22 August 2023

Only in Oz (16): Murry Kellum - Long Tall Texan (1963)

Another in my series of posts about tracks that were more popular in Australia than in their countries of origin. See also: Only in Melbourne.

16. Murry Kellum - Long Tall Texan
(Henry Strzelecki)
USA 1963

M.O.C. single (USA) #45-653
US Charts: #51 Billboard, #51 Cash Box
London single (Australia 1964) #HL-2164
Australian charts: #7 Sydney, #7 Melbourne, #2 Brisbane, #45 Adelaide #6 Australia

On the B-side is Glenn Sutton - I Gotta Leave This Town.


In February 1964, when Murry Kellum's Long Tall Texan was peaking at #4 at Sydney station 2UE, two Beatles songs were at #1, and there were three other Beatles songs in the Top 10 plus one by The Dave Clark Five

The British Invasion was under way, but a lot of Australians were also going for a comical country song about a hick sheriff who sounds like a Wild West prototype for Private Gomer Pyle. 

Long Tall Texan charted Top 10 in our three biggest cities (converting to a #6 Australia
) but in the US it peaked outside the Top 40 at #51 on Billboard's Hot 100 (21 Dec 1963), also at #51 on Cash Box's Top 100 (4 & 11 Jan 1964). 

'Hits of the World', Billboard14 Mar 64

There are examples in the US newspaper archives of locally published surveys that have Long Tall Texan in their Top 10. See also, at ARSA, a #1 at KMEN San Bernardino CA.

Murry Kellum was not the first to record Long Tall Texan. The original version was a 1959 B-side, recorded in Memphis by The Four Flickers with composer Henry Strzelecki on lead vocals.

According to Billboard, in 1957 the 17-year-old Strzelecki encountered country star Tex Ritter in a diner in Bessemer, Alabama and was inspired to write Long Tall Texan. A further version was released by Jerry Woodard in 1960.

In Definitive Country (1995), Barry McCloud suggests that in 1963 US radio stations declined to play Murry Kellum's record in the wake of President Kennedy's assassination in Dallas. It is hard to judge how widespread that might have been, and it is easy to find examples of the song in record reviews or local surveys during the weeks after 22 November 1963. The story is certainly plausible when you consider that author John M. MacDonald changed the name of major character from Dallas McGee to Travis McGee over similar concerns.  

Even if it was never a big national chart hit, Long Tall Texan became a much performed and recorded song in the US.

A 1968 Billboard tribute to Tex Ritter noted that Long Tall Texan, the song he inspired, had already been recorded some 28 times and … included in some five million dollars' worth of singles and albums sold.

The website Cover.info lists about 15 examples from the 1960s and 70s, including those by The KingsmenThe Chad Mitchell Trio and John Denver. It was included in live sets by The Beach Boys, as heard on their album Beach Boys Concert (1964) and on other collections.

Searches of old US newspapers from the months following Kellum's release show examples of kids and other amateurs performing Long Tall Texan at local concerts and gatherings, a handy indicator of a song's familiarity in the community.

Lyall Lovett, Bob Luman and Conway Twitty all released versions of Long Tall Texan in the 1990s. It had clearly held its nostalgic appeal, probably amongst country music fans especially. As recently as 2011, Ben Folds included a live version from 2008 on his album The Best Imitation Of Myself: A Retrospective.

The Buffalo News 7 Dec 63


Country singer-guitarist-songwriter Murry Kellum (1942-1990) grew up in Plain, a locality near his birthplace Jackson, Mississippi.* His most successful single was Joy To The World (1971, #26 Billboard Country), produced by fellow Jackson musician Glenn Sutton who had occupied the B-side of Long Tall TexanKellum's  best known composition, written with Dan Mitchell, is If You're Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band), a country hit for Alabama (1984, #1 Billboard Hot Country Songs). Kellum was still touring in 1990 when he died in a small-plane crash en route to Nashville.

The composer of Long Tall Texan was Alabama-born bassist Henry Strzelecki (1939-2014). Strzelecki is heard on lead vocals on the original version by The Four Flickers, a group he formed with his brother Larry along with Jerry Adams and Leon Ethridge. Henry became a respected studio and touring musician in Nashville where he was based from 1960. His name is badly misspelt on the Murry Kellum single and others as Stegelecki. See his repertoire of recorded songs at 45cat.com.

*Some sources prefer Jackson, Tennessee or Plain, Texas or both. I suggest you pay them no attention. 

Musicological footnote:

Philippe (correspondent in France) detects similarities between She's About A Mover by Texas band Sir Douglas Quintet (February 1965, #13 USA) and Long Tall Texan, and by golly I think he's right. 

Compare, for example, these verse-endings:

1. Murry Kellum - Long Tall Texan (1963)
Well people look at me and say (pause)
Hurrah hurrah 
is that your horse? (instrumental backing resumes)
Listen to clip [wav, 6 secs]

2. Sir Douglas Quintet - She's About A Mover (1965)
If you have love and conversation (pause)
Whoa, yeah, 
what'd I say? (instrumental backing resumes)
Listen to clip [wav, 7 secs]

This way of pausing at the end of the verse is also heard in The Coasters' Searchin' (March 1957, #3 USA), written by Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller:

3. The Coasters - Searchin' (1957)
But I'm like the Northwest Mounties (pause)
You know I'll bring her in some day (instrumental backing resumes)
Listen to clip [wav, 10 secs]

This appears to be a particular use of a musical device called stop time, also known as a break. It is heard in ragtime, jazz and blues compositions, sometimes as a series of breaks throughout a verse as in Muddy Waters' Hoochie Coochie Man, and in Elvis Presley's Trouble, another Leiber & Stoller composition. 

It was much used by Leiber & Stoller as a punchline (their word) at the end of a verse, for example in Coasters hits Charlie Brown, (1959, #3 USA) - Why is everybody always pickin' on me?- and Young Blood (1957 #8 USA, B-side of Searchin', written with Doc Pomus) - Look a-there Look a-there! Look a-there.

Michael Campbell, in Popular music in America : the beat goes on (2009), describes the phenomenon as it appears in Young Blood:
... breaks that showcase the Coasters' trademark humorous asides that drop down the vocal ladder, with bass singer Bobby Nunn getting in the last word ... 

In an episode of John Gilliland's Pop Chronicles featuring Leiber & Stoller, they discuss their writing process including

... the breaks and so on, especially with the joke material, you know, where the timing and the punch lines were so critical.

Murry Kellum - Long Tall Texan (1963)

The Four Flickers - Long Tall Texan (1959) 
Song starts at 2:40
 (second in a medley of two)