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Sunday, February 11, 2007

Episode 29 - Please Don't Go Topless, Mother

[Photo from "Carnival Strippers" by Susan Meiselas]

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I'm off-topic with this episode, since Theme Time hasn't played anything sung by Troy or Bennie Hess. But, if Dylan hadn't mentioned Eddie Noack's "Psycho," I would have never discovered the God Less America compilation and would never have found this song. And as with most - if not all- songs, there's a great story behind it.

"Please Don't Go Topless, Mother" written by Ron Hellard. Performed by Troy Hess.

Mother dear, I know you must work
though the job you got is really not the answer
I'm so ashamed to be the only guy in my gang
whose mother is a topless Go-Go dancer

Oh, please don't go topless, Mother.
I hate to be quite so blunt.
The kids all laugh but I don't cry
You're not the only one who's putting up a front.

Oh, please don't go topless, Mother
But I just can not tell a lie
You're ruining your reputation
and I can give you two big reasons why.

Please don't go topless, Mother
Even though it buys me clothes to wear
I'd rather wear old rags, Mother
You've got a burden you shouldn't have to bear.

[talks] Oh, please don't go topless, Mother.
Little friends won't come to see me (but their
Daddy's do)
I'll shine shoes, I'll collect pop bottles
anything to help out.
Then we'll go off together and start over
with no shame for the people to talk about.

Oh, please don't go topless, Mother.
I hate to be quite so blunt.
The kids all laugh but I don't cry
You're not the only one who's putting up a front.
Troy Hess was the son of Bennie Hess, a larger-than-life character standing 6'6'' and weighing 230 lbs who could only have come from Texas. Hillbilly musician, promoter, singing cowboy, recording executive, Bennie was all that and more. Bennie's father had worked on the railroad with the legendary Jimmie Rodgers, and Rodgers widow later gave his' guitar to Bennie. Some stories say that it was the the first Martin Guitar ever made, but it was probably one of the many great 000-45 "Blue Yodel" models that Rodgers played throughout his career.

At the age of 14, Bennie left school and jumped a freight train, hitchhiking with just his guitar for company, entertaining in every town and state he stopped in to keep body and soul together. Settling in Lubbock Texas, Bennie formed The Rhythm Wranglers and started his first radio show on station KFYO - later claiming it was the first state-wide syndicated music program, playing on over 40 Texas stations. Bennie may have also opened the first Texan recording studio in the early `40s.

Out in California in 19 and 47, Bennie released a song called "Someday You'll Know," which was mostly notable for securing him several singing cowboy roles in B-movie westerns. Returning to Houston in the `50s, Bennie started a new record label called "Spade," now treasured among rockabilly fans for featuring such artists as Royce Porter, Jack Prince, and Ray Doggett. In the meantime, Bennie kept recording, releasing what would become his best-known song, "Wild Hog Hop."

["Wild Hog Hop" excerpt]

... as you can tell, Bennie wasn't shy about recording novelty numbers. His next release was "Walking That Last Mile/Life's Meditations," allegedly recorded in a prison cell to get a realistic sound, and later covered by Hank Snow.

In later recordings, Bennie would record under various nom de plumes, including "Big Ben Hess," "Rocky Night," "Sol the Yodelin' Voyager," and my personal favorite, "Little Boy Bluehorn." In the mid-`60s, Bennie would marry his wife Dorothy and have four children, Troy among them. Bennie retired from touring around this time and opened a hunting resort near Caldwell, Texas, where he entertained hunters under the clear Texas skies with his Jimmie Rodgers guitar.

Bennie spent most of the `70s and `80s promoting his record labels and his son Troy, billed as "America's Singing Souvenir," and with a career beginning at age 2, probably the world's youngest honky-tonk singer. Troy was already a veteran at age 7 when he recorded "Please Don't Go Topless, Mother."

Reportedly, Troy recorded his first record at the age of four. His live shows were popular at state and county fairs, with Bennie, ever the showman, acting as emcee, performing magic tricks, and backing Troy on guitar as well as performing duets with him.

If not for a BoingBoing posting and a disgruntled email from a Nashville songwriter, we might not ever have had the story behind "Topless." After BoingBoing posted a couple of its typical smarmy commentaries on the song, jokingly labeling it as "anti-porn art," songwriter Ron Hellard contacted them:
My name is Ron Hellard. I am a writer in Nashville for the last 35 years. One day a secretary at the publishing company I was signed to, asked me to write a song for her son, Troy. I did, as a favor to her, knowing that nothing would come of it. it was just a custom deal.

I sat down and wrote this extremely tongue in cheek crap in about five minutes. I slapped it on a cassette and gave it to her.

The best thing you can say about the record was that it was round.

Showland Records (owned by Troy's dad) probably pressed a thousand copies at most. I thought that would be the last I heard of this joke. But thirty years later it shows up on web sites and play lists here and across the great pond. I am amazed. I've read that the writer of this "song" must be a hick, and a lousy writer. That bothers me. as I said, it took ten minutes out of my life and it was a JOKE.

I am a pro writer with cuts by dozens of legit artists and have enjoyed success as a viable composer, but this thing sticks to me like glue. The original publisher was Acoustic Music, the catalog has been sold several times since.

I should clarify. One reviewer assumed that "Topless" was an attempt to write a serious country song, and slammed the writer for it. That's what got to me, it was meant to be, and most certainly is, a parody of country music.

Ron Hellard

... and there we are, and of course part of the reason why we didn't get "Topless" on the "Mothers" episode or Troy's "Christmas on the Moon" on the Christmas show is that "Theme Time" isn't Dr. Demento and doesn't play parodies or novelty numbers... although the line sometimes gets close.

But, "Topless" is still a song worth hearing - at least once - and one with a great story and great characters behind it.

Troy still performs in Texas with his current band, ZEBRA THREE, now focusing on a pop music format. Bennie passed away in 1984, but not without leaving several other legendary stories behind. There are two mysterious, possibly Jimmie Rodgers, recordings that Rodgers may or may not given to Bennie, or may have been recorded by Hess himself. And a music researcher relates a story of Hess sending him recordings of what may have been a 13-year-old Elvis being interviewed at a gas station - recordings which may or not have been legitimate and which or may not have been part of a larger collection suppressed by the Presley estate.

The world became a smaller, less colorful place when Bennie Hess passed away.

Sources: The links above will take you to many of my primary sources, including, if you dive deeply enough, an mp3 of the full version of "Topless." At The 365 Days Project you can find an mp3 of Troy's "Christmas on the Moon" and is worth a visit if you can't get enough of America's Singing Souvenir. I found the link to that site - as well as the link to several other useful sites - although someone idiotically disabled the capability to copy any text, including hyperlinks, forcing me to hand-enter every URL - from Jean's Music Blog.

Klaus Kettner and Tony Wilkinson's comprehensive bio on Bennie Hess at the Rockbilly Music Association was my primary - and very nearly only - source for information on Bennie Hess. I really wish I had the chance to meet him.


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1 comment:

JeansMusicBlog said...

//although someone idiotically disabled the capability to copy any text, including hyperlinks, forcing me to hand-enter every URL - from Jean's Music Blog.??//

Sorry to hear that.
But my main goal is to learn something about computering and the internet and so on.
I choosed Music as a key to that.
Did choose a template and try to change that. So also disabled copying txt (although that can be 'passed by').
You could have clicked on the link and by so get the original RS link and just copy.
BTW, my original link is gone now due to inactivity... :-(

Nice informative Blog you have, so I will come back to read.