Joe Dowell topped the pop chart in 1961 with his recording of "Wooden Heart" from the Elvis Presley film G.I. Blues. Dowell was born in Bloomington, Indiana, where I live, and is one of two artists from Bloomington who topped the Billboard charts. (The other is Bobby Helms, who had #1 country hits with "Fraulein" and "My Special Angel" in 1957.)
Dowell's recordings, which also included the hits "Bridge of Love" and "Little Red Rented Rowboat," had never been anthologized, so I pestered Bear Family Records in Germany for two years to reissue them. I thought that Bear Family would be a good candidate to reissue these recordings, because "Wooden Heart" was based on a German folk song, and Bear Family was one of the only labels in the world that regularly licensed recordings from Universal Records, who owned Dowell's Smash masters. Universal was notoriously expensive and difficult to work with, so most reissue labels didn't bother with Universal-owned masters.
Eventually, Bear Family said that they'd do it, and I started working on the liner notes. Dowell lived in Bloomington, Illinois, so he and I met at the Beef House in Covington, Indiana, on a Sunday afternoon for an interview.
The whole experience was surreal. About 15 minutes before I reached the Beef House, my car's engine started roaring like it was about to explode, so during the entire interview, I was worrying about how I'd get home afterward, and how I could get my car fixed on a Sunday in Covington, Indiana.
Dowell walked into the Beef House like a movie star with his hair, his big sunglasses, and his booming voice. He spoke in elaborate sentences and attracted a lot of attention from the people in the restaurant, who could tell that he was someone famous but didn't know who he was. At one point in the interview, I told Joe that he should record "Ebb Tide," and he burst into an a cappella rendition right there in the restaurant.
Dowell had brought a friend with him, WJBC disc jockey Paul Dunn, who tried to stump me with oldies trivia throughout the interview.
I recorded the interview with Dowell on a MiniDisc player that was loaned to me by Zach Downey, aka Zeke Durden, who later became internet famous as the "MulletMan" and the basis of the internet meme "Almost Politically Correct Redneck."
Because of the length of the interview, I'm splitting it into parts. Here's the first part, in which Dowell talks about his early family life and how he was discovered. The interview was recorded on November 1, 2003.
Talk about your family.
My mother was a high school English teacher, but not only English. She taught advanced Latin, she was a librarian, and also was the play director. So she was all four things at Hayworth High School: play director, English teacher, Latin teacher, and she ran the library.
My dad, Harry F. Dowell, met my mother in Terre Haute, Indiana, and dad was a teacher of physics, French, taught the orchestra, led the orchestra, was also basketball and swimming coach, and he married one of his students: my mother. He quit teaching. [Teaching was] very bad financially, wasn't very much of a paycheck, and he got into Boy Scouting and moved to Bloomington, Indiana, where he was an assistant scout executive. And then he was offered a great position in Bloomington, Illinois. In 1941, the year after I was born, my parents moved to Bloomington in Illinois, where he was given a position of chief or head scout executive of the whole council area.
We continued to stay there until he died in 1950 when he was only 47, and mother began then to take charge and run the household and teaching, roughly [from] 1950 until she retired in the early '70s.
So both my mom and dad were very skilled leaders, and after mother retired, she exhibited a tremendous skill, great with leadership in being chairman of this, and head of the history club, head of the Association of Retired People. She was a program chairman for seven years of AARP and was quite well-known for getting outstanding programs for the retirement clubs and things of that sort. So my sister and I, Suzy, were very blessed with a noble and gracious mother and dad.
When did you start playing guitar?
I was about 13 when I bought my first guitar, and that was already now three years after my father's death. And my sister Jo Ann, my oldest sister, died of sleeping sickness when she was seven, so I'd been severely thrown into upheaval by all this death in our family. And by the time I was 13, unable to really grasp the depth of all of this and the tragedy, I began to turn to music as a kind of a way to resolve, to handle, some of the anguish.
So, at that age, 13, with a guitar in hand, I found it was a way to soften some of the anguish and some of the hurt I was going through, and became very familiar then with guitar playing at age 13, showing a heart that was pretty shattered. I wrote my first song, the lyrics of which are pretty telling. I felt as is I were being abandoned by the world. There was a lot of anguish that was tormenting me. And the first song lyric I ever wrote with a guitar was "tell me why you don't love me anymore." Obviously, expressing a sense of sorrow and loneliness, because it was not written to a girl or to a broken boy-girl relationship. It was a statement of psychology to the world in general: tell me why I'm unloved.
And mother was suffering her own great tribulation of having lost her oldest daughter, beautiful young girl, through encephalitis, and then her husband just a few years later, and mother was dealing with her own emotions and could not be expected to be phenomenal child psychologist, God, teacher, homemaker, cook, and all that. So she really did not know what I was going through.
By the time I turned 18 I was really writing songs, and that same year, 1958—three years before "Wooden Heart" was a smash—I wrote four songs called "The Quartet of Torment." And these four songs were as dark, as black, as bleak as any songs could be. And I'm 18 now and began to have a hunger for approval, for attention, for fame. But those four songs—I won't give you the lyrics to now but I can give you the titles: One was on suicide, "The Song of the Morning Dove." The second was called "The Lonely Forest," which is a severe, dark song about excruciating loneliness. Third one, the song "What Ever Happened to Mr. Farrow," was a song on murder—a song that described how Mr. Farrow, with a killer bull, murdered his daughter and her boyfriend Damon because he did not want his daughter Sally to be married to Damon. And the fourth one was rather astounding; it's called "The Devil's in the Saw Blade," and it's an unconscious cry of what happened, why did the encephalitis have to burn up my darling sister's body? And "The Devil's in the Saw Blade" is a metaphor of the sleeping sickness that was ravaging, cutting through, slicing through my sister's brain. I was completely unaware of the subject of this song until I was 27. I'm writing a book on this, called The Unconscious Unleashed, and when I was 27, the hidden meaning of these songs came into my consciousness.
But back to '58 and that "Quartet of Torment." That area was kind of a motivational factor to drive me to Nashville. Three years later, I'm a junior at college, and I think, "If I could just get a number one record I'd be happy. If I could become famous, this desolation of mind and soul, this shadow that had fallen over me, would vanish with the light, the applause, the excitement." Which really didn't work. But it drove me to go to Nashville at age 21.
Talk about how you were discovered.
In January of 1961, and it was during final exams and I had some time to borrow the Volkswagen of a friend's parents—his name was Bill Keyes—and we two went to Sparta, Illinois, picked up the Volkswagen of his parents, and drove to Music City, and that was January.
But if you go back about a year, around 1960, a friend—John Coleman—who had a Dick Clark/Bandstand kind of show called At the Hop in central Illinois, Channel 3 in Champaign.
John liked my singing. I met him through another TV show on the channel, and he asked me to travel around doing record hops. But he said I could not get on his TV show until I had a hit record. Well, fortunately, he introduced my to Don Merrill, who owned a theater—the Lorraine Theater, an old-fashioned kind of show theater in Hoopeston, Illinois. Don put on the Sweet Corn Festival every year. The annual Hoopeston Sweet Corn Festival. And he invited me to come sing when George Hamilton IV and Billy Grammer were on the stage that night.
And Don Merrill was right. He thought if these guys—George Hamilton IV and Billy Grammar—could hear me sing, they might be willing to give me some key people to meet in Music City, Nashville. So I entertained that evening, was well received, and George Hamilton and Billy Grammer gave me a bunch of key names, like Bill Denny, and other major publishing producers, record people in Nashville. Buddy Killen, who was a bass player and owned Tree Publishing, I sang for him.
What kind of music were you doing at this point?
Well, it was folk music. Not commercial, so to speak. The kind I was doing was minor, kind of an art song. So I went to Nashville with a bunch of names, thanks to George Hamilton IV and Billy Grammer, and it's about a year later, I'm ready to go: Guitar, briefcase full of songs, and I knock on the pavement of Music City for a week. I sing for all the people that these country stars told me to sing for. I was getting more and more disappointed because now it was Friday. It had been five days in a row, nobody interested in my stuff because it was too artsy.
Finally, on Friday, I met the Wilburn Brothers, Teddy and Doyle Wilburn, and they liked my singing immediately, called Shelby Singleton, who had an office at Mercury across the street, and Shelby came over right away, and I sang for him "The One I Left for You." Shelby loved it and said, "I will record him."
Of course I was elated, and drove back to Champaign-Urbana, to the campus, very excited. Some days later I got a phone call from one of the Wilburn Brothers, and they said, "Got great news—Mercury is establishing a brand new label called Smash, and they would like for you to be one of the singers to help this new label make a go."
At first, I was very angry, because I wanted to be on Mercury. I thought of the names of so many big ones: Brook Benton, "How Much Is that Doggie in the Window?"
Patti Page was on the label. And I thought there would be so much more prestige and professional influence if I could be on a big-name label. But they convinced me that I could get lost in the pack, just be one more little pebble in this giant place of big stars. So, I had to say yes anyway, and was very fortunate that I did because I came out with "Wooden Heart" on Smash, which was really astounding because they used thousands of dollars to establish the label, promoting me and "Wooden Heart," and I was like on the crest of a wave. And the wave was really the publicity to establish "Wooden Heart"—not so much me. So I was caught up like a piece of driftwood in this tremendous flood of publicity to help establish the label.
(Go to part 2.)