In an earlier post I described Merle Travis as a “quadruple threat … guitarist, vocalist, songwriter and bandleader.” In Night Train to Memphis, however, he is not the composer of the song, nor does he sing. And it isn’t even Merle’s band: he’s working here under Jimmy Wakely’s leadership. But as the guitarist soloist, given a full chorus to demonstrate his “Travis-style picking,” Merle takes top honors in this Soundie. His unique ability to play both a base and melody line simultaneously is simply astounding.
If one wanted to create a triumvirate of great singing cowboys from the 1930s and ’40s, Gene Autrey would place first, followed closely by Roy Rogers. Who might hold the third spot is a question of personal taste. Many would argue in favor of Tex Ritter, but Jimmy Wakely would certainly be in the running.
In 1937, while still in his early twenties, Wakely formed a western band called the Blue Bells. Working in and around Oklahoma City, the group performed and broadcast regularly, sponsored by Blue Clothing. In 1940 Wakely moved to California to appear on Gene Autry’s “Melody Ranch” radio series. He soon landed a Decca recording contract that helped launch a busy and prolific career as a recording artist, stage performer, and motion picture star.
Wakely’s screen debut, uncredited, was in a Roy Rogers oater from 1939 titled Saga of Death Valley. In the 1940s he appeared with growing prominence in a succession of feature films, often with his trio. He was a regular screen presence throughout the decade, and between beginning in 1944 he starred in more than thirty features produced by the beloved Monogram. His popularity was such that the character he played on screen was called “Jimmy Wakely.” He was just beginning his work as a full-fledged “singing cowboy” when this Soundie was produced in September 1944.
It is important to note that not all of the recording musicians returned five days later for the photography session. Now, we both see and hear Wakely, here as the featured vocalist. Merle is on solo guitar, Mitchell Gross on fiddle, and Art Wenzel on accordion. Wesley Tuttle is heard on string bass, while his place is taken on screen by Tex Atchison. Steel guitarist Don Weston is not seen on screen, and the rhythm guitarist who replaces him is Jimmie Dean. The female vocal trio is the Sunshine Trio: that’s Colleen Summers, later Mary Ford, front and center; the other two ladies are June Widener and Vivian Earles, although I have not been able to match names and faces.
The problems with personnel aside, this is a fabulous Soundie and a fine example of Western Swing from the Sunshine State.