Real Country Music
If you ever have the chance to speak to Little David, you should. But be warned that you will need to be prepared to hear story after story about some of the greatest names in roots music. Also make sure you don't have anywhere to be....since he is maybe one of the most talkative, and engaging, people I've ever run across. But in the end you will be grateful for hearing his story and that of many others.
Little David Wilkins
For David, life began in Parsons, TN. And as he notes in a newer song, “I was eight years old when I started to play...”. Soon after he caught the ear of his sister's husband, Henry Rhodes, who played with the Eddie Hill radio show. David added, “Eddie Hill had a radio show and was a big man in Bible, AR, and Memphis, and later Nashville...”
As David recalls that he (ten years old at the time) and Henry “were walking down the road one day down on the farm to go shoot our gun. Back then my claim to fame was shooting a rifle. I could throw a little bottle or something like that up in the air and bust it, and I was going to show my brother in law what I could do....well, we were going down the road and I started singing Tennessee Ernie Ford's "Shotgun Boogie"....And he said 'What are you doing?' and I said, 'I'm just singing. Why?' and he said 'Good lord do some more of that!' and I sang some more and he said “Let's go back to the house” and we never did shoot no gun...”
After that Little David ordered guitar books and learned how to play guitar and “went from guitar to piano in 1960.” Since 1958, he has been able to make a living playing music, and according to David, he “has never had to worry about anything but music since then.” Wikipedia lists his birth year as 1945.
As with most performers, David spent time playing night clubs, school houses, and, as he says, “anywhere where we could play” around his hometown. Fortunately for David, W.S. Holland (long-time drummer for Johnny Cash) was in the audience one night. And as David remembers, “W.S. said 'I think Sam Phillips would sign you to a record contract.'” Soon after, W.S. took David, and David's guitar player Tuck Shutt, to Memphis to audition for Sam Phillips and Sun Records.
“We auditioned for Sam in the studio. We sang seventeen songs for Sam Phillips, of that days music, hit songs. He came out into the studio and hugged me and said 'I believe that's the only time I've heard a singer that didn't go sharp or flat in seventeen songs.' So, we signed a deal.”
Unfortunately, however, Sun was unable to do much to advance Little David's career. As he recalls, “we couldn't find songs.....we recorded about eight or nine songs and he put them out, but the most we ever sold was about 10 to 12 thousand jukebox copies on a song called “There's Something About You”.
Even though much success was not reached with Sun, fate was soon to lead David to another legendary producer. As the few Sun recordings were being released, Sam Phillips had decided to sell his record label. A deal was eventually reached with long time Mercury Records executive Shelby Singleton for Shelby to buy Sun. Sam, at the time, told David, “I'm gonna tell Shelby to record you because I think you got something in your voice that will sell records.” After the deal was made, Shelby told David, “I'd like to hear some of your stuff.”
David remembers, that in the meantime, due to not finding many songs while with Sam, he started to write some of his own material. So, when he met with Shelby, he “played some of his own songs.” Shelby, upon hearing the material, agreed to sign Little David to Plantation Records. And it was writes and co-writes by David that they set out to record.
David continues, “We had one song called “Just Blow In His Ear”. It was a funny song, and he was trying to do a Ray Stevens kind of thing on me. That song went to number 24 in the nation in the magazines. We had about five songs out and we were getting into the top 50.”
With his recordings flirting with the top 50, Little David also started to find success as a writer. “Coming On Strong” was a number one, million selling, single for Brenda Lee. Besides the normal gains of writing a number one, “Coming On Strong” brought even more to Little David . He tells me, “I won a BMI Award for one of the top played songs of the year, and they sent me to New York City to be the recipient of a BMI award for the pop field.”
About his records during this period, he continued, “In the mean time I didn't really have any big hits with Shelby Singleton.” It was his writing more than his records that led him to the next stage of his career.
Owen Bradley produced “Coming On Strong” for Brenda Lee, and it was he, as David goes on to tell, that next signed “Little” David. “He (Owen Bradley) liked what I writing and all, and they, MCA, bought the contract from Plantation.” So now, Little David was tasked with the responsibility of finding songs for his debut MCA album to be produced by Owen Bradley.
About the process that he went through, he recalls, “I was running around with Kris Kristofferson and Roger Miller. I'd been running with Roger for quite some time...going to the car races with him every Tuesday night. We were dear friends and I was great friends with Kris. And I asked them for songs.”
“And I took the songs to Owen for our first session and he said, 'No'. He said, 'No, I don't like anything they sent you for you. You've already proved you can write a million selling pop record. I want you to do your own songs.' So...out of three albums I wrote all but one song.”
Of course, this decision, wasn't solely based on the one Brenda Lee song. At the time, Little David had about twenty songs out by other artists including The Serendipity Singers, Stonewall Jackson, Del Reeves, Sonny James, and Loretta Lynn.
While with MCA, Little David achieved his greatest level of recording success. As he recalls, ““Love In the Back Seat” was our first record (single) for on MCA. It went to number one in twenty big cities, but they couldn't pull it all together at one time” to register with the big magazines such as Billboard, Radio and Records, Cashbox, etc. Nationally, it only registered in the “top 50 somewhere” due to the different times it was big in different areas. “Love In The Back Seat” was followed by the singles “Too Much Hold Back”, and “Georgia Keeps Pulling On My Ring”, which, despite their quality, only reached the Billboard positions of 41 and 50, respectively.
Little David Wilkins in the studio with Owen Bradley
Interestingly enough, and arguably very fitting, “Georgia...” was later taken to number three by Conway Twitty. David remembers that he and Conway and Loretta Lynn were doing a “show in Chicago, Illinois and Conway came to me and said 'You got a song on one of your albums that's a smash hit', and I said 'oh yeah, what's that?' And he said '“Georgia Keeps Pulling On My Ring”, and I'm getting ready to record it and put it out as a single.'”
What David did not know is that Charlie Pride had heard the song as well. As David tells, “Charlie had just had a hit with “Someone Loves You Honey” and recorded “Georgia...” for RCA records. They already printed the album jackets that said includes the hit “Georgia Keeps Pulling On My Ring”. Before they could get the Charlie Pride single out, Conway recorded it and put it out and that was one of his big records.”
As a recording artist, David's career was limited, but there is no denying his success as a writer. He readily will tell of the 95 songs he has out that he's “written for other stars”. Of all the artists to cover his material, Mickey Gilley has recorded the most, with seven cuts. But his most recorded song has been “Comin on Strong”. Several versions of which are easily found on You Tube and other sites. Little David, with a sense of pride, mentioned that perhaps his proudest moment as a writer came when Kitty Wells recorded a straight country version of “Comin On Strong”.
BMI Award To David Wilkins For Georgia Keeps Pulling On My Ring
As a result of the success he's had in the field, particularly the peer acceptance resulting from his many cuts, David is quick to express his admiration/love of other artists. “I don't know of anybody in the Country Music field that I don't love because it's a great family” he states, and continues with “I've never had a short word with anybody.”
“We really are like a great big family. Matter of fact, I did the Country Family Reunion, the 2010 version. That's where they have about 30 Opry stars and other people who have had big hits, and I got to do two of my songs on there.”
Most of all David is adamant in giving credit for his success to the relationships he's formed with others. W.S. Holland led him to Sun Records and Sam Phillips which led him to Plantation Records and Shelby Singleton which led him to Owen Bradley and MCA. Along the way there was also Billy Graves, the one time assistant A and R man at Capitol Records, who according to David taught David “song structure” and “really helped me learn how to write songs.” Also playing a key role in David's career was Hubert Long, one of the founders of the CMA. Hubert arranged some early Little David demo sessions, and formed a publishing company with Little David. According to David, Hubert's influence and guidance helped to ensure many of the opportunities that he was given.
While on MCA Records, David recorded three albums. Only two were released before his “contract ran out”. From there, he recalls, “I was offered a deal from RCA Records but I turned it down because of financial situations. I ended up on Playboy Records, and went out to Los Angeles to sign and went out to Hugh Hefner's mansion and got the whole nine yards.”
The Playboy album was titled New Horizons. “Agree To Disagree” was the first single from the album, and while it was making its way up the charts Playboy Enterprises suddenly decided to fold the label. “To say the least, my heart went down into my feet,” David recalls, “since I turned down RCA where this would not have happened....they stayed in business. And Hugh Hefner had on the front of Billboard Magazine, Playboy closes doors...”
Unfortunately, because of the contract David had signed with Playboy, even more trouble was brought to his doorstep. “They had a clause in there (the contract) that said because they had given me enough money to buy a new silver eagle bus,” he remembers, “that I either had to pay the money back which I couldn't at the time or they could assign me to another label. I had an attorney to try to get me out of the deal, but it took me almost three years to get out of the deal.”
By then, he says, “My career was deader than a door nail. Therefore, I was not able to sign with anybody else. I was ham strung. I couldn't do anything. So I decided to retire. Well, I played a few more years on the strength of the hits I had, but in 1990 I retired for 17 years.”
In his “retirement”, he found success. He told of how he “got into the bus lease business. I bought six brand new buses out of the factory and I leased to people like Garth Brooks, Brooks and Dunn, K.T. Oslin, and superstars of Nashville and people like Wayne Newton. The bus business was a good business.”
It was also during this time that David opened a restaurant called Little David's Country Kitchen. The restaurant was located outside of Parsons, TN., Little David's hometown. About this venture, David says, “I decided to go into the restaurant business. And I got a drummer and a bass player, and Tuck Shutt, my original guitar player, and we would play down there sometimes. We were a 175 seat restaurant and couldn't get near all the people in that were coming. That was great thing for six years.”
Little David stayed in the bus business for 11 years and the restaurant business for 6 years. But as he admits “it got hard to watch after my other business in Nashville.” The other business being, primarily, to take take care of his publishing and other royalties. As he was doing this “and staying busy”, he recalls "when all of a sudden here comes the Rock-a-Billy Hall Of Fame in 2007. They wanted to induct me, and I received my award and all of that. And in 2008, they asked me to play.”
“So...I went down there with some of my old band members and put them with C.W. Gatlin and we played for an hour and a half. And I loved it so much. And we got some standing ovations.” And that's when “I decided to play around with it a little bit, and started to play around my hometown a little bit. And so in 2009 I played a bit, and in 2010 I played more, and in 2011 I played quite a bit more.”
Little David, with this renewed performing and touring, is also recording again. A new album is expected soon. Through Sheb Wooley's widow, Linda Dotson, David was introduced to Jam Media and seenondemand.com. This introduction led to an agreement to release some of his latest recordings. The album will consist of some re-recordings of past hits and some newer material, of which the most intriguing might be the two duets he recorded with the now deceased Johnny Russell. The album is due soon, but some of it can already be viewed and listened to on various internet sites.
Little David Wilkins is certainly a name worth remembering, and the country immediacy that mark various tracks throughout his career are essential listening for fans of the genre. Hopefully, with his renewed commitment to playing/touring/recording, the future will bring us more of the same, and allow his name to grow beyond liner notes and old chart lists.
Little David Wilkins