My earliest recollections of music go back to Odessa, Texas, where I was born. My father drove a Jeep, and I recall sitting in the back seat while he drove around town and hearing Hank Williams sing “Hey Good Lookin'.” Recently, Katey and I revisited Odessa as I had not been there since my family left in December 1967.
Odessa grew tremendously after the discovery of the Permian oil basin. Significant growth was seen from 1930 through the 1950s, then again in the 1970s and most recently in the past 10 years due to the oil industry. The current population is estimated to exceed 150,000. A book published in 1990, “Friday Night Lights,” highlighted one of the two high school football teams during the 1988 run toward a state championship. This was followed by a movie of the same name in 2004.
When I was around 5 years old, I remember accompanying my mother to a recording studio owned and operated by Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame inductee Tommy Allsup. Tommy was originally from Owasso and had recorded and toured with Buddy Holly, losing a coin toss to Ritchie Valens to get on the ill-fated flight out of Clear Lake, Iowa, in 1959. I recall being encouraged to go outside with Tommy’s young daughter, Robin, so as we would not disturb the recording process.
My mother had recorded a number of singles under the Champion and Westex labels with Tommy producing and performing. I recently obtained the 1/4-inch tape of a version of Hank’s “Honky Tonkin” that is currently being digitized. Another recording of hers that resides on tape only is a David Gates (also OMHOF inductee) produced song called “Old Fashion Christmas” that I hope to digitize, also.
Tommy also worked with Roy Orbison and Willie Nelson on recording projects in his Odessa studio. During a visit to Muskogee a few years back, Tommy recounted his most successful recording project in Odessa was not necessarily his favorite. Zager & Evans worked the Ramada Inn circuit back in the 1960s and recorded the Pop hit “In The Year 2525” in Tommy’s studio. The duo spent six weeks at the top of the charts with the single, their only Top 100 hit. Ironically, it was #1 when Apollo 11 landed on the moon, eventually toppled by The Rolling Stones “Honky Tonk Women.”
In late 1958, Tommy was booked regularly in Odessa with a young drummer, Carl Bunch. Buddy Holly came to see him perform in late December, persuading Tommy and Carl to join him for the “Winter Dance Party” tour that was to begin in January 1959. Buddy really needed Tommy to join him for this tour as he had already convinced a young DJ in Lubbock to play bass, even though he had never played bass guitar. The DJ, Waylon Jennings, relied on Tommy throughout that tour to coach him as they backed all acts on that tour.
After Tommy’s death in 2017, I posted a photo my father had taken of my mother and Tommy performing at a homecoming dance near Odessa. Tommy wore a red sport coat, and his Fender Stratocaster had been painted to match his jacket, a normal occurrence, especially if you played Las Vegas as much as Tommy did. I soon received a call from Larry Shaeffer asking about the guitar. Larry and his son, Jake, eventually tracked down the guitar and learned that it was the guitar used by Tommy on the Winter Dance Party Tour with Buddy. The guitar and picture can be seen on occasional display at Guitar House in Tulsa.
Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers were also notable Odessa residents in their adolescent years with Larry quarterbacking the Odessa High School football team in 1964. Larry and his brothers even beat out Roy Orbison in a local talent show in Odessa. Roy Orbison spent considerable time in Odessa, attending Odessa Junior College and performing regularly on local TV. While in Odessa, Roy saw performances by Elvis and Johnny Cash, inspiring him to pursue a record deal with Sam Phillips at Sun Records.
The last year we lived in Odessa, I spent many hours listening to records by The Monkees, Herman’s Hermits, and The Beatles. Revisiting after 50 years was nice and seeing the growth and boom was interesting, but it was also nice returning to the comfort of Muskogee.