Quarter-Cherokee rockabilly singer with matinee idol looks had a run of 1950s country hits and a couple pop crossovers.
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Marvin Rainwater Biography

by Cub Koda

A quarter-Cherokee country singer named Marvin Rainwater shamelessly traded on his Native American pedigree to make himself a name on the country music circuit. But backing up this charade was some very solid music from an artist who could work and create in a multiplicity of styles. Few artists in country music ever made music as quirky and just plain weird as that of Rainwater. His recorded canon, featuring his strong, rumbling baritone, showed that he was equally adept at Western ballads, pop confections, and breathtaking go-for-broke forays into rockabilly.

He was born Marvin Percy Rainwater in 1925. After a stint in the Navy during World War II serving as a pharmacist's mate, he turned to music full-time. He had originally been a classically trained pianist, but after an accident had removed part of his right thumb, he turned to country music and soon learned to strum a guitar proficiently enough to accompany his singing and compose songs on it. After putting down roots in nearby Virginia, Rainwater quickly became a fixture on the Washington, D.C.-area honky tonk circuit, putting together his first band featuring a young Roy Clark on lead guitar and himself decked out in buckskin jacket and Indian headband. His first recordings came through the auspices of Bill McCall at 4-Star Records. Picturing himself as a songwriter first and performer second, Rainwater was hooked up with Ben Adelman, a songwriter with a small studio. He recorded several demos to be pitched to other artists through Adelman's and McCall's publishing concerns, only to see them poorly overdubbed and released at the height of his later fame on myriad dime-store budget labels like Crown and others too microscopic to mention.

But McCall also took three completed masters from other sessions ("I Gotta Go Get My Baby," "Hearts' Hall of Fame," and "Albino Stallion") and had them pressed on a custom promotional 45, then promptly sold the masters to Coral Records. Rainwater's recording of "I Gotta Go Get My Baby" was promptly handed over to Teresa Brewer, who covered and had a hit with it in the pop market. But what propelled Rainwater up the show business ladder was a successful television performance on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, the early-'50s equivalent of Star Search. Godfrey had a top-rated morning show as well, and after his win, Rainwater made frequent guest spots on it, reaching a national audience for the first time. He responded by recording a composition in Godfrey's honor, "Tea Bag Romeo," a reference to Godfrey's sponsor, Lipton Tea. By late 1955 he was a full-time member of Red Foley's Ozark Jubilee television and touring show, relocating to Springfield, Missouri. On one package tour, he was introduced backstage to a precocious little girl who wanted to sing that night on the show. After hearing the moppet belt out part of a tune, Rainwater was convinced and introduced young Brenda Lee Tarpley to Red Foley, and the rest -- as they say -- is country and rock & roll history.

Shortly after signing with Foley, Rainwater started recording for MGM Records, his longest-lasting label affiliation. The recordings take as scatter-brained an approach to commercial recording as you can possibly imagine. Solemn Americana recitations ("Pink Eyed Stallion") sat alongside novelty fluff like "Tennessee Hound Dog Yodel," which were B-sides to straight-ahead country weepers rife with down-home sentiments. At his next recording session in March 1956, Rainwater suddenly shifted gears again, deciding to cast his lot with the emerging rockabilly sound. The result was a two-sided blast of tonal mayhem, coupling the out-of-control "Hot and Cold" with the slightly less frenetic "Mr. Blues." Though both sides kicked up sufficient noise, it cost him big time in the country fan department -- the members of his fan club were confused about this former folk balladeer suddenly becoming an apostle for the big beat.

But rockabilly was a way for country artists to achieve pop stardom and, with the first successful attempts at crossover appeal already in place, Rainwater didn't have to wait long to find his song. That tune was "Gonna Find Me a Bluebird," which went to number three on the country charts while simultaneously climbing to number 18 on the pop charts. Suddenly flush with success, Rainwater quit the Ozark Jubilee and moved his base of operations to New York City, ready to take on the world. But the follow-ups to "Gonna Find Me a Bluebird" were as diverse and quirky as his pre-hit output (one included a duet with Connie Francis) and his slide from the charts, coupled with one bad business deal after another, was swift and sure. In order to keep his slippery footing on any kind of chart, Rainwater took on a personal appearance schedule that would reduce lesser individuals to babbling protoplasm. By 1961, with his days on the pop charts largely behind him, Rainwater showed up for several recording sessions with his voice so burned out from show dates that he was unrecordable. His final MGM sessions not only remained unissued, but most of them appear to have been either lost or destroyed. In Rainwater's own words, "I had no voice and no money."

After a nine-month layoff, he signed with Warwick Records, and with Link Wray and the Raymen backing him, he put out a pair of singles that were as fine as anything he had recorded in his heyday. But the marketplace in both pop and country had changed a lot since 1957, and the sides got little notice from critics. In 1963, Rainwater and new partner Bill Guess built a studio in Chicago and started up Brave Records, with its catalog dominated by new songs from the singer. Aside from a brief stay with United Artists in 1964 and a one-off session for Warner Bros. in 1969, Rainwater stuck with Brave until the early 1980s, when he cut a handful of sides for Okie Records. The Okie singles documented Rainwater's last commercial songs. Beyond occasional appearances on European rockabilly revival tours, Rainwater lived quietly in Northern Minnesota until he died of heart failure in Minneapolis, Minnesota on September 17, 2013. He was 88 years old.

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