Monday, August 15, 2011

On Top of Pikes Peak - Billy Briggs

This coming weekend marks the running of the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon, and for that reason I'm going to break my rule to only feature records south of Highway 50.

As a flatlander runner, who usually crosses the finish line of a half marathon in just barely under three hours, I am in awe of anyone who can put one foot in front of the other and scale up one and a half vertical miles in oxygen-deprived surroundings.

Is the feat crazy? Probably. I nonetheless applaud the physical and mental fortitude it takes to do it. Since I could never run a half marathon fast enough to qualify for the Ascent (believe me, I've tried), I will always live vicariously through those who do.

Last September, while visiting family back home in Pueblo, I drove up to Manitou Springs. I parked the car and stood across from Memorial Park, which marks the starting point of the annual race.

Walking up Manitou Avenue, I decided to see how far I could go along the race route. By the time I got to Ruxton Avenue, not even a mile away, I wanted to collapse.

Back in the car, and just a few miles from the town, I spotted a thrift store. While digging for additions to the blog, I found this record. After my ill-attempt at following in the footsteps of those more physically capable, the title made me smile.

Listen to "On Top of Pikes Peak"
(Imperial 8239 - 1954)

Billy Briggs (1919-1984) began his musical career in 1937, as a bass and steel guitar player with The Sons of the West, and The Hi-Flyers, both western swing groups based out of the Texas Panhandle region. By 1947 he fronted his own group, Billy Briggs and his XIT Boys.

"On Top of Pikes Peak" was one of his last recordings, before he left the music industry.

COMING NEXT POST: Ring ring goes the bell.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Larry Steele

Interview with Rod Steele and Kim Steele conducted July 2011.

For as long as anyone in Larry Steele's family could remember, he was a performer - a destiny that was carved out at an early age.

"He won a Star Search contest in the 5th grade, in Longmont," said his brother Rod. "He actually taught himself how to play the guitar, and then there was no stopping him."

Born in Englewood in 1937, to Lester and Ruth Steele, music was a way to entertain the family in their Castle Rock home, where Larry was the oldest of seven boys.

"Mom had a beautiful voice," Rod Steele said.

After Larry graduated from Castle Rock High School, he got married, then moved to New Mexico, to work with a then-unknown singer, Glen Campbell.

"Glen was from Albuquerque, and so he started playing with him. Then he got drafted."

After serving in the U.S. Navy for four years, Steele picked up where he left off and came back to Colorado, where he started jamming in bi-racial rhythm and blues bands, including Larry Steele and the Chessmen.

(1964 Denver Post advertisement)

"Then one day John Capps from K-ARK records in Nashville shows up at one of his shows, and asks if he wanted to do a demo," Rod Steele said.

Steele was writing his own r&b-tinged songs at the time, so he pitched several to the label, who decided to groom him as its next superstar.

Released on the K-ARK Discoteque label (106), his first recording was an EP of six songs.

Side One:"My Lucky Day" "Last Night" "Foolish Pride"
Side Two: "Up The Lazy River""Stormy Weather" "Birth of the Blues"
(listen to samples)

Throughout the late 1960s Steele would go on to release several singles. In a risky move, he then decided to switch to country music.

K-ARK proceeded to get the word out about their new country music discovery, with the release of an LP, and a series of articles in many magazines, including Billboard.

Going to Kansas City
K-ARK 600

"Larry Steele, a Cherokee Indian, from Colorado Springs, and a pop artist, switched to country on his newest cut in Nashville last week for K-ARK, called "I'm Not Crying Mister." -Billboard, September 18, 1965

A week later, the trade magazine ran a picture of Steele.

Billboard - September, 25 1965

Steele would release several singles on the label:
K-ARK 648 – "Baby Workout" / "My Lucky Day"
K-ARK 659 – "Ramblin’ Man" / "I Ain’t Crying Mister"

"I Ain't Crying Mister" peaked at #43 on the Billboard Hot Country singles chart on January 22, 1966.

K-ARK 802 – "Hard Times" / "Apple or a Pair"
K-ARK 837 – "Hello Satan" / "Tall, Down on my Knees"

K-ARK 875 – Larry Steele and the Wranglers – "How About it Young Lady" / "Three Men on a Mountain" K-ARK 893 – Larry Steele and the Wranglers – "Yesteryear’s Man" / "Plain Simple Life"

Sometime in 1966 Steele aligned himself with the Hilltop label, the Pickwick country project. According to the April 2, 1966 issue of Billboard, Larry Steele, along with Johnny Paycheck, and Lloyd Green were all signed with the company. The story mentioned an album project, but it appears Steele only released three singles with the label: "Why Don’t They Want Me" / "Little Jimmy" (Hilltop 3011), "Little Brenda" / "Daylight Losing Time" (3012), and "Little Folks" / "Little Jimmy" (3014).

Photo courtesy of Kim Steele

"He had always been kinda hillbilly," said Rod Steele. "It didn’t matter what he played, he just played it - he just loved music. Larry was ahead of his time. When he went into country, people were just starting to hear that rhythm that you hear now in country. But interestingly enough, he really didn't consider himself a country singer."

In 1969 Rod Steele joined his bother, when Larry Steele was asked to perform in Vietnam. "I played drums for him. We did that for about three months, playing for the troops."

After his contract with K-ARK expired, he came back home to Fountain, where he decided to stay put in Southern Colorado.

"He had nine kids at this time, and I think he wanted to find something more stable," said Rod Steele. "He was playing at the Caravan Club in Pueblo, and Bob Sloan, who was the owner, told him that he wanted to get out of the nightclub business. He asked Larry if he wanted to buy the club. So he did."

Larry Steele didn't have any experience running a nightclub, but he and his wife ran the bar from 1971-1974. "He really didn't make any money out of it, and with nine kids to feed, he needed to find something else to do."

In 1972 he caught a big break by opening for Buck Owens at Red Rocks. He also signed with the Johnny Seeley record label, Airstream, based out of Fountain.

Billboard - Nov. 10, 1973

Steele would go on to release "Things Money Won't Do" / "Goody, Goody, People" (Airstream 101), and "Little Wine, Little Gin" / "Hold On" (Airstream 003), which received a favorable write-up in the June 8, 1974 issue of Billboard, as a "recommended" country song.

Seeley's intense promotion of Steele resulted in numerous write-ups on the artist. That same year, as part of a full page feature on Colorado record labels, Billboard highlighted Airstream, and its star client, Steele.

"Seeley had been in the music business for about 20 years, working clubs, bookings and the like, when he decided to form his own label. He knew Steele's talent, and he plunged ahead in the mountainous area 10 miles south of Colorado Springs. The initial recordings were done at the Buck Owens Studios in Bakersfield, and all of the backup musicians are the Buckaroos." -- Billboard - July 27, 1974

On Dec. 7, 1974, his third single "Daylight Losing Time" (Airstream 004) hit the Billboard Hot Country Charts, peaking at #90. The single stayed on the charts for five weeks.

"Watermelon Man" (note spelling of composer's first name)
Side B of "Daylight Losing Time" - the Herbie Hancock-penned

In 1975 tragedy would strike when Larry Steele was involved in a motorcycle collision with a truck. "The doctors told us that he would never walk again - but he proved them wrong," said his daughter, Kim.

Larry Steele continued to race stock cars, and take part in rodeo competitions, and he never gave up on his music.

"My dad was always playing his guitar and writing on a tablet," Kim Steele said. "We were always dancing and singing, and the record player was always going."

In 1977 he packed up his family and moved to Tennessee, where he secured a position writing songs for Acuff-Rose Publishing.

"You had to live within a 30 mile radius of Nashville to work for them," said Kim Steele. "We all moved, but that's when mom and dad went through their divorce."

Larry Steele would later remarry, and move to Alba, Missouri, in 1998. His knees had always given him some trouble, as a result of the motorcycle accident, but it never kept him from performing - until a show in Florida, opening for Mark Wills.

"He was doing this concert, and the pain was too much. He had already said he couldn't do anymore operations, so gangrene set in, and he lost his leg," said Rod Steele.

The next few months are a blur for the family. Nobody saw any signs of depression, or suicidal thoughts. Larry Steele continued to write music, and keep up with his family.

"I got the call that my dad shot himself," said Kim Steele. "I got in the car and drove straight from Colorado to Missouri. "I was able to get there before he died."

Larry Steele passed away March 6, 2003. He was 65 years old.

"I still don't know why he did it. There was just something inside of him. I don't know," said Rod Steele. "I think it took a toll on him."

Larry Steele (year unknown)
Photo courtesy of Kim Steele

"The night he shot himself, on the back of his will, he was writing a song," said Kim Steele.

"You know, Larry really didn’t want to be a star, but he could have been one," said Rod Steele. "He chose not to, nobody knows why."

Larry Steele is buried in Greenlawn Cemetery, in Berthoud.

COMING NEXT POST: On top of Pikes Peak