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Warren Smith: Black Jack David

In Nick Tosches’ book Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock ‘n Roll, the writer talks about Elvis Presley and how the performer was able to take music created by black folks, re-imagine it and dispense something new that moves beyond color: it’s not white or black, it’s gritty music. And Toches is right, as so often he is. There’s nothing shameful about being into Elvis – you should be. The sides he cut for Sun Records are pretty incredible. But another guy recording for that same Memphis label, Warren Smith, put out a spate of work during the ‘50s that should appeal to any fan of music from the decade regardless of race.

Smith and his first single were able to out sell the Elvis’ sides for Sun as well as those from Johnny Cash. So, the fact that Smith, today, is only recalled in hillbilly circles is a bit odd. But nonetheless, the guy raised a racket during his heyday.

Growing up in Mississippi and living in Texas while in the Air Force, Smith, one day, simply decided he wanted to work in music and moved to Arkansas (for whatever reason) to pursue his dream. One combo that he worked with instantly recognized the man’s talents and whisked the singer away to Sun studios to audition for Sam Phillips. Good choice.

The next few years, up until the ‘60s, was rockabilly’s chance to inform what would become rock ‘n roll. So the fact that Smith was able to indiscriminately move from an almost traditional blues to hillbilly styled love songs and back again isn’t really surprising, just pleasurable to listen to. A few ballads snuck in, like “I Fell in Love,” but for the most part, up tempo numbers worked best for Smith.

Found on Classic Recordings (1956-1956) a number of the singer’s most fondly remembered songs are collected. “Ubangi Stomp” and “Uranium Rock,” both of which were covered by the Cramps in subsequent years, find a swampy quality imbued in each inserted by Phillips’ production style. They might not be classics simply by virtue of being all but forgotten today, but both tracks are surely still capable of making a body move.

Beyond the new cultural implications that the Smith’s songs had, his recording – or re-recording – of “Black Jack David” is a link to a music of times past. The song, which is basically about a man convincing a woman to leave her husband and child for him, dates back a few centuries and is British in origin. Apart from the subject matter being a bit surprising considering the song’s age, Smith delivers a slow guitar intro that gives away to hillbilly gallop. The song might be one of Smith’s most country sounding, but even if the track isn’t as widely digestible, it’s still able to mark the man’s wide ranging talents.

Warren Smith made it to the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, but his name deserves to be spread a bit further. The singer’s music is ripe for his inclusion in Quentin Tarantino’s film work, but we’ll hafta wait for that.