Bishop’s Mantle column by Jim Bishop
“My love is higher than a mission bell,
Deeper than a wishing well,
Stronger than a magic spell
My love, for you . . .”
– Donnie Brooks
Don McLean’s 1971 anthem, “American Pie,” refers to Feb. 3, 1959 as “The Day the Music Died,” when young pop artists Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and J.P. Richardson, aka “The Big Bopper,” joined that great chorus in the sky. Their chartered single-engine aircraft took off in bad weather from Clear Lake, Iowa, and crashed in a cornfield, claiming the lives of everyone aboard, including pilot Roger Peterson.
(A significant side note on this tragedy, is that another singer, country artist Waylon Jennings, planned to be on that plane, then gave his seat to Richardson at the last minute).
What if this musical entourage had heeded advice not to fly – wanting to save time in getting to the next stop on a fast-paced three-week tour? They might still be with us, making great music for a new generation of fans.
I thought of this again upon receiving word of the demise of another artist from the golden era of popular music. Donnie Brooks, dubbed “The Gentle Giant,” died Feb. 23 of congestive heart failure in Panorama City, Calif., at age 71. Donnie Brooks, born John Dee Abohosh in 1936 in Dallas, Texas, recorded in the late 1950s under several stage names – Johnny Faire, Johnny Jordan and Dick Bush. But his career took off when he signed with Era Records and released a rockabilly classic, “White Orchid,” under the name, Donnie Brooks (“Donneybrooks” – get it?).
He recorded a song by fellow ERA artist Dorsey Burnette (“Tall Oak Tree”) on initially titled “Wishing Well.” Released in 1960 as “Mission Bell,” the lilting tune hit the top 10. As soon as I heard it on the radio, this high-school lad went out and bought the 45-rpm disc. Another top-40 hit followed, “Doll House,” but didn’t fare as well, peaking at No. #31.
Brooks also appeared in several forgettable films. Interestingly, in 1971, he appeared as Jesus Christ in the Christian rock opera, “Truth of Truths,” and through that experience became a “born-again Christian.” In 2003, was inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame in Burns, Tenn.
I played Donnie’s “Mission Bell” and “Doll House” as a tribute on the March 2 edition of my weekly radio show, “Friday Night Jukebox,” on WEMC-FM. It seems like I’ve bid farewell on the air a lot in recent months. In fact, I could easily fill one-hour program featuring ’50s-era artists who topped the charts but are no longer with us. Besides Buddy, Richie and the Bopper, there’s Rick Nelson (“Poor Little Fool”), Tommy Edwards (“All in the Game”), Chuck Willis (“CC Rider”), Eddie Cochran (“Summertime Blues”), David Seville aka Ross Bagdasarian (“Witch Doctor”), Gene Vincent (“Be-Bop-a-Lula”), Ruth Brown (“Lucky Lips”), Bill Haley (“Rock Around the Clock”), Buddy Knox (“Party Doll”), Ray Peterson (“The Wonder of You”), Perry Como (“Catch a Falling Star”), Marty Robbins (“White Sport Coat and a Pink Carnation”), Carl Perkins (“Blue Suede Shoes”), James “Pookie” Hudson, lead singer of The Spaniels (“Goodnight, Sweetheart”) . . . and many others.
And, of course, there’s the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Aaron Presley, who held the No. 1 spot on the charts 18 times between “Heartbreak Hotel” in 1956 and “Suspicious Minds” in 1969. Elvis died in Memphis, Tenn., on Aug. 16, 1977 at age 42. Had Elvis taken the advice from his own songs, “Fame and Fortune” (1960) and “Cryin’ in the Chapel” (1965), he might still be snarling his lip and shaking his hips today as a 71-year-old rocker.
A few ’50s artists, however, are still alive and kicking, if no longer recording regularly. I’d welcome opportunity to hear in person such luminaries as Fats Domino, Duane Eddy (still my all-time favorite instrumental artist), Paul Anka, Johnny Mathis, Neil Sedaka, Connie Francis and the wild man, Richard Penniman, alias Little Richard.
When not slaving over a hot CD player in the WEMC studio or playing the golden oldies at home, I’ll occasionally listen – for as long as I can bear it – to area commercial contemporary hit stations and remind myself that the music really has died, or at least lost the fun element and creative lustre that characterized the music of my-growing up days.
Guess I’ll drive my Miata down to the corner of Nostalgia Avenue and give thanks for the musical memories that linger gentle on my mind.
Jim Bishop is the public-information officer at Eastern Mennonite University.