The Stanley Brothers 50 years ago

Ralph and Carter StanleyIn the course of two days just over fifty years ago, the Stanley Brothers began an era that was to last on-and-off right through and beyond Carter Stanley’s premature passing on December 1, 1966.

Carter and Ralph along with the Clinch Mountain Boys of the day began their association with King Records of Cincinnati, Ohio, on September 30 with their first recording session after signing for the label earlier in the year.

The sessions on that date and the following day produced all 12 recordings that ultimately came out on the eponymous LP album with the catalogue number King 615.

The personnel involved in the sessions, which took place at the multi-functional King headquarters, supporting Carter and Ralph, were Bill Napier (mandolin), Al Elliott (bass and baritone vocals) and the recently recruited fiddler Ralph Mayo.

The Stanley brothers had long been noted for writing their own material, but these sessions marked an unusual departure from the norm. Carter certainly wrote many of the songs for the sessions except Love Me, Darling, Just Tonight, a song that the brothers learned from fellow entertainer on the Farm & Fun Time program in Bristol, Virginia-Tennessee, Red Malone. However, for the first time Carter used the name Ruby Rakes, who was his half-sister and lived in Michigan, if I recall correctly, for copyright purposes. Two other songs, Heaven Seemed So Near and Your Selfish Heart, were written by Elliot, although Carter had a share in the composer credits.

The latter song was about Elliott’s niece and her boyfriend, as Elliott told Stanley brothers’ historians Doug Gordon and Roy Burke III…

“It’s just a little story that come in my mind and I just wrote it. It gave me a real good feeling to know that they [the Stanley brothers] were gonna record two of my songs for a big recording company like that.” [King]

How Mountain Girls Can Love and The Memory Of Your Smile, the last two songs from the session were what Carter described during a live performance at New River Ranch earlier that month as “new ones.” However, for some reason when the brothers cut The Memory Of Your Smile they left out a verse that they had sung during that aforementioned appearance.

The following day, a Wednesday, as was October 1 this year, the quintet cut four instrumental numbers; Ralph’s Mastertone March and Train 45, which was learned from old-time fiddler G B Grayson. The brothers added a spoken exchange that resembled that of Bill Monroe’s on his Victor recording of Orange Blossom Special. Other two instrumental pieces, Clinch Mountain Backstep and Midnight Ramble were re-arrangements of the breakdown Lost John and Monroe’s first mandolin tune Tennessee Blues, respectively.

The last two selections were credited to Carter Stanley. Both were vocal pieces, the then newly-penned, now considered a classic, Think Of What You’ve Done and Keep A Memory.

King 615, released in 1959, is rightly acclaimed as a classic. The prime original material has proved an inspiration to modern-day bluegrass songwriters such as Larry Cordle, who wore out several copies of the LP version. I suspect that he is one of many who had to purchase more than one copy to enjoy these 12 terrific performances from one of the greatest of all bluegrass bands.

Joe Wilson, the Director of the Blue Ridge Music Center, Galax, VA,  knew the Stanley brothers very well at the time. Here he shares his thoughts about some of the personnel at these sessions ‚Ķ..

“That band offered the comforts the brothers needed to get into new material. Napier lived in Grundy, just over the hill from where Carter and Ralph was reared in Dickinson County. They’d grown up with him. They let him take them in some new directions, especially with guitar. He created the syncopated flat-pick lead associated with them, a style taken up and expanded later by George Shuffler, who almost became a third brother.

Mayo was from Kingsport, Tennessee, directly south of where the Stanleys and Napier lived, and he had a lot in common with them. Like them, he’d grown up on Grayson’s 78 recordings. Carter, in particular, was fascinated by Grayson and how many of his songs became standards. I’m from Johnson County, Tennessee, where Grayson lived, and my mom went to school with his children, so Carter asked questions about him. I recall standing on the steps of the War Memorial Building after a WSM Friday Night Frolic where Carter and Ralph had guested around 1960, and talking with Carter about Grayson and Tom Ashley, another Johnson County old-timer who had once done blackface comedy with Carter and Ralph.

Mayo was a fine singer, and absolutely great at backing a vocal with the fiddle. He had that smokey tone that Grayson created, and he played many of the old-time tunes Grayson recorded. He was not your standard chord-playing bluegrasser. He had a remarkable band on WCYB’s Farm and Fun time in the fifties, a few years before those Stanley recordings. They were called Ralph Mayo and the Southern Mountain Boys and Jack Cassidy, usually called Blind Boy Jack, was lead singer. Mayo also did some lead singing, and was a good harmony singer. Porter Church was one of the top early banjo players, and was with them. Lindy Clear was the bass player and did comedy. He also worked for a time with the Stanleys. He could imitate farmyard sounds, and had routines like ‘ringing the pig,’ and the race between the Model T and the train.

Mayo liked variety and put on a hell of a show. When playing outdoor parks he would bring along a character named Suicide Jones. His act was to climb into a plywood coffin, have the top nailed on, and blow it up with two sticks of dynamite. Of course he had a thick section of steel sheet metal between him and the dynamite, and ear protection muffs. Along with the craziness, they were a truly fine band, great singers and fine players. To my ear they were among the finest early bluegrass bands and it is a huge tragedy that they made no recordings. Mayo made an okay 78rpm with L. C. Smith, but none with that great band. Ralph Mayo was all artist, not a businessman. He drove an over-the-road truck when not playing music. He was not with the Stanley road band for very long. They had a lot of turnover during those years.

Keeping a bluegrass band together then and now depends on having a good manager. Ralph was a highly competent manager, bookkeeper, booking agent, and boss of the band for the Stanley Brothers. Carter was the main songwriter and song sleuth, and the jawbone man on stage. He was addicted to alcohol during all those years, and Ralph had to take care of him. But even when half looped, Carter had a good sense of values for his music. He’d learned that song ownership was important, that one made as much money from song-writing and arrangements as he did from performance. He had a good heart, and it is sad he left us so soon.”

As has already been noted, the bass player, Al Elliott, wrote two songs on the album. Stanley Brothers’ historian Gary B. Reid provides a bit more information about his contributions to the sessions ‚Ķ‚Ķ‚Ķ

“Al Elliott was a member of the Stanley band for several years, playing off and on from 1958 until 1961. He played bass and mandolin and doubled in the comedy role of ‘Towser’ Murphy. In the spoken exchange to the classic instrumental recording Train 45, ‘Towser’ can be heard giving the destination of his travels as ‘Big Stone Gap, Virginia,’ his real hometown.

His baritone vocals added greatly to several trio selections found on the King-615 album. In later years, he kept busy performing in a local band called The Blue Ridge Partners.”

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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.