Andy Starr

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Andy Starr was never much than one of rock 'n' roll's footnotes, in terms of his commercial impact or success, but what a footnote! Never a star in his own region, he wasn't widely known outside of the…
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Andy Starr was never much than one of rock 'n' roll's footnotes, in terms of his commercial impact or success, but what a footnote! Never a star in his own region, he wasn't widely known outside of the south. But back in 1956 and 1957, Andy Starr was rumored to be the next Elvis Presley, and a couple of times he got records out that were good enough to make the case convincingly. Needless to say, that eventuality was never realized, but he did make enough noise as a performer to record throughout the second half of the 1950's, and intermittently, into the 1990's. Born Franklin Delano Gulledge near Combs, Arkansas, in 1932, he grew up in dire poverty, and was never far from the edge of delinquency, going over the edge, according to scholar Wayne Russell, when he pulled a pistol on a teacher -- by 14, in 1947, he had left school and was riding the rails and living life as a hobo. According to those who knew him, Starr had one talent in those days beyond a knack for survival, and that was playing guitar, something he'd picked up in his abbreviated time at home and never forgotten. He was 17 when the Korean War exploded and he signed up; luckily for him, someone noticed his musical ability and he was assigned to special services rather than to a combat unit, where his fate might have been very different. He formed the Arkansas Plowboys from the ranks of fellow southerners and survived his two years in South Asia, coming out a little bit straighter in life than he'd gone in -- he still drank, sometimes to excess, but he tried regular work in a factory in Kansas before moving to California. There, he and his brothers Bob and Clark formed a new group, also christened the Arkansas Plowboys. Billing himself as Frank Starr, he played lead guitar in the band and soon so outstripped his siblings in skill and seriousness that he left them behind, musically and literally. He packed up for Texas, and in the early 1950's was scratching out a living around Denison for two dollars a night, working some of the worst roadhouses and shanty-town clubs in the state, catering to military personnel and anyone else brave enough to enter -- by some accounts, nights without barfights and flying beer bottles and chairs were rarer than those with. But he hung on and built a reputation for doing an exciting show and generating a hot rockabilly sound, and in 1955 he parlayed a spot on local radio into an audition for Joe M. Leonard Jr., of Lin and Kliff Records. Leonard was impressed enough to cut four sides with Starr, two of which, "Dig Them Squeaky Shoes" and "The Dirty Bird Song (You Can't Hardly Get Them No More)", become his debut single. Although neither his first nor his second singles were hits, Starr managed to get work on the same bills with the likes of Porter Wagoner and Grandpa Jones. He also occasionally wrote songs, including "Rockin' Reelin' Country Style." Then, in 1956, he was forced to change his name -- he and Leonard got word of a performer using the name Frank Starr working out of California, which led to the Arkansas-born singer changing his name to Andy Starr. Joe M. Leonard Jr. was unfazed by the momentary pause, and was prepared to continue recording his most promising rock & roll act. He got Andy Starr placed with MGM Records, which opened his national recording career with the best record of his whole life, "Rockin' Rollin' Stone", co-written by Starr, who also played lead guitar on top of singing -- in the former department, he was no Cliff Gallup, but he had a distinctive style and a very raw, visceral sound. The B-side was the almost equally fine "I Wanna Go South."

There was talk of Starr being the next Elvis Presley, based on this record, but MGM wasn't able to put him across to the public the way RCA had done with Elvis. He also pushed hard with "Give Me a Woman," but never charted a record nationally, and his departure for Alaska for five years stalled whatever career momentum he might've had, except in the 49th state. He worked as Frank Starr up there, and tried some more records with Leonard, right up through 1963. He was back in the lower 48 by the mid-1960's, but none of the sides that he recorded made it out to the public. It was around that time that he took a break from music, and from the drinking and drug problems that he'd developed over the years -- instead, Starr spent the late 1960's and the early 1970's as a sawmill worker, living in Kingston, Idaho. He tried cutting some country music sides for his own Starr Records label, but these never attracted large audiences. Starr also continued to perform locally and write songs, which he published through his old producer, Joe Leonard. None of this activity, which also later encompassed gospel-themed material -- coinciding with Starr's turning toward God and even becoming a preacher for a time -- registered much beyond where he lived. By the 1970's, he'd developed other interests, including politics, running unsuccessfully for the Idaho legislature in 1974, and then for President of the United States, twice, in 1976 and 1992 -- he never got near the Oval Office, but, conversely, based on his Lin and Kliff sides, he was also a far greater musical talent than his fellow Arkansan Bill Clinton. Starr died in September of 2003 at age 70, of complications from pneumonia. He had lived long enough to see his complete 1955-63 sides cut with Joe Leonard issued on CD by Bear Family Records, and Wild Oats Records was reportedly planning a release of some of his later recordings for sometime in 2004.