ESCORTS TO HISTORY

How Charlie McCoy & The Escorts ushered in a new Music City

  • On a Friday afternoon near the end of January, four musicians — Charlie McCoy, Wayne Moss, Jimmy Miller, and Mac Gayden — gather for a reunion of sorts at Moss’ Cinderella Studio in Madison. They are there to be photographed for a feature story on their old band, Charlie McCoy & The Escorts. Outside, a cold rain falls from the gray winter sky, but inside the control room, amidst the warm glow of the studio’s vintage analog gear, the men fondly recall their time together half a century earlier, back when they were “young rockers.”
         The photographer corrals them into the tracking room, where they gather around the studio’s grand piano, McCoy at the keys. As he messes ’round with some old standards, they swap jokes and old stories, and lament that “Groover” — former bandmate Bill Aikins — was under the weather and unable to make the trip from Nevada to Nashville for the photo shoot as originally planned.
         Charlie McCoy & The Escorts are back in the spotlight after all these years because of an exhibit that will open on March 27 at the Country Music Hall of Fame, Dylan, Cash, and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City. The band itself is acknowledged in the exhibit, and four of its members are among the “cats” featured — McCoy, Moss, Gayden, and the late Kenneth Buttrey. If the truth be told, there may never have been any “new” Music City if not for McCoy and the Escorts.
         What makes Charlie McCoy & The Escorts so important is not only what the band itself accomplished, which is a lot; but also the work its members did individually and collectively outside the band, as recording artists in their own right, and with other artists, including Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Simon & Garfunkel, Johnny Cash, Joan Baez, Neil Young, Linda Rondstadt, B.B. King, Chuck Berry, Jackson Browne, and Jimmy Buffett, just to name a few.
         Of course, McCoy’s name is well known. A multi-instrumentalist who plays harmonica, guitar, bass, trumpet, and more, he’s one of Nashville’s most celebrated session players, a Grammy-winning instrumental recording artist, a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, and one of the originators of the famed Nashville number system used by the city’s studio musicians. Gayden calls him “the most important musician” in the history of Music City.
          When McCoy teamed up with The Escorts in the spring of 1961, he was just getting his start in Nashville. He first visited the city in June of 1959 at the encouragement of Mel Tillis, whom he met while performing at The Old South Jamboree in Miami. “It was a country music dance, and they had rock ’n’ roll 10 minutes an hour for the young people — and that was me,” McCoy says of the Saturday night gig he and his band had when he was a senior in high school. “I met Mel Tillis [there], and he said if I’d come to Nashville, he could get me a record contract. Well, he couldn’t really do that, but I was 18 years old and gullible, and I believed it. So the day after school was out, I took off for Nashville.”
         When McCoy got to Music City, he learned Tillis was out of town. Undeterred, he headed to the see Tillis’ manager Jim Denny. As it turned out, Tillis had told Denny about him. “He said, ‘I know who you are. I’ll call and set up some auditions for you,’” McCoy recalls. “He had never even heard me. He was taking Mel’s word for it.”
         Next thing McCoy knew, he was doing guitar- vocal renditions of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” at the offices of a pair of Nashville music icons: Owen Bradley at Decca Records and Chet Atkins at RCA. Both Bradley and Atkins thought he had talent, but neither of them were looking to sign the next Chuck Berry. Even though Bradley didn’t offer McCoy a record deal, he did give the young musician a life-changing experience.
         “Owen invited me to a session, and I went and watched Brenda Lee record,” McCoy says. “And the whole idea of what I wanted to do changed. At that moment, I didn’t care if I ever sang another song — I wanted to be a studio musician. Because what I saw in that studio was amazing, you know — and of course, what I heard was amazing, too.”
         McCoy returned to Miami and enrolled at the University of Miami that September, where he planned to get a degree in music education. “I had mainly music courses, and I liked a couple of them,” he says. “And I liked one of my teachers. But to be honest, I was not all that thrilled about school.”
         Some of his professors didn’t approve of him playing rock ’n’ roll on the weekends, thought he shouldn’t be involved in “lower forms of music,” as he would later tell Billboard. Plus, he couldn’t get that Brenda Lee session out of his head. “What I had seen had just knocked me out,” he says of his visit to Bradley’s already famous Quonset Hut studio a few months earlier.
         The following April during the second semester of his freshman year, McCoy got a phone call from Kent Westberry, a guy he knew from Florida who had moved to Nashville to be a songwriter. “He called me and said he had a job for me as a guitar player if I could come on up there,” McCoy recalls. “That’s when I made the decision to drop out of school and go to Nashville. I broke my father’s heart because it was his dream for his son to go to college.”
         When he arrived in Nashville for the job, he was met with a rude surprise. “The singer, a guy named Johnny Ferguson, told Kent, ‘Man, you never called me back. I’ve already hired somebody,’” McCoy recalls with a laugh. “So here I am, I’ve dropped out of school, drove all night, and I don’t have a job. That was pretty devastating.
         “This guy Ferguson was such a nice guy, and he felt so sorry for me, he said, ‘What else can you play?’ And I said, ‘Well, I can play harmonica.” He said, “I don’t need harmonica — can you play drums?’
         “I knew a little bit about it, and I thought, ‘Say no and you’re done,’” McCoy continues. “So I said, ‘Yes! But I don’t have any,’ He said, ‘We’ll get you some.’ So, there I was, my first job in Nashville — as a drummer!”
         Ferguson cosigned a note for him to procure a drum kit from a local music store. When the group returned from the gig (two weeks at a hotel lounge in Toronto), McCoy took most of the money he earned and paid off the drums. “Then two weeks later, [Ferguson] calls up and tells everybody, ‘Well, I don’t have any more jobs, so I guess the band is over,’” McCoy says and laughs; then adds sarcastically, “Thanks a lot!”
         It’s ironic that McCoy’s first job in Nashville was as a drummer because in less than a year he would be playing in a band with one of the greatest drummers in the history of popular music.

    The story of The Escorts begins in 1959 at the King of Clubs, a two-story roadhouse just outside the Nashville city limits on the Clarksville Highway. The King of Clubs had live music and dancing downstairs, illegal gambling upstairs, and illegal booze on both floors. (Davidson County was a dry county until 1967.)
         The house band at that time was a group called Bobby Williams and His Nightlifters, who had a regional hit — “Tarzan” — on the short-lived, Nashville-based Cort label in November of 1958. Williams was a rocker in his early-to-mid 20s who sounded a little like Elvis, and the Nightlifters were a loose, mostly younger collection of musicians anchored by a drummer barely in his teens, the incomparable Kenneth Buttrey.
         Buttrey was only 14 when Jimmy Miller first saw him perform. “I was with a group [The Rockers] playing an American Legion up in Joelton,” he recalls. “On the way back, we stopped in an old roadhouse called the King of Clubs, and Bobby was playing there.”
         Miller immediately noticed the kid behind the drum kit. “He was a red-hot drummer, even at that age,” he says of the young percussion phenom with whom he would soon be working. Gayle Whitfield, who was playing tenor sax for Williams that night, left the Nightlifters shortly thereafter, and Miller was hired to take his place.
         “Anyone who ever worked with Kenneth Buttrey will tell you that he’s the best they ever worked with,” Miller continues. “He just made you want to play. He could bring out the best in you. Everything just felt so good when he was on drums.”
         Bill Aikins, who was then playing piano in a group called The Skipper Hunt Combo, also first saw Buttrey play there around the same time. “One night, Skipper and I went out to a place called the King of Clubs in Bourdeaux, and Bobby Williams and the Nightlifters were playing,” the keyboardist recalls from his home in Nevada. “You couldn’t go out into the crowd — I was under age. You could walk on a little pathway through the kitchen and get to the back of the bandstand. You could stand behind [the band] and watch them perform, almost like you were backstage.
         “Kenneth Buttrey was playing drums,” Aikins continues. “I’m standing there, and the drummer’s always at the back, so I’m really focusing more on the drummer. When I heard him play, my jaw hit the floor. I could not believe how good this kid was. Instant recognition of a talent. Boom! It was just in your face. It was like meeting Van Gogh or something. You just go, ‘Oh, wow! This guy’s special.’
         “He had the nicest feel, the best shuffle I probably ever heard — and he was just a kid. I can remember saying to myself, ‘I don’t know when, and I don’t know how, but that’s who I want to play with.’ Kenneth was the best drummer in Nashville, man. There was no one better.”
         The band worked at the King of Clubs Wednesday through Saturday from 10 p.m. till 3 a.m. and was paid $40 per week. Miller was not sorry when the residency at the club came to an end — not because of the late hours, or the pay, but because of the club itself. “That was a bad place,” he says. “There would be a fight just about every night. I saw people get cut up.”
         Aikins echoes that. “It was a rough, tough nightspot, and it was in a rough part of town,” he says. “It was Punk City.”
         No longer booked at the King of Clubs every weekend, Williams began to accept out-of-town bookings. By that point, Aikins was working regularly with the group. When they needed a sub on guitar for a gig in Lebanon, Ky., Aikins recommended Moss. Moss had been the guitarist in The Casuals, one of Nashville’s earliest rock combos that eventually became the backing band for Brenda Lee. He and Aikins met when the keyboardist filled in for The Casual’s regular piano player on one of Lee’s shows. He was impressed with Moss’ guitar work and remembered him when Williams needed a sub. Moss had left The Casuals by then, and it wasn’t long before he became the Nightlifters’ regular guitarist.
         By the fall of 1960, the Nightlifters’ lineup featured Buttrey on drums, Miller on tenor sax, Aikins on piano, Moss on lead guitar, and Snuffy Smith on bass. Once when Smith wasn’t available for a gig at Fort Campbell, he recommended McCoy, whom he knew from Florida, as a sub.
         “Wayne [Moss] called me and said, ‘I’m a friend of Snuffy Smith’s, and we have this band, and Snuffy is the bass player, and I wanted to see if you would sub for him,’” McCoy recalls. “I said, ‘You know, I don’t really play electric bass.’ He said, ‘But you play guitar, and it’s just like the bottom four strings of a guitar.’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t own one.’ He said, ‘We’ve got one, don’t worry about it.’
         “So I went over to Wayne’s house — it was the first time I’d met him — and he showed me all these songs that they were doing, and I was trying to figure out what to do with the bass, you know. That’s how I started playing electric bass.”
         Aikins vividly remembers the gig at the Fort Campbell Airmen’s Club when McCoy first played with the Nightlifters. “We’re playing, and Charlie is playing bass — no big deal, he’s just a guy,” he says. “He’s not Charlie McCoy — he’s just a guy.
         “So Bobby says to him, ‘Snuffy says you play harmonica. Do you play harmonica?’ And he says, ‘Yeah, I play harp.’ “Well, why don’t you come up and do a blues tune and blow some harp.’
         “When he stepped up to that mike and started playing blues harp, he picked the band up about 10 notches,” Aikins continues. “It went from being a gig to being a party, man. When he hit that harp, I’d never experienced anybody in the flesh that good.”
         Of course now, McCoy is widely recognized as a harmonica virtuoso, but when he brought down the house at the Airmen’s Club that night, it was the first time his future bandmates heard what he could do.
         “When we got through playing that tune, I remember turning around and just sitting down on the keys and looking at everybody in the band and saying, ‘Man, what a fucking groove!’” the pianist recalls with excitement in his voice. “From then on, I became known as “The Groover” — Bill “Groover” Aikins.”
         While McCoy’s harp solo was on the minds of the Nightlifters after that show, what he remembers most from that night was the band’s drummer. “[That] first time I heard Kenny play, I was blown away,” McCoy says. “I had never heard anything like it before — it was pretty special.”
         McCoy subbed for Smith in the Nightlifters “five or six times,” as he remembers it. “I was enjoying it because all I was doing was hanging out at Jim Denny’s office, and I was playing on some demos,” he says, “But I was 20 years old, and I was still into rock ’n’ roll and Top 40, what’s on the radio, and these guys were playing it. So it was fun for me to go and play that kind of music.”
         That same year, McCoy cowrote a fateful song called “Cherry Berry Wine” with Westberry and Gil Metters for Denny’s legendary publishing company Cedarwood Music. Metters had shared the original idea with McCoy back in Miami, and he and Westberry finished it in Nashville. Westberry, who was a Cedarwood writer at the time, had always sung lead on his demos, but “Cherry Berry Wine” was a bluesy rocker, which was a little outside his comfort zone. “He said, ‘You need to sing this demo, this isn’t my style at all,’” McCoy recalls. “So I went in and sang the demo.”
         In October, McCoy received some surprising news. “Jim Denny called me and he said, ‘I played this song for Archie Bleyer of Cadence Records, and he wants to record you,’” McCoy recalls with a laugh. “So there I was singing again, you know, it was the furthest thing from my mind. But I said, ‘Hey, why not. I’ll do it.’”
         In January of ’61, Cadence, which was home to all The Everly Brothers big hits, released “Cherry Berry Wine” as a single backed by the blues shuffle “My Little Woman.” “Cherry Berry Wine,” which featured haunting guitar and a calypso-inspired beat, was favorably reviewed by Billboard and hit the magazine’s Hot 100 in late February, reaching No. 99.
         Around that same time, the Nightlifters found out Williams had been shorting them on the earnings from their gigs, so they decided to start their own band. They called the singer one night to give him the news, and he was not happy about it.
         Miller figured Williams would try to sway Buttrey, so just to play it safe, he went by the drummer’s house the following morning to give him a lift to North High School. “We didn’t want to lose our drummer first shot out of the box,” he says with a laugh.
         Sure enough, on the way to the school, Williams pulled up beside them in his car, and waved them over. “Bobby pulled us over,” he recalls. “He was a big, ole tough guy — Antioch tough — and he was wanting to fight [over Buttrey]. I said, ‘Bobby, there ain’t no use in this now.’ I didn’t want to fight him, but I would have.”
         Miller is a big man in his own right, so as it turned out, there was no fight. “I talked him out of that,” he says with a smile.
         The original lineup for The Escorts included Buttrey, Miller, Aikins, Moss, and baritone saxophonist John Sturdivant, formerly with a Nashville group called The Monarchs. Sturdivant was asked to join in part because of his business savvy. “John was a real promoter,” Miller says. “He was a go-getter,” McCoy adds.
         “He was the businessman and he had contacts,” Sturdivant’s widow Sue says. “I think that is why they decided to add John and the baritone sax.”
         Initially, they were fronted by Pat Campbell and billed as Pat Campbell & Her Escorts. McCoy remembers her as “a girl singer hanging around town who sang a little R&B” and worked some of the gigs with Bobby Williams.
         As it turned out, Campbell was a little out of her league. By late spring, the band had recruited McCoy, and changed its name to Charlie McCoy & The Escorts. Even though there were a few personnel changes along the way, from that point till the band ran out of steam because of other commitments in 1968, Charlie McCoy & The Escorts were the most popular band in Nashville. They played a variety of gigs over those years, from frat parties and high school proms to club gigs at Fort Campbell and club residencies in Printers Alley. They even occasionally opened for Roy Orbison, including an appearance at The Hippodrome in Nashville and a couple of shows in Macon, Ga. For a short time, they even owned their own teen club in East Nashville.
         It wasn’t just their superb musicianship that made the band popular. “It was all about showmanship,” Sturdivant told the Nashville Scene in 1995. “That was what we felt set us apart.”
         “You had to have some zaniness, or some acrobatics, or some silliness — you couldn’t just get up there and play,” Aikins explains. “Well, you could, but you wouldn’t get the attention, you couldn’t book as many jobs.”
         One storied example of the band’s “zaniness” took place at Hillwood Country Club when they found themselves playing before an unexpectedly large crowd around the club’s swimming pool. At the urging of Moss, Sturdivant and Aikins climbed up on the diving boards while playing their horns during a spirited performance of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say.” As the kids in attendance chanted “jump,” the two horn players obliged them, leaping into the pool as the song ended with instruments in hand. “The place went nuts,” Aikins says.
         Their shows would open with the band vamping on a riff and Sturdivant acting as emcee. He would bring McCoy onstage with a rousing introduction that concluded with “… the Harmonica Wizard of the South, Charlie McCoy!”
         McCoy would not only wow their audiences with his spellbinding harp work, but also with his ability to play more than one instrument at a time. “He would squeeze the bass with his left hand and make the note, and then play trumpet with the right hand and sing in between,” Moss says, describing McCoy’s musical ambidexterity. “We had two other horns in the band at the time, so if they went, ‘dah-dah dah dah” in three-part harmony, it sounded pretty massive with the rhythm section behind it.” On some songs, Aikins, who was a standout keyboardist, would switch to trumpet and add to the horn section’s big sound.

    In June of ’61, McCoy landed his first two master recording sessions. “Kent was writing a lot and he would let me sit in on his writing sessions,” he explains. “I would get my harmonica out and play along while he was singing his songs. So he did this song called “I Just Don’t Understand” that he and Marijohn Wilkin wrote together, and I was playing along with it, and he said, ‘Boy, I’m going to ask Denny if you can play on the demo of this song.’”
         So McCoy played some signature, mournful harp on the demo recording, and not long after that, he got a call from Denny. “Chet [Atkins] just called,” the publisher said, “and he’s recording a new girl singer from Sweden named Ann-Margret, and he wants you to play exactly what you played on the demo.”
         The week after he played on his first record, McCoy played on his second. Fred Foster, the head of Monument Records, had also heard the demo for “I Just Don’t Understand” and booked him to play harmonica on Roy Orbison’s “Candy Man.” Not a bad start to his career as a studio cat: two sessions, two Top 40 hits, both powered by his harmonica work.
         By that fall, McCoy & The Escorts had opened a teen club called The Sack above the Goodyear store on Gallatin Road, two blocks up from East High School. As Miller put it, “The Sack took the worry out of jobless weekends.” The club would hold 100-125 people, and the band would pack the house.
         Cadence’s Archie Bleyer stopped by the club to check out the band during a rehearsal one afternoon and liked what he saw and heard so much he had The Escorts back McCoy on his next single for the label. They went into RCA Studio B in October and recorded “I Just Want To Make Love To You” and “Rooster Blues,” a pair of sides that foreshadowed blues-influenced recordings British bands like The Animals would be releasing a few years later. “Charlie is a master at rhythm & blues,” Moss says.
         As a result of his work with Orbison and Ann-Margret, McCoy was starting to get a lot of calls for sessions, and whenever possible, he included his bandmates, especially Buttrey, Moss and Aikins — unfortunately, producers weren’t using a lot of horns on sessions in Nashville at that time. Occasionally, artists they worked with in the studio, such as Ray Stevens and Carl Perkins, would come to The Sack and give the material they had recorded a test run in front of a live teen audience with backing from McCoy & The Escorts.
         In 1962, the band closed The Sack and moved the club’s PA system to the two-car garage at Moss’ house that would become Cinderella Studio. The band also had its first lineup changes that year, with Miller being the first to leave. His replacement was Quitman Dennis, a Vanderbilt student who was a well-regarded saxophonist and flutist the band knew from a local rock group called The Sliders.
         “Wayne and Charlie were doing a lot of sessions, and we couldn’t actually leave town very [often] because of that, and I needed the money,” says Miller, who was soon playing with Dale Hawkins of “Susie Q” fame. “I couldn’t turn down jobs because they were doing sessions.”
         Dennis hadn’t been in the band long before Moss departed because he no longer had enough time for the band. “What happened is we got Cinderella Studio [set up], and Wayne was spending more and more time there,” he recalls. “And Wayne was also missing more and more gigs because of studio work.”
         Dennis recommended Mac Gayden, the guitarist from The Sliders, to be Moss’ replacement. According to Aikins, Gayden made the band “funkier.” As it turned out, Gayden would emerge as the band’s best songwriter, writing or cowriting seven of the 14 songs McCoy & The Escorts recorded for Monument after Cadence went out of business. He credits McCoy with helping him develop as a writer. “If not for Charlie, I would have been a banker,” jokes Gayden, who would go on to cowrite the pop and R&B standard “Everlasting Love,” which was recently recognized for passing nine million airplays in the U.S.
         One of the songs he cowrote that was recorded by the band — the up-tempo blues number “Harpoon Man” — probably played a role in the events that led Bob Dylan to begin recording in Nashville in 1966. As has been well documented, at the invitation of producer Bob Johnston, McCoy met Dylan at Columbia Studios during a visit to New York City in August of 1965. He ended up sitting in on the recording of “Desolation Row,” the 11-minute finale to Highway 61 Revisited, and contributed the signature Flamenco-style guitar fills on the track. The ease with which McCoy did that has often been cited as a pivotal factor in Dylan’s eventual decision to come to Nashville to make Blonde On Blonde. But something Dylan told McCoy when they were first being introduced almost certainly factored into his decision, as well. He said he had one of McCoy’s records — “Harpoon Man” backed by “I’m Ready” — and that he liked McCoy’s harmonica playing on it. Dylan had to have liked the way the rest of the band played on the record, too, especially Buttrey. McCoy & The Escorts were already making the kind of rock ’n’ roll recordings Dylan wanted to make, so why not use them on his records? As it turned out, McCoy, Moss and Buttrey played on all the Nashville sessions for Blonde On Blonde. Gayden and Aikins also appeared on the record, as did Wayne “Dock” Butler, a trombonist/ saxophonist who had joined The Escorts lineup by then. Butler is best known as the trombone player McCoy called in the middle of the night to help create the Salvation Army sound on Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.”
         As McCoy has often noted, after Dylan came to Nashville to record, the floodgates opened, and an array of artists followed him to Music City, including The Byrds, Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, Johnny Winter, Joe Simon, Linda Ronstadt, Neil Young, and Steve Miller. More often than not, the musical pilgrims coming to the emerging music mecca were recording with McCoy and members of The Escorts — they were like the rock and soul A-team.

    As their work outside the band increased, it wreaked havoc on their live performances, with subs filling in for members who were working sessions, or even worse, offers of gigs being declined. It got so bad, there was at least one time that even McCoy himself had a sub, albeit a talented one — Joe South. According to Dennis, South’s brother Tommy and Jim Isbell would sub for Buttrey, as did a drummer named Tommy Amato, who as teenager used go to see McCoy & The Escorts play at The Sack.
         This mainly affected the horn players, but Aikins left the band for the same reason in 1963, although he continued to record with them from time to time. Like Miller before him, Dennis left The Escorts for more reliable work not long after Aikins and was replaced by tenor man Jerry Tuttle. Sturdivant departed the band in 1963, and two years later he opened the first Nashville office of the music trade magazine Record World. He would later become the editor of the Music City News.
         By the time Charlie McCoy & The Escorts called it quits in 1968 because they had too much else going on, the band had an all-brass horn section: Eddie Tinch, Benny McDonald, and sometimes McCoy on trumpet, and Bergen White, who later made his mark as a string arranger, on trombone.
         That same year, Dennis, Aikins, and Amato relocated to Las Vegas, where they would work with Bobby Darin up until his death in 1973. Dennis would later move to L.A., where he recorded with a number of well-known artists, including B.B. King, Etta James, Jackson Browne, and Joan Armatrading.
         In 1969, McCoy, Buttrey, Moss, and Gayden joined with five other Nashville session cats to form the trailblazing instrumental supergroup Area Code 615, which released two genre-defying albums in ’69 and ’70 that influenced the emerging subgenre of country rock, as well as the jam band movement that would come later. After the demise of the Code, in addition to his session work, McCoy went on to have an award-winning and hit-making career as a country instrumental recording artist. Gayden, Buttrey, and Moss founded the pioneering Southern rock group Barefoot Jerry, which famously was name-checked on the 1975 hit by the Charlie Daniels Band, “The South’s Gonna Do It Again.” Buttrey and Gayden left Barefoot Jerry after the first album, but Moss kept the group going for five more records, moving the group in more of a country rock direction. Like McCoy, Buttrey continued to be an in-demand session musician, but he also was a longtime member of Neil Young’s Stray Gators band and Jimmy Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band. In addition to continuing to be a hit pop and R&B songwriter, Gayden recorded a pair of solo albums in the ’70s, as well as one with his band Skyboat. He also pioneered the use of the wah wah peddle with slide guitar, which influenced Steve Miller and Lowell George, among many other slide players.

    The rain is still falling outside Cinderella Studio, but inside, McCoy, Moss, Miller, and Gayden are all smiles as the photo shoot comes to a close. While the photographer packs up her equipment, the men say their goodbyes. On the way to his car, Gayden reflects back to the day more than five decades earlier when he was invited to join Charlie McCoy & The Escorts: “It was the defining moment of my career — period!”