Born Thomas LeVan Givens, 14 September 1931, Dallas, Texas Died 24 December 1985, Shreveport, Louisiana
Singer, songwriter, guitarist.
Tommy Blake was a tragic case. He just couldn't accept that he never really made it. Success continued to elude him, first as a singer, then as a songwriter. His frustration, combined with an undisciplined character, eventually led to his violent death : he was shot by own wife.
Thomas Givens was born illegitimately in 1931. He never knew his father and could never do right in his mother's eyes. He was jailed for rape in his teens and entered the military in 1951. While enlisted, Blake lost an eye, the circumstances of which are unclear. Discharged, he went to Louisiana, working at various radio stations as a deejay and country singer. At KRUS in Ruston he met guitarist Carl Adams and bass player Eddie Hall (real name Ed Dettenheim). They performed as the Rhythm Rebels and Tommy asked them to become his backing group. The combo worked the Big D Jamboree in Dallas and the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport, among other gigs. Blake's first record was for the Buddy label in Marshall, Texas, in 1956. It coupled a self-penned rockabilly number, "Koolit", with a country song, "If I'm A Fool". Tommy, Carl and Eddie wrote a lot of songs together and headed north to Nashville to peddle their wares to Music Row publishers. Chet Atkins at RCA was interested and agreed to supervise a four-song session in April 1957. However, Blake had already pitched his best song, "Honky Tonk Mind", to Johnny Horton, who recorded it four days before Blake. Columbia rush-released the disc under the title "The Woman I Need" (a # 9 country hit), listing Lee Emerson as the writer. Though Blake won the ensuing lawsuit, RCA was not amused and shelved his version of "Honky Tonk Mind" (which remained unissued until 1989). Instead, they released the Johnny Cash-styled ballad "Freedom", coupled with the instrumental "Mister Hoody". Chet Atkins, sensing a troublemaker, didn't invite Blake back for a second session. Tommy sat out his one-year contract with RCA and then signed with Sun Records in Memphis.
Two Blake singles came out on Sam Phillips's label, though much more was recorded. First came "Flat Foot Sam", a cover of an R&B song by T.V. Slim (a.k.a. Oscar Wills), coupled with "Lordy Hoody", which was a rewrite of one of the unissued RCA sides, "All Night Long". The second 45, issued in June 1958, consisted of "Sweetie Pie" and "I Dig You Baby". Both songs were credited to Blake - Ross, but "Sweetie Pie" was actually penned by Dale Hawkins, whose original version stayed in the vaults until 1998. When this second Sun record didn't sell either, Sam Phillips had no further use for Tommy Blake. His best rocker for the label, "You Better Believe It", lay gathering dust till 1977, when it saw its first release on a French Sun single (Sun 614).
Next stop was the small Recco label in Shreveport. "Cool Alligator" from the first Recco session is Blake's wildest rocker, but was inexplicably held back. The "Summertime Blues"-styled "F-olding Money" (arguably his best record) from the second session would be Tommy's sole release on the label, coupled with "The Hanging Judge", a story song about Judge Roy Bean. All his 1960s singles (credited to Van Givens) were also one-off affairs, except for his final shot at stardom, three 45s for Paula in 1967.
Starting in the late 1950s, Blake had begun to concentrate on songwriting, often in partnership with Carl Belew (who had recorded "Cool Alligator" as "Cool Gator Shoes" for Decca in 1959). In 1961 they wrote "Tender Years" and sold it to George Jones's buddy Darrell Edwards for $ 100. It was a # 1 country hit for Jones and a French version by Johnny Hallyday ("Tes Tendres Années") was a big hit in France, Holland and Belgium in 1963. Blake also claimed to have co-written "Lonely Street" (a # 5 hit for Andy Williams in 1959) and "Am I That Easy To Forget". Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette, Ray Price, George Jones and Jim Reeves took his songs into the lower reaches of the country charts, but whenever he was broke, Blake would sign away his share of a hit.
Though his songs failed to chart after 1969, he kept on trying for that really big hit that would serve as his pension fund. He cut his demos on a home cassette deck, accompanying himself on an out-of-tune guitar. His vocal range - never that great at the outset - had shrunk to nothing and his voice was now tragically off key. In 1972 Blake had a heart attack and swore off the pills and booze for a short period, but the Big Hit that he wanted so desperately never came.
There are two very different versions of the circumstances of his death on Christmas Eve 1985. They both agree that Blake was shot (unintentionally) by his third wife, Samantha Carter. The first version, based on Samantha's own story, was published by Colin Escott in his book "Tattooed On Their Tongues" (1996). Shane Hughes (from Western Australia), probably the world's greatest expert on Tommy Blake, interviewed Sondra Hall, a friend of Tommy and Samantha's, and her account is sharply at variance with the version that Samantha gave. For the details see Shane's long piece at http://www.rockabillyhall.com/rarerockabilly04.html
According to Shane Hughes, Samantha was never indicted for murdering her husband. Escott writes that she spent Christmas 1985 in jail, but was released and subsequently acquitted. "Blake's history of alcoholism, drug abuse, and spousal abuse would have made any other verdict a joke."
By the time Blake died, the music industry had chewed him up and spat him out. He didn't live long enough for the rockabilly revival to embrace him.
More info :
Discography : http://koti.mbnet.fi/wdd/tommyblake.htm (By Pete Hoppula)
CD : Tommy Blake, Koolit : The Sun Years Plus (Bear Family BCD 16797). Released in 2007. 29 tracks from 1956-1959. Colin Escott's liner notes are an expanded version of his chapter on Blake in "Tattooed On Their Tongues".
Acknowledgements : Shane Hughes, Colin Escott.
Dik, January 2014
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