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Rock/Pop

The Clix Records story

New retrospectives unearth some hidden gems from the early days of Detroit rock 'n' roll

Hugh Friar (right) and the Virginia Vagabonds.
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Published 9/10/2008

Hidden next to I-75 in Troy, just south of the Big Beaver Road exit, they sit, surrounded by strip malls, corporate high-rises and recently constructed apartment complexes. What we're looking at is a smattering of old farmhouses — some still heated by oil furnaces and kerosene heaters — on a two-block stretch of dirt and gravel road accessible only through an abutting parking lot.

Standing in stark opposition to its recently overly developed surroundings, one has the eerie feeling that this rural enclave won't be here much longer. But even after the last old homestead has been mercilessly uprooted and the final skyscraper is finished — indeed after even it meets its bitter end — one aspect of Troy's countrified past will remain, and that is its status as the hometown of Clix Records, one of the most elusive, seamless and sought-after imprints in all of early rock 'n' roll. Those now-ancient abodes once housed the early Michigan label.

"It was out in the sticks back then," says Hugh Friar, one of the label's artists whose Clix debut, "I Can't Stay Mad At You," has made the rounds on bootleg rock 'n' roll compilations for years. Now, along with 30 similarly scintillating tracks that are unique and varied, Friar's cult classic helps make up the Clix Records Story — recently released on the Pulstar label — an aural snapshot that runs the gamut from primitive bluegrass boppers to raunchy garage instrumentals, all spiked with a heavy dose of striking, homemade originality.

From Ray Taylor's bluesy, backwoodsy "My Hamtramck Baby" (which made this paper's list of Detroit's 100 Greatest Songs Ever last winter) clear through Johnny Guitar & his Rhythmaires' "Zaragoza," the CD tells a fascinating musical story, as does another recent release aimed at fans of early Detroit rock 'n' roll — Jimmy Kirkland's Cool Daddy (Rollercoaster). In execution, the two discs are polar opposites: Kirkland's compilation features an 18-page booklet with detailed liner notes and stunning photographs, while the Clix collection takes a much simpler approach. Aside from an impressive smattering of label scans inside its fold-over booklet, the mysteries of this music remain in the grooves.

Kirkland — who cut the infectious 1958 rocker "I Wonder If You Wonder" at the same session on which he contributed his high-octane lead guitar to Johnny Powers' "Mean Mistreater" (both were released by the local Fox imprint) — only released one record under his own name. But the 29-track Cool Daddy, comprising mostly his unreleased acetates, as well as many records that he played on, definitively proves that it should have been otherwise.

"I thought I was gonna set the world on fire," Kirkland says wryly to Motor City music historian Craig Maki in the hilariously candid liner notes. "But I didn't strike a spark. And that's the way things went — from then on."

That is, unless you count his time spent in Friar's band, the Virginia Vagabonds. Clix founder John Henson caught the Vagabonds in a local honky-tonk and invited them to record for his fledgling label. The studio was then still a bedroom in his house, recalls the 81-year old Friar, who describes the origins of "that shaky guitar lead" which can be found on "I Can't Stay Mad At You," one of the Clix compilation's seminal tracks. "Jim Kirkland and Dave Morgan played twin leads on that song, and Jim had a Voice of Music tape recorder he hooked his guitar into to get the sound. I'm not bragging or anything, but we had quite a following back then and Jim was a very fine musician. We must have recorded that song three or four times, and would you believe they released the wrong take?"

Nevertheless, serendipity was smiling on Friar that day: Kirkland's echo-drenched solo practically explodes from the speakers — as does his lead on the flip "Empty Arms" and both sides of Friar's follow-up disc — capturing a time when country and rock 'n' roll were colliding head on. Like labelmates Ford Nix, Swanee Caldwell and Palford Brady, Friar and his band stood at a musical crossroads, sounding as if they could jump any which way at any given moment.

Then there was Jimmy Lee, whose weirdly ethereal falsetto framed the very first Clix release, "She's Gone" b/w "Baby, Baby, Baby." Forecasting the genre-busting future of the imprint, Lee struck a mood both sophisticated and primal, his earthy vocals backed by modern jazz piano runs, jumping horns, jiving backing vocals and — so as to not to get too "uptown" — a primal electric guitar.

With just one other foray into rock 'n' roll — the haunting hill-jack blues "You Ain't No Good For Me," which he waxed for Detroit's Fortune label in 1956 — Lee returned to his given name of Jimmy Williams for a fruitful career in bluegrass gospel and the ministry ... but not before introducing a few of his acquaintances to Henson's bare-bones Clix recording company.

"I knew Jimmy and he got me involved with Clix," says fellow bluegrass picker Ford Nix. "We recorded right in John's living room, had a big old fire goin' and you can hear that fire a-clickin' on the record! But it didn't do much damage to the song. He just had a little tape recorder, but they didn't cut it right; we didn't have the right band with us. We called 'em the Moonshiners. They was just a bunch of old boys from up here that helped me do that. I even played the guitar on that song 'cause I couldn't find a guitar-picker!"

One listen to Nix's phenomenal debut — "Ain't No Sign I Wouldn't If I Could" b/w "Nine Times Out of Ten" — proves that maybe not having the right band was precisely what made the songs so magical.

"That was a part of it," Nix concedes with a smile.

Like Detroit's aforementioned Fortune label, where at least four Clix artists also recorded (including Friar and Nix), the thread of "anything-goes" electricity reverberates throughout the imprint's entire discography.

Ray Taylor, for instance, specialized in a kind of blues-tinged bluegrass on tunes like "Clocking My Card" and "I'll Never Let You Worry My Mind Anymore," both of which feature superb banjo playing from Nix. But when it came time to wax his true swan songs — "My Hamtramck Baby" and "Connie Lou" — Taylor dispensed with any semblance of a formal string band, stripping the proceedings down to the rawest core. While his teenage son Dolphus bashed away at a primitive drum kit, guitarist Chuck Reeves wrenched gnarled leads from his instrument. Over it all, Taylor strummed powerhouse rhythm in time with his hollering vocals.

Echoing most small-label bluegrass of the time, Curly Dan and Wilma Ann and Gene Stump and Bill Swain also recorded some fine original songs for the label, and it's great to hear rockin' country rarities like Swanee Caldwell's double-sided masterpiece "Thrill Happy" and "Mixed-Up Heart." Although he'd go on to record for bigger concerns like King (as did label mate Palford Brady), Caldwell's Clix sides remain among his finest.

The real mysteries surface with unidentifiable instrumental groups like the blasting, R&B-flavored Stan "D" Rockets & the Flamethrowers, who were rumored to be a group of Hamtramck firefighters stricken with the then fledgling Link Wray sound. Fans of down 'n' dirty guitar instrumentals will also dig the aptly monikered Johnny Guitar & his Rhythmaires, one of the last groups Henson recorded for Clix.

Clix records rarely got airplay, recalls Nix, with the exception of WEXL in Royal Oak. But like so much Detroit music — including Kirkland's — their undiluted honesty makes them invaluable to this day.

"People need to know about all this," says Nix, "because that was the backbone of our country — the kind of music we played."

Special thanks to Keith Cady.

Michael Hurtt writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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