Back On The Comeback Trail With Rockabilly Legend Bernie Early
Possessing more lives than your regular cat and thankfully so, the life and times of Rockabilly Hall of Fame inductee Bernie Early is the stuff of legends. From writing and recording a million plus selling single back in 1958 for MGM Records, to meeting fellow big names of the time from Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, as well as landing a date with Connie Francis, stories of Mafia involvement in his career and numerous near-death occurrences, hence the feline analogy, it is safe to say that Bernie Early has certainly experienced a colourful life.
Only recently, there was another twist of fate for Bernie Early when everything was not exactly how it should have been during two particular mornings last summer. It turned out that the Canadian Rockabilly legend had developed a cyst on his brain, after making the decision to swing by the local hospital after feeling a tad unwell, and with surgery, therefore, urgently required.
Famous Last Words (FLW) learned of this fate when an email showed up in the Inbox approximately eight weeks after Bernie Early had been in hospital, and after our previously scheduled interview for the same time period last year suddenly, and naturally, collapsed. True to his character, this latest setback in his life was not going to defeat him, as it was business as usual for Bernie Early because it was only a matter of days after discharging himself from hospital that he was back performing live and writing new song material.
“You hear the resonance in my voice?” begins Bernie Early down the telephone line from his home in Florida. “I lost that for years, as there was a cyst that they removed from my brain.”
Can you remember exactly how you felt before submitting yourself to hospital?
“I woke up one morning lying on my left side, and when I rolled over to my right it felt as if someone had picked me up and started to throw me around the room at fifty miles an hour! I sat on the edge of the bed and felt as if I was about to be sick, but then the feeling went away. So being the dumbass musician, I went and ate breakfast at the restaurant nearby and played my two jobs and went home. The next morning was the same thing where I had breakfast and played my two jobs, only this time, on my way home, I thought to myself that I should go to the hospital. So I went to the hospital and they fiddled around for a bit and took an MRI before I was informed that I had a cyst in the middle of my brain. I asked the doctor if that was dangerous and he said it was lucky that I woke up!
“I lost thirty pounds for the first eleven days as the food was awful! Three days after my operation, I wanted to get out of there but I was told that I couldn’t because of the operation. I said that I wanted to get out of there because I wasn’t going to eat that food or otherwise I’m going to drop dead! I was told that I could use a walker and if I could make it to the hall and back, then I could get out of there. So I’m walking out and holding on to the walls as I didn’t walk too good, but I managed to get out of the front door and finally to my car. The first place that I went to was McDonalds and it was lucky that I didn’t die eating that crap [laughing]! Then I went home and I was dizzy for a couple of days, but I decided to schedule some jobs and started playing again [and I noticed] that all of a sudden my voice had come back!”
One thing that is noticeable from the manner in which Bernie Early describes himself and his music is that he is a very confident man, and one who is definitely made of sterner stuff; quite possibly Kryptonite considering his recent scare. Such examples regarding his character pop up during various intervals throughout the course of this interview, as he relays a few anecdotes about his career and personal life, but more noteworthy is his ability to simply laugh off life-threatening experiences or the fact that he has often been dogged by bad luck yet shown great tenacity to bounce back and set in motion the same routine as before i.e. writing music and performing live.
“I believe in God, and I never bullshit God,” says Bernie Early when considering reasons for his recent recovery. “I’ve been dead before – drowned when I was a kid. I’ve been in forty-eight car accidents with other people driving. I’ve been in three plane crashes. I’m the only person in the world to fall off a crystal mountain 400 miles from the North Pole and landed on a ledge and stayed there for five hours until they came and rescued me. The only thing that scares me is the damn drivers here in my county, as they can’t drive worth a damn!”
Before getting to the crux of the discussion regarding Bernie Early’s legendary status as one of the celebrated Hall of Famers in the world of rockabilly, the former rockabilly cat – we say former because he regards himself more as a straight country singer these days – is keen to discuss his latest songs, and one song in particular, ‘Love Story’ which, apparently, has been attracting a bit of attention in America and his homeland of Canada.
“I put it [‘Love Story’] out three years ago and nobody paid attention to it,” says Bernie. “It’s not the same thing as Taylor Swift’s song, but I wrote it before she wrote hers, and now they’re [radio stations] starting to jump on it! I’m on rotation on a radio station in Canada with four million listeners, and they’re playing me over in Georgia as we emailed the song to 3000 stations the other day, so we’ll see what happens with that. ‘Love Story’ is the kind of song that can be used on a pop, country or middle-of-the-road station because of its broad appeal, as indicated by the mix station that it’s being played on now, and therefore I’m very excited!”
This is the very essence of Bernie Early where he recently underwent a life-changing experience that nearly saw him joining his rockabilly comrades in the sky, according the hospital where he underwent his surgery, and here we find him brimming with enthusiasm for one of his latest compositions when many other individuals would have given up the ghost aeons ago.
“I love life and I love life in general, but everybody gets so uptight all of the time,” remarks Bernie. “Just live the damn thing, as that’s why God put you on this Earth for. Just live it!”
If there’s a chance of Top 10 glory once more, then Bernie Early is likely to succeed simply based on his zest for life and eye for detail when he explains, “Nobody is doing this [country music anymore], they’re crying [out] for old type country and that’s why Europe is still doing that type of stuff,” he concludes proudly playing ‘Love Story’ down the telephone via his PC and FLW nodding in agreement due to being immersed in this memorable ditty.
Having been writing and recording his music and promoting it through his own record label by the name of Rockin Truckin Records, Bernie Early is hoping to lease some of his more recent recorded works to any willing suitors throughout Europe.
“I’ve got a damn good sound!” he explains confidently regarding his latest work. “As I mentioned earlier, since my brain surgery I’ve got my voice back as far as the depth in it, as I was born a bass baritone. So God works in mysterious ways; either I’ll kill the b***** or he’ll sing better [laughing]! I sing better now than when I was nineteen (Hear, hear, FLW). I don’t read music, but I’m starting to write some really good stuff, so that’s kind of encouraging.”
The prowess of Bernie Early’s song writing has always been there and was one of the reasons why, during the 1950s, MGM Records decided to offer the then nineteen year-old and fresh-faced Canadian a five-year contract and a dream of a lifetime. One can only speculate at what this must have felt like for Bernie Early at such a young age, and during a period when life seemed so much more colourful due to the emergence of rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll.
This particular period in history with MGM Records for Bernie Early resulted in a smash hit single of astronomical proportions by way of the irresistibly catchy ‘Rock Doll’ and flipside containing the equally engrossing ‘Your Kisses Kill Me’; something of which Famous Last Words (FLW) is eager to learn more of, as well as the thoughts of Bernie Early regarding this specific phase in his life.
“I had the same manager as Fats Domino, as Fats Domino and a whole bunch of them came to town and did a show,” starts Bernie Early on the process of gaining a contract with MGM Records. “A friend of mine knew they were in town, as he worked for a newspaper, and therefore tried to find out where they were staying. Once he managed to do that, we got to see them in the motel where they were staying. There was a room full of managers and I played the tape and nobody said anything except Fats Domino’s manager. He asked me, ‘What do you want to do with the song?’ and I replied, ‘I don’t know. Sell it or something.’ He asked if I had a manager, which I didn’t, and so he offered to take the tape back to New York, as he lived in Philadelphia, and said that he would give me a call. So, three weeks later I got a call from him and he asked if I could fly to New York on Monday, but I said that I didn’t have any money, to which he replied, ‘Steal it!'” continues Bernie laughing. “So I said, ‘Yeah, fine, I can borrow it from my cousin’. I was booked into the Park Sheraton [Hotel], but when I showed up, there was not a soul for two days! So I thought what the heck is going on! Then I got a call from Fats Domino’s manager, as he always called me Barney, ‘Hello Barney?’ ‘Yeah?’ ‘I bet you thought that we had got lost?’ and I remember sounding relieved. I was informed that I was going to be chauffeured in a limo to MGM to see if we could get a record contract. Fats Domino’s manager finished with, ‘Don’t talk to anybody’ and I replied, ‘I don’t know anybody!'”
Do you remember much about MGM Records and the actual contract negotiations that took place?
“In those days, MGM looked like an old building, but inside it was all modern and there was a big picture of Hank Williams hanging on the wall,” recollects Bernie. “I remember the guy who met us at the door as he looked at me and said, ‘You look like Hank Williams!’ and I replied, ‘Would you like a Hank Williams song?’ and he said, ‘Spare me!’ [laughing]. Then we went upstairs and they had four or five of these folding tables full of demos stacked high. I was greeted by MGM’s A&R Morty Craft who referred to the demos on the tables, ‘What makes you any better than anybody on those tables?’ There was call put out to Arnold Maxin, who was the President of MGM back then, and it was explained to him that Fats Domino’s manager has got some kind of hick, hillbilly from Canada and I remember thinking, what an asshole [laughing]! So five of them came down in suits, and after I sang the song, Arnold Maxin said, ‘Welcome Bernie to MGM, you have a five-year contract’. I thanked them and was immediately asked if I could go to New Orleans as Fats [Domino’s] band was getting ready to hit the road. I said that I could go to hell and back for MGM! So I was asked if I could come back in a month, which I agreed to do.
“I came back in a month, and I was still in Departure when I got a call from Mickey Baker [Mickey & Sylvia ‘Love Is Strange’ fame] who said that he would pick me up. He mentioned the arrangements for my record session and that I had three songs. He also suggested that he had a song that I might like. When I arrived [recording studio] they’re [session musicians] foolin’ around and they tried to put this song on me – terrible song, not even close! I said, ‘I can’t sing this Mickey!’ ‘Why the hell not?’ he replied, and I said that, ‘It’s not my type of song.'”
What type of song was it for you to react in such a way?
“It wasn’t a good rock song, I don’t know what the hell it was,” explains Bernie. “He [Mickey Baker] said that he’d wasted his time and would therefore have to do the session to make any money. The recording session was scheduled for eleven that evening, and Mickey said that they would pick me up and take me to Coastal Studio. When I arrived, there was a whole bunch of people in the studio and there was a bank of speakers – thirty-two speakers I counted for playback and that type of thing. The first song was ‘Your Kisses Kill Me’ and it was Take 25 when I said to the engineer, ‘I’m Sorry!’ and he replied, ‘It’s not you Bernie, it’s the musicians!’ So we got it done and then moved on to the next one, ‘Rock Doll’, and Mickey said that he couldn’t play it and needed another guitar. So he went over to one corner of the studio and there was a six-stringed guitar with five strings on it, this is how good this guy was, and he played the intro with that. [After the recording session] I went back home and a month later they [MGM] put it out through Quality Records in Canada. After that, the record made Top 10 all over the place, only I never got paid for it. I never got paid by BMI for radio performers, and it was kinda frustrating.”
Did you establish why you did not receive any payment for the song ‘Rock Doll’?
“MGM put out the song ‘Rock Doll’, which sold over a million [copies],” says Bernie. “Unfortunately, my manager got in a fight with them and got off of MGM, which really made me mad! That was about it, and I never got paid for nothing. I called up MGM [regarding the payment] and they said talk to your manager and then hung up on me, so that was the last I heard from them. I never got paid.”
But you sold over one million copies of ‘Rock Doll’! How could you not get paid for selling such a large quantity of records?
“I didn’t know that until probably seven or eight years ago,” lands the final uppercut to the jaw sending FLW reeling to the canvass in a complete state of shock regarding Bernie Early’s revelation that he was unaware of the actual number of copies sold of his single, ‘Rock Doll’, until recently. “We have a nostalgia-type record shop here [Florida] where you can get older records or reproductions and all that kind of stuff. This guy working there said that I was featured in a new book, which I knew nothing about, and that I was in there because I had sold over a million records for MGM. I thought he was joking, but it was true. So I called MGM and the guy [working] there explained that, if I didn’t get paid back then, it was too late now because they’re no longer a record label. What they did was to lease it out to Bear [Family] Records in Germany.” (Bernie Early can be found on: That’ll Flat Git It! Vol. 7 Rockabilly From The Vaults of MGM Records on Bear Family Records)
Do you remember much about the promotion for ‘Rock Doll’?
“Oh yeah, they played the hell out of it on the radio,” remembers Bernie. “It made number one in my hometown, as well as making the Top 10 in a whole bunch of other places. It went Top 10 or 20 in England, as it was released all over the world. In addition to that, I did American Bandstand [US music and performance television show] coast-to-coast with Connie Francis and Sheb Wooley.”
That must have been quite an experience appearing on American Bandstand with Dick Clark hosting, and considering the popularity of this TV show during this time?
“I’ll tell you a funny story,” replies Bernie in relation to his appearance on American Bandstand. “My manager was from Philly [Philadelphia] and he dropped me off at the reception of the television studio and said, ‘Don’t talk to nobody!’ and I replied, ‘That’s got to be your standard line!’ Anyway, I was sitting there next to a roll-top desk and the women are typing away when then this guy walks in and asks who I was waiting for, and I mentioned Dick Clark. The man asked if I had ever met Dick Clark and I said that I’d never even heard of him. It turned out that it was Dick Clark I was talking to! So the doors to the studio were opened and there must have been two hundred people standing there. Dick Clark said to me, ‘You and I are going to go coast-to-coast with fifty million viewers!’ After he said that, I remember walking away [to start preparing for the performance] when all of a sudden this guy punches me in the back and it was Sheb Wooley who said, ‘You little p****! That was my spot’ [laughing]. Dick Clark mentioned that everyone should go out and buy ‘Rock Doll’, which was the golden stamp because if Dick Clark said that, then it often meant a quarter of a million records sold.”
Was ‘Rock Doll’ based on any particular woman in your life at the time?
“No, just a girl…’Standing on a corner when you came along, you wore tight blue jeans…’ you know, typical teenage stuff. I sing it better now than when I was nineteen,” laughs Bernie.
What sort of recognition did you receive from members of the public in relation to the chart success of ‘Rock Doll’?
“In Canada people voted me number one rock singer,” responds Bernie and sounding still fresh with enthusiasm at the memory of this accolade. “You see, Canada didn’t give a damn about Canadians [during this time]. I grew up with Paul Anka and Rich Little, but everything had to have an American stamp on it. However, it’s a big world now, with seven billion people out there and they’re playing my songs in India, Australia, New Zealand, Norway and Austria for example. Rockabilly is still big in Europe, but not as much here [in America].”
What are your memories of the whole rockabilly scene when you released ‘Rock Doll’?
“I wasn’t left in long enough to really get in to it,” answers Bernie. “I remember talking to Buddy Holly, and he was about 6 ft. 3″ and therefore rather tall. It was about six months later that he died in that plane crash. I think I met Waylon Jennings with him because Waylon was playing bass for Buddy Holly at the time. I opened for Brenda Lee a couple of times, and that was it. There was never a discussion about recording together.”
You mentioned that you weren’t “left in long enough to really get in to it”, but wasn’t rockabilly starting to wither in terms of its popularity around this time?
“Yeah, what happened was, after ‘Rock Doll’ came out and did its thing, rockabilly was dead because The Beatles came in and kicked everybody’s ass and killed a lot of careers. That’s why Conway Twitty was smart because he switched to country music at a time before everything went down the tubes.”
Was rockabilly very prominent in Canada during the 50s?
“Oh yeah,” confirms Bernie. “The thing is, you’ve got to remember one thing, what America did – burp for example – and then so did Canada. Canada, I’m sorry to say this as I’m still the Canadian, are followers and not innovators.”
Do you remember any of the rockabilly singers from Canada?
“We had a few with one of them being Bobby Curtola and the other being Jack Scott,” recollects Bernie on the Canadian rockabilly artists. “Jack Scott was the most prominent one. We’re all in the [Rockabilly] Hall of Fame and we’re the only Canadians in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame as all the rest are Americans. I’m surprised they allowed us in there!” he finishes laughing.
What did you decide to do after this particular episode in your life with MGM?
“I ended up on a whole host of small labels, and I had a number three song in Toronto, as I worked for Cachet Records. I also did a country song ‘Chaser For The Blues’ and I got that on Columbia Records in Canada, as I met a guy called Gordon Hill who worked for the record label and he did all of the publicity. I sold, I don’t know, between seven and eight thousand in the clubs, as I did twenty-five years [playing live] in bars, and Gordon [Hill] suggested that we get it out on Columbia and I said, ‘Why the hell do you want to release it on Columbia when it’s already been out on the radio for five months?’ So they still put it out on Columbia, and I don’t know what they did for it in terms of promotion.”
What were the sales like for this particular song with Columbia?
“Well, I don’t what they sold on Columbia, but I sold seven or eight thousand in the clubs at a buck and a quarter, so he [manager] got all his money back and made a profit, but [just] as we were getting ready to reinvest that into more stuff, he dropped dead! He was forty-six years old. That’s the luck I kinda got. In fact, that was the last time that I recorded for years because I quit recording and moved to the States.”
What inspired you to start writing and recording again after such a lengthy hiatus away from the music scene?
“A friend of mine, Bobby Brown [Bobby Brown and The Curios], he’s also in the Hall of Fame, suggested that I put out some of my old stuff, so we started doing that,” replies Bernie. “Right now, I’m on about thirty compilation albums; six of them with Elvis, which really freaks me out! He [Elvis] must be going down the tubes if he’s on a compilation album [with me],” he says jokingly. “I’m on there with Ricky Nelson, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, who I did a show with [in addition to Buddy Holly and Jo-Ann Campbell] at The Montreal Forum. So that was about it, up until five years ago when I decided to start recording again. We decided to put a lot out in Europe, and started to make the Top 10 over there in terms of the independent charts. They were playing me in the States too, but it’s hard to get on the radio here because it’s all sewed up by corporations. So I’m leaning towards Europe to see if I can get on an European label and release some of this stuff that I’ve got. I have a team here – probably twenty-five ex-Nashville session players that have been helping me, which is incredible!”
How does the music industry compare back then during the 50s, and in terms of what’s happening now?
“It was more exciting back then, but you didn’t have the communication like you’ve got today. For example, I can go all around the world just plugging my songs and suddenly I can send them out to three thousand radio stations, which is great, especially if you can talk some of them into playing it. If we’d had that in those days, there would’ve been a panic. There would have been a hell of a lot more records sold, but I think it’s oversaturated today, and you’ve got a lot of crap, but what are you going to do with that?”
Referring to another of your compositions, ‘Rockabilly, Hillbilly’, is that song a reference to Elvis Presley?
“Yes, it is,” confirms Bernie immediately and then proceeds to sing some of the song’s lyrics. “It’s a catchy song! They played it on a bunch of radio stations in Canada – Bell Media, which is very hard to get on.”
Did you ever meet Elvis?
“No, but my ex-partner Bobby [Brown] did, and ended up spending the day with him. Bobby was on the road a lot and played bass for Conway Twitty and other people and that type of thing. I’ve known Bobby Brown for fifty-five years and he had a really good rock band at the time and came to my hometown. He was going out with my wife’s cousin, so that’s how we met. He ended up moving to Canada and married a French woman.”
Despite never meeting Elvis, how does it feel to be an inductee in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame?
“I kept looking for my name in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame because someone informed me that I had been included. I said that I hadn’t been, but this person was adamant about my inclusion. So I checked and there it was, ‘honourable mention’. So I’m looking at these other people in there, and I know Wanda Jackson and people like that, but then ended up wondering who the hell these other people were! I decided to call them at Nashville and explained my history and the honourable mention. This guy asked who I was and I told him and he replied, ‘You’re still alive!’ [laughing] and I said, ‘Yeah, I’m talking to you!’ So he said that he’d send me my application and certificate, and that’s how I got into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.”
With Bernie Early recapturing his passion for song writing, and finding some form of justice knowing that his contribution to the annals of rockabilly with his single ‘Rock Doll’ was deserved of his inclusion in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, helped to pave over the cracks left from his time with MGM. By receiving such an accolade is great testament to the music of Bernie Early, but his greatest achievement remains his own strength of character, to not only comeback after such a recent life-threatening condition and immediately throw his hat straight back into the ring of live performing, but also his ability to find humour when life really is dragging you through the mire of the worst kind of luck imaginable (i.e. one million record sales and no form of payment at the end of it is one example that springs to mind). Therefore, the last words really are left to this rockabilly legend, as the life and times of Bernie Early is a fascinating tale that fully deserves its place in the history of rock ‘n’ roll.
“Life is wonderful! I’m broke, but I’m famous. What a pain in the ass that is [laughing]! I still play thirty-five shows a month round here. I was doing seventy, but they keep cutting stuff down due to the economy here in the States being terrible. If you want to holdup a bank here, you’ve got to make an appointment so that they can pull some money out [laughing]! In terms of the song writing, I’ve got a new one that I wrote, kind of a Waylon Jennings type of thing called ‘Man In Waiting’ [sings some of the lyrics] and it’s catchy as hell! One of the other songs I wrote recently is ‘Betty Lou’, and that’s got Joey Dee’s [Joey Dee and The Starliters ‘Peppermint Twist’ fame] son, Ronnie Dee, playing saxophone on it. He’s a teacher here at the Tampa University of Music, and he goes on the road with his father every now and then too.”
This guy asked who I was and I told him and he replied, 'You're still alive!' [laughing] and I said, 'Yeah, I'm talking to you!'"
Bernie Early On His Entry to The Rockabilly Hall of Fame
FLW - From the Tapes
ANECDOTE 1: A meeting with ‘The Killer’ himself!
“I had to laugh because there was one time when I was standing with Jerry Lee Lewis in Montreal, and I remarked to Jerry Lee Lewis that, ‘Elvis isn’t the king of rock because you are’ and he replied, ‘I Know!’ What a conceited ass!” laughs Bernie with much affection in his voice. “In addition to that, Jerry Lee Lewis came here to Saint Pete Beach and they wouldn’t rent him a piano because he wrecks every damn piano! Great entertainer though, great entertainer, and he sings good country and sings good gospel and he does it fantastically. He’s dynamite, but scrambled eggs for brains!”
ANECDOTE 2: Those embarrassing moments…
“I was performing at this really rough club in Quebec and these people were punks. I was sitting there with this guy and his wife and his sister and we were all drinking beer. Anyway, she [sister] spills her beer all down the front of my pants [trousers] and then they’re calling for me on stage [laughs]. So, here I am going up with my pants wet at the front, which I tried drying off with a towel but to no avail, and I had a grey suit on as well. So they [audience] all started to laugh, and I ended up explaining that I’d tried finding the bathroom for the last half an hour and ended up asking if anybody knew where I could go to have a damn good p***! The place went nuts [with laughter] and I said to a guy that, ‘You’ve got to adlib in this world!”