Tue September 6, 2011
Holt Collier and the Hunt for a Hit
By Rob Grayson
Memphis, TN – Many good songs are born from a catchy title. Few good songs are born from hunting expeditions that went awry (okay, few good non-country songs). But there was that one.
Holt Collier was born into slavery in 1846. As a boy, he was sent to Bardstown, Kentucky to be educated with his master's sons. But Collier had a tendency to play hooky in order to pursue his first love, hunting. When his master, Howell Hinds, left to fight in the Civil War, Collier said he "begged like a dog" to go, but was told that he was too young, and was expected to stay on at the Hinds' plantation, Plum Ridge, south of present-day Greenville, Mississippi. Instead, young Collier stowed away on a northbound riverboat, and surprised Hinds and his son by joining up with them in Memphis. Collier had proven his skill as a marksman time and time again, having dispatched hundreds of black bears in the task of providing meat for the Hinds' table. Collier chose to use his talents fighting, oddly enough, for the Confederacy, part of the Ninth Texas Brigade. During Reconstruction, a military tribunal acquitted Collier of a murder accusation, and Collier headed for the life of a cowboy on his former CSA commander's Texas ranch. He met Jesse James' brother, Frank, traveled to Mexico, and hunted bear in Alaska. Returning to Mississippi for the funeral of his former master, possibly with vengeance toward the perpetrator on his mind, Collier settled again in Greenville.
Collier's talent for tracking bears made him the go-to guy for all things ursine, and eventually crossed his path with that of Theodore Roosevelt. The big-stick-toting president, with the reputation of a big-game hunter, came to Mississippi in 1902 at the invitation of Governor Andrew Longino for a bear hunt. On the hunt, Collier cornered a bear, but before Roosevelt could arrive, things turned nasty, and Collier had to knock the bear out with his rifle and tie it to a tree. Roosevelt refused to shoot the defenseless bruin, and the event inspired a Washington Post political cartoon which erroneously depicted Collier as a white guy, and the fully-grown bear as a cub. The "Drawing the Line In Mississippi" caricature led toymaker Morris Michtom to make a cute stuffed-bear doll, and with the President's permission, he named it "Teddy's Bear." This item became the foundation for the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company.
Kal Mann was a lyricist and comedy writer for Danny Thomas and Red Buttons. Composer Bernie Lowe was instrumental in convincing Freddie Bell and the Bellboys to adapt Hound Dog to fit their Vegas act. The writing duo of Mann and Lowe took advantage of a perceived Elvis Presley fondness for teddy bears, and concocted a song for use in the Presley movie Loving You. The hunch would yield the multi-platinum (Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear, and would place Elvis atop the Billboard chart for the third time in 1957.
(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear spent a squeaky-clean seven weeks at number one. However, recorded in the same session as Teddy Bear was a cover of a Smiley Lewis song, One Night of Sin. Before it would see the light of day in 1958, the Elvis version had its mouth washed out to resurface as One Night With You.
Mann and Lowe founded Philadelphia-based Cameo-Parkway Records. The label featured hit-makers ranging from The Tymes to Question Mark and the Mysterians, and brought us Chubby Checker and The Twist.
Collier's life of adventure ended at age 90. You can find his grave at Greenville's Live Oak Cemetery, complete with a marker denoting Collier's status as Mississippi's only Confederate soldier of African descent.