#856: Memphis by Donnie Brooks
In 1936 John Dee Abohosh was born in Dallas, Texas. His family moved to Ventura, California when he was in his youth. In his teens he was adopted by his stepfather, John D. Fairecloth, who supported young John in developing his voice. John Dee Abohosh was than given the surname Fairecloth. While growing up in southern California, he studied under the same vocal coach who previously instructed Eddie Fisher. In high school John Dee Fairecloth made his professional debut on a classical music showcase broadcast by Ventura-based station KBCC. After graduating from high school, Fairecloth earned his living singing at local clubs, fairs, and weddings, embracing rock & roll and in 1957 signing to local indie Fable Records to cut his debut single, “You Gotta Walk the Line”, credited to Johnny Faire. He was twenty-one years old.
While cutting demos for the Surf label, he learned that contractual obligations were forcing friend and mentor, Dorsey Burnette, to abandon a completed track dubbed “Bertha Lou.” Surf agreed to erase Burnette’s vocal and insert Faire’s performance instead. Surf released the single and again John Fairecloth went with the stage name Johnny Faire when recording “Bertha Lou”. The rockabilly number charted in Toronto and Baltimore in the winter of 1957-58. Fairecloth next took the stage name Johnny Jordan in early 1958 to record “Sweet, Sweet, Sweet”. It was written by William Michael who would later pen Donnie Brooks biggest hit, “Mission Bell.” But the rockabilly tune got no notice. Brooks was friends with singer-songwriters and performers, Johnny and Dorsey Burnette. The Burnette brothers encouraged John Fairecloth to stick with the music business.
Fairecloth than took the stage name Dick Bush to record another rockabilly tune, “Hollywood Party”, on Era Records. It made the Top 20 in Worcester, Massachusetts, in May 1958. Despite tepid record sales, Era Records was impressed with Fairecloth and agreed to keep him on their payroll in exchange for another stage name change, this time to Donnie Brooks. “A donnybrook is a riotous occasion, and Donnie was a riot,” said his friend Howard Thomason in 2007 in an interview with the LA Times. “This man didn’t have a serious bone in his body.”
His first recording under the name Donnie Brooks was a flop called “Li’l Sweetheart.” His follow up on Era Records,”White Orchid”, hardly got any notice, though it climbed to #3 in Vancouver, Washington, and sold over 50,000 copies. Moreover, it became a Top Ten hit in Australia. Brooks third single under his current stage name, “The Devil Ain’t A Man” was a Top 30 hit in Ventura, California. The song declared that the devil was a girl about five foot tall. However, it was his fourth single release, “Mission Bell”, that became his best seller peaking on the Billboard Hot 100 and in Vancouver at #7. His fifth single, “Doll House”, climbed to #31 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #2 in Vancouver in December 1960. His sixth single, “Memphis”, stalled at #90 on the Billboard Hot 100, but peaked at #5 in Vancouver.
Memphis was a tune boasting that all the cute girls came from Memphis. This was instead of the other cities the singer referenced: Louisville, Baltimore, Chicago, San Francisco, St. Louise, New York, City, Hollywood, Washington D.C. or Philadelphia. A chorus of girls replies to each suggestion that Memphis is the happiest best place to find girls.
Donnie Brooks “Memphis” was one of a number of songs that listed the names of towns and cities in the late 50’s and early 60’s. Another example of this is “High School USA” by Tommy Facenda from 1959. In the song he names over forty cities. Aside from its Top Ten chart run in Vancouver, “Memphis” only made it to #15 in Seattle and most other radio markets faired poorly. This included across the state of Tennessee and in Memphis. Perhaps Memphians were underwhelmed by Donnie Brooks tribute to their city.
Memphis, Tennessee, was founded in 1819 and originally was part of an area of the sacred lands in the Chickasaw Nation (Native Americans). The Chickasaw were forcibly removed east of the Mississippi in 1836. On July 4, 1837, the Chickasaw gathered in Memphis and traveled west on the Trail of Tears. In its first four decades Memphis was a hub for the domestic slave trade of African-Americans who were brought to market for plantation owners to purchase. A year after the Civil War, in 1866, the Memphis Riots took place where mobs of white men killed 46 blacks and burning over 100 homes. Most of the black settlement was in ruins and this led to an exodus of nearly 5,000 black Memphians. In the 1870’s Memphis was hit by three yellow fever epidemics. Over 24,000 people contracted yellow fever and almost 8,000 people died. In 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis on April 4. Today, the Alex Haley House and Museum tells the story of the author, his book Roots, and the journey of African-Americans from slavery to Civil Rights.
The original Peabody Hotel, an example of southern elegance and charm, opened in 1869. A second Peabody Hotel was opened in 1925. The first national motel chain, The Holiday Inn, was established in Memphis in 1952. Memphis has also seen many recording stars get their start, or be raised, in the city. Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, B.B. King, Booker T Jones (of Booker T & the M.G.’s), Johnny Cash, Al Green and Howlin’ Wolf are among their number. Today, Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley, is one of the biggest attractions for tourists coming to Memphis. Sun Records and Stax Records are part of the history of rock ‘n roll and R&B music emanating out of Memphis. The city is also known for its culinary treat, Memphis barbecue.
Today the top attractions in Memphis also include the Stax Museum of American Soul, Memphis Rock N’ Soul Museum, Beale Street Historic District, the National Civil Rights Museum and the Mississippi River Museum.
Brooks seventh single, “Wishbone” stalled at #40 in Vancouver and was a flop elsewhere. His eighth single release, “Boomerang” also missed the Billboard Hot 100. But it gave him his fourth Top Ten single in Vancouver, peaking at #9. Next, he released “Up To My Ears In Tears,” “Your Little Boys Come Home,” “My Favorite Kind Of Face,” “Oh! You Beautiful Doll,” “It’s Not That Easy” and “Cries My Heart” for Era Records between the fall of 1961 and 1962. None of these successfully charted in the USA, though “Oh! You Beautiful Doll” went to #9 for Brooks in Vancouver. After this string of disappointments, Era Records cancelled their contract with Donnie Brooks. He would release another 18 singles between 1964 and 1978 as Donnie Brooks variously for Reprise, Challenge, Yardbird, Era, Oak, Happy Tiger Records and Midsong International without any success. He also released one more single under his former stage name, Dick Bush, in 1963. Brooks did appear in the 1964 teen rock ‘n roll movie Get Yourself A College Girl. But once Beatlemania struck, Brooks was passé.
Brooks did star in three films in the 60’s. A Swingin’ Summer found Brooks starring in 1965 with Raquel Welsh, the Righteous Brothers, Gary Lewis & The Playboys and the Rip Chords; Get Yourself A College Girl with Nancy Sinatra, The Standells, The Dave Clark Five, The Animals, Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto. In 1966 he appeared in a movie about the dangers of L.S.D. called The Love-ins with James McArthur.
Though his star was fading, Donnie Brooks did continue to appear in concert opening for the Dave Clark Five, Connie Francis and Roy Orbison. In Lake Tahoe, Nevada, Brooks opened shows for both Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra. In 1971, Brooks appeared in the Christian rock opera Truth of Truths, which premiered on Easter Sunday at the Greek Theatre with Jim Backus voicing the role of God. While rehearsing to play Jesus Christ, Brooks later said, he became a born-again Christian.
With a revival of interest in early rock ‘n roll with the advent of progressive rock in the early 70’s, Donnie Brooks began to tour as part of oldies revival shows. For over three decades Brooks constantly went on tour until in 2003 when a car accident forced him to retire. Donnie Brooks died in 2007 at the age of 71.
January 4, 2018
YouTube.com ~ Tommy Facenda, “High School USA.”
Get Yourself A College Girl ~ Trailer
History of the Peabody Hotel
Derrick riches, Memphis Barbecue, The Spruce, Memphis, TN, October 3, 2017
National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, Memphis
Valerie J. Nelson, “Donnie Brooks, 71; L.A. Singer had Top 10 hit “Mission Bell,” Los Angeles Times, February 28, 2007
The People of the Hunting Ground ~ Trail of Tears ~ Chickasaw ~ 1837
Rockabilly Hall of Fame ~ Donnie Brooks (bio)
Calvin Shermerhorn, “The Memphis Massacre of 1866 and Black Voter Suppression in the American South,” The Atlantic, Washington D.C., May 8, 2016.
Stax Museum of American Soul Music, Memphis, TN.
Yellow Fever ~ the Plague of Memphis, historic-memphis.com
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