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Riley Walker, Uranium Minstrel (redux)

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Riley Walker and His Rockin-R-Rangers – “Uranium Miner’s Boogie” (1954)

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About a year ago I posted this rare specimen by Riley Walker and His Rockin-R-Rangers – a fine slice of proto-rock ‘n’ roll that I’d gotten my hands on thanks to New Mexico record collector Jerry Richards. Here’s what I wrote at the time:

It was appropriately released on the Atomic label and recorded at Recording Arts, Inc. in Salt Lake City, the “Wall Street of Uranium Stocks” (RAI is no longer with us but until 1944 was run by future LDS church president Gordon B. Hinckley). It’s a great example of a record that spoke directly to its home region, which was Utah and the four corners area, and didn’t circulate much beyond that. It’s also high grade western swing-cum-early rockabilly featuring some of the sassiest of steel guitar riffage.

If you’re familiar with the Southeastern Utah area, you’ll catch the references to Grand and San Juan counties, which were true hotbeds of the post-WWII uranium mining industry, as well as Cottonwood, the southern canyon area near the Grand Staircase (not to be confused with Big or Little Cottonwood canyons, although they’d also work fine in a uranium mining context). And if you’re well-versed in atomic industry history, you’ll recognize acronymic nods to the Vanadium Corporation of America, the U.S. Vanadium Corporation, and the Atomic Energy Commission.

Richards found his own copies of the record in Helper, Utah, which makes perfect sense, as he puts it, “because Helper was, and still is, a mining town.” The record came out as a 78 and a 45, with the 45 version pressed in blue vinyl. Both came packaged in what Richards refers to as “brown paper bag sleeves.”

There’s still quite a bit of homework to be done regarding virtually everything else about this record and the folks who made it happen. The year, for example – I’ve seen it listed as anywhere between 1954 and 1957. The relaxed mastery of the musical idiom along with the casual appearance of “rockin” in the group’s name makes me assume it’s post-1956, but I’d absolutely love it if I were wrong. For now, though, strap on your rock ’n’ roll geiger counters and watch those needles fly.

Well, folks, I was a bit off base. After having an email conversation with Jerry Walker (Riley’s younger brother) and digging up a January 1989 article by Peter Vogel in New Mexico magazine called “Uranium Miners Have a Blast,” I can report that the record indeed came out in 1954. My feeble conjecture that such a relaxed-sounding record from Southern Utah by a group called “Rockin” anything likely couldn’t have pre-dated ’56 was El Wrongo, and I was pretty excited to find this out.

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Charles Gallagher (l) and Riley Walker (r)

“Uranium Miner’s Boogie,” in fact, is an authentic relic from those pre-RCA Elvis years of country/R&B cross-pollination (1944-55, say) when “rock” wasn’t so much a genre as it was a descriptive term that hip musicians even as far afield as the four corners area nonetheless flung around fast and loose. Thank heaven Vogel – who was conducting an oral history of the area’s uranium mining industry at the time he wrote this article – was able to track down Walker (a uranium mining veteran who was driving ore trucks in Blanding, Utah, when he made the record) and to get so many choice quotes from the man before he passed away in 2001. Like this one:

Country music took a nosedive after Elvis and we got caught right in the midst of that. Only the strong performers like Eddy Arnold and Chet Atkins and Marty Robbins survived – and Merle [Haggard] who was coming up at that time. Red Foley and Patsy Cline hung on, so did Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash, but it was tough for the up-and-coming, like the Rockin-R-Rangers.

Yes, one of the unfortunate aspects of the King’s ascendance is that he repelled and frightened the established country music industry to such a degree that certain barricades dividing the country genre from youth-oriented influences went up, and by ’61, the likes of Elvis, the Everlys, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins no longer graced the Billboard country charts for the rest of the decade. (Sounds a tad conspiratorial, I know, but grab a copy of Whitburn’s Top Country Hits and see for yourself.) What I’m getting from Walker, surely the hippest uranium miner ever, is that country used to be a lot more fun before it became “country-as-opposed-to-rock-and-roll.”

More revelations from Vogel: Atomic Records, incidentally, was Walker’s own label, and, as Vogel puts it, the label is “the exact yellow that gives refined uranium ore its name: yellowcake.” He distributed copies of the record to stores (where it sold for 98 cents) and jukeboxes all over the region. And its topicality and easy appeal had kept it in regular rotation in some of these jukeboxes for decades. Walker formed the band in 1947 (the same year, incidentally, that Hank Williams’s “Move it On Over,” came out, which “Uranium Miner’s Boogie” will remind some listeners of), and it featured Walker’s sister Belva on piano, a brother-in-law (not Belva’s husband) named Charles Gallagher on steel guitar, and a bassist named Gordon Hawkins.

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photo courtesy of Jerry Richards

The Rockin-R-Rangers played frequently all over the region, including a dance hall Walker ran himself for awhile in Cortez, Colorado (a town in which he’d also been working as a part time disc jockey for local station KVFC). He called it the Rockin R Rancho, and booked artists like Jim Reeves, Billy Walker, T. Texas Tyler, and apparently Elvis himself who, according to Vogel, was opening up for Tyler at the time. I had no idea that Mr. Presley had ever toured with Mr. “Deck of Cards” and none of my web searching or page flipping has borne this out. (Any Elvisologists care to step forward?)

Walker quit the music business for good when the band split up in ’58, and he drove trucks until ’84. But thanks to this record and the efforts of Vogel, we can safely add Riley Walker and His Rockin-R-Rangers to the very small list of real-deal rock ‘n’ roll pioneers from the Utah and four corners region. And to drive the point home, may I suggest playing the record again and listening while reading the following this choice passage from Vogel’s article:

But it was out at the old rustic Buckhorn Club [in Cortez] in the west end of town where things got really lively. There was at least one fight every night and sometimes there would be as many as 20 or 30 people fighting on the dance floor, regardless of the season of the year.

It would be a regular knock-down, drag-out brawl because one guy who would be drinking wouldn’t like the way somebody else would be holding his wife or his girl and that would start the fight. Then friends on both sides of the dispute would jump in and you couldn’t any longer tell who was on which side. “There were too many fists flyin’ around to get very close,” Walker recalls. All the women would get back out of the way and watch the fight sitting at the tables or they would run into the restroom. “But we’d just keep on playin’ and sometimes we might have had to sidestep in case they started fallin’ our way, but generally they left us alone since we weren’t involved. Then the management would call the police and wait awhile.

“Men were more quarrelsome in those days and liked a fight and there weren’t any regular police assigned to the Buckhorn Club, which was known locally as ‘The Bucket of Blood.’ But when the call finally went up that the police were pullin’ in, the men fighting on the floor would all disappear pretty fast so as not to be arrested and taken to jail and the police would arrest whoever was lying out on the floor knocked out.”

As for the present, Riley, Belva, Charles, and Gordon have definitely knocked me out.

posted by Kim Simpson

 

 

14 Responses to “Riley Walker, Uranium Minstrel (redux)”

  1. rachel Says:

    Hi, great site you’ve got here! I was looking for stuff on The Turtles’ Howard Kaylan and your post from Jan. 2007 came up in a search, in which you discussed the song “Outside Chance” and Kaylan as a singer. It only showed the first sentence of your post, and I came here to read the rest of it but the post seems to have disappeared. It sounded interesting- do you still have it anywhere, or do you remember what you wrote? Thanks.

  2. Kim Says:

    Hi Rachel – Sorry, but that little blurb was all I wrote at the time… What a great song, though. These days you can see the video where they’re doing it on the Lloyd Thaxton show here: http://vodpod.com/watch/1346678-turtles-outside-chance
    k

  3. Kim Says:

    And here’s that blurb in full: “This is my favorite Turtles song and like so many great songs of theirs it never appeared on a proper album. Their catalog’s a little tricky to negotiate because there are about as many Turtles post-breakup records filled with unreleased outtakes as there are official ones. Howard Kaylan, the lead singer, reminds me vaguely of the mid-sixties Wayne Newton.” And yes, the blurb begs for a bit of elaboration. HK’s appearance in this video reminds me of how WN used to look back then, but I don’t think his voice is especially similar…

  4. jerry richards Says:

    hi kim, great story about riley walker & the rockin r rangers. 1954-huh? i always thought this record was very early in the chronicles of RAB because i had found both 78s & 45s of it. cortez isn’t that far from where i live, if i have time when i go thru there to go fishing on the green river i’l stop & see if they have a museum or something where there might be a picture of the buckhorn club.— best –jerry

  5. Kim Says:

    Thanks, Jerry. Let me know what you find out so I can have a little sight seeing tour ready for myself next time I zip through… k

  6. Boneyard Media » Blog Archive » Riley Walker and His Rockin-R-Rangers - “Uranium Miner’s Boogie” (c. 195?) Says:

    […] [See an updated entry about “Uranium Miner’s Boogie” here.] […]

  7. Boneyard Media » Blog Archive » Photo of Riley Walker, circa 1994 Says:

    […] photograph of Riley Walker, taken at Walker’s Arizona home 40 years after the release of “Uranium Miner’s […]

  8. sandra742 Says:

    Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

  9. jerry richards Says:

    hi kim, great info on this record which has been a fav of mine since i obtained the first copy of it in the early 80s. it’s very interesting about the yellow color of the label, how about the unusual blue color used for the lettering? was it used to simulate the power of the a-bomb? another thought i had was the 45 doesn’t look 1954, it looks 1957 or 1958 to me. could it have been repressed as a 45 several years later than the 78 came out due to like riley said “it’s continuing popularity”? Kim, if you ever make it over this way stop by & we’ll spin some very rare RAB 45s. best —jerry

  10. Shinshyna & Sam Says:

    This is My (sam) uncle riley thank you so much for your article reading it brought back many happy memories of him playing at the family reunions and in my grandparents home…thank you!

  11. Gary Dygert Says:

    Is there any way I could get a copy of the words to the Uranium Miner’s Boogie? I can’t make out all the words on the recording.

  12. Kim Says:

    Hi Gary,
    My pleasure:

    Way out in the state of Utah in Wayne county and San Juan
    They dig the yellow stuff that makes the atom bomb

    (ch) They do the uranium miners boogie
    The uranium miners boogie
    It’s the uranium miner’s boogie
    They dig diggin’ all day long

    Well every morning ‘bout a half past five
    You can see the little town start to come alive

    They jump right out of bed just like they thought they should
    They grab a lunch and head for Cottonwood

    Well every spring when things grow slack
    They grab a Geiger counter, slap it to their back

    Well there’s the VCA and the USV
    And don’t forget the AEC

    Note:
    VNA (Vanadium Corporation of America)
    USV (United States Vanadium)
    AEC (Atomic Energy Commission)

    Kim

  13. JoLeene Gallagher Says:

    I know this article came out years ago, but I want to thank you for keeping the Rockin’ R Rangers alive in written history. I love being able to show my daughter a bit of her family history. My Grandfather was Charles Gallagher. I remember hearing Uncle Riley singin’ at family reunions and you couldn’t help but smile or dance. My fondest memory is walking into the house hearing Grandpa Charles playing his yellow three level steel guitar, the guitar was beautiful, I was heart broken when he traded it for a smaller one and some cash. Wish I would have gotten my hands on the original red square demo record my Grandpa had for this record, never saw a square record before nor after, it was way cool looking! But, I joined the Air Force in 1995, Grandpa died the day after I left for Basic Training and all that stuff was gone by the time I was done with my training. Ironically I spent the first 5 years in the Air Force working on Nuclear Weapons. Our family must have been attracted to Nukes! 🙂 Oh and the picture you have posted is the only one I have seen of my Grandpa Charles with hair! Thank You Again! Your work really does make a difference & is appreciated, more than you know! JoLeene

  14. Kim Says:

    JoLeene, thank you so much for posting these memories and adding so much color to this story. It’s too bad that the material memorabilia you saw first hand is gone, but luckily we still have the great music and actual memories of people like you. (We have Peter Vogel to thank for that photo…) Thanks again and all best to you!

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