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Sammy Masters

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Famed in rockabilly fan circles for cult classics like "Rockin' Red Wing," singer Sammy Masters was born in Sasakawa, OK, on July 18, 1930. The son of an oil field worker, Masters was something of a prodigy, and at the age of 12 made his radio debut on Tulsa's KTUL alongside his idol, Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys. When Masters was 16, his family relocated to California, where he played with a series of country bands in and around Los Angeles -- most notably, he served briefly behind Western swing ne'er-do-well Spade Cooley, followed by an 18-month stint with Ole Rasmussen & His Nebraska Cornhuskers. Masters cut his debut solo single, "Lost Little Nickel in the Big Juke Box," for the Cormac label in 1950. Upon his completion of the follow-up, "Crazy River," the U.S. Army shipped him to Korea, where he regularly performed for his fellow troops. Upon returning to California in 1954, Masters signed to Pasadena-based 4-Star Publishing, writing and recording demos for the firm -- although his "Turn the Cards Slowly" would become a minor hit for Patsy Cline, he was far more interested in resuming his performing career, galvanized by the commercial ascent of the rockabilly sound. For the early 1956 sessions that yielded his 4-Star label singles "Pink Cadillac" and "Whop-T-Bop," Masters teamed with six-string wizard Jimmy Bryant -- neither was a hit, but both are rightfully revered by latter-day rockabilly buffs. A year later, 4-Star licensed the master for "Pink Cadillac" to Modern Records, which overdubbed drums, erased Masters' name in favor of the alias "Johnny Todd," and issued the song to similarly scant attention. The singer's next effort, the ballad "Angel," appeared on 4-Star, but despite appearances on television's The Jack Benny Show and Town Hall Party along with a relentless live schedule, Masters could not break through to radio -- his fourth and final 4-Star single, "Jodie," proved to be yet another commercial disappointment, although its flip side, "If I Could See the World (Through the Eyes of a Child)," was also covered by Cline in late 1957. After leaving 4-Star he worked for several years as a staff writer for American Music before signing to the Lode imprint to cut 1960's "Rockin' Red Wing." When the record caught on in L.A., Warner cut a deal to handle national distribution, and the single went as high as number 64 on the Billboard pop charts. Although the follow-up, "Golden Slippers," was licensed to Dot, it failed to match its predecessor's success, and when the subsequent "Pierre the Poodle" also tanked, Masters again found himself without a recording contract. In 1961 Masters befriended singer/songwriter Willie Nelson, and when Cline agreed to cut Nelson's "Crazy," she also agreed to cover Masters' "Who Can I Count On?" as the B-side. "Crazy" went on to sell five million copies, and "Who Can I Count On?" enjoyed the spoils of its massive success, with singers spanning from Bobby Darin to Wayne Newton recording their own renditions. Also in 1961 Masters founded his own label, Gallahad. While largely a vehicle for other acts, Gallahad was also home to his 1964 gospel LP, May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You, as well as little-heard singles like "Stick Around Joe," "All Alone in San Antone," and "A Big Man Cried." For a time, he and Johnny Horton co-hosted a 15-minute weekly television series on L.A. station KCOP, and during the late '60s and 1970s TV production was Masters' primary focus. At one point, he was helming six weekly series at the same time, including Jukebox Saturday Night and Country Music Time. Buoyed by a resurgence of interest in rockabilly across Europe and Japan, Masters signed to the Dionysus label to cut 1997's Everybody Digs Sammy Masters -- recorded in collaboration with Deke Dickerson and Ray Campi, it was his first new material in over three decades, and was followed by a series of acclaimed live appearances overseas. ~ Jason Ankeny

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