From Ann-Margret to Bob Dylan and George Jones to Simon & Garfunkel, Nashville harmonica virtuoso and multi-instrumentalist Charlie McCoy has contributed to some of the most successful recordings of country, pop, and rock music of the last six decades. As the leader of the Hee Haw “Million-Dollar Band,” McCoy spent more than two decades appearing on the television screens of country music fans around the United States. And, as a solo artist, he has entertained audiences across North America, Europe, and Japan and has earned numerous honors as a result. Fifty Cents and a Box Top: The Creative Life of Nashville Session Musician Charlie McCoy offers rare firsthand insights into life in the recording studio, on the road, and on the small screen as Nashville became a leading center of popular music production in the 1960s and as a young McCoy established himself as one of the most sought after session musicians in the country.
About the Author
Over the course of his nearly six-decade career as a session musician, harmonica virtuoso, and multi-instrumentalist Charlie McCoy has appeared on thousands of country, pop, and rock recordings. A member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Musicians Hall of Fame, and the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame, McCoy also led the famous “Million-Dollar Band” on the syndicated country music program Hee Haw for more than two decades. Travis D. Stimeling is associate professor of musicology at West Virginia University, where he also directs the WVU Bluegrass and Old-Time Bands. His previous books include Cosmic Cowboys, New Hicks: The Countercultural Sounds of Austin’s Progressive Country Music Scene, The Country Music Reader, and Songwriting in Contemporary West Virginia: Profiles and Reflections, published by WVU Press.
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Fifty Cents and a Box Top
The Creative Life of Nashville Session Musician Charlie McCoy
By Charlie McCoy, Travis D. Stimeling
West Virginia University PressCopyright © 2017 West Virginia University Press
All rights reserved.
WEST VIRGINIA DAYS
Oak Hill, West Virginia, is a small town located in the middle of what was once one of the largest coal-producing regions in the state. Home to only a couple of thousand people, it was a big town compared to some of the coal camps that were in the surrounding hollows. In the 1930s, just a few years before I was born, some travel writers came to Oak Hill as part of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, and they described it as "a merchant's town with well-stocked stores, strong banks, active civic enterprises, and an unusually large number of places of entertainment." On payday, folks came from all around to shop, take in movies, and talk about what was going on in the surrounding communities. The rest of the time, it was a fairly quiet, small coalfield town.
These days, Oak Hill is probably most famous for being the place where the great country singer and songwriter Hank Williams was found dead in the backseat of his car. He was passing through Oak Hill on his way to a New Year's Day show in Canton, Ohio, as 1952 gave way to 1953. It is also the place where, in March 1941, I was born to Opal Winona Kelley and Ray Hampton McCoy.
My parents divorced when I was two years old. My mother, who wanted to stay near her family, remained in Oak Hill to take care of me. My dad, on the other hand, set out for Miami.
Oak Hill had a radio station, WOAY, that featured live musical acts. One of them, a fellow named Elmer Hickman, lived across the street from us. He called himself "the Blue Mountain Yodeler" and would sing and play by himself for fifteen minutes every weekday morning. He always opened his show with Eddy Arnold's "Cattle Call." One day, when I was about five years old, he invited me over and let me strum on his guitar. It was my introduction to playing music.
Later that year, my mother took a job as a legal secretary and, as a consequence, needed to move us to the county seat, Fayetteville. Although it was only six miles north of Oak Hill, it was almost a different world. Just a short distance from the majestic New River Gorge, Fayetteville was a sleepy little town with lots of beautiful trees and big old houses. Those same writers who visited Oak Hill described my new home as a town "without bustle and hurry," and it was a great place to be a kid. There was always a lot to explore, and on the weekends, there were opportunities to go down to the theater and watch movies with my friends.
In first grade, I developed anemia and had to spend seventeen days in the hospital. The doctors recommended a move to a warmer climate to avoid the harsh West Virginia winters. By the time I reached second grade, my dad was settled in Miami and had a good job there, so my parents decided that I would need to leave my friends at Fayetteville Elementary School that October to spend West Virginia's cold months in the tropical Miami air. I am sure that this was a tough decision for my mother, but she loved me enough to let me go to Florida during the school year.
In Miami, we lived in a room that my dad had rented from the Pollard family, a couple who had moved to Miami from Michigan, and I attended Gladeview Elementary School in the northwest part of the city. My first year of school in Miami was a hard one because I missed my friends in West Virginia so much. At the end of the school year, my mother traveled to Miami to take me back to Fayetteville for the summer. I couldn't wait to get back there to see all my old buddies again!
That summer, I was introduced to the instrument that would end up being my main musical outlet: the harmonica. Like a lot of boys in 1949, I read comic books, and I saw an ad in the back of one of them announcing: "You can play harmonica in seven days or your money back. Just fifty cents and a box top." Well, I convinced my mother that I just had to have one, and she sent off the two quarters and the required box top. I waited for what seemed like an eternity, but one day, it showed up in the mail. I was overjoyed as I opened the package, and no sooner did the harmonica find my mouth than I was running around the house making all sorts of noise on it. Before long, my mother had heard about all she could stand and banished me to the porch. That was bad news for the neighborhood dogs and cats.
It didn't take long for me to grow tired of huffing and puffing and not making any sounds that resembled music. I took out the box the harmonica came in and peeked inside to find a piece of paper with instructions. I brought the paper to my mother, who patiently explained that when it said "blow," I needed to exhale, and when it said "draw," I was supposed to inhale. She also showed me how the numbers they provided corresponded to the holes on the harp. Using this newfound information, I started to work my way through the four songs that were printed on the instruction sheet: "Suwannee River," "Oh, Susanna," "My Country 'Tis of Thee," and "Polly Wolly Doodle." But, despite my initial interest, I soon forgot about the harmonica because baseball season was in full swing.
At the end of the summer, it was time for me to pack up and move back to Miami, but I protested. I didn't want to move away from my friends. I begged my mother and dad to let me stay in West Virginia, and, despite concerns about my health, they relented and allowed me to stay.
Third grade was the year that I decided I wanted to be the next Gene Autry or Roy Rogers. Like most kids in small-town America, I spent many of my Saturday afternoons watching western movies with my friends. You could go to the movies and have a soft drink and popcorn for twenty-five cents, a perfectly reasonable price. Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, the "singing cowboys," were two of the biggest stars of the day, appearing in dozens of great western films. Their movies included a lot of great musical numbers and had plenty of action scenes to keep our interest. Many of my friends thought that Autry and Rogers were sissies because they played the guitar and sang, but I didn't really care. I didn't have an opinion on the singing, but, thinking back to my visit with Elmer Hickman, I was hooked on the guitars they played.
That Christmas, I drew a picture of a cowboy with a guitar and told my mother that I wanted to be another Gene or Roy. To my delight, a beautiful Harmony guitar from Montgomery Ward appeared under the tree on Christmas morning. (I still have it today.) On Christmas day, I took my new treasure to my grandparents' house, where my uncle, Keith Kelley, surprised me by picking it up and playing it. He showed me some chords, and I was on my way to learning the guitar. Soon, I could play the chords while singing "Home on the Range." My mother thought it was amazing and cute that her son could actually do this.
She was so proud, in fact, that she volunteered for me to play and sing between the acts of a school play at Fayetteville Elementary School. When she broke the news to me, I was petrified. There was no way that I was going to play in front of all my friends, and singing was absolutely out of the question! I tried to beg off, but my mother was firm. "No way," she said. "You can do this, and you are going to do this."
She may have been adamant, but I had a plan to get out of it. About fifteen minutes before it was time to leave for the play, I went to the tool drawer, found the wire pliers, and snipped each of the six strings. My mother was livid, and I got a much-deserved spanking as a result. But the spanking didn't hurt nearly as much as going without guitar strings for the rest of the school year and all of the next summer.
My mother remarried, and we moved in with my stepfather, Robert J. Thrift Jr. He was a successful lawyer and was elected to be the circuit court judge. Married life had its ups and downs for my mother. The relationship was stormy at best. My half-brother, William A. "Buddy" Learmouth, was seven years my senior and had already moved out to live with his uncle. My stepfather was not terribly supportive of my music either. He didn't care much for my harmonica or my guitar, with or without its strings.
As things got worse at home, my mother once more proved her love for me. She called my dad and asked him to come up to West Virginia and take me back to Florida so that I wouldn't have to live in this bad situation. I was crushed. Although I loved my dad, I didn't want to leave my friends in West Virginia again. Even worse, it seemed that there was little doubt that I could ever return.
When we arrived in Miami, my dad helped me unpack my suitcase, and he found my harmonica. "Where did you get this?" he asked. I told him about the box top and fifty cents. To my surprise, he picked it up and began to play "Home Sweet Home," both the melody and his own rhythmic accompaniment. I was mesmerized.
"How do you do that?" I asked, eager for new knowledge about the instrument I'd been playing around with. He showed me how to play the rhythm and melody at the same time, a skill that served me quite well when I didn't have other people to play with.
Once again, I enrolled at Gladeview Elementary School, a school at least five times the size of Fayetteville Elementary. I grew more confident in my musical abilities and began to want to play for an audience. So, less than one year after cutting the strings off my guitar, I volunteered to play harmonica at a school assembly, and I was permitted to play the four songs that I had learned with the original harmonica instructions.
During my fourth grade year, my mother and stepfather worked out some of their problems, which made it safe for me to return to West Virginia for the summer holiday. From that point, I split my year between the South Florida coast and the West Virginia mountains. This compromise proved to be a blessing in disguise, thanks especially to South Florida's superior school system.
My West Virginia summers presented the opportunity for lots of boyhood fun, and, as my friends and I became even more serious about our music, we started to play music together. One summer, I entered a talent contest with two of my West Virginia buddies — John Absalom and Buddy Lively — in nearby Ansted. Buddy played a little bit of piano, John played the ukulele and sang, and I played guitar and sang. We must have done okay because we walked away with around $5 in prize money.
Although it was difficult being away from my friends and family during the school year, being away allowed me to treasure my Mountain State summers. To this day, I still consider West Virginia to be my home, and I'm honored to be a member of the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame and to be the recipient of an honorary doctorate from West Virginia University. But it was in Miami that the music bug bit me hard, sending me on a lifelong search for opportunities to create new and interesting music.CHAPTER 2
When I was fifteen, Dad came home from work one night and asked, "How would you like to have an electric guitar?" As a kid who was excited about music and was getting turned on to rock and roll, Dad's question was like offering a steak to a hungry wolf. He must have seen how my eyes lit up at the suggestion.
"There is one catch, though," he warned. "If I buy this electric guitar, you have to take lessons." There was no question in my mind. Of course, I would take lessons!
As soon as I got my hands on the Gibson electric guitar and the small amplifier that came with it, I went to the studio of Elon Kealoha, a native Hawaiian musician who had relocated to Miami. His main instrument was the Hawaiian steel guitar, but he also played and taught ukulele, mandolin, and guitar. Kealoha taught several kids in my neighborhood, including Bob Frick, whose parents bought him a baritone ukulele after he showed interest in my guitar, and Jimmy Slichter, who played Hawaiian steel guitar.
During my first lesson, I learned how to play the popular theme from the 1949 film The Third Man. I must have shown some promise because it wasn't long before Kealoha asked me to join him and Jimmy Slichter for a gig at the Dade County Home Show. We played Hawaiian songs, which, while Kealoha's favorite, were not mine. It was fun playing in a group, but I just didn't have an appreciation for Hawaiian music at the time. Instead, I was a typical child of the 1950s who was far more interested in the rock-and-roll music that was dominating radio airplay at the time. At home, I preferred playing along to the music of Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, and Fats Domino to practicing the music that Kealoha wanted me to learn.
Jimmy told me that he knew a guy who could play the piano just like Fats Domino. I was a big fan of Domino's music. Elvis was quickly becoming the king of the musical universe, but I loved Domino's rhythm and blues sound. Jimmy introduced me to Harold Saive, who knocked my socks off by playing the introduction to "Blueberry Hill." As soon as I heard him, I had a brilliant idea: I wanted to start a rock-and-roll band.
I mentioned my idea to Kealoha, who promptly shot down the idea. I'm sure that he was getting tired of seeing all his students playing rock and roll, which didn't require the kind of technical skills that he was teaching. Rock and roll was probably cutting into his bottom line, and he warned me that it wasn't wise to spend too much time working on it. To him, rock and roll was a passing fad that wouldn't help me make a living as a musician. "You can play all the rock and roll you want," he said, "but 'Society Swing' is where the real money is. If you can play the 'Businessman's Bounce,' you can always work."
Despite his warnings, I was undeterred and quickly formed a band to play at a school assembly. I knew a guy at school named Paul Hooper, who played acoustic bass and would be an ideal partner to recreate the rockabilly music that was filling the airwaves. Jimmy Slichter didn't seem to be interested in rock and roll, so Paul, Harold, Bob, and I formed a band with an old buddy of mine, Rick Haley, who told me that he could play drums. Expecting a full rock-and-roll drum set, I was disappointed when Rick showed up at the assembly with only a snare and a pair of brushes, which didn't give us the kind of energy I had hoped for. To open our show, I chose to sing Fats Domino's "I'm in Love Again," which he made famous in 1956. Rick wanted to sing with the group, too, so I said, "Why not?" He sang an Elvis song, which was met with the screams of the girls in the audience. The local radio stations that the kids listened to played a lot more of Elvis's music than the rhythm and blues that I liked, so I wasn't surprised that the audience seemed to enjoy Rick's singing more than mine. Unfortunately, the band faded from existence fairly soon after that because we didn't have any more gigs.
During the 1950s, many different kinds of businesses experimented with live music as a way to draw customers to their establishments. One night, I was at a drive-in restaurant, watching a country singer named Kent Westberry and his band. I wasn't much of a country music fan at the time. In fact, as a sixteen-year-old rock-and-roller, I didn't allow myself to enjoy country music.
While I was watching Westberry and his group, a guy I'd never met before walked up to me and asked, "Is your name Charlie McCoy?"
"Yes," I said.
"My name is Jim Yelvington," he informed me, "and I understand that you have a band."
"I used to," I replied.
"Me, too," he said. "Why don't you bring your guitar and come with me one day to meet my drummer?" I was a little leery of this guy because I wasn't used to people being so forward. Later, I would find such forwardness to be a very important part of the music business.
One Saturday, he showed up at my house in his mother's Buick and told me to get in the car. My dad was working, so I called him and asked his permission to go, and he told me that I could as long as I was home by the time he got home from work. I hopped into the car, unsure of what awaited me. Jim drove like a maniac, and I thought I was in a James Dean movie. Surely, my end was near!
Luckily, we arrived safely in front of a big house with a swimming pool. I figured that anyone who had a pool must be filthy rich. We went into the house, where Jim introduced me to his drummer friend, Jim Isbell. I don't think he was too impressed with me at first, since I came from the sticks of West Miami. But when we started playing music, any differences between us were quickly erased. It was an immediate mutual admiration society. I had never heard anyone play drums like he did.
Over the years, I became very close with Isbell's family. His sister Susan was a real babe, and I had quite a crush on her. Unfortunately, I was too young for her. Jason, his father, was one of those guys who could do anything. His mother, Dottie, even included me in her memoirs, and I am proud to be included. In June 2008, we traveled to Boone, North Carolina, to celebrate her ninetieth birthday, and, even as she approached the century mark, she remains sharp as a tack. Jim's family has always been very dear to me, just like my own family, and he and I have been friends for life.
Excerpted from Fifty Cents and a Box Top by Charlie McCoy, Travis D. Stimeling. Copyright © 2017 West Virginia University Press. Excerpted by permission of West Virginia University Press.
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Table of Contents
Foreword Travis D. Stimeling vii
1 West Virginia Days 1
2 Rock-and-Roll Charlie 7
3 The Road to Nashville 19
4 College and the Return to Nashville 26
5 Music City Opportunities 42
6 The Studio Scene 54
7 The Artists 70
8 The Recording Artist 87
9 Hee Haw and Other Television Appearances 109
10 An Artist Overseas 123
11 The Harmonica and Me 144
Conclusion: Reflections on a Good Life 153
A Note on Sources Travis D. Stimeling 167
Appendix A The Nashville Number System Charlie McCoy 171
Appendix B Charlie McCoy Album Discography 175
About the Authors 219