Country Music’s Original Rockabilly Outlaw
September 6, 2015
When I was growing up in Kilgore, Texas, Elvis Presley may have been ahead by one or two steps – maybe even a couple of miles – but we had Bob Luman, and Bob Luman was running hard to catch up.
He was certainly handsome enough for girls to take a second and a serious look when he walked on stage. He had the slicked-back hair of a star, and his distinctive voice could rock as easily as twist a tear from a song about good love gone bad.
Bob Luman and his guitar were inseparable. He wondered if anyone would ever notice or whether he could ever catch the same meteor that had allowed Elvis Presley to hitch a ride. The road was so long. The road was so difficult. The road was fraught with pitfalls, and it led from the city limits of Kilgore.
After graduation, he hit the highway and had no idea where it might take him. He was searching for the right sound and the right song. He needed a hit. The radio wouldn’t play his record if it weren’t a hit. Bob Luman did not yet have a record.
Bob Luman had grown up on his father’s farm, listening to the Grand Ole Opry on a battery radio and singing the songs made famous by Lefty Frizzell and Webb Pierce. He squeezed himself into the audience one night and listened to an unknown named Elvis Presley.
He said, “This cat came out in red pants and a green coat and a pink shirt and socks, and he had this sneer on his face, and he stood behind the mike for five minutes, I’ll bet, before he made a move. Then he hit the guitar a lick and broke two strings. Hell, I’d been playing for ten years and hadn’t broken a total of two strings. So there he was with two strings dangling, and he hadn’t done anything except break these two strings, and these high school girls were screaming and fainting and running up to the stage. And then he started to move his hips real slow like he had a thing for his guitar. He made chills run up your neck much like when your hair starts grabbing your collar. For the next nine days, Elvis played one-nighters around Kilgore. Me and my girlfriend would get in the car after school and go wherever he was playing that night.”
For Bob Luman, it was an epiphany that forever changed his life. He never sang a Webb Pierce or Lefty Frizzell song again. There was a new day on the way, and he hoped that the sun would rise shining on him. In the world of music, he became the original outlaw, a rebel who didn’t need a cause as long as he had a song. By 1956, Bob Luman had the break he was trying to find when he was chosen to replace Johnny Cash on the Louisiana Hayride.
The invitation came after a talent contest in Tyler. Luman recalled, “The artists there were the Browns, Tommy Sands, Johnny Cash, George Jones, and Johnny Horton. Carl Perkins was supposed to be there that night, but he didn’t show up. I was backstage, and Johnny Horton said, ‘Bob, do you know ‘Blue Suede Shoes?’’ I said I did, and he replied, ‘Why don’t you do it tonight. You’ll probably win the contest.’”
The show artists heard him sing. They looked at each other, nodded, and said, “That’s him.” And Bob Luman was packing up and heading down Highway 80 on his way to Shreveport. Jim Shell had once lived in Kilgore, and he recognized an untapped musical talent when he saw one. He personally began driving Luman to the Hayride and writing songs that fit the singer’s outlaw style. Shell penned “All Night Long,” which earned a contract with Imperial Records.
Thus began a long, precarious odyssey with women, whiskey, and song that would carry Luman to the bars and lounges of Memphis and Nashville, finally leading him to the bright lights of California. The bright lights were a tease, a tempest, and they often lied, especially to a young man from the piney woods. He recorded “Amarillo Blues,” “Wild-Eyed Woman,” “Lonely Women Make Good Lovers,” “Blue Days and Black Nights,” and Jim Shell’s classic “A Red Cadillac and A Black Mustache.”
Pockets of radio discovered him, but the stations had no idea what to do with his music. He wasn’t pure country. He wasn’t pure rock. He said he was rockabilly, but what in the world was rockabilly? There was no time for him to get comfortable. They tried to pigeon hole his sound but couldn’t. And the road he kept traveling was chocked full of dead ends. California would be a killer.
Bob Luman came home. He still possessed thoughts about breaking a couple of guitar strings and hearing the high school girls screaming his name even before he sang the first words, and he offered to play a benefit concert for Kilgore High School. Luman was flirting with fame. At home, he was a star. He had once sung for Clay Kennedy’s P. E. class. He might as well sing for the whole school.
History teacher Jessie Armstrong shook her head. She told the administration and faculty that she would not allow Bob Luman to appear at the high school because he was one of those vulgar, hip-shaking, rockers who could taint and probably ruin the innocence and sanctity of Kilgore’s God-fearing youth.
Jessie Armstrong, of course, had been instrumental in changing cheerleader yells and particularly the way cheerleaders moved. They should be prim and proper, maybe even priggish young ladies who represented the school with a decorum of dignity. And, for God’s sake, keep he hems of the skirts below the knees.
And no silly, sinful gyrations.
Bob Luman was even worse.
Sue Martin stepped in. She thought it was a shame that Kilgore students could not see one of their own who had dared to defy the odds and might even be on his way to the top. But then, in her own sweet way, Sue Martin had always been a rebel. It’s just that no one realized it. She marched down to Principal Bob Waters with the seed of an idea.
“Why don’t we let Bob perform during the last period of the day when we have an assembly scheduled anyway,” she said. “His concert won’t be an official school function, and, since he asked to do a benefit, we can sell tickets for a quarter or fifty cents apiece. I’ll use the money to help defray the costs of the Junior-Senior play. Bob has a chance to perform at his school. The students have a chance to hear him sing. And you can save some of the money budgeted for the play.”
Waters weighed the facts.
He liked them.
The curtain rose for the assembly, and Bob Luman, backed by his band, sauntered to the microphone. The girls were screaming, and his guitar strings were not yet broken. He sang with the raw, savage energy of rockabilly gone wild. A star was on stage. Sue Martin was smiling and counting her money. Clay Kennedy was patting his foot. He had heard it all before. Bob Waters was pleased to see a young man who had graduated from KHS and made something of himself. Jessie Armstrong had left for the day.