Thomas Wayne Turns Tragedy Into Triumph
As the decade of the 1950‘s came to a close, the Memphis recording scene was in transition. Many of the big name players had moved on. Johnny Cash signed with Columbia records, as did Carl Perkins. Following the success of “Blue Suede Shoes”, Carl had four more charted records, “Boppin’ The Blues” and “Your True Love” on Sun, “Pink Pedal Pushers” and “Pointed Toe Shoes” on Columbia. Jerry Lee Lewis recorded for Sun until the early 60‘s. He hit the top ten with “Breathless” in 1958. Later that year Jerry Lee’s theme from the movie High School Confidential peaked at number 21, and he made an appearance in the film Jambouree. Elvis Presley was in Germany, but that couldn‘t keep him off the radio. With a cover of Hank Snow’s (Now And Then There’s) A Fool Such As I, recorded at his final session before going overseas, he hit number two in April of 1959.
Sam Phillips was in the process of building a new recording studio down the street from his 706 Union Avenue location. Harold Jenkins, originally from Friars Point in the Mississippi delta and raised across the river in Helena, recorded a few demos for Sam, but never had a Sun Records release. In 1958, Jenkins found success on MGM Records using a stage name legend says was picked from two spots on a road map, Conway, Arkansas and Twitty, Texas. In a story often repeated in the annals of popular music, Twitty’s single “I’ll Try” was stiffing out, with meager sales and airplay, until a station flipped it over and played the B-side, “It’s Only Make Believe”. Originally cast as a rock-and-roll singer, Twitty took advantage of a perceived similarity to Elvis, and had top-10 hits with Presley cast offs “Danny Boy” and “Lonely Boy Blue”. His career would hit its stride starting in the late 60’s with a shift over to country music, destined for numerous awards and halls of fame.
As we recall, Fernwood records was poised to launch the career of Billy Lee Riley, when his first recording, “Trouble Bound” was snapped up by the more established Sun Records. Jerry Lee Lewis played piano on Riley’s next single, “Flying Saucer Rock And Roll”. The follow up was a rocker called “Red Hot.” At this point, the Sun promotional effort was channeled to support the rising star of Jerry Lee, and consequently, Billy Lee was left without a national chart hit until the early 70’s.
Rebounding from the reassignment of what would have been the label’s first single, Fernwood replaced producer Jack Clement, who followed Billy Lee Riley to Sun, with ex-Elvis guitarist Scotty Moore. Among the label’s early releases was a single by Thomas Wayne Perkins, brother of Johnny Cash’s lead guitarist Luther Perkins. For his professional debut, Thomas Wayne dropped his last name, and joined lead guitarist Chips Moman for their first record, a song written by Moman called “This Time”. Mercury records showed interest and leased the master, but it failed to chart. Troy Shondell would hit the top 10 with this song in 1961.
Wayne’s follow up would feature the three-girl vocal band The Delons, and would be the biggest hit in Fernwood history, the top 5 record “Tragedy”.
As 1960 approached, the established producers and labels were reassessing their role in the industry. Sun had one more artist waiting in the wings who would enrich their legacy. Meanwhile, the next generation which would shape the Memphis recording scene honed their skills away in garages and borrowed buildings, waiting for their moment in the sun.