Buck Owens’ track to stardom had an unorthodox start and believe it or not, his singing didn’t launch that journey as much as his guitar skills; it started when another singer needed a lead guitarist on short notice.
With his second Capitol recording session looming in September, 1953, Tommy Collins, a cast member of Southern California’s “Town Hall Party” TV show, was up a creek. His buddy, Ferlin Husky, who played the lead on Collins’ first session, was busy promoting his own hit single. Then Collins remembered playing the Blackboard, a club in Bakersfield, and the hot guitarist in the house band; Bill Woods & the Orange Blossom Playboys. The recollection brought him to Buck Owens’
modest Bakersfield home one evening. Always up for extra income and opportunities, Buck agreed to play the session in L.A.
On the afternoon of September 8, at Capitol’s Melrose Avenue studios, Owens unleashed sharp, fluid Tele licks behind Collins’ vocals on four numbers, including the novelty “You Better Not Do That.” During an instrumental break in the song, he swapped licks with fiddler Jelly Sanders. Collins’ faith in Buck was dead-on, and the song became his first hit.
People around Bakersfield already respected Owens as a picker. Now he’d been heard by people of consequence, who could open even bigger doors. He still had ample dues to pay and plenty to learn, but everything Owens became as a singer, guitarist, businessman and later, household word, began with the licks he played that day. The story of Buck the guitarist, and how his instrumental skills defined his songwriting, the talents of protégé and musical alter ego Don Rich, and the sound of his legendary band, the Buckaroos, has never been examined in-depth. Until now.
The Owens family was musical before Alvis Edgar Owens, Jr. was born in Sherman, Texas, in 1929. He was later self-nicknamed “Buck” in honor of the family mule. His mother, Maicie, played piano, his dad played harmonica, and two uncles picked guitar. The family left Texas in 1937 to escape the crop-wrecking drought that created the Dust Bowl. Their new home was Mesa, Arizona, just outside Phoenix. In addition to working day jobs, Buck was playing mandolin with singer-guitarist Theryl Ray Britten in the duo Buck and Britt, where he got his first performing and radio experience. Learning guitar, steel guitar, and even saxophone, he graduated to a larger band, playing an eight-string Rickenbacker steel with Mac’s Skillet Lickers when he wasn’t driving a truck. That’s where he met future wife Bonnie Campbell, the band’s vocalist, who he married in 1948.
Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, a particular favorite of Buck’s, were enormously popular in Southwest dancehalls. So it was little surprise that Playboys country-jazz wizard Jimmy Wyble became an early hero, followed in the late 1940s by Merle Travis and in the early ’50s by Jimmy Bryant. In May, 1951, Buck, amicably separated from Bonnie, relocated to Bakersfield. He’d been there before, when he drove a produce truck and did migrant farm work in the area.
He came to town toting a Gibson L-7 archtop with an attached pickup and joined a band with steel guitarist Dusty Rhodes. A few months later he moved to the Orange Blossom Playboys at the Blackboard. With a business card declaring they played “Country music, rhythm and blues, rhumbas, pop and polkas” – in other words, dance music. Buck had to work to broaden his repertoire, later explaining, “If you was gonna make a living out in the West you had to play dance music.”
After trying a Telecaster belonging to singer Billy Mize, Buck bought one originally owned by Bakersfield musician and recording studio owner Lewis Talley. And after Woods’ singer quit, he assigned vocals to Buck – more invaluable career training. He’d work with Woods for the next several years while also leading his own band, the Schoolhouse Playboys.
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