Circa 1971-1972, James Marvell notes 'The rebel guitar used by The Cavaleers was their way of rebelling against prejudice of any kind'
Hang On to What
The Strange Tale of the Cavaleers by Edd Hurt
The story of the Country Cavaleers resounds from a zone that is marked off by the barricades of mid-'60's pop music and the outlaw country of the 1970's. Apart from any attempt to establish a canon of country music, appreciating the art of the Country Cavaleers may require immersion in the waters of a drowned Nashville--a forgotten city of hard-working songwriters, second-rate record labels and fringe missionaries who set out to haul country into a confusing new world of hippies, rock music and marijuana cigarettes. Even more than similarly eccentric country artists such as Jim Nesbitt, Earl Richards, Lorene Mann and Dee Mullins, the Country Cavaleers have remained unknown and uncelebrated. No lovingly assembled Australian or English label retrospectives exist of their 1970's work, and no reference book mentions them, much less gives credence to their claim that they helped to invent outlaw country in the days before the Glaser Brothers, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson broke free of the stifling Nashville music industry. Until a couple of years ago, I had never heard of them and I believe I can safely say that the Country Cavaleers are among the most obscure of country performers.
Yet they existed, and have achieved a kind of immortality through three 1972 appearances on The Wilburn Brothers Show. You can view the Country Cavaleers in all their glory in reruns of these old television shows, and the first thing that will strike you about their stage act is their long, straight hair and their red and blue cowboy hats. They smile a lot as they lip-synch to their versions of Jack Clement's "Now I Can Live Again" and Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland's "Stop! In the Name of Love," a 1965 hit for the Supremes. Despite their long hair and fancy stage garb, they don't seem like outlaws, and you may think that choosing such unprepossessing material was either prescient--covering Motown and the great Nashville songwriter Jack Clement was certainly an interesting move in the golden era of Kris Kristofferson, Hank Cochran, Dallas Frazier and other Music City tunesmiths--or just plain eccentric.
Taped in August and September 1972 at a television studio on Nashville's Murfreesboro Road, the Country Cavaleers' Wilburn Brothers Show appearances marked the high-water point of their career. Promoting the "Stop! In the Name of Love" and "Now I Can Live Again" single they had recently cut for Nashville's Cutlass Records & Tapes, Cavaleers Buddy Good and James Marvell seemed more like clean-cut, all-American entertainers than truculent outlaws. Their lone Cutlass single was produced by country-pop songwriter and singer Dickey Lee and future country star Don Williams, and the Clement song--a typically elegant composition that Charley Pride had recorded a few years earlier--seems to have come to them courtesy of Lee, who had already cut the million-selling 1962 "Patches" with Clement in Texas.
A "custom" label, Cutlass had opened for business in 1972 under the leadership of Charles A. Shaffer, who had begun his career in the early ‘60's in N. Augusta, S.C. by providing made-to-order tapes for local mortuaries. Shaffer seems also to have had a good line in recording pop, country and soul "soundalike" tapes. According to a September 1972 Billboard piece on Shaffer and his new label, Cutlass boasted such names as Mack Dumis, the Leightons and country comedian Rusty Adams, as well as the Country Cavaleers.
The Country Cavaleers' Cutlass single was good--their rendition of Clement's tune eschewed drums for some kind of clattering percussion, while their Holland-Dozier-Holland cover was an effective recasting of a familiar song. Unlike the outlaws who achieved fame later in the decade, the Country Cavaleers seemed to have an affinity for what amounted to light-hearted, bubblegum pop. And it could be that James Marvell and Buddy Good were grateful for any help they could get to navigate Nashville's alien environment.
Marvell and Good had come to Nashville a couple of years earlier with their manager, a Sicilian-born Tampa record-business hustler named John Centinaro. Having made the trip south from Buffalo, N.Y. to Tampa, Good had hooked up with Centinaro and Marvell around 1965. Marvell, who was born Carlos Zayas in Tampa (his father was also born in Tampa to parents who had emigrated to Florida from Cuba), had bonded with Good over a mutual love of Beatles and Rolling Stones records.
With Centinaro pulling the strings--a born salesman, he had already secured a position with Henry Stone's Miami-based Tone Distributors--Good and Marvell gained fleeting fame with a garage-rock novelty titled "She's Got Bad Breath," written by Marvell and Centinaro. Issued on the U.S.A. label in 1967, "She's Got Bad Breath" featured a B-side written by Good.
Now calling themselves the Surprize, Good, Marvell and Centinaro again teamed up to cut another fine garage-rock single. "I Will Make History" b/w "Too Bad" appeared on Centinaro's Cent label in 1967. Joining Marvell (at this juncture, he billed himself as Carl Zayas) and Good was Tampa drummer Roger Fuentes. After the Surprize folded, the trio joined another Tampa band, Mercy, who had recorded a pop hit called "Love (Can Make You Happy)." Written by Tampa songwriter Jack Sigler Jr., the song had been cut in 1968 at the city's Charles Fuller Studio. "Love" came out on the local Sundi imprint, and picked up distribution through Philadelphia's Jamie/Guyden label. The single hit the national charts in April 1969, while Sigler was in the Navy.
Needing a new version of Mercy to compete with a hastily assembled--and spurious--version of Mercy that Sundi head Gil Cabot had put on the road to cash in on the single's success, Sigler and Centinaro enlisted Good, Marvell and Fuentes to join some of the original band members. They re-recorded "Love" at Miami's Criteria Studios with producers Brad Shapiro and Steve Alaimo, and Warner Bros. released an album titled Love Can Make You Happy that contained the new version. The Warner Bros. album made the charts as the Sundi single continued to sell (it's unclear whether or not Warner Bros. released their re-recorded single of "Love" in the United States, but they did release it overseas).
With Centinaro managing the group, Mercy toured to support the album. Meanwhile, Marvell and Good had developed an affinity for country music. Influenced by the British and American rockers of the day, the two had also played in a Tampa country band led by guitarist Johnny Bare, the uncle of country singer Bobby Bare. With Marvell on rhythm guitar and Good on bass, the band proved popular in the area, and the two budding Cavaleers built up their country chops.
Once in Nashville--Centinaro, Good and Marvell had driven up from Tampa in Centinaro's Volkswagen--the trio occupied a house in nearby Hendersonville. Centinaro secured a job as an agent with the city's prestigious Buddy Lee Attractions, and Good and Marvell were reborn as a long-haired, anti-drug, anti-counterculture, pro-Jesus country duo.
As the Country Cavaleers, Good and Marvell proved themselves an exciting live act. They got some attention in Nashville, where long hair was still virtually unknown among country musicians. Centinaro contrived to get them into honky-tonks in such places as Texas and Arizona, and they toured with the Wilburn Brothers and other established country acts. According to Tennessee writer Alan Cofer, who is currently working on a Wilburn Brothers biography, the Country Cavaleers played a benefit show in the Wilburns' hometown of Hardy, Ark. with Tex Ritter, the Kendalls and the Wilburns on Sept. 1, 1972, not long after the Cavaleers had taped their first Wilburn Brothers Show appearance.
Today, Marvell says that the Nashville country-music industry denigrated their long hair, and maintains that he and Good helped to create the outlaw-country movement by, for example, hanging out with future outlaw Waylon Jennings. As he told writer Amy Nichol Smith in 2013, "While Nashville thought we were hippies, we were really a couple of guys with super-long hair to our waists, and doing country music."
I have no doubt that Good and Marvell attracted unwelcome attention in Nashville in the early ‘70's. But country-music outlawism usually strained against the kind of success the Country Cavaleers so assiduously sought. Far from being anti-drug and anti-counterculture, such figures as the Glaser Brothers, Jack Clement, Bobby Bare, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Area Code 615, Roger Miller and Kris Kristofferson--not to mention such lesser-known but equally important early-'70s Nashville singers, producers and songwriters as Dennis Linde, Bergen White and Rob Galbraith--attempted to bring younger audiences into the country-music fold by appealing to the very countercultural elements that Bob Dylan had introduced into country during his 1966 Blonde on Blonde sessions with Nashville musicians and later in 1969 with Nashville Skyline.
If the Country Cavaleers' image worked against them on both levels--when you watch their television appearances, they seem eager to please, and the combination of their costumes and carefully straightened hair probably appealed less to rock fans accustomed to a more casual mode of dress and deportment than it did to the conservative country audience--their music was far from insubstantial. It could be that their recordings presaged an era of pop-country crossover that would reach its fruition later in the decade.
After leaving Cutlass, the Country Cavaleers got a deal with MGM Records, for whom they recorded the excellent 1973 single, "Humming Bird" b/w "Hang On to What." A cover of Johnnie & Jack and the Tennessee Mountain Boys' 1952 song, the Country Cavaleers' version of "Humming Bird" featured Good and Marvell's harmony vocals along with pedal steel, guitar and harmonica.
Penned by Jimmie Helms, "Hang On to What" was even better. A comic novelty tune in a post-Del Reeves, post-Roger Miller mode, the record gave the Country Cavaleers a musical and verbal persona to match their calculatedly outrageous appearance: "Hang on to what/Hang on who/I don't know whether I can or not/Hang on to what," they sing. It's a great performance, but they weren't able to record an entire album's worth of material for MGM.
What differentiates the Cavaleers' approach to pop-friendly, novelty-oriented, outlaw country from those of Chart Records stalwart Jim Nesbitt and SSS International artist Dee Mullins is the duo's cavalier attitude toward country music's moralism. Even on such topical novelty numbers as "Pollution," "They Sent My Old Lady to the Moon" and "Truck Drivin' Cat with Nine Wives," Nesbitt implied a moralistic response to issues pressing on Americans in 1970—pollution, space travel (and the very idea of the sanctity of marriage), and the controversy over the expansion of sexual freedom. Similarly, Mullins (a skilled performer who could manage a credible Willie Nelson-style vocal on the punning novelty tune "Guilt Box") tapped into moralism on his incredible 1977 "Revelations," a tale of Christian apocalypse penned by Bobby Braddock. Although the Cavaleers performed a medley that comprised Merle Haggard's "Branded Man," "Sing Me Back Home," and "Okie from Muskogee" on one of their 1972 Wilburn Brothers Show dates, they didn't seem deeply invested in the songs' darker aspects.
After their brief tenure at MGM, the Cavaleers' discography becomes somewhat confusing. They continued to tour--according to the Sept. 16, 1972 Billboard, promoter Carlton Haney was so impressed by the duo's performance in Hampton, Va. that he gave them a cash bonus, and they hit the road with such acts as Don Gibson. The Cavaleers also managed to find time to record their masterpiece, Presenting the "Country Cavaleers"
Issued on the JBJ label, this record is so obscure that no discographical source lists it, and when I spoke to John Centinaro and James Marvell for this article, neither man could accurately date it. No matter: Presenting is Good, Marvell and Centinaro's auteurist statement, and this oddly packaged piece of vinyl--the front is a stark black-and-white design that places Good and Marvell within crudely rendered drawings of hewed-out wood, while the back features Good and Marvell's impersonations of Tiny Tim, Ed Sullivan and Marlon Brando's turn in The Godfather--stands as a testament to the Cavaleers' roots in mid-'60's British-American rock.
Perhaps because Marvell and Good collaborated on all but one song on Presenting, the album achieves a coherence previously lacking in their evocations of country music's past. "You Make the Sun Shine at Night" yokes Beatles-esque chord changes to some nifty pedal steel, and the result is pop-country as fine as anything Dickey Lee recorded. "We Were Made for Each Other" features lush background vocals and a well-managed major-to-minor modulation that is worthy of the Beatles circa A Hard Day's Night.
Even more impressively, "Hey Baby" evokes the Beatles and the first Love album--the descending chords are straight out of the Arthur Lee songbook. Written by Centinaro and Marvell, "Pretty Baby" begins with this arresting couplet: "If man can reach the moon/Then maybe I'll reach your heart."
On the second side, "Turn On to Jesus" lays out the Cavaleers' anti-drug, pro-Christianity theme with an elegance that would have done the Everly Brothers proud, and I'm also reminded of the Sir Douglas Quintet's great 1969 Mendocino track, "I Don't Want." But the greatest track on Presenting is "Must Have Been Out of My Mind," which finds Good and Marvell writing and singing in the mode of the Beatles' Rubber Soul: "Wait, wait, I must have been out of my mind/Wait, wait, I found that I was wastin' my time, " they sing. The guitars licks are sharp, and the track rocks out in an oblique manner that both John Lennon and Arthur Lee would have found bracing.
It's difficult to tell exactly when Presenting appeared--the only copy I've ever seen comes with a press kit that includes photos of those impersonations, and my guess is that it was done around 1974, before the Country Cavaleers signed to Maryland's Country Showcase America label. The Cavaleers' Country Showcase singles were produced by Ricci Mareno, who was also turning out hit singles on country singer Tommy Overstreet.
The Country Showcase America singles are good, and the best of the five that I've heard is "I've Got My Mind Satisfied," which seems to have been released around 1975. The first two Country Showcase America singles appeared in 1974. I've heard one of them, a song titled "Everett the Evergreen." The tale of a Christmas tree who bemoans his loneliness until a group of orphans cuts him down and takes him to town, it takes the idea of the holiday song into new zones of sentimentality.
Written by George Deaton, "I've Got My Mind Satisfied" equals anything on Presenting. A two-bar guitar figure introduces the song in the manner of the Clarence White-era Byrds or the first two Yes albums. "I've seen this great land from shore to shore/I'm a rich man while remaining poor," the Cavaleers sing. The other side of the single is "If I Love You," a song by Mareno and fellow Nashville tunesmith Jerry Gillespie, who co-wrote Tommy Overstreet's 1971 country hit single "Gwen (Congratulations)" with Mareno.
The Country Cavaleers recorded for Country Showcase America from 1974 until around 1976, when Marvell and Good dissolved the group. According to Centinaro, Good got married and started a family, and wanted to get off the road (Good now lives in Tennessee, and is involved in automobile sales). One of their Country Showcase America singles, "Te Quiero (I Love You in Many Ways)," went to Number 97 on the country chart in 1977.
Although Marvell and Good released at least one more Country Showcase America single--this time as "the Cavaleers"--the original Nashville outlaws were no more. However, there is yet another mysterious item in this group's discography. Once again credited to the Cavaleers, Live on Stage--A Special Tribute to Elvis Presley sums up their legacy in suitably offhand fashion. According to Jimmie Helms' liner notes, the record was recorded at the Tri-County Club in Morganton, N. Carolina, most likely in 1976. Live on Stage documents what seems to have been Good and Marvell's final show as the Country Cavaleers. They rip through a selection of country and rock oldies that includes "Johnny B. Goode" and "White Lightning."
Live on Stage features a very interesting monologue--obviously recorded in a studio and inserted after the fact--about the 1977 death of Elvis Presley: "January 8, 1935--a set of twins were born to Vernon and Gladys Presley, one named Jesse, who died at birth, and one named Elvis Aaron Presley," Buddy Good intones.
At least, I think it's Buddy Good--it's hard to tell. Released on the Versha label, Live on Stage ends with a couple of substandard, studio-recorded country songs, including the abysmal Christian-country of "The Prince of the Valley" written by Edna Pierce. But as Helms heedlessly proclaims, "It is more than just a recording done in the cold Nashville Studios, it lives and breaths with the excitement of THE CAVALEERS that will one day soon become one of the entire world's best known acts." Neither Marvell nor Centinaro remembers when this album was released, but my guess is that it was issued around 1980.
After the Country Cavaleers broke up, Marvell released one more song that matched the intensity of his pioneering ‘70's work. Titled "Urban Cowboys, Outlaws, Cavaleers," the 1981 single told the story of his singular vision, and brought the Cavaleers' sound into a new decade: "Way back in 1964, I came a-singin'/But I was ignored/‘Ahead of your time, cowboy,' that's what I'd hear/'There just ain't no room for a Cavaleer.'" The way Marvell sings it, you believe it.
In recent years, Marvell has continued to perform on the road and in Branson, Mo., and he's had success in the field of Christian country music with such songs as "Washed in the Blood of the Lamb." Marvell even made the charts with a 1981 country version of Sigler's "Love (Can Make You Happy)," and "Urban Cowboys, Outlaws, Cavaleers " also charted that year. Marvell has put together a Cavaleers retrospective of sorts, the 1996 Golden Archives, that contains some live recordings along with studio tracks and interviews; I've never heard it. Mercy's drummer, Roger Fuentes, died in Tampa in October 2012. Marvell still maintains that the Nashville establishment swept the Cavaleers under the rug. This piece is my attempt to rectify that unfortunate turn of events.
See Part II of the Country Cavaleers article which includes an interview
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