It’s astonishing the sheer amount of talent that was beating a path to Sam Phillips’ door in 1956 wanting a contract with Sun Records. Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Sonny Burgess and Billy Lee Riley all got Phillips’ OK that year, but even premier rock ‘n’ roll wild men like The Burnette Brothers were turned down.
Sun was also a relatively small, cash-strapped label with a world-class roster of acts, and consequently, it was unable to give the potential hit singles recorded in its Memphis studios the backing they needed.
Although Warren Smith cut five superb singles for the label, he never really became a household name, with too many artists chasing too small a promotional budget.
Warren’s classic April 1956 Sun debut, Rock ‘n’ Roll Ruby, was an easy-rolling, gutsy hymn of praise to the delights of roadhouse jiving – “I took my Ruby jukin’ on the outskirts of town/She took her high heels off and rolled her stockings down”.
It shifted in pretty fair quantities, but the follow-up (Ubangi Stomp) failed to match its sales, and his third – the double-sided belter Miss Froggie b/w So Long I’m Gone – had the misfortune to be released just two weeks after labelmate Jerry Lee Lewis‘s million-selling Whole Lot Of Shakin’ Going’ On.
Sun’s money went firmly into pushing Lewis, and Warren consoled himself on tour by buying up and smashing copies of Jerry Lee’s 45’s as his own record died on the vine.
Two more releases followed suit – a rocked up version of Slim Harpo’s Got Love If You Want It, and a winning take on Don Gibson’s Sweet Sweet Girl – before Warren split for California in 1959, finally scoring hits for Liberty.
With one of the best voices in the business – whether singing gravel-throated rockers like Miss Froggie or the purest of country heartbreakers (Goodbye Mr Love), Smith never put a foot wrong.
Some of his finest performances remained unreleased until the 1970s, chief among them Red Cadillac And A Black Moustache, a recording as simple and perfect in its way as the first few Elvis 45’s.
Warren died in 1980, just after the rockabilly revival had brought him a new audience.