It was a summer afternoon in 1961 in Oneco, FL. Our band, the Swingin’ Saints, was rehearsing at the home of guitarist Dickie Betts (who later gained fortune and fame with the Allman Brothers) when the bass player brought in a record by a friend of his who "lived off in the woods. " That was my introduction to Tracy Pendarvis. Twenty-four years later, on July 23,1985, I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing this gentle man near his home in Tavares, Florida. The original version of this story was published in Alan Clark's Legends Of Sun Records in 1986. A second interview took place at Pendarvis's new recording studio in Tavares on August 8, 1990 and a new version of the story appeared in Goldmine on April 3, 1992.
“That was one of our difficulties ... where we were from … nowhere,” said Tracy Pendarvis. He was born about 10 miles from the Suwannee River near Cross City, FL on February 8, 1936. As a small child he listened to his mother's records and “drove everybody crazy” trying to play the harmonica. “My mother was a great fan of the old Jimmie Rodgers, out of the '20s,” he recalled. “She used to have every record he ever made. When I was a kid I used to go out to the garage and listen to them. It impressed me at an early age; I was about four or five years old. Somehow that stuff got in my mind ‘cause I didn't listen to the radio that much. I probably broke her whole record collection before it was over but he was my idol. He was the forerunner, I guess, of what, basically, people call rock ‘n’ roll.”
Pendarvis got his first guitar, a $10 model, for his 17th birthday and soon teamed up with another guitarist, Johnny Gibson. “Schools used to have the little teenage dances in the lunch room at night to keep the kids occupied once a week,” said Pendarvis. We went by there one night and, I guess kinda stood around waiting for somebody to ask us (to play), and they did, and that was actually our first. I mean, we thought we'd hit the big time then!
“Where we lived, in that Suwannee River area, there was nothing there. There were no studios in the South at that time except in Nashville and Memphis, and most guys around our town hadn't even been to Georgia yet... that would have been across the world! We kept trying to figure out how we were going to ever get to Memphis or to Nashville. Presley wasn't on the scene then. We were listening to guys like Hank Snow, but mainly to HowIin’ Wolf and guys like those out of New Orleans. There was a station there, the House That Jack Built, and we'd sit up every night till 2:00-3:00 in the morning and listen to those guys. How they did their licks and how they sang the blues, that really interested us. We didn't really listen that much to country. Lightning Slim was another one. Even way back then Ray Charles was going. Nobody knew anything about him but us. You could mention him to somebody and they'd say, ‘Who's that?’”
Pendarvis helped Gibson with his homework while Gibson taught him guitar. “He had dropped out of school and his desire was to get an education,” said Pendarvis. “Had he gone on, he would have probably been a big name today. He became a detective in Georgia.” (Several instrumentals were released on Big Top, Twirl and Laurie from 1962 to 1964 by a Johnny Gibson. One of these, “Midnight,” spent four weeks on Billboard's Hot 100, but Pendarvis did not believe this was the same Johnny Gibson.)
Besides having no recording studios in the area, there just weren't many places to play. “All they had was square dances so we'd sit in with them for three dollars apiece for the whole night,” said Pendarvis. We thought we were on our way! I look back at it now - I probably kept more of those three bucks than anything else!”
A better opportunity finally came along in the form of a talent contest in Gainesville, 50 miles away and the nearest town of any size. The boys auditioned for Bob Norris (who would later become their manager); they played “It Don't Pay” as their only original song, and two weeks later received the call that it had won. “Oh, we were out of our minds,” said Pendarvis. “And I hadn't even bothered to write the lyrics down. I had to think about them again when he played the tape back. We really weren’t that organized. We got the contract with Scott, we cut the record and released it (with the spelling of “Tracey”) and one side was completely out of time. They had the wrong tape on it. We cut it at the radio station. That was the nearest thing we had to a studio. One microphone ... this place where we cut it was about the size of two of these (restaurant) booths.”
This was apparently in April 1958 and the radio station was WDYH. Pendarvis was told that the record sold as many as 500,000 to 600,000 copies, including sales of 150,000 in one day at a jukebox operator's convention, but that the sales took place in one or two markets at a time, preventing the record from showing up on national charts. It’s likely that these are very exaggerated figures. The Scott label was owned by Henry Stone, who later scored big with K.C. & the Sunshine Band and others in the ‘70s. Pendarvis’ memories of the association are not especially favorable. “I sued him and if I could I would again,” he said. “He taught me a lot about contracts. We never collected anything from it, but the record did get us a little notoriety.” His first appearance with the record was on a show in Gainesville with Buddy Knox. Pendarvis and his group received no pay although they were told that they had sold more tickets than Knox because of their local reputation. “It just got to be that kind of thing over and over. We were told a lot of things that never did happen. We would drive 600-700 miles to do a free record hop just to get airplay. I shudder when I think of how much money was made (by others), but it did get us off the ground.”
Originally known as the Bluetones, the group became the Bluenotes when Milt Oceans, who worked for Stone, changed it on the record label. Their first TV appearance came on Johnny Tillotson’s show on WJAX-TV in Jacksonville. The first major concert appearance was also in Jacksonville with Connie Francis, Danny and the Juniors, the Royal Teens and the Champs. Pendarvis remembered “Tequila” being in the #2 spot on the local station while “It Don't Pay” (“which didn't,” he said) was #l. The follow-up record, “Give Me Lovin’”/”All you Gotta Do” failed to garner any action. “I don't know why but we always had the wrong tapes used. We cut better tapes than that but there was just not enough time taken for those things,” said Pendarvis, who was about ready to quit when the lean times set in. He and Gibson decided to drive to Memphis to try for an audition with Sun. They played for Ernie Barton and, although Sam Phillips didn't really want any more artists at the time, they got lucky. Pendarvis was much happier with the procedure at Sun. “They did phase the mic’s, they did try to do the right thing,” he said.
The first release, “A Thousand Guitars”, was recorded twice. “We cut it at the old studio (706 Union Ave) and then Sam didn’t want anything else released from there so we went over and cut it in his new studio on Madison,” explained Pendarvis. We were one of the first to cut in there. I still say the cut we made over there (at the old studio)) was better to me than the one we made in the new studio. He wouldn’t appreciate that but it was true.” Musicians on the record included Sun session men Roland Janes and James Van Eaton. There was some airplay but not enough to bring about any great changes for the group. They toured on their own and at one point, dead broke in a snowstorm in Boston, Pendarvis had to call Phillips and ask for money to get home.
Nearly a year passed before the next release, “Is It Me”/”Southbound Line.” According to The Sun Rock File, these sides were recorded at the old studio, contradicting Pendarvis’ statement about Phillips not wanting any more releases from there. This record also failed to chart and Sun tried one more time with “Eternally”/”Belle Of The Suwannee” Musicians on these sides included Billy Lee Riley on bass and Scotty Moore on guitar.
The next recordings were produced by Pendarvis’s brother-in-law, Dave Cook. “We went up to Atlanta and cut with … at that time they weren't doing anything … Joe South, Jerry Reed and Ray Stevens,” said Pendarvis. “They just happened to be in the studio when we went in that day. They did the backup (on ‘I Felt A Teardrop’ and ‘First Love’) with a guy that went with me, my drummer, Jerry Goodman. Joe South had just cut a record called ‘What's The Reason I'm Not Pleasin’ You’ (Pendarvis is probably referring to South's version of “You're The Reason,” which appeared briefly on Billboard's Hot 100 in late summer of 1961). Ray had just come in off tour and Jerry Reed was just hanging around. Chip Young (later very successful as a writer/producer) was the engineer. Ray was working with GAC Tours then (probably with “Jeremiah Peabody's Pills,” his initial chart entry in 1961).
After two releases on DesCant, Pendarvis did club work around Chicago, Joliet and St. Charles. During this period he recorded material that was used on the much later BisopBop import LP. These include two Chuck Berry covers, the only non-originals that he ever recorded: They were intended to be demos and were done in a small backyard studio.
In 1969 Pendarvis went to Nashville and wrote for Bobby Bare's publishing company, He became acquainted with other Nashville writers, including Kris Kristofferson and Wayne Walker. He returned to Florida that May to be with his wife during the birth of his first son while the publishing company continued to work his songs. Finally, after 13 years of effort, Pendarvis saw Wynn Stewart take his composition, “It's A Beautiful Day”(Capito12888) to the # 13 spot on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles chart on September 17, 1970. The song was also used as the title cut for Stewart’s LP (Capitol 561) and it was covered by an l l-year-old artist, Browning Bryant, on Dot. It would seem that this should have opened doors for Pendarvis as a writer but that wasn’t the case. He felt that Stewart’s move to RCA may have played a part but it seems likely that his decision to remain in Florida rather than return to Nashville may have been at least as great a factor.
Pendarvis continued to perform along with working as an electrician. He went to electronics school and obtained his first class FCC license and was surprised at the new interest in his old material. “Two guys from Germany said those originals are selling for $400 apiece over there ... and I threw a bunch of ‘em away! A guy from Germany wrote me a letter and said ‘A Thousand Guitars’ was voted the all-time best rockabilly song ever recorded. You know, we never did call ourselves rockabilly. Nobody used the term in those days, but as it progresses we finally, I think, made the full circle and became country.”
His studio, Trace Recording, opened in 1990 and Pendarvis cut demos with guitarist Ty Heston, a former Bill Haley sideman and member of the Jodimars. Looking trim and sounding good in 1990, he said, “I still want to write that big song.” Sadly, he was gone just seven years later.