The Phelps Brothers contributed to country music for many years but are today perhaps relatively unknown. Little is known concerning their births but they comprised in age order, Norman (d. 24 August 1981), Willie (b. William Thomas Phelps, 1914, d. 1 March 2004), and Earl Phelps (d. 25 April 1971) and they were born in South Norfolk or Tidewater (near Chesapeake), Virginia, USA. They had a natural singing harmony and all learned to play numerous instruments as youngsters. Usually Norman played bass fiddle, Willie the guitar and Earl the fiddle or mandolin. In the late 20s, they formed a country band and after performing locally for some years they relocated to New York.
In 1936, they recorded 31 sides for Decca Records; all but two were listed as by Norman Phelps Virginia Rounders with the brothers being joined by Ken Card (banjo) and Stubby Stubb (rhythm guitar). Vocals were shared between Willie and Earl and the material varied from the dixieland (‘I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter’) and comedy (‘Minnie The Mermaid’) to country songs of the day such as ‘Nobody’s Darling’. The other two were listed as Earl and Willie Phelps who with Card recorded ‘Mother And Dad’ and ‘Please Take Me Back To My Darlin’’. They also played the WHN Barn Dance, where they became friendly with Tex Ritter and later appeared with him in Hollywood in B-Western movies.
In the 30s, the three brothers plus Card also joined with Ray Whitley to play as the Range Ramblers and later recorded with Whitley, when he renamed the band the 6 Bar Cowboys. They also appeared in films with Whitley and George O’Brien. In 1955, they made recordings, 12 of which appeared two years later on the WREN label. On these the brothers were accompanied by different musicians that included Cliff Gallup, who later achieved fame as the lead guitarist of Gene Vincent’s Blue Caps. After they ended their film work, they returned to South Norfolk and founded Fernwood Farms, where they built a recording studio and large dancehall and where they performed for many years.
In the 50s, they became very popular stars on WCMS Hampton Roads. They wrote many songs between them including ‘I’m Beginning To Forget You’ (later a hit for Jim Reeves). The Chesapeake Museum presents an annual Phelps Brothers Country Music Collection exhibition and concert to commemorate the lives and careers of the Phelps Brothers. Cattle Records of Germany released two vinyl albums; one containing some of the 1936 Decca sides and the other recordings from 1955. In 1998, the German Bronco Buster label released a CD containing 27 recordings, 10 as the Virginia Rounders from the 30s, four 50s vocals by Earl Phelps and 13 50s vocals by Willie Phelps including six previously unissued recordings. There is also a gospel album of the Brothers on Trinity Records.