Dr. Davy's Tribute To A Good Friend!
A Pioneer Music Man Crossed Over The Mountain!
Left Behind A Wonderful Legacy
To The Music World!
"A Little Giant!"
The Great W.C. "Red" Wortham!
As a part-time singer songwriter in the early 80's as I was knocking around in the Nashville music industry arena I ran into an old boy quite by chance who became one of my dearest music friends, that great man was "Red" Wortham from which I was to learn so much about the independent record industry and the history of the early days of Country, Gospel, R& B, Delta Blues and Soul music!
Red had began his music career as a guitar player in the late 30's in big bands like Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Bunny Berrigan, Lionel Hampton and others and he was a sideman in many early local big bands that worked the local hotel and nightclub circuits of Nashville and as country music began it's hay day Red was right in the thick of things and began to learn recording, producing and the record business and by the 40's and 50's Red was recording or producing full time!
Red's Bullet, Delta and Sur-Speed labels truly reflected the grassroots nature of the independent record industry of the 40's, 50's, 60's, 70's & 80's! Red had been a key player in the founding of the original Bullet label in the 1940's. He went on to form another label and the Delta Record label group recorded many would be country artist, rock -a -billy and blues groups in the late 40's and 50's. He also worked as an independent music producer in the 40's and 50's, producing for what would someday become major labels and recorded such greats as Gene Autry and many others of the early 1940's. Red was a close friend of Hank Williams and so many others in the budding country music industry of the 40's and 50's and he could sit for hours and give you dozens of funny and heartwarming stories of his encounters, recording sessions and friendship with all of the greats of early country music and he was truly a walking history book of country music in it's hay day! Sadly Red never got around to writing his memoirs and a book about the roots and development of country music on the early Nashville music scene, had he done so what he never got around to writing would truly be a treasure and would have added another dimension to the history of country music.
By the 1960's, Blues and Soul Music became a booming business for the indie record business and Red was hard at work as always. He reactivated the old, yet famous Bullet label and started Sur-Speed Records as a sister label. Many small record labels back in those days had several labels as radio disc jockeys were not always eager to play too many records from the same label and Red was always busy putting together custom labels for artists, bands and people who recorded with him and he then managed to get some of their records played on many AM & FM radio stations.
Red also held title and ownership to many other labels such as Silver City, Gold Mine, Cody, Slam, Viking, Avenue Records and many others that had went out of business or were disbanded on the American music scene and many of these labels somehow found their way to him and he bought them up and then Red would often work out song and music publishing trades as well as recording deals and then throw in an old independent record label with his music deals in hopes that the new owners would revive them. I know that Red told me one time that he had successfully placed or sold all of those old labels with others except I think Silver City Records. Red was the kind of record man who kept most of his business close to his breast and few ever really knew what he was doing behind the scenes in music which of course is an important factor in the success of any independent record label and music studio operation.
In my early friendship and meetings with Red I sold his music publishing company several songs from my personal songwriters catalog and then in a later song publishing deal I parted with what Red said was a "Flat Country HIT!!...("Main Attraction!")... and I did so in exchange for a few hundred dollars, a two year time limit song publishing contract and as luck would have it I picked up in the deal the old Viking record label and its' original corporate paperwork filings along with Reds' handwritten history of the label and a few of its' recorded unissued masters that he had converted from their original wax masters to 2 track reel to reel on such blues greats as Lonnie Johnson, Blind Boy Fuller, Eddie Lang, Blind Willie Johnson, Sylvester Weaver and many others that Red said were recorded in the late 20's and early 30's. It was truly one of my better and most memorable early days as a part time singer songwriter trudging the streets of Nashville and trying to find music publishing or just the outright sale of some of my then rapidly growing "Sax Buttons"BMI song catalogs! I later became one of of a handful of "For Cash Songwriters!" in Nashville at that time and Red always looked forward to my visits, our great fellowship in the Lord Jesus,the work of my ministry as an evangelist and he absolutely loved what I wrote and loved my stage and songwriters name "Sax Buttons!" as well as my approach to country vocals as a singer songwriter! He always wanted to record me and put out a record on Sur-Speed and wanted to record with me my upbeat ,''Main Attraction!" and a ballad I wrote, "Could You Ever Give Your Heart Again!" But sadly I have always regretted that Red and I never got around to a recording session. Toward the end as his health was failing rapidly in the early 1990's he gave me back the song "Main Attraction!" and canceled the publishing contract! Both of those songs still remain in my BMI song catalogs!
Red was indeed an early master at recording and audio engineering and could do more with single, 2 track and 8 track reel to reel recording than most anyone in the independent record industry in the early days of country music. He always had a core group of great studio players who could churn out any style of music and most of his custom record session work went down in one take! He liked the rough and raw sounds of grassroots country, gospel, blues, rock and soul music and the rougher it was the better he liked it and he never over produced it! One has only to listen to the records he produced to understand what a great producer and recording genius that he was and what he has left behind is truly an amazing recorded music history of grassroots Americana! Some of the great records that Red produced that I like so much are Reds' recordings with blues man Shy Guy Douglas which Red had some success with on 78 RPMS' in the early 50's & single 45's in the 60's after a test pressing recorded by Red that Douglas did for Delta Records in 1949! Shy Guy went on to appear on EXCELLO, MGM , RHINO and many other labels with his rough and rock'n blues numbers and a number of re-releases , compilations and some other "in the vault" and never released cuts that Red had done on Douglas in the 60's and 70's for Sur-Speed! Red was always strapped for the lack of money and those that could have funded many of his record projects somehow just could not see the grassroots magic and music vision that Red had for Sur-Speed records and many of the artists that Red wanted to record and release never got out and one only had to listen to the tons of songs and artists on the jumbled reels of tape that once stacked the many shelves of Sur-Speed!.... to hear what could have been!
Red loved the indie record business and he was a great pioneer in the independent recording and music publishing business and there are many legendary stories about Red, and one story has it that Red at one time owned in music publishing "Just Walking In The Rain!" which was the signature song of the great teen idol of the late 40's "Johnnie Ray!" which that song sold 35 million singles! As a music producer and recording engineer Red developed some great sound and audio recording techniques in the early Nashville country music industry that helped record labels and studios in so many ways to create what became known worldwide as... "The Nashville Sound!"
By the early 1970s, Red was using the old Bullet label primarily as a custom label. He often ran little printed ads in many national magazine publications such as Ladies Home Journal, Field & Stream, Popular Mechanics and many others to attract would be artist to come and record with him and many came from all over the USA and Canada who after talking with Red were more than willing to pay for the privilege of recording for the once great Bullet label.
In addition to the hundreds of custom record projects for night club and honky tonk country bar bands, Red released some really great Country records on the Sur-Speed label during the 1960's and 70's! By the 1980's, Red was leasing out his recording studio to any and all who could make use of it and doing small runs of cassette duplication and 45 record pressings for many indie labels overseas. By the late 1990's, he had for the most part retired and then crossed over the mountain in 2002. He was truly one of the great post war independent record pioneering men and left a huge legacy of many hundreds of great recordings in country, blues, soul and gospel music many of which were never cataloged and are I am sure there are many just floating around out there still in grassroots America in closets and forgotten boxes in basements or attics!
Many of the Bullet and Sur-Speed records have now become highly collectable records as they represent in so many wonderful ways what was really taking place at the grass roots of American music in the 50' 60's, 70's and 80's!....what a legacy Red has left behind for others to enjoy and hear what one man could accomplish in the independent record industry of days gone by! His amazing recorded work and the great legacy of recorded music that he has left the music world truly belongs in the country music hall of fame and a plaque with his likeness should be on display there right now as he is more than worthy to receive such accolades even though he never had a hit record on Sur-Speed! The Bullet, Sur-Speed and Delta catalogs were purchased by Bluesland Productions of Nashville in the mid 1990s which I was most happy to hear about and have since discovered that Bluesland is doing compilations of Reds' work and are available for anyone to enjoy and for record collectors!
Red's influence upon my life, my music and ministry was indeed far reaching, heartfelt and benevolent and like his family we miss him dearly but I have many wonderful and truly fond memories of the many days and hours I spent with Red in all the wonderful years that I knew this great old master recording and independent record man who loved Jesus with all of his heart and always had a smile and a handshake for all who found their way to his converted old barn, record pressing plant and recording studio at Bon Aqua Tennessee where he spent his final days still doing recordings!
A few years before Red's death I had the honor to visit him once again, hand him my guitar and hear him play and pick out the "The Old Rugged Cross!" It was a great solo performance that still rings out joyfully in my ears!.... in a word, I just Loved ...Red Wortham as did the many thousands who knew and loved him for what he accomplished as a little ole guy who was crippled and was born in a back room over a little run down grocery store and came into this world with very few advantages or resources in life but his love for music and the people who struggled to be heard in it made him a little giant in the independent record business! His legacy still lives on and his life was spent in service to others many of which stood in his presence but failed to see him for the genius he really was.... but Jesus knew his heart and blessed him all of his life!
Thank You Lord Jesus!
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