George Uptmor : Western Swing Fiddler with Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys

 

George Uptmor was born on November 25, 1933, to a French mother and a German father in Tours, Texas, a French-German settlement north of Waco. Around the age of 13 or 14, Uptmor (the “t” is silent) was inspired to play the fiddle through knowing Harry Choates, who had a big hit in 1946 with his reworking of the classic Cajun tune “Jolie Blonde.” Uptmor first recorded in the early 1950s at Jim Beck’s Studio in Dallas with Charlie Adams and the Western All-Stars, where he also recorded with Lefty Frizzell and Marty Robbins (including “Pretty Words,” 1954).

In a career that stretched from the 1940s to the 2000s, Uptmor worked with Bud Fletcher and His Texans (which included Willie Nelson), Ray Price, Charlie Brown and the Musical Brownies, the Texas Top Hands, the Light Crust Dough Boys, the Rowe Brothers with Al Dexter, and Frankie Miller (on his hit “Blackland Farmer,” 1959). Uptmor also backed up Ernest Tubb, Moon Mullican, and Hank Williams on the road in Texas, and was part of a touring Grand Ole Opry show in Europe. In the early 1960s, he was a member of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, and then joined Hank Thompson’s band.

Uptmor is third from left. This photo and the portrait below at right by Craig Morrison.

I interviewed him in 2005 in Green Bay, Wisconsin, at the Rockin’ 50’s Fest II after his performance with Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys. At that time, he was also the leader of his own band, the Texas Bluebonnet Playboys.

George Uptmor : Mom and Dad didn’t want me to learn either French or German too well because they said it would hurt me in school. Back then when I was going to school we was at war with Germany. A lot of people didn’t take to that too kindly. I speak a little Cajun. I picked that up because I was playin’ ‘round Port Arthur [Texas], close to the south of Louisiana, and that’s where I met Harry Choates, with “Jolie Blonde”—picked up a lot of stuff from him. Harry Choates’ wife and my sister were good friends, lived down in Port Arthur. Harry was born just across the line into Louisiana. And I loved that Cajun [music], loved that song. I still mix it up Cajun and western swing. I throw a little Cajun in.

First I started playing guitar, me and a cousin of mine. We’d listen to the Grand Ole Opry, we’d listen to this and that on the radio, there wasn’t no television. We’d take our guitars along and go fishing sometimes and sit around on the bank at night and play guitar. My cousin ordered a book and it showed us the chords and we was trying to figure all that stuff out. I didn’t have too good luck at playing guitar although I was trying to sing like Ernest Tubb.

We had what you call a garage band—we went to school together of course—and had little rehearsals at night. We had a boy playing the fiddle and he left his fiddle [there] all the time. So I just picked it up one day and learned a couple of tunes on it, like “Rubber Dolly” and couple of breakdowns, “Cindy” and a few simple songs, just finding my way. And I found out that it wasn’t near as hard on my fingers as the guitar. So I just picked up the fiddle and really almost put down the guitar. I could barely play guitar, I never did play well anyway. Then I picked up steel guitar, a 6-string Gibson. I really loved the steel guitar actually better than I did fiddle. I really wanted to be a steel guitar player. I had a cousin that played, and we played some together, practiced. I played steel guitar and fiddle. I had the steel guitar up on a stand and my fiddle on the side, and played both because I could get more jobs that way. Noel Boggs was around, and Herb Remington [both played steel] with [Bob] Wills. That’s the kind of guys I remember. And there was Lefty Nason that played with Hank Thompson for a long time [around 1946 to 1948]. After he left Hank he played with Charlie Adams about ’51. I always liked Lefty’s playing. In fact, Lefty’s the one that started Hank’s sound, that wa-wa sound with the volume pedal.

At the Terrace Club in Waco, Texas, somebody stole my fiddle, steel, and amplifier out of my car. I couldn’t really afford to replace everything and as I got to playing fiddle, and I got a little older and I got a job making some money, I just kind of forgot about [playing] the steel guitar. I still love steel guitar.

There was one guy who helped me a lot. I played with him and he taught me. His name was Bashful White, he played bass fiddle, an excellent bass player. He played with Charlie Brown and the Brownies, which was a cousin of Milton Brown. I didn’t know his real name, we just called him Bash. I was real young and he wasn’t too much older than me, maybe four or five years, but he knows I was drinkin’ a little, and he was always telling me, “George, don’t get off on the wrong [direction]. I can’t tell you what to do, I’m not your daddy.” And I listened to him. He told me if I was playing right. He’d say, “You sound pretty good but you’re playing a little bit flat there, you need to –.“ It was good criticism and he helped me along like that. If I was doing something wrong he’d let me know. If I did something good he’d let me know.

Moon Mullican was playing down there at Beaumont, what they call the Golden Triangle down there [southeast Texas, near the Louisiana border]. I worked some with Moon. Everybody that’s worked in that area sometime or other worked with Moon. He played every honky tonk there was down there. He was home when he was in a honky tonk, that’s just the kind of player he was.

Music started changing a little bit in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, but I don’t know why it did. The big band era—Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller and all—was winding down. Bob Wills had this big orchestra too with the horns ; he did all the Glenn Miller arrangements. Spade Cooley did all that too. There were a lot of new singers like Webb Pierce, Marty Robbins, Ray Price, Lefty Frizzell, and of course Hank Williams, just a flood of new country singers came along about that time. They all came up about a year apart. They hit the market big and they were all doing good.

We toured with Hank senior too. He got kicked off the Grand Ole Opry, so he toured Texas. He didn’t have a band so he toured with Charlie Adams [around December 1950]. He was very sincere when he sang. He sang a lot of times with his eyes closed and kind of really got into it. He was in his own world so to speak. He could be singing in front of a bunch of people that he’d probably never seen but he really got into the song. Hank Williams was very mild-mannered but easily heckled. If there was a heckler, it wouldn’t take much to get him mad.

He was a heavy drinker. When he got off the bandstand about the first thing he’d do is sign some autographs and he’d look around at one of us and say, “I’m not going to be up for too much longer – y’all got a beer back there ?” Of course we always had some beer or something back there too. But Hank was hooked on it pretty good. I was just a kid, probably 18 years old. Man, I was in hog heaven. That was a fun time, to meet Hank Williams.

The first professional record I was on was on Columbia with Charlie Adams at Jim Beck’s studio in Dallas [one of them was “Gee, But It’s Dry in Texas,” 1954]. That was before Nashville got big with their recording. Marty Robbins used to come to Dallas to do his recording. Decca and Columbia were the two biggest labels at the time. Well, RCA was in there too. Decca and Columbia did all their early recordings at Beck’s studio there in Dallas. He died [in 1956] from cleaning fluid : he got the fumes from the cleaning fluid. He was cleaning his equipment with it and the toxic fumes killed him. I think he was about 42 years old. They say that if he had lived the whole scene may have changed, especially the Nashville scene, because there’d have been a lot more recording in Dallas. [For more about Joe Beck, see the interview with Lew Williams.]

A session at that time was like four sides, [to make] two 78s with four songs on it. They wanted the four songs in three hours, and did a lot of it too. We were all in the studio, a lot of times around one microphone, two or three people at the same time. There was no piping in this and cutting in later and all of that. There was no music written out, we didn’t have any charts or anything, everybody was just playing by ear. The singer would sing the song for you and you’d just listen until you got it pretty well. A lot of the early ones [sessions] was like a live recording.

Craig Morrison : Did you guys feel a lot of pressure ?

GU : I probably would now. But when you’re 17, 18, 19 years old you can do anything or think you can. So nothing bothered me. Of course they still do it now to some extent, but back then somebody always had a drink or something to settle everybody down.

CM : They didn’t mind you drinking in the session ?

GU : No. Not to get out of hand, naturally, but you could take a nip, yeah. It was more fun. I’m sure these guys today are having fun too but I don’t know, I think we had more fun playing. We enjoyed it more.

CM : You were more together. It’s not as much fun when you go in with earphones and overdubbing.

GU : Yeah, I’ve done that too and I don’t like that.

Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, 1940s.

Sometimes Bob Wills’d be playing at the Circle-R Ranch close to Waco. My mother and daddy used to take me. I couldn’t go in, you had to be, I guess, 21. I was 12, 13. The bandstand was usually set back out at the club by itself. It was made out of wood and there’d always be a plank or two off and you could hear the band on the outside. It wasn’t soundproof and with my ear pinned right there I was just listening to everything I could hear. If there was any kind of a knothole or anything I could look in. Whatever I could see if there was a crack in there, any way I could see. I looked through many of them, at Bob Wills—I saw him a little bit, but not much—and whoever I could pick out : the steel players, [fiddler] Joe Holley, and Junior Barnard. He was playing guitar with Wills and I watched him because I loved his playing. Even though I can’t play guitar, I still love the guitar. I can tell you what kind of guitar he was playing. He didn’t even have an electric guitar, it was just an acoustic f-hole Gibson with a D’Armond pickup on it. They made them for fiddles too. That was the best you could get before they built in the pickups. Junior was in there—he died in a motorcycle accident, I got this from Herb Remington—and Herb probably was playing with Wills at the time too, playing steel guitar. I think Barnard was just with Wills for about two years, about ’46 to ’48. When I started playing in bands I had no problem getting in [clubs] because they never questioned my age. ’Cause I was in the band. If I’d have walked in somewheres else they would have.

The first time I saw Bob Wills up close and talked to him was when he had a contest at the Scenic Wonderland there in Waco. I didn’t enter it, I was a little bashful about my singing and knew I couldn’t sing that good. Whoever won the singing contest would get to do a song on Bob’s next recording session. So Darrell Glenn won—I knew him and his father Artie Glenn real well. So Darrell got a session with Bob Wills and sang “I Won’t Be Back Tonight or Ever” [“I Won’t Be Back Tonight,” 1952]. And then later on Darrell had “Crying in the Chapel” which was a big hit [in 1953]. His daddy wrote that. Elvis of course recorded it too, probably sold more than any of ’em.

We had an eight-piece [western] swing band in Dallas. We used to do seven nights a week and two matinees ; it was busy. Elvis Presley came down in 1955, to the Sportatorium in Dallas, did a show [the Big D Jamboree], and got through about 10 o’clock. We was playing at the Round-Up Club, and his manager called the owner about coming down there. He’d come down for $50, with just three of them : Scotty and Bill and Elvis. [The day that Presley performed at the Sportatorium and then at the Roundup Club is indicated as September 3, 1955, in Elvis Day By Day : The Definitive Record of His Life and Music by Peter Guralnick and Ernst Jorgensen. The authors also indicate that during this period D.J. Fontana was absent from the lineup due to illness.] And they came down. Of course we was lookin’ for a break, so we could get something to drink or something, you know—when you’re playing seven nights a week you’re always looking for a break. People didn’t know – because he was brand new. He had “That’s Alright Little Mama” and that’s all he had. [Actually, all five of Presley’s singles on Sun had been released by then.] He had black pants with the pink stripes and all that stuff. We looked at one another and thought, “what’s this guy going to do ?” Elvis got up there and did his thing. He got a good reaction from it. It was a thrill. We snickered a little bit, but boy we ate a lot of crow since then.

I worked with Bob Wills from ’60 to ’63, with [steel guitarist Gene] Crownover, [Gene] Gassaway, fiddle, [bassist] Bobby McBay [who joined the band in 1963]. Joe Andrews was the singer at the time. At one point he had Rufus Thibodeaux playing fiddle and somebody made the comment [about us] : “I can’t believe this is Bob Wills, you’ve got two Cajun fiddle players up there.” Rufus was an excellent fiddle player. He’s Cajun but he could play swing. He played with Jimmy C. Newman for a long time. He had one bad eye. Every time he looked at you, you couldn’t tell whether he was looking at you or not.

I would play second or third fiddle ’cause Wills always played lead. I doubt if Wills could even play harmony. He probably could but I never heard him. He also played the melody ’cause he had that distinct sad kind of fiddle sound that he made. I guess nobody could play it like he did. Even though he wasn’t considered the best fiddle player in the world, he had that style, a mournful kind of sound that he got out of the fiddle.

There’d be three-part harmony so you’d have three fiddles. Me and [Gene] Gassaway, we’d change off. If you know one part you generally know the other. A second is above the lead and third is below. That’s how Wills played his harmony, just like voicing with singers. Now Hank Thompson’s fiddles sounded different than Wills because the lead was on top and both parts were underneath. So you’d lead the same way with [the band of] Leon McAuliffe. He voiced his fiddle [players] that way. A lot of times it was clarinet playing the high lead and two fiddles playing below that. Made a smoother, prettier sound, I think.

Sometimes the guy that’s playing third don’t even change his note when the lead and the second fiddle player or whatever it is, they change their notes : the third part at times you hold the same note. It shifts into that chord. That makes the third part a little different – you’ve got to have a little different ear for playing that than you do second.

Oh, we work a few things out, but today [for the Green Bay performance] we didn’t rehearse nothing. The only thing is Tommy [Allsup, leading the Wills’ band at that time] mentioned about some of the songs we might do. He always names about the first three songs. I think he got that from Wills too. Wills always said “people will drive up to these old country dances and sit out in their car and listen to your first two or three tunes. If they liked it they’d come in, if they didn’t you could see their headlights going on and they’d leave. Your first three tunes have got to be some of your best tunes.” You’ve got to hit them hard, which makes sense on a show or anything else.

George Uptmor died February 26, 2014.


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CRAIG MORRISON
is an ethnomusicologist, teacher, author, and musician
based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada
7 Nights Music Communications, 2006