I was a little surprised to discover that I had not blogged about American record producer and record label owner Shelby Singleton before, especially when I have written several pieces on his contemporary, Major Bill Smith. Smith, producer of the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, was the man who brought the original version of Hey Paula to Singleton (on Smith’s LeCam label); Singleton then reissued the disc through Philips and an international hit was born.
At the age of 17 he married his first wife: Margaret was just 13 at the time. It seems highly appropriate then that he went on to produce (and, through his acquisition of Sun, control much of the back catalogue of) that other celebrity child-marrier Jerry Lee Lewis. After serving in the US Marine Corps in Korea (he was wounded and spent the rest of his life with a metal plate in his head), Singleton worked in a munitions company before being hired to promote the country music catalogue of Starday Records. Starday was distributed by Mercury Records, and when that deal came to an end he moved over to the larger company. Throughout his career Singleton exhibited an unusual flair for picking hit novelty records, including Ray Stevens’ Ahab the Arab, and he was also involved in the careers of Roger Miller, George Jones, Faron Young and many others.
In 1966, after eight years with Mercury, Singleton branched out on his own, forming several music labels, including SSS International and Plantation Records. Two years later he was rewarded when Jeannie C. Riley’s recording of Harper Valley PTA went to Number One (remember that title: it’ll come in handy later!) In 1969 he purchased Sun Records from Sam Phillips, including its rock and roll catalogue.
But it’s Plantation we want to look at today.
Plantation was an odd label, and a place where pretty much anything went. It’s a company that is impossible to categorise, with everything from space-age pop instrumentals to political polemics, with a dash of yodeling CB/trucker trash thrown in for good measure. Here are just a few of the many oddities.
First up – and the song that took me down that rabbit hole in the first place - is The School Bus by T. Tommy Cutrer. Cutrer was a DJ and television presenter who also cut a number of rock and roll sides for, among others, RCA and Dot. Cutrer had also recorded for Starday (as T. Tommy “the Big Daddy”) when Singleton was working for the company. However his one-off 45 for Plantation, The School Bus, defies belief. Make of it what you well. Is it pro-segregation? It’s certainly anti-government, and utterly horrible.
Johnny Moore’s Sold to the Highest Bidder starts off as your typical country tearjerker, but 22 seconds in it turns in to a real-live action, presided over by real-live auctioneer Colonel Tex Herring. Odd doesn’t begin to describe it. Finally, here’s a cover of Singleton’s biggest hit, Harper Valley PTA, re-imagined in ‘comedy’ Chinaman style as Happy Valley CIA by Ray “Wong” Riley. Wong? It’s just wrong, on so many levels. Saki to me!
If you want to hear more I can highly recommend the two disc, 58 track collection called Plantation Gold: The Mad Genius Of Shelby Singleton Jr. via Australia’s Omni Records.
The Nashville-based Singleton died, aged 77, on 7 October 2009, following a battle with brain cancer. Several years earlier he had been arrested for growing a 14ft marijuana plant, the biggest that narcotics officers had ever seen.
Download SCHOOL here
Download BIDDER here
Download HAPPY here