Born 1930, Tallahassee, Florida

Ernie Barton was no more than a footnote in the history of the Sun label, but the experts don't seem to agree about the extent of his importance, however minor. Colin Escott doesn't think much of him, apparently. Not a single word is devoted to Barton in the standard history of Sun Records, "Good Rockin' Tonight" (1991), by Colin Escott and Martin Hawkins. (A fate that Barton shares with Ray Smith, BTW.) In his liner notes for "That'll Flat Git It # 14", Escott writes: "Ernie Barton was a jack-of-all-trades at Sun: producer, songwriter, musician, and featured artist. Spectacularly unsuccessful in every role, he was quickly turfed out." But Hank Davis* writes : "By all accounts, Ernie Barton virtually lived in the Sun studio between 1957 and 1960. He recorded as vocalist and session guitarist and even took over management of the studio for a while. He was, to put it mildly, a fixture." That's something else than "quickly turfed out."

Born in Tallahassee as the son of a sea captain, Barton was raised in Daytona Beach. Elvis convinced Ernie that Memphis was the place to be, so he sold his house in Daytona Beachn and built another one in the Memphis suburb of Frayser. He was hired by Sam Phillips in early 1957 and had his first recording session on April 6, 1957. None of the tracks were released, but Barton went back into the studio in March 1958 and this resulted in the single "Stairway To Nowhere"/ "Raining the Blues", released on Phillips International 3528 in July 1958. It's quite a likeable record, which also got a good review in Billboard : "Rockabilly is brightly handled by Barton, with fine group support. Action possible." That group support came from Roland Janes, Jimmy Van Eaton and Sid Manker, while Barton himself played rhythm guitar. The "doodley wop" riffing by the male chorus on "Stairway To Nowhere" works very well.

Mystery surrounds Barton's second Phillips International single (3541), "Open the Door, Richard"/"Shut Your Mouth". To begin with, no one has ever seen a copy of the record. Interviewed by Colin Escott in 1987, Barton insisted that it had indeed been released, but the fact that not one copy has surfaced doesn't seem to bear this out. When his version of "Open the Door Richard" was finally issued in the late 1980s, many knowledgeable Sun collectors recognized it as a track that had been previously released as a Billy Riley title. Barton sounds a lot like Riley, two southern white boys talking and singing in jivey black style. Billy Riley subscribes to another mailing list of which I also am a member and I asked him to clear things up. His reply was: "That was a fun record. Ernie and I both did the vocals. It was sort of a 'You sing<>I sing'. It was on one of those Sun sort of party sessions, if you know what I mean? Cleared that up." Not quite, Billy, but we're getting there. The Sun archives point out that Riley was present (as bass player) at the session of February 25, 1959, when Barton recorded "Open the Door, Richard". So Riley is probably the second voice that appears at the end ("What is you doin' up on that ladder?"). But according to the Sun Records discography by Escott and Hawkins, Billy Riley also recorded a version of "Open the Door Richard" on November 25, 1957. It didn't help the confusion when the Barton version was stored on a Riley reel in the Sun vault. If Riley ever recorded a version of "Open the Door Richard" at Sun, the tapes haven't survived, according to Hank Davis. Ernie recorded about two dozens of tracks for Sun, but Sam Phillips saw no reason to release anything further. From the unissued tracks, only "She's Gone Away" and "Wedding Bells" have seen a release in the CD era.

After Bill Justis and Jack Clement were fired by Phillips in 1959, Ernie convinced Sam that he should take over as in-house producer/arranger. He married a Little Rock lawyer, Bobbie Jean Farrabee, and used his position at Sun to record his wife, who actually was not a bad singer. She had one release on Sun, "You Burned the Bridges" (an answer record to Jack Scott's "Burning Bridges") / "Cheaters Never Win", which came out on Sun 342 in July 1960, credited to "Bobbie Jean". Her best recording was probably "I Won't Worry" (another answer song, this time in response to Marty Robbins's "Don't Worry"), which finally saw a release in 2002, on the "Memphis Belles" Bear Family box-set. There are letters from Bobbie Jean Barton in the Sun files demanding that Sam issue an album by Ernie. Obviously, she didn't know that Phillips was uncomfortable with releasing LP records, let alone by someone who never had anything resembling a hit single. Barton and his wife both ran afoul of Sam Phillips at some point in 1961. Ernie eventually moved on to Midland, Texas. After his Sun period, he had two more single releases, "The Man With A Heart Of Gold"/ "The Battle Of Earl K. Long" (both titles previously attempted at Sun), which is in the style of Johnny Cash (Honesty 605), and "Ain't I'm A Mess"/ "Walk With Me" (E & M 1651, 1965, credited to Bart Barton), where he sounds like the Big Bopper. Since then he has drifted into obscurity and may even have died. There is an entry in the Social Security Death Index for one Ernest W. Barton, born on November 21, 1930, who died on May 1, 2001, in Montezuma, Colorado. But that's probably not our man.


* Hank Davis, Book accompanying "From the Vaults : The Original Sun Singles, Vol. 5" (Bear Family BCD 15805), page 56.

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