Born 29 June 1937, Tuscumbia, Missouri
Next week, during the 12th edition of Viva Las Vegas (April 5th-8th, 2007), Don Woody will step out of a musical retirement that has lasted for over four decades. So far, Don has turned down all requests to return to the stage, but Tom Ingram, the promoter of VLV, assured him that he will only have to do four songs, the ones that he is best known for. This fits into a new policy that Ingram has developed for Viva Las Vegas since 2006 : having four or five original acts in one set only doing their own songs. After all, who wants to see an older act doing another Elvis cover?
While attending college in Springfield, Missouri, Don became a disc jockey at a small radio station, KICK. Springfield hosted a national television show at that time called The Ozark Jubilee and Don was given the chance to do a stand-up comedy act before the show really started. One of the stars at the Ozark Jubilee was 11-year old Brenda Lee, whose very first record was a Don Woody composition, "Bigelow 6-200", a song that Don co-wrote with Paul Simmons, his roommate in college. This led to a request from Decca Records to record some demos for the label and eventually to Don's own recording session, on December 21, 1956. At Bradley Studio in Nashville, four tracks were recorded, all Woody-Simmons compositions : "Bird Dog" (for those few who are not familiar with the song : it has nothing to do with the Everly Brothers hit of the same title), "Barking Up the Wrong Tree", "Morse Code" and "Make Like A Rock And Roll". The backing was supplied by Grady Martin and the Slew Foot Five, plus Owen Bradley on piano, who also produced the session. Only the first two songs were released (on Decca 9-30277, April 1957). An excellent rockabilly single, but it sold poorly and Decca decided to keep the other two songs on the shelf. Undeterred, Don's manager, Gary Walker, encouraged Woody to put out another record. "Not I" and "Red Blooded American Boy" were cut indepedently and sold to a small label in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, called Arco Records. They didn't have any money to promote the record, so that one (released in May 1958) failed to sell as well. Don continued to write songs and was still employed at the radio station, but then he was called up for military service. By the time he got out of the Army, he was married and soon had a child to support. A career in the music business didn't seem the most lucrative thing to Don, so he went to work for Sears-Roebuck in 1961 and retired from that company in 1991, as a regional manager.
In the mid-seventies, "Bird Dog" was discovered by European rockabilly fans, thanks to MCA's "Rare Rockabilly" LP. At that time it was unknown that Grady Martin played on the Coral LP by Johnny Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio. The guitar intro of "Bird Dog" has Grady Martin copying his intro to "Sweet Love On My Mind" by the Burnette Trio almost note for note. So, back in 1975, many people thought that the Burnette Brothers were playing on "Bird Dog", which turned out not to be the case. "Barking Up the Wrong Tree" was released as a single in the UK in 1976, hoping to repeat the success of "Jungle Rock" by Hank Mizell. It bubbled under the Top 50 and got lots of airplay. Soon it was discovered that there were two unissued Don Woody tracks lingering in the vaults and "Morse Code" and "Make Like A Rock And Roll" finally saw a commercial release on a UK compilation LP, some 20 years after they were recorded. The British group Matchbox covered "Make Like A Rock And Roll" as early as 1976 (on their first LP, "Riders In the Sky") and since then there have been quite a few covers of Don Woody songs by contemporary rockabilly acts: http://www.hot.ee/donwoody/covers.htm
Don's recorded legacy is limited to the six songs mentioned above, but all six are great sides. Virtually everything that has ever been written about Don (including a Now Dig This interview from July 2006) has been assembled on his official website, which was started (and is still run) by two Russian girls, Lotta and Kitti : http://www.hot.ee/donwoody/index.html where you will find much more information. We wish Don lots of success in Las Vegas.
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