Tommy Dee was an American DJ, country music producer and promoter. Born Thomas Donaldson in Vicker, Virginia in July 1933, he grew up in Boston before heading out to Flagstaff, Arizona, where he landed his first radio job at KCLS. From there he went to KOFA in Yuma before heading off again, this time to California.
Donaldson had been working as a disc jockey at KFXM in San Bernardino for less than a week when he wrote Three Stars, a tribute to Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens who had perished in a plane crash that very same day. Legend has it that Three Stars took him all of 20 minutes to compose: ‘I was on the air, when it happened,’ Donaldson told writer Albert Leichter. ‘The bells went crazy on the teletype. I started reading it… I wrote the song right on the spot: poured my heart out. I just put it down as I wrote it, just a strum of the guitar’.
Eddie Cochran became the first person to record Three Stars, committing his version to tape just two days after the ominous crash. According to Wayne Jancik (author of the book One Hit Wonders) ‘the next day, Dee went to American Music and Crest Records owner Sylvester Cross. As Dee recalls, “Cross said, ‘Do you mind if Eddie Cochran records this song?’ I said, “No.” Within minutes Eddie and his manager Jerry Capehart were present. They listened to it. Eddie, in tears, said, “Let’s cut it right now.” Cochran spent several hours in the studio, but as Dee put it, “It just didn’t come off.”’
Cochran had been close to the three men and was unsurprisingly distraught at the time he made the recording, virtually breaking down in tears at several points. He had originally been scheduled to join the Winter Dance Party tour and could just as easily have been one of the victims of the crash. According to R. Gary Patterson’s book Take a Walk on the Dark Side ‘the original purpose was to split the song's royalties among the families of the three fallen stars. The session proved to be so moving for Cochran that he entered into the control room and told his producer that if that song was ever released he would never cut another record’. Eddie’s recording remained unreleased until 1966 when Liberty Records issued the single in the UK, six years after Cochran's own tragic death.
Jancik’s book states that vocalist Carol Kay is actually world-renowned bassist Carol Kaye, yet she had already been working as a session musician (playing guitar for Sam Cooke and Lou Rawls among others) in Los Angeles for two years before the disc was cut. Unfortunately he’s not the only writer to make this assumption. I asked Ms Kaye if she was indeed involved in the recording and received this rather terse reply: ‘That's a terrible rock ‘n roll singer. I'm the most-recorded bass player in the world! That's not me!’ So there you have it. Our Carol kept recording with Tommy and as a solo artist, before going on to do some session work, singing backup on tracks by artists such as Chris Montez, and Jan & Dean.
With no release forthcoming from Cochran, and a UK cover version by Ruby Wright and Dick Pike about to be issued in the US (on King), Donaldson – as Tommy Dee – issued his own version on Crest Records of Los Angeles. Variously credited to Tommy Dee With Carol Kay And The Teen-Aires, Tommy Dee With Carol Kay And The Teen Tones, and Tommy Dee With Teen Tones, the song was released in March 1959. The record entered the top forty on April 13, 1959 and peaked at number 11 on May 4, going on to sell over one million copies and earn Tommy a gold disc. Three Stars would be his only hit as a recording artist. ‘My record was in the true sense of the word, a novelty record,’ he once said. ‘I was in the right place at the right time. Everything fell in place.’ Although he had a successful career as a DJ, record producer, promoter and record company executive in Nashville, Dee would issue a slew of similar singles over the next decade in vain hope of re-establishing a pop career. The inspiration for Three Stars would, of course, later provide Don McLean (and Madonna) with an international hit.
The next single from Tommy Dee With Carol Kay And The Teen-Aires - The Chair/Hello, Lonesome (about a man facing the death penalty) failed to chart, but keen to capitalise on their one hit, the pair quickly followed this up with the seasonal Merry Christmas Mary/Angel of Love (Crest 1067, November 1959), which Billboard called ‘a sincere Christmas ballad’ with ‘a strong message for the teens’. Again, chart success eluded him.
By June 1960 Tommy had struck out on his own with There’s a Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere/The Hobo and the Puppy (Challenge 612). August 1960 saw The Story of Suzy, the tale of a good girl turned into a junkie, backed with The Ballad of a Drag Race – no RuPaul in sight (Challenge 59087). Tommy Dee barely attempts to sing on any of his releases, preferring to ‘narrate’ the tale in a sonorous style. However he still chalked up appearances on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand show and toured with Eddie Cochran and Conway Twitty. Carol Kay (again accompanied by the Teen-Aires) followed her own path with O' Where, O' Where (Crest 1062) and Gee Gosh (Gosh Oh Gee) in 1961 (Keno 1002).
Tommy’s subsequent releases included Halfway To Hell/Loving You (On Someone Else's Time) (Pike, 1961), A Little Dog Cried/Look Homeward, Dear Angel (Pike 5909) issued in September 1961 (a-side originally recorded by Dicky Doo and the Don’ts and later covered by Jimmie Rogers), and Missing on a Mountain/Look Homeward, Dear Angel (Pike 5917) released in April 1963, wit both sides this time written by Dee. Like Three Stars, Missing on a Mountain (a duet with Bonnie Owens) was dedicated to three singers who had recently lost their lives in a plane crash, this time Patsy Cline, Cowboy Copas and Hawkshaw Hawkins. Little more than a rewrite of the earlier single, this mawkish monstrosity features the vomit-inducing line ‘a wonderful girl, so brightly did her star shine, God needed a new star in Heaven, and he called it Patsy Cline’.
Dee kept on grave robbing with An Open Letter (To Caroline and John-John)/Ballad of a Drag Race (Star 4304) November 1963. This time the a-side was about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, framed as a letter to the dead president’s children. Over the next 12 months Dee wrote (or co-wrote) and published over a dozen songs, including the nuts Chipmunks rip-off Bingo/Bingo’s Bongo Bingo Party, which was issued on VeeJay under the name Baby Bugs. An earlier attempt at a novelty that he recorded while at Pike, the twist-inspired Sheep, went unissued.
In 1965 Tommy Dee With Little Maxine And The Covinas And The Dayna Tones issued Thanks For The Memories on the obscure Hilton record label. Dee did not appear on the b-side (Five Minutes More, by The Covinas With The Dayna Tones) although he is credited as producer for both sides of the disc. The thought of death was never far away: in 1966 Sims records issued two versions of the Dee 45 Goodbye High School (Hello Viet Nam) – one backed with Missing While Surfing (Sims 260), the other as the b-side to How’s Your Momma ‘Em? (Sims 308) 1966. His first disc of ’67 was yet another death disc, this time a tribute to the astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, who had been killed during testing for the Apollo 1 mission at Cape Kennedy, Florida: Roger, Ed And Gus (America's Astronaut Heroes)/School For Fools was issued as Starday 802 in February that year.
His final 45 releases appear to have been The Return of Billie Joe (Jack o’ Diamonds 1006, September 1967), a riposte to Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe; the undated (I’m the One You Stole) Heart, Body and Soul/You’ve Got Another Tear to Cry (on Sincere records of Nashville) and Welfare Cadillac/Puppy and the Hobo. The A-side is a cover of Guy Drake’s country hit, the flip a re-recording of his 10-year old The Hobo and the Puppy (K-Ark 995, February 1970). Unfortunately Jancik makes the same mistake many other biographers have: the 1981 release Here Is My Love is not by the same Tommy Dee – it was cut from the soundtrack of the movie Idolmaker, and Tommy Dee is a character in the film, played by Paul Land.
The real Tommy Dee retired from record making, and – reverting to his proper name - concentrated instead on production and promotion. In 1994 his name hit the headlines locally when his Gospel Tone Productions record label and talent show enterprise were accused by act The Green Triplets (later renamed Common Bond) of shady dealing: the Greens ‘became suspicious of Gospel Tone Records chief Tommy Dee Donaldson when he resisted to send the recording contract. Donaldson told them, “I don't do business that way”. “Tommy Dee wasn't being up front with us about anything,” brother Luke says. The Greens gave up on Tommy Donaldson's Gospel Tone recording contract, but not before they were swept up in a nationwide talent show circuit run by Donaldson and Nashville talent show promoter Johnny Eagle that required them to pay higher and higher entry fees and sell increasingly expensive “sponsorship”’, a scam that still works today for many of America’s beauty pageants.
He spent the last three decades of his working life in Nashville, raising his family (two wives, 12 children and step-children, 16 grandchildren and six great grandchildren at the time of his passing), working as A&R for Roxy Productions and promoting country music concerts through a number of his own businesses including T&T Productions, TNT Productions, Tommy Dee Donaldson Promotions and Killer Records. Tommy Donaldson died on January 26, 2007 in Nashville, Tennessee.
Anyway, here are three slices of prime cheese from the late Tommy Dee: The Hobo and the Puppy, Goodbye High School (Hello Viet Nam) and Missing While Surfing.