John D. Loudermilk, “incredibly erratic” musician

It’s been well established on this blog that Hugh Morton was a huge music fan, and there are many images in the collection that relate to music, musicians, and music history: swing, jazz, gospel, folk, and other traditional music from a variety of traditions. Continuing in this series of entries, I would like to present the Durham-born musician John D. Loudermilk.

The cousin of Ira and Charlie Loudermilk (better known as the Louvin Brothers), John Loudermilk was born in Durham, NC in 1934. Also known as “Johnny Dee” and, occasionally, “Ebe Sneezer” (of Ebe Sneezer and the Epidemics), Loudermilk has been involved with music as a singer, songwriter, and ethnomusicologist. He has written and performed within the context of several genres, including 1950s teen rock and roll, blues, and country music (a biography on calls him “incredibly erratic” and “one of the weirdest figures of early rock & roll,” in part due to his ability to evade classification).

Our fellow Wilson Library occupant, the Southern Folklife Collection, holds the definitive John D. Loudermilk Collection of sheet music, correspondence, memorabilia, recordings, and other materials. They kindly provided us with an audio clip of “Tobacco Road,” below. As says of the song, “if he’d written nothing else, Loudermilk would have been worth a footnote in any history of popular music.” Recorded in 1960 as a folk song, it soon became a cross-genre favorite, performed by such disparate acts as The Nashville Teens, Jefferson Airplane, David Lee Roth, and Eric Burdon & War.

>> PLAY “Tobacco Road” by John D. Loudermilk <<

We know that Loudermilk and Hugh Morton shared two connections: businessman Orville Campbell and musician George Hamilton IV. From the beginning of his career until 1958, when he signed with Columbia and moved to Nashville, Loudermilk recorded for the NC-based Colonial Record label. Orville Campbell, a close friend of Morton’s, owned the Colonial label and reputedly “discovered” John Loudermilk. Campbell can be seen here, circa 1954, in the loving embrace of another mutual friend, Andy Griffith:

Meanwhile, Loudermilk and George Hamilton IV (also a Colonial artist) had a decade-spanning collaboration which began with the 1956 hit song, “A Rose and a Baby Ruth” (click here to hear it and watch an incredibly silly YouTube video). The song about teenage love, suffused with a kind of quiet, boyish optimism, made stars out of Loudermilk and Hamilton. Hugh Morton took this picture of Hamilton at Grandfather Mountain probably somewhere around that same time. (Note that the Southern Folklife Collection also holds the George Hamilton IV collection).

I would love to know more about some photos of Loudermilk in the Morton Collection. The first image in this post and the images below were labeled as being taken at an August 22, 1957 recording session. The biggest hit Loudermilk had in 1957 was the song “Sitting in the Balcony,” but that was, according to the extensive Loudermilk fan site, recorded in February. Might these have been taken during the recording of “Teenage Queen,” cowritten by Campbell? And/or “My Big Brother’s Friend,” with Cecelia Batten? (That sure looke like Batten in the second image below).

This image of Loudermilk serenading Governor Luther Hodges and others on an airplane seems to be unrelated to the recording process, though it is likely the picture was taken some time between 1956 and 1958, when Loudermilk still lived in North Carolina and Hodges was Governor.

Some detailed research in the John D. Loudermilk Collection might reveal answers. Or perhaps we’ll hear from Loudermilk himself?