James Faye "Roy" Hall was born on May 7, 1922, in Big Stone Gap, Virginia. An old colored man taught him to play piano, and to drink. By the time Roy turned twenty-one, he knew that he was the best drunken piano-player in Big Stone Gap, and armed with the pride and confidence that this knowledge gave him, he departed the town of his birth to seek fame. Roy made it to Bristol and farther, pumping boogie-woogie in every Virginia, Tennessee, or Alabama beer-joint that had a piano. He played those pianos fast and hard and sinful, like that colored man who had taught him back in Big Stone Gap; but he sang like the hillbilly that he was. He organized his own band, Roy Hall and His Cohutta Mountain Boys (Cohutta was part of the Appalachians, in the shadows of whose foothills he had been raised up). It was a five-piece band, with Tommy Odum on lead guitar, Bud White on rhythm guitar, Flash Griner on bass, and Frankie Brumbalough on fiddle. Roy pounded the piano and did most of the singing; but everybody else in the band sang too.
In 1949 Roy and the band cut their first records, for Fortune, a small, independent label located on 12th Street in Detroit. Over the next year Fortune released six sides by Roy Hall: "Dirty Boogie," "Okee Doaks," "Never Marry a Tennessee Girl," "We Never Get Too Big to Cry," "Five Years in Prison," and "My Freckle Face Gal." Most of these recordings were slick hillbilly blues, similar to the sort of music with which Hank Williams had recently risen to fame. But the most successful of the bunch, "Dirty Boogie" was a wild, nasty rocker which foreshadowed much of what was to come to be musically in the South during the next few years.
In 1950 Roy traveled on to Nashville alone. He cut two records there that year for Bullet, one of Nashville's most active independent labels. Both of these Bullet singles, "Mule Boogie" and "Ain't You Afraid," were fine hard-driving things, but they failed to sell. After Bullet, he recorded for Tennessee, a small local company that had a national hit in 1951 with Del Wood's piano instrumental "Down Yonder"; but Roy Hall's piano brought no hits.
He opened a joint in Nashville called the Music Box (later renamed the Musicians Hideaway). There he played piano and drank. One of Roy Hall's most loyal customers was Webb Pierce, who, following Hank Williams's death on NewYear's Day 1953, became the undisputed king of the country singers. Pierce hired Roy as his piano-player, using him on most of his recordings in 1954-55. During this time, Roy also recorded with Marty Robbins and Hawkshaw Hawkins.
In the summer of 1954 Elvis Presley came to Roy Hall's club looking for work. Roy recalled; "I fired him after just that one night. He weren't no damn good." Towards the end of that same year another young man came to the club looking for work. He was Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy kept him on for a few weeks. Roy hired Jerry for $15 a night. They did a lot of duets together. It was also in 1954 that Roy Hall and a black musician named Dave Williams took a trip to the Everglades that resulted in one of the classic rock 'n' roll songs;
Twenty-one drums and an ol' bass horn
Somebody beatin' on a ding-dong
Come on over baby, whole lotta shakin'goin' on
Come on over baby, baby, you can't go wrong
There ain't no fakin', whole lotta shakin'goin' on
Webb Pierce arranged for Hall to sign a contract with Decca, and on September 15, 1955, Hall went into the studio and cut three songs for the label, including "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On." The record was released three weeks later. Roy Hall continued to record for Decca until the summer of 1956. While a few of these recordings, such as his cover of Carl Perkins's "Blue Suede Shoes," were plainly uninspired, most of them were among the most fiery rockabilly records of the midfifties. His "Diggin' the Boogie" contained one of the toughest and most unrelenting rhythms that had ever been recorded in the South. But none of this amounted to a hit record.
Bad luck seemed to follow Roy Hall. "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," which he had co-written under the pseudonym of Sunny David, became a huge hit for Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy's ex-employee, in 1957, and Roy stood to make a good deal of money in royalties. But when the time came to collect he was sued by his ex-wife, and the court awarded her his share of the royalties from the song.
But Roy Hall kept on pumping his rockabilly music, and he kept playing around Nashville and wherever else he could find a piano and a paycheck. Roy died on March 2, 1984, in Nashville. He was sixty-one years old.
Nick Tosches, 1984
Source: Unsung Heroes of Rock 'n' Roll by Nick Tosches
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