HOW THE WEST WAS SWUNG - Volume I
AS we explained in the Johnny Case entry on the Time Warp Tophands page of this website, Johnny was essentially the sole reason that there was ever a recording session which gave Tom Morrell the freedom and creativity to do his own 'thing' in the recording studio. This first session led to a 15 Volume set of CDs known as "How The West Was Swung," spanning an 18 year period. Now, listen to Johnny tell the story of how the first recording for Tom Morrell was made possible, and provide insight as to what happened in the studio on that fateful day. - View a small image gallery of Morrell's very first personal recording session below the story.
-- A remembrance, by Johnny Case
I first met Tom Morrell in 1964. I already knew Maurice Anderson, and I liked to hang out at the MSA custom pedal steel guitar shop located in Oak Cliff. One day, Morrell (who was vice president and a founder of the company) came in through the music store to which MSA’s little shop was joined at a rear doorway. Maurice and I were standing in the store near this rear entrance as Tom made his way towards us. I recognized him when he first came in, because I had seen him with the Western Starlighters behind Tex Williams on a televised program. Maurice introduced us. He often made the rounds so he’d come into clubs where I was working. A few years later, my brother Jerry, Tom Morrell and myself were sidemen on Volume Two of a series of recordings Maurice Anderson issued to promote their product (“The Sounds of MSA”).
During the 1970’s when most of my gigs were with society bands, I produced my own series of jazz recordings to allow Jerry Case, myself and other players I admired, the opportunity to have a musical freedom of expression the regular gigs did not provide. Tom Morrell was featured playing jazz pedal steel guitar on four of these self-produced albums.
For the first time in my career, the 1980’s brought me steady work in jazz. From June of 1980 through March of 1981, I played six nights a week at a Fort Worth venue, J.R.’s Place, where I met Kitty Keever, my future wife. After a brief period of free lance work, I became house pianist playing jazz six nights a week at Sardines Ristorante Italiano, where I performed until it's demise in 2011. The recordings of the previous decade were no longer an artistic necessity, since my regular jazz gig served as a creative outlet. After my mom died in 1988, however, I began to re-evaluate some of the music choices I’d made…namely the focus away from my musical heritage. I knew that I wanted to record Roy Lee Brown in a tribute to his deceased brother Milton, acknowledged by many as the Father of Western Swing.
This was about the same time that my old friend Tom Morrell started showing up at Sardines, and we’d visit and have long talks about music. I told him that Roy Lee and I had decided to do a co-op recording and I wanted Tom to play pedal steel on the date (Tom was thinking it should be non-pedal, but Roy Lee and I both wanted a modern setting for the vintage material). As I explained to Tom, if he’d participate for the small sum of money which was all I could afford, then the following year he and I would do a co-op project to feature Tom (for the first time in his long career), on an album under his own name. I would give him free rein to select the players, tunes, let him do the musical arrangements, sequencing of tunes, everything... including packaging of the finished product. Of course, Tom readily agreed to my proposal.
Tom did the expected excellent job on the Roy Lee Brown album “Western Swing Heritage,” issued in 1989. It received a very enthusiastic review by Rich Kienzle in Country Music Magazine. With this project completed, Tom turned his thoughts to the recording of his own upcoming album. We didn’t know at first whether Tom’s album would be jazz or western swing. I’ve never liked those “mixed bag” albums that offer a little of several different types of music. It could have been strictly a jazz album, but among the mutual friends whom we asked, the preference was almost unanimous that Tom do an album of western swing!
With limited finances, I had surmised that Tom could do an excellent western swing album with a band numbering from four to six or seven musicians. The Starlighters had sometimes consisted of only four or five players, and it was terrific to hear Billy Braddy, Tom Morrell, Charlie Meeks and Bobby McBay playing some of the most swinging music to be heard anywhere. But when I told Tom in a phone conversation, the preference of most people to whom I had spoken, he replied: “Well, if it’s going to be western swing, we’ll need fiddles, at least two guitarists, actually three including rhythm guitar which is essential, I want Leon Rausch and Don Edwards to do vocals, Leon is just now really in his prime…I’d like horns….” I felt my heart sinking, because I had no idea how I could fund such a project with my measly shoestring budget. Some of the musicians Tom was intent on using lived outside the Dallas area (Benny Garcia and Tommy Perkins from Oklahoma City; Dean Reynolds from distant East Texas, and others). Tom told me not to worry about the money shortage. Basically the participants, stellar musicians and vocalists, all loved and admired Tom’s talent and were happy to be part of his debut recording as a bandleader. Somehow it all worked out, with only token monetary payment made for magnificent performances by some of the best artists in western swing.
The session took place at Garland Recording Studio in the summer of 1990. The studio had inadequate air conditioning and none of us knew that bassist Dean Reynolds was diabetic until the heat affected him to the point he almost blacked out. Thankfully, a break from the sweltering studio and some cool water helped him recover and complete the session. By the end of the day, we were all exhausted, and none too sure of the results of our efforts: When in the midst of such a project, one tends to be aware of every occurrence within the music that wasn’t exactly as planned, expected, or desired. Tom and I both wanted this to be an extraordinary recording. The photo of us outside the studio at dusk shows our weariness. I felt totally depleted, and I sensed that Tom also had serious doubts about the quality of music we had just recorded.
Several days later, Tom called and sounded reasonably upbeat. He’d just listened to a rough mix of the session. He said: “I’m surprised…it’s better than I thought. In fact it sounds pretty damn good. I think it’s gonna turn out fine!”. By the time other parts were added and much attention was given to every detail in the final mix (engineer Gary Hogue was assisted by Tom, myself, Bill Miner and Leon Rausch), it was indeed a fine example of primo modern western swing.
After Tom and I had a master of the final mix, I was broke. Release of the album would have been delayed if it hadn’t been for financial assistance from Charlie Norris, president of the Texas Steel Guitar Association. Although we missed getting it out by Christmas, “How the West Was Swung” was issued in time for the Texas Steel Guitar Show in March, 1991. A rave review appears in Country Music Magazine, again with critic Rich Kienzle asserting that it had already become one of his favorite releases for 1991.
IMAGE GALLERY OF SESSION NUMBER ONE
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