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Royce Porter: Lone Star Rockabilly Legend Hits Paydirt As Straight-Up Country-Smash Purveyor



If not for the intervention of the United States Navy, Royce Porter might have achieved rockabilly stardom. He had the voice and the persona to go with it. Instead, Porter eventually became a highly successful Nashville songwriter. Now Royce is back rocking again, and he’ll belt his rockabilly classics on Oct. 3 at the Ponderosa Stomp.

Born April 1, 1939, in Sweetwater, Texas, Porter was singing locally before he hit his teens. “We had a ‘Saturday Night Jamboree,’ they called it. All the locals and the guys from the surrounding smaller towns, country boys, they’d come in and bring their little bands,” says Porter. “I was about 10. Me and my neighbor Glen Reed, he and I got up there and sang. ‘Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy.’ I never will forget it.”

Music ran deep in the Porter household. “They weren’t professionals, but they all played,” says Royce. “My dad played guitar, my mother played piano, and my sister was a very talented piano player. She had like nine scholarships offered to her when she graduated high school, so she was a real good piano player. My brother played a little bit of guitar. He just played what I taught him and never did learn anymore. But he had a good time with it.”

Rock and roll caught Porter’s ear early on. “I didn’t like country music back then. It was called hillbilly music back then, and it was really hillbilly. Back with Ernest Tubb and all those, I didn’t care for that particularly. That was a little bit too hillbilly for me,” he says. “Early Elvis, I really liked him. I liked all the guys — Fats Domino and Chuck Berry and all those guys. I still do.” Before long, Royce was itching to join their ranks.

“I got started back in high school,” says Porter. “Did the assembly program once a week, and they asked me could I take it one week. And I said yes. I got my neighbor that lived down behind me, he was teaching me to play guitar, so we hooked it up and got a little band together and did three Elvis songs. We did ‘Good Rockin’ Tonight’ and some of those girls started screaming. I said to myself, ‘I believe this is me! I think I just found my career!’”


In January 1957, 17-year-old Porter released his debut single on Bennie Hess and Doyle Jones’ Houston-based Spade Records, pairing the rockabilly classic “A Woman Can Make You Blue” and the tasty ballad “I End Up Crying.” Both sides were cut at Bill Holford’s ACA Studios in Houston and penned by Big Springs, Texas, native Ray Doggett, already a Spade artist himself with his “Go Go Heart” hitting the shelves in August of ‘56.

“My mentor, my friend Ray Doggett, he was from Sweetwater too. He was a couple of years older than me, but we hooked up. He wrote my songs for me. He wrote all that early stuff. He graduated before I did, so he moved on down to Houston. I don’t know if he’s heard about it or what, but he’d hooked up with Spade,” says Royce. “So he moved on down there, and he had it pretty well set up. And he brought ‘em all back down to see me, back in Sweetwater, which is about 300 miles. It’s a long way, but they came back down to see me. Bennie Hess, he owned the label. He really liked me, so he wanted to sign me up to do a record. So that’s kind of how we got started. We went off down there, and I didn’t know what I was doing. I never had been in a studio in my life, but I went in and cut that one.


“We worked on it up there in Sweetwater before we went down. I knew the songs before we went to the studio. We worked on ‘em there in town before we ever drove down to Houston. (Ray) wrote it just for me.” On lead guitar was Donald Price. “I think Donald Price played on both sides of that,” says Royce. “He was my buddy. He was the same age as me. We were in school together, he and his brother Jimmy. Jimmy was like a year older than me, I think. Jimmy was a great guitar player too. Donald was my guitar player. He was my band.

“The other guys were just studio pickers, the drummer and the bass and the voices. The voices were local guys. It was a group called the Four Pals. Pervis, Arnold, Long, and Smith. They were all high school buddies. We ran around together. They weren’t buddies. What was funny, they called themselves the Four Pals, but they all hated each other! They didn’t get along at all. But they had a good sound. They were about Ray’s age. They were about in the same grade with him. So he brought ‘em down there with him to cut some records, and they wanted to cut my stuff with me too. So that’s who’s doing the background stuff.”

“I End Up Crying” was designated the A-side. “That was the one we thought would be the one that got all the play,” says Porter. “But as it turned out, ‘A Woman Will Make You Blue’ turned out to be the hit. If it was a hit.”


Hess was quite a character. A country singer himself, he’d made his shellac debut in 1947 with “You Just Won’t Do” on the Black and White label, turning up on Mercury the next year (“You Ain’t Cheating On Me Now”) and issuing a slew of 78s on the Opera logo (probably his own imprint). Hess employed a variety of aliases on his recordings (Georgie Harrison, Buddy Page, Idaho Bill Westhall) when he wasn’t using his own moniker, and during the mid-‘50s operated a self-named recording studio in Houston. As “Rocky Night,” he waxed “Teen Age Bop” for his own Pearl label in 1957. The next year he tore through the immortal “Wild Hog Hop” on the Major logo, another of his ventures. His efforts were always met with scant fiscal reward.

“He owned the record company, but he didn’t have any money,” says Porter. “He put that record out and didn’t have any money to press any. When people would order records, he couldn’t afford to buy ‘em. So that’s why there’s not any of ‘em out there. Doyle Jones was his partner. Doyle was a good old boy. He was just a hardworking old boy. He was a welder. He welded for this company, and of course, he just lived off of what he made. When they’d get an order for records, they’d have to wait ‘til Doyle got a paycheck so they could buy records.”

That marked the end of Royce’s brief stay on Spade, which also issued now-coveted rockabilly sides by Vern Pullens, Johnny McAdams, and Jack Prince. “I could see that Spade wasn’t going anywhere,” says Porter. “We’d have people calling me all the time, even record people, radio stations and record stores, telling me, ‘Hey, man, we’re getting people calling for these records and we don’t know where to get ‘em!’ I’d say, ‘Well, I don’t know what to tell you.’ So I knew that wasn’t going to work out.”

Houston’s Harold “Pappy” Daily was experienced in every facet of the record business, initially as a jukebox operator before venturing into running his own record store in the mid-‘40s and then distributing and producing product. He was one of the co-owners of Starday Records, formed in 1953. The label took off with Arlie Duff’s “You All Come,” but its flagship artist was George Jones, whose smash “Why Baby Why” solidified Starday’s standing in late ‘55.

Starday recruited its share of rockabilly warriors during the mid-‘50s — Sonny Fisher, Rudy “Tutti” Grayzell, Glenn Barber, Sonny Burns, even Jones, who masqueraded as “Thumper Jones” for his blazer “Rock It.” When Starday entered into a distribution deal with Chicago’s Mercury Records at the start of 1957, more hungry young rockabillies rolled in, notably Jape Richardson (aka the Big Bopper) and Sleepy LaBeef. Through Daily, that was when Royce joined the Mercury-Starday combine.

“We got to looking around and found Pappy. We knew Pappy through some other people: Gabe Tucker and Sunshine Tucker and all those people down there,” says Royce. “Pappy was a great guy. I loved Pappy. He had George Jones going. He was already pretty much a legend. He was a good old boy. And I liked Sunshine. Sunshine Tucker was Gabe’s wife. They were in the music business. They did bookings and management and that sort of thing.”

Daily brought Royce to Fort Worth to wax the rocking “Yes I Do” and its B-side ballad “Our Perfect Romance.” “We had a good time,” says Royce. “I remember having a really good time cutting those songs.” Both were again supplied by the prolific Doggett. “Ray Doggett played rhythm guitar on ‘Yes I Do,’” notes Porter. “If you listen to that record real close, you hear that snare-drum thing, that ‘chicka-chicka-chicka-chicka-chicka’ all the way through the record. That was Ray on the guitar. We didn’t have a snare, so we wound some paper in through the strings on the guitar so it would mute. And we’d hit it like you were playing guitar; you’d just hit the strings and it’d make that drum sound. So that’s how we got the snare drum.”

The Price brothers shared lead-guitar duties on the single. “Jimmy played on ‘Our Perfect Romance,’ and Donald played on ‘Yes I Do,’” says Porter, noting of the former tune, “That was a good song. I always liked that song. Jimmy did a great job on the guitar.” On piano was fellow rockabilly Dean Beard, who had two fine 1957 singles on Atlantic, “Rakin’ And Scrapin’” (picked up from the Texas-based Edmoral logo) and “Party Party.”

“Dean was a good buddy,” says Porter. “Dean lived about 60 miles from us in Sweetwater. But we ran into each other. Slim Willet was from Abilene. And he had a TV show there on KRBC. He took over Dean’s management, so that’s kind of how we hooked up, I guess through Slim. ‘Cause we knew Slim pretty well.” Beard proceeded to record for L.A.-based Challenge Records and then a host of other labels into the mid-‘60s.

On backing vocals were the Kounts. “The Kounts were some Houston boys that I hooked up with. The main guy was Tom Driskill. He was a gospel singer,” says Porter (the rest were bass singer Ed Peine, Wes Knebel, and Jack Michael). “The Kounts are on all the rest of ‘em that I did. They did shows with me. We’d go do the record hops and that kind of stuff for the radio stations, and they were always with me on those things. They all had regular jobs during the day, so we had to do our shows at night.

“I worked for Gulf Oil Co. I think Tom worked for some finance company,” says Royce. “One of them worked for a big, big industrial company, so we had to be careful about saying we were going to make a career out of it. He didn’t want to mess up his job career, you know? As it turned out, we didn’t make a career of it. But we didn’t do a lot of shows. We just did weekend stuff around Houston.”

Instead of being placed on Mercury proper, “Yes I Do” was shuttled over to the company’s new Look imprint in the fall of ‘57. “(Pappy) told me if we did good on Look, then he’d put me on Mercury,” says Royce. “Which he did.” Porter’s Look labelmates included Gary Shelton, who would do business as “Troy Shondell” on his 1961 hit “This Time,” and Fred Neil, subsequent author of “Everybody’s Talkin’.”

The Kounts were back to provide vocal harmonies on Royce’s Mercury single, issued in the spring of ‘58. This time Doggett brought his pal a pair of delightful rockers, “Good Time” and “Beach Of Love.” “That was done several months later,” says Royce. “I guess we did that back in Houston. I don’t know which studio, probably ACA or something. We did both sides, I think, at the same time, ‘Good Times’ and ‘Beach Of Love.’ I think that was the same session.”

As for the band, “That was Houston guys. I don’t know who they were. Just studio pickers that Ray knew. I never did know any of the guys after that, as far as the pickers were concerned, on any of the sessions after that. They were just guys that came into the studio, studio guys, and we introduced ourselves and played, and they left. I never did see ‘em again, so I never knew who they were,” says Porter. “They were good. I really liked ‘Good Times,’ the drums and everything. I wasn’t used to having all that much drums.”

Also unknown is the identity of the female singer that pops up midway through “Beach Of Love.” “I don’t know who that woman was,” says Royce. “That was just somebody they brought in for the session. But when I do shows, they have to find a girl so I can do that song. Just that one little line is all she done.”

Porter’s studio experience wasn’t limited to his own output. He played on a 1957 single by young Houston unknown Kenneth Rogers. “I was in a record store one day in Houston with ‘Yes I Do.’ I took ‘Yes I Do’ in there. That was back when you could go in the store and talk to the people, and if they’d play your record and they liked it, they’d order ‘em,” says Royce. “So he liked mine, and I played it for ‘em, and this guy came over to me and introduced himself.


“He said, ‘My name’s Lelan Rogers. I’m the promotion man for Decca Records in Texas.’ He asked me all about my record — who cut it for me and all that. And I told him. And he said, ‘Can you help my brother get started?’ And I said, ‘If he can sing, I’ll put him in with my people, and see what we can do.’ He gave me a tape on Kenny, and Kenny had three or four songs, three or four cover songs. He sounded then like he does today. He sounded good. I gave it to Ray, and Ray wrote those songs for him.


“I played piano on that record, on ‘That Crazy Feeling’ and ‘We’ll Always Have Each Other,’” says Porter, who cofirmed the session was held at Houston’s Cook Studio rather than ACA. “It wasn’t a very famous studio,” he says. “It must not have been around very long.” The single, both sides of which were written by the indefatigable Doggett, initially came out on Lelan’s tiny Kix label before New York’s Carlton Records picked it up for national consumption. Royce recalls Kenny was “just a kid, like all of us. Just thought he was cool, and he was cool.” Another decade down the line, Kenny Rogers and his First Edition would be famous too.


After three singles, Porter’s promising musical career came to a screeching halt when he went into the Navy. “I had joined the Reserve back in high school,” he says. “Me and a bunch of my high school buddies there in Sweetwater, we joined the Reserve. So I was in there for about a year or two, and then I had to do my active duty. That’s why I had to go in. Which I really didn’t want to go, because I was just getting my music career started. But I didn’t have a choice.”

For the most part, Daily lost interest in Porter. “He pretty much gave up on me when I got drafted ‘cause he knew I wasn’t going to be able to do anything,” says Royce. “The disc jockeys quit playing my record and everything. ‘Cause I wasn’t famous like Elvis. I didn’t have the setup to carry my career on like Elvis did when he got drafted. So mine just kind of died.”


Daily did give it one last shot near the end of 1958, pressing up the romping “Lookin’” and its blues-kissed flip “I Still Belong To You” (another pair of Doggett copyrights) on his new D label (he’d recently exited Starday). “We cut those songs probably when we did ‘Beach Of Love’ or sometime or other,” says Porter. “I don’t know where those songs came from. I mean, Ray wrote ‘em, but I don’t even remember cutting those. They released those after I was drafted in the military. That thing came out, it like to killed me when it came out. I thought it was so bad.

“I didn’t even know it was coming out. That was awful. Everybody liked it, but I think it’s awful,” he says. “It was one we weren‘t going to release, and they’d kind of run out of stuff after I went in, so they released it anyway. But ‘Lookin’,’ I do it onstage. I guess the balance on it’s just so bad, like, ‘Lookin’, oh yeah, lookin’, lookin, oh yeah!’ It’s just the mix and everything is so bad, I hate to listen to it because we got so much better with it now than it was back then. I guess it kind of grates me the wrong way.”

“I Still Belong To You” slowed down the pace quite effectively. “It kind of had a mixed blues sound,” he says. “I don’t do that song onstage because I don’t do many ballads, period. I do up-tempo stuff. It’s probably come out OK if I did it live.”

Contrary to some published reports, Royce didn’t enter the ministry upon his Navy discharge, though he did become involved in his local church. “I was a music director,” he says. “I preached a couple of sermons, but I never did get in the ministry. I was just really involved in the church. But I did more music. I did the music director’s (job) for several years when I went to college.”

Finally in 1965, Porter got the urge to make another secular single, a revival of the Brook Benton/Clyde Otis/Belford Hendricks-penned ballad “Looking Back,” a huge hit for Nat King Cole in 1958. “That was on the FED label. I can’t remember that guy’s name, Lee or something or other. One of Ray’s buddies. Ray brought me back down there to Houston, after I got out of the Navy. I’d been in college. I think I was in college when he brought me down there, because I went to college from ‘64 to ’68,” says Royce. “Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene.”

After making late ‘50s 45s of his own for Decca (a national pressing of his Spade encore, “It Hurts The One Who Loves You”), Kix, Pearl, TNT, Ken-Lee, and Top Rank, Doggett had gone in a different musical direction. “He stayed in Houston,” says Royce. “He was doing a lot of German music, polka music. He got into that. It made him a good living. He dealt with the German people, where they all knew him and he knew all them. He’d go in the studio and cut that stuff and make those polka records, and he’d take them around to the German towns and German settlements and sell ‘em, and made a pretty good living at it.”


Singing duos were in fashion thanks to the Righteous Brothers, and Royce teamed with his brother-in-law Bill Funderburk, billed as (what else?) the Brothers In-Law. “I guess it was when we were in college, that’s how I met him. That’s how my sister met him. They were in school. My sister graduated from Hardin-Simmons also. So did Bill Funderburk, my brother-in-law,” he says. “Great singer. He sounded like Bill Medley. We did a Righteous Brothers kind of a sound. So I did the high part, the Bobby Hatfield.”

The harmonious pair waxed a single in 1967 or ’68 for Huey Meaux’s Tear Drop label pairing “Hush Broken Heart” and “Wanderlust.” “That was a good B-side,” notes Porter. “I didn’t know Huey very much. He was kind of a shyster.”

Huey Meaux
Huey Meaux

Royce relocated to Nashville in 1969. “I moved up here in October,” he says. “I wanted to write. Me and my brother-in-law came up here in ‘68, I guess, for what they called the deejay convention back then. It’s CMA week now. But we came up here and spent about four or five days up here, and we were right in the middle of all of it, just thousands of fans and all the stars, and you could walk around and meet ‘em and talk to ‘em and go to all these shows and get up and sing if you wanted to. And I got all involved. I wrote five songs in those five days I was up here. I thought, ‘This is what I need to be doing!’

“So I went back to Sweetwater and kept my job. I worked for about a year and saved up enough to live about a year. And then I decided to move down here. My son, he was a little over 9 years old when I moved up here, so he stayed there with my parents in Sweetwater.

“We did the duet for awhile,” says Porter. “He moved to Nashville after I came up here in ‘69. They came up here and stayed for a while. We did a nightclub show a little bit. His parents were real strong church people. They didn’t want him singing that secular music. They like to have killed him, him going in nightclubs and stuff, so they just kept on after him ‘til he finally quit. Went back to Texas and got into church music.”

Eventually Porter turned his attention to the fine art of songwriting. Hits initially proved elusive. “That took a few years,” he says. “That took about 15 years to get my first hit as a country writer. I had a lot of stuff cut in those 15 years, but no big million-sellers.”

Porter and his frequent compositional partner Kenneth “Bucky” Jones wrote Roy Head’s first major country hit, “The Most Wanted Woman In Town,” along with Don Wilson in 1975. “I love Roy. We were best buds. I haven’t seen him in a hundred years. We wrote a lot of stuff for Roy when he was on the Shannon label. That was Mary Reeves’ label. We wrote probably 10 songs for him,” says Porter. “We wrote ‘Help Yourself To Me’ and some other kind of stuff for Roy. He’s a great singer.” Royce and Roy will cross paths anew when they share the bill during the second night of the Stomp. “He always did that Alligator dance,” chuckles Porter. “He’d jump off the stage and turn a flip and all that kind of stuff. Crazy!”


Royce and Bucky created one of Reba McEntire’s first chart entries in 1977, “Glad I Waited Just For You.” “That’s a great record. I love that. Bucky and I had probably three or four hundred songs cut. There just weren’t any of ‘em big hits. They were just people getting started,” he says. “Bucky and I wrote together for a long time. We’re still best buds. We still talk on the phone all the time. He lives in North Carolina now. He’s retired, and he’s a pharmacist as well as a writer, but he had several hits.”

At one point, Porter hit the road with popular country singer Razzy Bailey. “Razzy wanted to write with me, and he said, ‘Hell, man, you’re on the road all the time, so why don’t you travel with me?’” he remembers. “I said, ‘No-o-o, I don’t care about that.’ But he kept on, and he called me one time, and he said, ‘I’m fixing to go, I’m going to play Tahoe. We’re going to be staying in Liberace’s house. Why don’t you come with us? We’re going stop and do ‘Austin City Limits,’ and we’re gonna do Disneyland!’ So anyway, I said, ‘Yeah, that sounds like a fun gig!’ So we went and I enjoyed it.

“I traveled with him for about a year-and-a-half, and we wrote a little bit. But then he started getting real hot, and the hotter he got, the less we wrote because he had to do interviews and in-store signings, record signings and all that kind of stuff. So pretty soon I said, ‘Man, this ain’t working. I came to Nashville to write songs, not to travel on the road.’ So I left, and then that’s when I hooked up with Hank and Dean and them, and started writing.

“I kept doing the clubs all those years, and I made a good living. I was making good money, and I was writing with everybody. Hank Cochran came in one night where I was singing, and he liked my voice, liked my singing. So I got hooked up with him. He was definitely established, and he kind of took me under his wing and showed me how to get songs cut. If you wrote a hit, you had to figure out how to get it cut.”


Porter teamed with Cochran (writer of the country classics “I Fall To Pieces,” “She’s Got You,” and “Make The World Go Away,” and very early in his career Eddie Cochran’s duet partner) and Dean Dillon to pen “Miami, My Amy” for Keith Whitley, who hit big with it in 1985. “We went down to Florida and wrote that one and, I don’t know, 12 or 15 others. We stayed there about eight or nine days and wrote a lot of songs,” says Porter, who also teamed with Dean to write Whitley’s ‘86 C&W smash “Homecoming ‘63.” “‘Homecoming ‘63’ was a great record. Then he called his band the Miami Boys. So ‘Miami’ was quite a hit for him too. In fact, still to this day 20 years later, they still talk about that song.”

Royce enjoyed an incredible run of hits for country superstar George Strait. He and Dillon penned Strait’s 1986 C&W chart-topper “It Ain’t Cool To Be Crazy About You.” “That’s the main man there,” says Porter of fellow Texan Strait. “Dean had a lot of George Strait hits. He wrote a lot of hits for George, so that’s kind of how we got in with George.” With Cochran joining in the fun, the trio wrote Strait’s next No. 1 juggernaut, “Ocean Front Property.”

“Ocean Front Property” came together fast. “We were at a session one day,” says Porter. “We were doing demos, me and Hank and Dean. It was actually Dean’s demo. He had about five or six songs he was doing, and two of ‘em were mine and Hank’s with him. So we did those first. So when we finished with those two, then me and Hank kind of drifted out of the studio, went back into one of the other offices, because we didn’t even know the other songs that he was doing.

“We eased off back in the back office back there, and we sat down. I was sitting there with a guitar, and Hank says I came up with the idea. I don’t remember that, but it doesn’t matter who came up with it as long as it was written. But Hank says it was my idea. So anyway, we were working on it. It wasn’t very long, probably just a few minutes, 5-10 minutes. Dean looked up and saw we weren’t there in the studio, and he knew what was going on. So he told the band to take a break, and he came back there.

“He stuck his head in the door and he said, ‘What in the hell’s goin’ on?’ And Hank said, ‘Well, we’re writing a song, boy!’ And Dean said, ‘Well, not without me, you ain’t!’ And I said, ‘Well, if you’re gonna write this one, you better get yourself back here, ‘cause this one’s fixin’ to get written!’

“He came back in there, and we wrote it. We wrote it pretty quick. It was an easy song to write. It kind of fell together. It debuted at No. 1!” Royce collaborated with Red Steagall and David Chamberlain on another of Strait’s country chart-toppers, 1989’s “What’s Going On In Your World.” George wasn’t the only artist he had success writing for. Porter and Dillon wrote Kenny Chesney’s 1997 hit “A Chance,” and Royce and Chamberlain combined with L. David Lewis to scribe Tanya Tucker’s 1991 No. 2 smash “(Without You) What Do I Do With Me.”

“She was a good friend of mine,” he says. “I knew her quite well. She sang out at my house all the time, and she came in one night about half drunk and said, ‘Why in the hell don’t you ever write me any of these hit songs you write for George Strait?’ And I said, ‘Well, if I ever write you one, I’ll let you know!’ I just didn’t want to take advantage of our friendship, because everywhere she went, people sat her down and made her listen to their songs, whether she liked it or not.


“I never did want to infringe on our friendship, so I just never did play her anything. So anyway, one night I played her that song, and she grabbed me by the throat and said, ‘If you play that for anybody else, you s.o.b., I’m gonna cut your throat!’ So I didn’t. I held it for about a year. Jerry Crutchfield was producing her. He never would cut it, for some reason. He kept wanting to, but he never would do it. He called me one weekend, and I was in Texas. He called me, and he said he almost cut my song last night, but there was one thing about it on that second verse: It contradicts the first verse.’

“I went back in and rewrote that second verse. So I wrote it, and Trisha Yearwood did the demo for me. Went back in and redid the vocal, so he cut it the next day on Tanya. That was a good record for her.”

Royce came full circle in 2012, journeying to London to perform his early rockabilly classics after a promoter tracked the singer down through his website. “That’s the first time I had really ever done ‘em with a live band onstage,” he says. “I never did get to do them, because I got drafted right after they came out.” Since then, Porter has starred in Las Vegas, Sweden, and Spain. Now he’ll be one of the stars of this year’s Stomp.

“I only had about four records that came out,” he says. “There were only about four or five up-tempo things I could do, so I’m doing those four or five. And then I’m doing one Ray Doggett thing — that’s ‘No Doubt About It’ — and then I’m going to do the Kenny Rogers song.”

Rockabilly fans are no doubt licking their chops in anticipation. (Catch Porter at both the Stomp concert as well as the Music History Conference on a panel with Jim Oertling moderated by Michael Hurtt.)

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