drinking night-hawk,” to sing on Radio WHIS in Bluefield. Two years later Surratt had his own show on Radio WBBW, in Welch. He had some early valuable experience on another West Virginia station, WWYO, also in Pineville.
While he continued to play music, up until entering the service he played semi-professional baseball for the Coalwood Robins, sponsored by the Olga Coal Co., for whom he worked on and off until his marriage in 1950.
While in the US Army Air Corps during World War II, he met mandolin player Lonnie Parsley, and by the late 1940s, music had become the main passion for Surratt.
In 1949 Surratt and Parsley recorded four Gospel songs for the Charleston-based M and L label, and four sides for jukebox operator Howard B King’s Howard label.
While these are all very obscure, less so are the two that Surratt did with his West Virginia Ramblers for Hobe Stanton’s Stanton’s renowned Rich-R-Tone label; The Bright Crystal Sea/Where Will You Spend Eternity (1059) at WOPI, Bristol, Tennessee in 1950. These were reissued as part of Rounder Records’ Early Days of Bluegrass series (Early Days of Bluegrass: Volume 5, The Rich-R-Tone Story Rounder 1017, released in March 1975) in and on CD; Bluegrass Early Cuts: 1931-1953 (JSP JSP-7731, 2004).
The Bright Crystal Sea is one of about ten songs known to have been written by Surratt ..
The group consisted of Surratt (singing lead) and Parsley (tenor), with a Coalwood fiddler Raymond Johnston, Cate Hall (bass fiddle), and Archie Day (baritone).
In a wider sense, Surratt’s big break came as a result of his appearances at the regular Saturday night dances at the Bluefield City Auditorium that led, in 1956, to him being hired as an MC for Channel Six, Bluefield, WHIS-TV. It was here that he began a long working relationship with King Edward “Smitty” Smith IV, a multi-instrumentalist and singer from Saltville, Virginia.
For several years he hosted his own daily programme, The RFD Jamboree; this was the forerunner of what would be many similar country music variety shows.
Also, Surratt presented The Hillbilly Jamboree, later known as The Country Jamboree. Country singer Mel Street’s journey to fame began on this show when he was only 16.
During this era the musical groups with which Surratt was associated were collectively known as the Swing Kings. Other singers/musicians involved with this group included Darnell Miller, Buddy Pennington (banjo and steel guitar), and Don Whitt (piano).
Surratt continued to work full-time in the TV business until 1966.
In the late 1950s, he began a relationship with King Records, the label that released most of his recordings. These were done in collaboration with Smitty Smith, initially doing old-time numbers such as Poor Ellen Smith, Going Up Cripple Creek, and Barbara Allen. Those leased master were released in the second half of 1959.
The recording of Wreck of the Old 97, recorded in November 1959, was never issued by King Records, but was included on a subsidiary label, Audio Lab, and on a UK release, Cecil Surratt & Smitty Smith-Last Mile Of The Way (BACM CD D 389, 2012).
Altogether, the duo recorded over 50 tracks released by the Cincinnati-based company. Most were country-orientated with steel guitar and drums in the mix.
In 1961, 15 of these recordings were released on the LP Songs Everybody Knows (Audio Lab AL-1565); most, if not all, appear to be in the public domain, and in 1987 several cuts from about this time – and the title track from 1970 – were re-issued by Dagmar Binge; East Of Eden (Binge Records LP 1008). Currently, 27 of those early King releases are available on the BACM CD.
A Place In The Sun was recorded on April 25, 1963. It was released as a single and on the album Country Music From The Heart Of The Country (King LP-860) …
After doing his last session for King, Surratt did a few recordings at the Arthur Smith Studio, in Charlotte, North Carolina; these being released by the obscure Upper Room Recording organisation. Concurrent with those Surratt and Smith cut four sides for Upland. These included City Of Clay (Upland 45 – 668, 1967).
Despite the lack of commercial success with these releases, Surratt remained active in performing around the West Virginia area for several more decades, hosting a country music series on a Bluefield television station.
In 1973 Surratt, along with J C Parks, revived the fiddlers’ convention at Glenwood Park, Princeton, West Virginia, that was so popular in the 1920s and 1930s. The duo’s association with this event continued into the 1980s.
Also in 1973, Surratt recorded two sides with Hazel Wolfe, who was part of a duo with her husband Bob that performed as a duet on the Jim Thornton Show on WTVD-TV, and won the Pet Milk Grand Old Opry Talent Show in Danville, Virginia.
Surratt’s last recordings came in the 1980s when he had a single (Sunrize SR-135) and with Dean Reed, as The Border Boys, Fireball (1988)
After he stopped working in television, he was employed at a coal preparation plant in Gary, West Virginia, retiring in 1986 when the mine closed.
Cecil Walker Surratt passed away on September 3, 2006, following a 15-month long battle with pancreatic cancer, aged 80.