PLEDGE WEEK: “Farmer John” by Don and Dewey

A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs
A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs
PLEDGE WEEK: "Farmer John" by Don and Dewey
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This is a bonus episode, part of Pledge Week 2021. Patreon backers get one of these with every episode of the main podcast. If you want to get those, and to support the podcast, please visit patreon.com/andrewhickey to sign up for a dollar a month or more.

Click below for the transcript.

Just a head’s up for those of you who have a limited time — this one runs slightly longer than most of the Patreon bonus episodes. The script’s the same length, but there are about twice as many music clips as normal, so it may last closer to fifteen minutes than ten.

Today we’re going to look at a duo who at one point I planned to include in the main podcast, and when I moved them out of the list for that, I forgot to do as a Patreon episode at the appropriate time. But this week’s main episode deals with the Searchers, who popularised their most successful song, so today we’re going to look at a duo who are almost certainly the only artists ever to influence both Frank Zappa and Donny and Marie Osmond. We’re going to look at Don and Dewey, and “Farmer John”:

[Excerpt: Don and Dewey, “Farmer John”]

Don “Sugarcane” Harris and Dewey Terry were two of the best multi-instrumentalists on the California R&B scene in the fifties. Harris could play guitar, harmonica, and piano, and also spent a decade learning classical violin, while Terry started out on piano, but soon became a fearsome blues guitarist in the style of Guitar Slim.

They started working together in a six-piece vocal group, the Squires, who were based in Pasadena where both men grew up:

[Excerpt: The Squires, “Lucy Lou”]

As well as recording under their own name, The Squires also recorded as The Blue Jays, making soundalike EPs of current R&B hits for a budget label called Dig This Record. One EP, as an example, featured “Sincerely”, “Earth Angel”, “Hearts of Stone” and “Pledging My Love”, the latter with Don on lead vocal:

[Excerpt: The Blue Jays, “Pledging My Love”]

However, Don and Dewey soon realised that since between them they could play most instruments, sing most parts, and write songs, there was no need for them to continue splitting the money with four other people, and started working as a duo, while the Squires continued on their own. Don and Dewey recorded a couple of singles for small labels, the vocal “Miss Sue”:

[Excerpt: Don and Dewey, “Miss Sue”]

And the instrumental “Slummin'”, which was the first record to show off Harris’ unique violin playing. I can’t find my source for this, but I read somewhere that Harris created his own electric violin by taping a record needle to his violin and hooking it up to an amp. Whatever he did, he got a unique sound that proves that the violin can work as a great blues instrument — his playing manages to combine the timbre of both the blues guitar and the harmonica, and it sounds stunning:

[Excerpt: Don and Dewey, “Slummin'”]

Shortly after this, Bumps Blackwell signed the duo to Specialty, where they were quickly fitted into what was fast becoming the Specialty house style, making records that sounded just like Little Richard or Larry Williams, starting with “Jungle Hop”:

[Excerpt: Don and Dewey, “Jungle Hop”]

Their second Specialty single was a song that would become a standard, “I’m Leaving It All Up To You”:

[Excerpt: Don and Dewey, “I’m Leaving It All Up To You”]

In 1963 that would reach number one for a duo called Dale and Grace, and in the seventies it would become a top ten hit for Donny and Marie Osmond:

[Excerpt: Donny and Marie Osmond, “I’m Leaving It All Up To You”]

But it was their last record of the fifties that became their most influential, even though like their other records it wasn’t a hit — a song called “Farmer John”, that they released in 1959:

[Excerpt: Don and Dewey, “Farmer John”]

Shortly after that, they moved labels, as their A&R man, Sonny Bono, who had written their earlier single “Koko Joe” was moving and they went with him. Unfortunately, their new label did little to promote them, and the duo spent the next few years in obscurity, while Bono went on to bigger things, some of which you can hear about in this week’s main episode. They eventually joined Little Richard’s backing band, and played on his comeback attempt “Bama Lama Bama Loo”:

[Excerpt: Little Richard, “Bama Lama Bama Loo”]

They also released another record on Specialty around that time, “Mammer Jammer”:

[Excerpt: Don and Dewey, “Mammer Jammer”]

Neither of those records was a hit, and Don and Dewey started playing as a Vegas lounge act for the next few years.

But oddly “Farmer John” started to take off, more than four years after originally being released. The first cover version of it seems to have been by the Searchers, who often sought out obscure R&B songs. Their version of it was an album track on their first album:

[Excerpt: The Searchers, “Farmer John”]

That was then picked up by a Swedish group called the Hep Stars, who had a top ten hit with the song in Sweden with a copy of the Searchers’ arrangement:

[Excerpt: The Hep Stars, “Farmer John”]

The Hep Stars’ keyboard player Benny Andersson would later start writing songs in collaboration with another member of a later lineup of the group, and they would have some small amount of success with their new band ABBA.

In 1964, as well, another band revived it — a Chicano band called the Premiers, from East LA. Their version is clearly based on Don and Dewey’s original, combined with “Louie Louie” — they’ve said that they specifically modelled their record on “Louie Louie” — but it seems likely to me that the Searchers reviving the song a few months earlier will have brought the song to mind, as nobody had covered the song in the years since 1959, and the British Invasion bands were so popular at the time.

Whatever the reasoning was, the Premiers’ version made the top twenty:

[Excerpt: The Premiers, “Farmer John”]

That would be the Premiers’ only hit, but it would turn “Farmer John” into a garage-rock standard, recorded by dozens of other artists over the years, most notably Neil Young:

[Excerpt: Neil Young: “Farmer John”]

In the late sixties, Frank Zappa was working with Johnny Otis and asked him about Sugarcane Harris. Otis had recently worked with Harris, who had played piano and violin on the Cold Shot album with Otis and his son Shuggie, who was also working with Zappa:

[Excerpt: Johnny Otis, “Cold Shot”]

Otis introduced the two, and Harris played with Zappa on several tracks, including two on his biggest-selling album, Hot Rats:

[Excerpt: Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart, “Willie The Pimp”]

And he played violin and sang lead on Zappa’s cover version of Little Richard’s “Directly From My Heart To You”:

[Excerpt: The Mothers of Invention, “Directly From My Heart To You”]

The exposure that these appearances with Otis and Zappa gave to Harris meant that for the next few years he was a successful sideman, playing with John Mayall, John Lee Hooker, Harvey Mandel, and others, as well as releasing a string of his own solo blues albums in the seventies. Later, he and Dewey reunited to play the nostalgia circuit, and they carried on playing together until 1999, when Don died. Dewey got in a replacement, but died himself four years later.

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