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Friday, June 17, 2011

ABOUT: The Levee Singers



THE LEVEE SINGERS. The Levee Singers are a folk music group from the Fort Worth-Dallas area that came to prominence both locally and nationally during the American folk music boom of the early 1960s. Founded in 1961 by Dallas club-owner Ed Bernet, the Levee Singers garnered much popularity and acclaim during the 1960s, and the group continues to perform to the present day.

During the earliest days of 1961, local musician Ed Bernet contacted the Sovereign Club, a private Dallas nightclub owned by Jack Ruby (later, he would be known as the man who shot and killed Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald). Ruby was asked to grant a weekly appearance to Bernet's seven piece band, The Dixieland Seven, at the Sovereign Club. Initially Ruby agreed to the appearances, but ultimately refused to sign any contractual documents guaranteeing the slot; consequently, Bernet chose to search out other options.

Bernet soon found an opportunity to purchase and renovate a small club on Mockingbird Lane, which he named The Levee Club. The club opened in March of 1961, with Bernet's Dixieland Seven heading the bill on weekend nights. As the club grew in popularity, Bernet decided to add another bill for the weeknight slots, and thus the Levee Banjo Band (later the Levee Singers) was born.

The Levee Banjo Band consisted of four men; lead vocal duties were split between them, and two or three-part harmonies rounded out the sound. Two of the men were already well-known as regular members of the region's most successful western swing band, the Lightcrust Doughboys. Rockabilly sensation Ronnie Dawson played in the Doughboys and had in the 1950s made several hit records. He had gained considerable notoriety by the time he took up the banjo and vocal duties with the Levee Banjo Band. Original member Marvin “Smokey” Montgomery, leader of the Lightcrust Doughboys, also played banjo and sang with the new Levee club house band. Ed Bernet rounded out the the banjo/vocal duties, and Bob Christopher kept a bottom-heavy rhythm on the bass saxophone or bass fiddle, alternately.

The Levee soon became one of the most popular clubs in the region; Bob Christopher later recalled that the band played for five nights a week for ten years, totaling approximately a million people. At one of the early 1960s performances, a Los Angeles-based agent named David Sontag saw the Levee Banjo Band perform and worked out a management deal with them, with an aim to bring the group to national live and television audiences.

To prepare for these national appearances, the band trained professionally and changed their name to “The Levee Singers;” success soon followed. By the close of 1964, the band had made many television appearances, including “The Danny Kaye Show,” “Hollywood Palace,” “The Jimmy Dean Show,” and “Hootenanny.” They frequently performed on the Las Vegas circuit, opening shows for stars such as Henry Mancini and Joey Bishop.

During the 1960s, the Levee Singers also released three LPs on Levee Records: The Banjo Band from Levee, Everybody Clap Your Hands! with the Banjo Band from the Levee, and The Levee Singers: Take Me Home. All LPs from this time feature Ronnie Dawson, Ed Bernet, Marvin “Smokey” Montgomery, and Bob Christopher.

The Levee Singers roster changed during the latter half of the 1960s; Bob Christopher took a hiatus from music, and Dawson left to pursue other musical ventures. Christopher was replaced by Grady Owen, another Dallas-area musician who was known for having played with Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps and country harmony duo, the York Brothers. Dawson's replacement was Ralph Sanford, who was, like Dawson, yet another veteran of the Lightcrust Doughboys and the Dallas Sportatorium radio spectacular, the “Big D Jamboree.” Another record, entitled The New Levee Singers, was subsequently released with this lineup.

Throughout the 1960s, Bernet had entered into other music-related business ventures; a booking agency, a record label and (most notably) Sumet-Bernet Studios, where acts such as the Fabulous Thunderbirds, the Dixie Chicks, and the Rolling Stones would later record. As the 1970s approached, Bernet sold the Levee Club to Ronnie Dawson, and eventually the Levee Club went out of business.

Without a regular place to perform (and finding themselves balancing competing priorities with families and businesses), the Levee Singers decided not to pursue further national recognition, choosing instead to focus on other areas of their lives. They did not, however, stop performing altogether. Since the 1970s, they have played to numerous audiences, including U.S. Presidents Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and they were the official band for U.S. Presidential hopeful Ross Perot during his political campaigns in the 1990s.

Grady Owen moved away from the Fort Worth-Dallas area a few years after joining the Levee Singers, and Bob Christopher re-joined until 2005. Montgomery continued to perform with the Lightcrust Doughboys and with the Levee Singers until the 1990s; he died on June 6, 2001. Dawson experienced a significant comeback in the last two decades of his life, and continued to perform for audiences worldwide until his death on September 23, 2003.

Ralph Lindsey and Ed's brother Dick Bernet joined the Levee Singers in recent years; together with Ed Bernet and Ralph Sanford, they comprise the most recent lineup of the Levee Singers. Since1961 and to the present day, the Levee Singers remain active, recording and releasing new material and performing regularly in Dallas venues.


BIBLIOGRAPHY

“Levee.” (http://www.edbernet.com/id7.html), accessed July, 2010. Published by Ed Bernet Entertainment.

“The Levee Singers.” (http://www.edbernet.com/id8.html), accessed July 20, 2010. Published by Ed Bernet Entertainment.

Gary S. Hickinbotham, "Montgomery, Marvin [Smokey]," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fmoce), accessed February 27, 2011. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

Jean Kempe-Ware, “Bob Christopher ’55 Sings for U.S. Presidents.” Lewis & Clark Chronicle
(Lewis & Clark College, 2002). (http://legacy.lclark.edu/dept/public/chr_achristopher.html)
accessed November 23, 2010.

Chris Owen. “Grady Owen.” Rockabilly Hall of Fame (http://www.rockabillyhall.com/GradyOwen1.html), accessed January 19, 2011. Published by the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.

“A Biography of Jack Ruby,” Report of the President's Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy. Appendix 16, p.796 (U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington 1964). (http://www.archives.gov/research/jfk/warren-commission-report/appendix-16.html#nightclub) accessed February 15, 2011.

“Levee Singers. Purdue University, West Lafayette IN #2.” The Best Of Hootenanny. Season 2, Episode 29 (air date April 18, 1964),” Shout! Factory DVD (2007).

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