Rockabilly star put down Manitoba roots
Texan legend ended up settling in small-town Dominion City
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/08/2016 (2352 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
I remember hearing a rumour in the 1980s rockabilly pioneer Buddy Knox, the man who sold more than 10 million copies of his own composition, Party Doll, was living in Dominion City.
I didn’t believe it was true. What would Knox — who chummed around with the likes of Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly and Waylon Jennings, appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and toured the world — be doing in a town of barely 350 people in southern Manitoba?
Knox was born on a farm in the tiny Texas panhandle town of Happy (the town’s motto is “The Town Without A Frown”) in 1933.
“We didn’t even have electricity or a radio,” he recalled in a 1993 interview. “I played guitar and harmonica to entertain myself.”
He also began writing songs. At West Texas State College, Knox teamed up with Jimmy Bowen and Don Lanier to form the Serenaders. Seeing a young Presley in concert in 1955 convinced the Serenaders rockabilly, an energized form of country music with emphasis on the backbeat, was the next big thing. On the recommendation of friend Roy Orbison from Wink, Texas, whose band the Teen Kings was also just starting out, Knox and the other Serenaders — now known as Buddy Knox and the Rhythm Orchids — travelled to Norman Petty’s homemade recording studio in Clovis, N.M. (the same studio later made famous by Holly) in April 1956.
“We had Jimmy Bowen on standup bass, Don Lanier on lead guitar and I was on rhythm guitar and lead vocals,” Knox recalled.
“We didn’t have a drummer, but a boy by the name of David Alldred, who joined the band later, was a session player for Norman Petty, so we used him. I can remember looking at him, and all he had was two drumsticks and a box with cotton pushed up in it. I still think that makes a heck of a drum sound. Then we discovered that Jimmy couldn’t play bass well enough for Petty to record him, so we found this other guy hanging around the studio to do the honours. We had a girl from the Clovis High School band to play the cymbals, and my sister and two of her friends sang background vocals.”
The session yielded Knox’s rocking Party Doll, with him on lead vocal, and the teen ballad I’m Stickin’ With You, written by Knox and Bowen and featuring the latter singing lead.
Released on a small local record label, Party Doll would eventually be scooped up for national distribution by New York-based Roulette Records, owned and operated by notorious crook Morris Levy, who was reputed to have mob connections. Despite Dick Clark’s refusal to play the song because of the line “And I’ll make love to you,” Party Doll hit the top of the charts across the country by March 1957, selling well in excess of a million copies in a matter of months and earning Knox a gold record.
As he later recalled, “One minute I was on a farm in Happy, Texas, and the next on The Ed Sullivan Show. I’d never seen buildings over three storeys before.”
Then Uncle Sam came calling, and Knox was called up to serve six months in the army reserve. His followup single, another original composition called Rock Your Little Baby to Sleep, was credited to Lt. Buddy Knox and was a hit. He continued to release records while in the army, including another hit, Hula Love, which he performed on Ed Sullivan’s show in uniform. Knox was a bona fide star, the first rockabilly artist to write his own No. 1 record. By the end of 1957, he had four million-selling singles but little to show for it.
“Both Bobby Darin and Connie Francis warned me about Morris Levy, and I should have listened,” he later lamented. “As a result, Roulette ended up with all the recordings, all the publishing, all the songwriting royalties, and we got nothing.”
Levy was later found guilty of extortion but died before serving any jail time.
Knox carried on, signing with Liberty Records, Frank Sinatra’s Reprise Records and later United Artists, and continuing to release singles and albums into the 1960s, including Ling Ting Tong, Lovey Dovey, I Think I’m Gonna Kill Myself and Gypsy Man. By the latter ’60s, he switched to recording country music, working with Sonny Curtis of the Crickets. Still a top draw on the concert and club circuit, he spent months on the road across the continent, including dates in Manitoba. In 1966, Kenora quintet Satan & the D-Men were hired to back up Knox on a series of dates in Winnipeg, including appearances at Transcona’s Pink Panther club, the Metropolitan Theatre and the North End YMCA, as well as rural shows in Portage la Prairie, Birtle, Brandon, Kenora and Thunder Bay.
“Buddy drove up from Georgia in his white Corvette with a male friend,” D-Men guitarist Terry Stiles recalls. “We got a call that he had a flat tire on Pembina Highway, so I went along to lend a hand and to meet him. He was a very polite, southern gentleman with quite the southern accent that could rub off on you if you were around him for any length of time.”
Married since 1959 to Glenda Etheridge from Macon, Ga., and residing in Madison, Tenn., the couple had three children — Buddy Wayne, Wendy and Michael — before divorcing in 1969. The next year, Buddy moved to Canada, where he remained for the rest of his life.
“Canada was good to him,” his son Michael says. Michael went on to a stellar career in music production in Nashville.
“Dad always said that Canada reminded him of Texas, only with colder winters. He loved Canada.”
The 1970s urban cowboy trend offered a boost to Knox’s career. His friendship with Jennings also led to his association with the Outlaw Country movement at that time, which included Jennings, Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, all Knox admirers. With business partner Les Vogt, Knox opened the Purple Steer club in Vancouver in the early ’70s. He also wed for a second time, but the marriage only lasted a couple of years.
At an engagement at Winnipeg’s Town ’n’ Country nightclub in late 1974, Knox met Mitzi Shelby. Raised on a farm near Arnaud and living in Winnipeg at the time, she was at the club to celebrate a friend’s birthday.
“Buddy came over to our table to talk,” Mitzi recalls. “He invited me out for dinner.”
Romance blossomed through phone calls and long letters.
“He was charming, good-looking and had a wonderful sense of humour,” she says. “I think it was his sense of humour that won me over.”
With Knox playing mostly in Alberta and British Columbia, including an annual month-long gig at Calgary’s Ranchman club during the city’s stampede, Mitzi moved west to work at Vogt’s Big Country Productions management company in Vancouver. On Sept. 7, 1979, Buddy and Mitzi were married at St. James United Church in Winnipeg. Knox’s mother came up from Texas for the ceremony (his father was deceased).
“We had our reception at the Grant Motor Inn,” Mitzi says, “and many of Buddy’s musician friends from across Canada attended. Then, the next day, we had a dinner and dance in the Arnaud town hall for family and friends.”
The couple honeymooned in the United Kingdom and Europe on Knox’s tour. With the closing of the Purple Steer, Knox was on the road constantly, travelling from gig to gig in his Winnebago motorhome. Mitzi travelled with him.
“Those were fun times,” she smiles. “We had two dirt bikes on the back and a canoe on top, and we would use them whenever we could. We travelled all over North America and made so many friends. Everybody loved Buddy.”
The couple lived in the motorhome until son Jesse, born in 1981, was nearing five years old.
“It was hard to find a balance with a young child on the road. Jesse needed to go to school,” Mitzi says.
As Jesse remembers, “It was pretty neat as a kid to live that lifestyle. It was like going camping for four years. They would stop every few hours to let me play on a play structure in some schoolyard. But I didn’t have any friends. We needed to settle down.”
Knox gave his wife the choice of settling near his family in Happy, Texas or hers near Arnaud. She chose the latter. They rented a small house for a year before moving to Dominion City a few kilometres from her parents. There, they settled into rural domesticity, although Knox still spent time on the road.
“Sometimes he couldn’t sleep in the house and would go out and sleep in the Winnebago because he was so used to it,” Mitzi says.
Daughter Ginger came along in 1984.
“We lived a very normal life in Dominion City, and that’s the way my parents wanted it to be,” she says. “(My dad) was a very quiet person and loved being at home. I was too young to really understand who he was other than just my dad, but parents of my friends were in awe of him. He was the least celebrity-like person you could ever meet. He’d be out cutting the lawn like other dads or taking us tobogganing.”
It wasn’t until years later she came to realize the enormity of her father’s success.
“I had no idea that so many people knew of him and knew Party Doll,” Ginger says. “He was loved by so many people.”
Knox would spend hours answering fan mail with handwritten letters.
“He was an amazing letter-writer. I can remember him down in the basement writing letter after letter before we finally got him an electric typewriter,” Ginger said.
Ginger was Daddy’s girl.
“I wanted to be around him all the time,” she says.
“He was very good to me, very attentive. We would watch movies together, and he would make me laugh. He had a goofy sense of humour and was the funniest person I’ve ever known. He was also very gifted as an artist and would draw caricatures of people.”
She remembers sleeping in her dad’s guitar case backstage at one of his gigs.
“We travelled in that Winnebago so much until I was about two years old,” Ginger says.
“To others Buddy Knox was a rock star,” says former Dominion City resident Taras Sokolyk, who owned a grocery store in town at the time and befriended Knox, “but to us he was just a member of the community. He would walk down the street and chat casually with everyone. No pretensions at all. He was just such an unassuming guy. You always felt you were talking to an equal. When he said, ‘How are ya?’ he really meant it. He had that Texas drawl and southern manners that made everyone smile. Buddy and Mitzi lived next door to my in-laws, and my mother-in-law would brighten up every time Buddy would drop over. He had that old-style southern charm that the ladies loved. He would talk about his early days in such an unassuming way, mentioning names like Elvis and Buddy Holly like they were just the guys down the street, never name-dropping.”
CBC TV’s On the Road with host Wayne Rostad filmed an episode on Knox’s simple life in rural Dominion City.
“My friends thought that was pretty cool,” says Jesse.
Knox’s children from his first marriage would visit for a month every summer, often going on the road with their father.
“I would fall asleep on the dashboard listening to his stories about Buddy Holly, Waylon Jennings and all those rock ’n’ roll pioneers,” Michael says. “He and my mom were invited to Graceland to visit with Elvis. They were friends.”
While his older brother and sister grew up and visited less frequently, Michael continued to travel to Manitoba to visit his father every Christmas.
“Mitzi was like my mom,” he says. “We were all very close. But I’d never experienced cold like that before. I remember snowmobiling, and my scarf was frozen to my face. I had to stand for 20 minutes just to thaw out. Going to the mall entailed driving 75 miles to Winnipeg.”
The family lived off Knox’s earnings from gigs, but those were beginning to dry up in the ’80s. Mitzi took a part-time job at the post office before moving over to the local credit union. She later became branch manager and retired last year.
When the town organized a fundraising campaign to build a new skating arena, Knox stepped forward to help out. Sokolyk was on the fundraising committee.
“I thought maybe he might make an appearance,” he recalls. “I never imagined he would do a full-on concert, entertaining all evening, from 9 to 1 a.m. It was an amazing night.”
Jesse says growing up he “thought every dad” was like his.
“It wasn’t until I was just about finished elementary school that I started to realize my dad was different,” he says. “He didn’t work at the store or go to an office. He would go away sometimes for months, then return bringing me back something from Australia.”
As he grew older, Jesse and his father bonded over the guitar.
“He taught me a few chords and would give me interesting chord patterns,” he says. “He loved movies, and we would sit together in the basement watching movies together.”
By the latter ’80s, Knox’s gigging became less frequent. He spent more and more time in the basement watching old movies, smoking (he had a two-pack a day habit) and drinking.
“He was suffering from depression,” Mitzi says.
“The more he thought about how he got screwed over by Roulette Records and about what might have been with his career, the more frustrated he became. He started drinking more and more. He would sometimes skip meals and stay in the basement. It was a difficult time. Jesse was uncomfortable at times bringing friends over. He was very proud of his dad but not at what he had become. We tried getting Buddy into rehab in Winnipeg, but it was a losing battle.”
The couple divorced in 1990, but not before a further attempt at rehab.
“I drove the motorhome to Grand Forks, and his kids came up and got him back to Nashville and into rehab,” Mitzi says. “The Crickets’ Sonny Curtis visited him almost every day. He then moved in with Michael, but when Michael found a vodka bottle hidden in a cupboard, he asked him to leave.”
“It was hard for my dad because he had outlived all his contemporaries and was doing nostalgia shows with Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley impersonators,” Jesse says.
“He was such a creative guy on so many levels, but I saw what fame at such an early age had done to him, and it scared me away from pursuing a career in music.”
Knox returned to Dominion City, but he was still fighting his demons. He ended up living with Les Vogt in Kelowna, B.C., but remained close to his children.
“He wrote to us all the time,” Ginger says, “six- or seven-page-long letters. And he called every Sunday night, every week. He did the best he could to be in our lives.”
Knox suffered a fall in early February 1999 while staying with a new girlfriend in Bremerton, Wash. He damaged his hip but waited a few days before seeing a doctor. Family recall Knox never liked to go to the doctor. He was diagnosed with bone cancer, which had been left untreated for so long the cancer had spread throughout his body, including his lungs. He was given six to nine months to live.
“My mom got the call and sat us both down to tell us about Dad’s situation,” Ginger recalls. “We didn’t have the money to go out to see him, but then someone in town, an anonymous donor, offered his Air Miles points for us to go visit with him.”
They never had the chance to use them. Knox died Feb. 14, 1999, 10 days after his diagnosis. He was 65. Knox is buried at Dreamland Cemetery in Canyon, Texas, not far from Happy.
Knox was posthumously inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. But one other hall has eluded him.
“Dad was there at the very beginning of rock ’n’ roll, but it’s a crime that he isn’t in the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame,” his son Michael says. “He was a pioneer, the first guy to write his own material and score a No. 1 record. These guys were inventing rock ’n’ roll as they went along.”
Party Doll is still played on radio and released on records.
“Buddy never, ever tired of singing Party Doll,” Mitzi says. “He knew how much people loved that song, and he loved making people happy.”
Knox’s total record sales are some 20 million, yet the man who wrote and recorded the music seems to be forgotten.
“He was just a real nice guy, one of the nicest guys in rock ’n’ roll, but sometimes those kinds of guys get forgotten,” Michael laments.
He hopes someday to rectify this injustice.
“He kind of flew under the radar because he was always focused on the music, not the celebrity,” he says of his father.
“When I went down to Texas for Dad’s funeral, I couldn’t believe how much that area resembled the countryside around Dominion City,” says Ginger. “I understood then why he loved it here so much.”
John Einarson writes about Manitoba’s music history and would like to thank Rick Gallant and Bill Stadnyk for their help with this particular column. Join him for My Generation, Tuesday evenings from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m., on UMFM 101.5 beginning Sept. 6.
Born and raised in Winnipeg, music historian John Einarson is an acclaimed musicologist, broadcaster, educator, and author of 14 music biographies published worldwide.