Here are two pictures of Howard from the 1940s. On the left is the first picture of him in IL (East St. Louis), and on the right he is captured with his first car after returning from the war. The man next to him is his first wife’s Grandfather Duff, who didn’t want Joyce to marry Howard. The Duffs were hardcore Baptists.
“Started playin’ with a coupla guys that lived on the street near me. Kept learning songs,” Howard said when I asked him about music after the war. He’d married his first wife, Joyce by 1943, and spent many nights learning new songs. His influences were some of the top country entertainers back then. Eddie Arnold. Ernest Hub. Red Foley.
“I started doin’ Eddie Arnold songs. I bought a guitar ‘bout nineteen forty-six or seven…Zerweck’s music store…Collinsville avenue, East St. Louis, Illinois. Started practicin,’ playin’ with guys and then we went out played a little job here or there, play some taverns.
The pay was minimal, but getting paid to do something he loved was reward enough.
“Long about nineteen forty-eight, forty-nine and fifty, we was makin’ ‘bout ten dollars a night, for four hours, and we thought that was great. And we’d play…one time I was playin’ two jobs. Start playin’ at eight o’clock at a club, and uh, play ‘til twelve, four hours, drive over to another place at one o’clock and play ‘til five. Did that for a while.”
The band that was formed, Country Classics, began to make more money as the years passed. Ten dollars became fifteen. And that became twenty. Twenty became twenty-five. KSTL, a local radio station in St. Louis, began to play their recordings, half-hour segments taped on Thursday nights in a club, featuring guest singers and musicians. Howard would personally take the tape across the bridge to the radio station in St. Louis.
“Three o’clock, uh, every Saturday afternoon they’d play the tape on the radio. And long about that time I’d be goin’ to work, work an evening shift, and, uh, I could listen to myself on the air. Next Saturday, or uh, next Thursday we’d cut a tape, take it over and then bring back my old tape and cut over it, tape over it. Did this for a while. This was in, uh, early sixties.
“And uh, I had a chance to go and play on television at the ‘Lake of the Ozarks’ to put on a show in nineteen sixty-six…take my band. And I had a, a guy that was a business agent workin’ for me. Got a certain percent of what jobs he could get, like the television job, but I couldn’t make the television job. I took sick. Had to go in and have some surgery. But I still had the radio show goin’. One time some guys came from Nashville, Tennessee, and uh, a club where I was playin’ after I had the surgery, a little while after. Wanted to know if I would come and play with some Grand Ole Opry stars at the American Legion Home in Breese, Illinois. And uh, okay I would. They had three Grand Ole Opry stars there, uh, Jack Green, Barbara Fairchild, and Carl and Pearl Butler, sing together, man and wife. We went down and put on a show, music show. Uh, I think the one reason they wanted me to play with ‘em was cuz I would advertise it over the air, in St. Louis, tell them people ‘bout who was coming, advertise. I played six songs and they paid me three hundred dollars. That was a lot of money then. Man, I felt like a big shot. Felt like a big star. Next weekend, went back to Village Inn in Millstock, Illinois where I had a regular job, playin’ four hours for a mere twenty-five dollars. That seemed like a big let down.”
I know of two records that Howard made. Both are 45s and I have one of them in my possession. Side A is a song called ‘Blame Billy’ and Howard recorded it in 1980, a reference to President Jimmy Carter’s little brother, Billy, and his scandalous dealings with Libya in the late 1970s. I don’t know exactly when Howard’s first recording was made, but it sounds much earlier, more like the time he described in the 50s and 60s when he was on the radio. Here’s a link to the recording of “I’ve Got a Feelin’.”
I finally got to the question my mother had been waiting for.
“What year was it that you met Elvis?”
“I would say, I think, it was nineteen fifty-one. St. Louis.”
“He was probably completely unknown at that time,” I stated.
“Right,” Howard said, recalling how big his voice was, even at just 16 years of age. Elvis Presley actually opened that night for the show Howard was highlighting. He would encounter Elvis again, a few years later, after he’d become a superstar. “I don’t remember what he was singing,” he laughed, “but them girls damn near tore his shirt right off.”
It was common for Howard to encounter big named talent in his musical travels during those years.
“Bunch of ‘em from Nashville on occasion,” he told me. “Some of ‘em pretty well intoxicated. We were at what they call Turner Hall in St. Louis. Do you remember Jerry Lee Lewis?”
“Sure,” I said, caught off guard.
“Well I met him. In Arkansas.”
“He was playin’ at a Roadside Inn between Jonesboro, Arkansas and Little Rock. My brother and I and somebody else went down there, Jerry Lee was playin’. Man, cars was parked up and down that highway for four or five miles looked like. Best I ever remembered seemed like the night Elvis came in. Anyway, Jerry Lee and his bunch had to go to New Mexico the next day or night to play. And Jerry Lee got drunk and passed out, and his wife picked him up and carried him and went and put him in the backseat of her Cadillac. And uh, they let on. Course, Jerry Lee, I don’t think he weighed over a hundred and thirty-five. And she was a big ole country…that was his cousin he was married to.”
I asked about meeting anyone else, other big names that might strike me.
“Well you remember Tex Ritter, the old movie star?” I didn’t, but the next one I’d been listening to on my iPod on the train ride home the night before. “Hank Williams, Sr. Had a jam session with him.”
“Really? What was that like?”
“Just a bunch of guys get together, drinkin’ and playin’ at a club where Hank was playin.’ This was Granite City, Illinois. He sang, well, old, sad country blues songs that was popular then. And uh, we had a hillbilly park, up from East St. Louis, little ways up the highway where, every Sunday, celebrities in country music would come up and, uh, from everywhere. Sometimes they’d book a coupla pretty well known names outta Nashville. That’s how I meant Hank Williams, Tex Ritter. Others right now I can’t even think of the names.”
Even when there were breaks in his musical career, when he got a night job that prohibited him from playing, when spouses and children came on the scene, the music inevitably returned, finding his passion again, even playing music at home with the kids.
“Yeah, they were about twelve and ten. Played mostly at church. Travel around different churches and play. Playin’ gospel music. My oldest daughter for a short spell, set in and played upright bass for me, at uh, at a club. I couldn’t get a bass player and she played for a while. I’d take tape, the four strings were: G,D, and A, open. I’d take masking tape, where to press down if she wanna hit a D, a G, a F, or whatever. She learned that pretty quick. She had a awfully good ear for music. If I’d hit a wrong note playin’ lead guitar, her head’d fly around.
“I’d quit playin’ music regularly when I retired. Retired nineteen seventy-nine…when I moved to Arkansas. I met up with a bunch of people playin’ music, playin’ hillbilly music, old country music, mountain-style music, whatever you call it. I never did go in much for bluegrass music, but I’d go to those shows that they’d put on, and a lot of times I’d play the bass for a band, ya know. Like, they’d have a show on a river down there at nighttime, people would come from everywhere. Then we would go to different halls, play. Whenever your grandmother came on the scene, I bought her a keyboard. We started playin’ churches, and uh, picnics and things. We went to Mountain View, Arkansas. That’s an old, a popular place for music. A lot of folk music people from around there, and bluegrass. We played at restaurant there for a while. Then we went and played at a restaurant in Thayer, Missouri, ‘bout twenty miles from where we lived. We played at a place in Ozark Acres there where we lived called Fireside Inn, different places. After I first retired ‘bout nineteen eighty, I made that record, “Blame Billy” and “All About Life, All About Love.” Lotta history in that “Blame Billy. That one there, if Carter woulda got back into office, elected, I woulda sold more records. Billy was his brother.”
Before we left for Lena, where I would watch Grandma Bonnie and Howard play at the local nursing home, I took one last look around at the memorabilia in the music room, things I hadn’t noticed before. Newspaper clippings and pictures. Not all music. But definitely all Howard. Horseshoe Champion, 1964. Singing competition champion. A golf scorecard from his memorable hole-in-one day.
I realized how very little I knew about him then, even after the interview. How very little I knew about a lot of things. Grandma Bonnie. My own father. Harold. I’m positive that’s what fueled my journey to understand, to seek answers to questions I had about my own ancestry. Listening to those stories Howard told. The adventures that his curiosity and passion had fueled. These thoughts were the swirling through my head as I helped them pack the car with instruments, microphones, and a large amplifier, prepping for the blacktop drive to Lena.
(I’ve linked a couple of the other recordings below for fun)
Who Do You Think You’re Foolin'” – Howard Estes (This is on the B-side of “I’ve Got a Feelin'”)
“All About Life, All About Love” – Howard Estes (This is on the B-side of “Blame Billy”)