The Return Of A True Rockin' Cat, With Some Help From Severna Park

Where Are They Now?

December 26, 1990|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff writer

The recording resurrection of rockabilly music star Charlie Feathers began in June with a telephone call from New York City to Severna Park. It was Elektra Records on the line, wanting to speak with Billy Poore.

Sure, Poore said, he would bring Elektra's offer of a recording contract to Feathers, the Memphis, Tenn., musician who is credited with helping to create the music that Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins made famous.

Feathers, stricken with a paralyzing illness, had not cut a record since he made a single, "You Believe Everyone But Me," in 1983. He recorded his last album in 1979.

Elektra was putting together a series of albums by older artists, those who had a place in the history of American pop music but had not been heard from in some time. Independent producer Ben Vaughn thought immediately of Feathers. But would Feathers record again?

Poore, a 45-year-old songwriter and concert promoter who has made a personal mission out of Feathers' well-being, said the musician has been burned many times by recording deals that earned him little over the years but cult fame as the man who helped fuse hillbilly music and black blues to create the raw sound of rockabilly. Feathers has 28 albums, 49 singles and a compact disc to his credit but has never gained the recognition or the riches of other musicians who began their careers in the 1950s with Feathers at Sun Records.

Poore has in the last two years organized two benefit concerts for Feathers at the Severna Park Elks Club, trying to raise money to help Feathers pay his medical bills for treatment of diabetic neuropathy, a type of progressive nerve paralysis brought about by diabetes. The 1989 concert produced a $5,000 check for Feathers, but the event last June raised only $1,800.

On Father's Day weekend, Poore and his 18-year-old daughter, Stacy, drove the 940 miles to Feathers' home in east Memphis. Poore delivered both the $1,800 check and the offer from Elektra.

"In June he was doing better," Poore said this month. "His spirits were really up. The warm weather is better for him. In cold weather his legs are like slats of concrete."

Feathers said he thought he could play the recording session, but it took Poore a few days of cajoling to work through Feathers' aversion to record companies. Poore figures he's probably the only person who could have played liaison between Elektra and Feathers successfully. Feathers has told Poore in the past that he's the only Northerner he has ever trusted.

Perhaps that's because Poore was born in Memphis.

"After the third day, after Charlie played enough games with me, he finally signed the contract," he said. "It was tense."

Feathers' concern about his own health, along with the financial incentive, nudged him toward signing, Poore said.

"He didn't know how much time he had left," he said.

In the spring, doctors discovered that the 58-year-old singer -- who smoked cigarettes heavily for years -- had cancer of the left lung. The lung was removed at a Memphis hospital in October.

Two months earlier, in the steam of a Tennessee August, Feathers, his son, Bubba, and four other musicians had gathered for three days in a Memphis studio to record "the rockingest thing you ever heard," Poore said.

"It's just got the stamp of Charlie Feathers all over it. . . . You'd never know the man was in ill health. He could always rise to the occasion, especially when it comes to music."

Poore was there for the entire session, trying to ease tensions between the strong-headed Feathers and Vaughn, who did the final sound mix on the album.

"Charlie's not happy with it, because he didn't do it," Poore said.

"Charlie's got a philosophy about music: Either cut it right or don't cut it."

The band included a guitarist who wrote songs for Elvis and a drummer who backed up Jerry Lee Lewis on the original recordings of "Whole Lotta' Shakin' Goin' On" and "Great Balls of Fire." But Poore said the album will be "new music to most people. There's nothing nostalgic on it. What Charlie did is real soulful Delta cotton-patch blues rockabilly."

The album, scheduled for release in April, includes 15 of the 20 songs the band recorded. Feathers wrote seven of the 15 songs.

Now Elektra wants to pick up the contract option for a second Feathers album. But Feathers is working on just one lung. As of early this month, Poore said he felt he could sing, but it was not clear whether he would record a second album.

By the end of the year, Poore won't have to drive so far to visit his friend. He's moving with his wife and daughter to Nashville, where he plans to write music. He's been working on music full time since 1984, when he retired from the Maryland Park and Planning Commission.

Poore has written five songs that have been recorded on Rounder Records, a folk, blues and country label, and has written a Christmas song in which Aretha Franklin, Reba McEntire and Linda Ronstadt have shown interest. A number of his friends in the Nashville music industry have encouraged him to make the move, saying he'd probably find more success if he were in the midst of the action.

"I feel more comfortable, more at home down there," said Poore, the key to the Charlie Feathers revival, the only Northerner Charlie Feathers ever trusted.

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