Jack Rhodes is probably most known for writing or co-writing a number of highly esteemed '50s rockabilly tracks, particularly some songs recorded by Gene Vincent. "Woman Love," the B-side of Vincent's…
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Jack Rhodes Biography

by Richie Unterberger

Jack Rhodes is probably most known for writing or co-writing a number of highly esteemed '50s rockabilly tracks, particularly some songs recorded by Gene Vincent. "Woman Love," the B-side of Vincent's first single (the classic smash "Be-Bop-a-Lula"), was his, and he also co-wrote some other fine early Vincent tracks, including "Red Blue Jeans and a Pony Tail," "Five Days, Five Days," and "B-I-Bickey-Bi, Bo-Bo Go." Rhodes was also responsible for "Action Packed," turned into a rockabilly stormer by Ronnie Dawson, and co-penned Elroy Dietzel's cult rockabilly favorite "Rock-n-Bones," later covered by both Dawson and the Cramps. Yet Rhodes was more than a generation older than the rockabilly singers he was writing for in the 1950s, and his own tastes were perhaps more inclined toward country and hillbilly music, with his other outstanding credits including "Silver Threads and Golden Needles" (eventually a hit for the Springfields) and Porter Wagoner's "A Satisfied Mind." He also recorded quite a bit of primitive rockabilly and hillbilly by other artists at his small Texas studio, much of it not released until his death.

The improbable tale of how Rhodes became involved in country and rock & roll in the first place is just one small illustration of how contributions to the changes sweeping popular music in the 1950s often came from the unlikeliest sources. Born in East Texas in 1907, and the stepbrother of songwriter Leon Payne (most known for playing with Bob Wills and penning "I Love You Because"), Rhodes didn't even get involved with professional music until he was almost 40, after a bed-confining job accident turned his attention to playing guitar and songwriting. In the late '40s he formed a bluegrass band, Jack Rhodes' Ramblers, which at times included Payne, and backed Payne on some studio sides.

Around 1953, Rhodes stopped performing with the band, and was making his living running a hotel in the small town of Mineola, about 90 miles east of Dallas. He constructed a demo studio behind the hotel kitchen, working with a number of regional acts, and also focused more heavily on his songwriting, getting his first success when Jim Reeves recorded a Jack Rhodes-Dick Reynolds composition ("Gypsy Heart") on a B-side. A little later, "A Satisfied Mind" (written with Red Hayes) topped the country charts for Porter Wagoner -- it was also covered by the Byrds in the 1960s, on their second album -- giving Rhodes some real publishing income and raising his profile within the industry. As a result of signing with publisher Central Songs, his songs got an inside track to Capitol Records, which was also on Vine Street in Hollywood. Cliffie Stone of Central Songs pitched material to Capitol country A&R man Ken Nelson, which helped Rhodes place material with Capitol country artists like Wanda Jackson, Tommy Collins, Sonny James, Jean Shepard, Faron Young, and Ferlin Husky. In the mid-'50s, a few country singers made hits out of Rhodes material, including Shepard (with "Beautiful Lies"),Wynn Stewart (with "Waltz of the Angels"), and Hank Snow (with "Conscience I'm Guilty").

The Rhodes-Central-Stone-Nelson connection also goes some way toward explaining how some of Rhodes' songs ended up with rockabilly pioneer Gene Vincent, who was signed to Capitol in 1956. "Woman Love" had actually been first recorded at Rhodes' studio by Jimmy Johnson (who'd replaced Leon Payne way back in the Jack Rhodes' Ramblers days) and released on a rare single on the Starday label. After Vincent did "Woman Love," the connection helped Rhodes land a few more songs with the singer, and probably influenced him in orienting some of his songwriting more toward the new rockabilly and rock & roll sound, leading to the creation of tunes like "Action Packed" and "Rock-n-Bones." All the while Rhodes continued to record artists in his studio, some of the material finding homes on small labels, much of it not finding release.

Although Rhodes was not as active in the 1960s, he continued to work with country and rock & roll artists, including future country star Billie Jo Spears. He continued to manage his hotel and operate at a low level in the music business until his death in 1968. The Ace Records compilation Gene Vincent Cut Our Songs: Primitive Texas Rockabilly & Honky Tonk assembled 30 of the tracks (most previously unreleased) that he oversaw for other artists in his studio in the mid- to late '50s. Including demos of some songs that Gene Vincent and Ronnie Dawson covered, it's an erratic but fascinating look at a backroom to the music business that few ever see or hear, and also illustrative of the transition among much Southern music of the era from hillbilly to rockabilly.

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