I recently returned to the American South after a 34 year-long weekend in sunny California, and while record buying didn’t factor into that decision the idea of fresh crates of vinyl to dig through certainly excited me.
While freeways across the country are cluttered with one homogenized eyesore of franchise names–McDonald’s, Olive Garden, etc.–and both television and the internet flatten the world into a single generic something, physical objects like records tend to pool where they were originally purchased. Living close to San Francisco provided ample access to old psych, freak out, acid rock, and jazz albums, for example. Sure, you can pick up Fugs albums and Dead bootlegs online anytime you want, but finding them in the wild is what makes record collecting fun.
So I moved back south with great hopes of finding country, gospel, blues, and R&B records that have been collecting dust in forgotten corners of musty closets. Heck, I’d be happy with a little obscure southern rock. The crate digging here is slow–lots of the same easy listening that plagues every charity shop, and more Jimmy Swaggart records than you can shake a crucifix at–but with patience comes the occasional reward.
Take Big Red Fletcher’s Oh Boy!!, for example, found tucked between 101 Strings and Perry Como in an antique mall in Montgomery, Alabama, and purchased entirely for that glorious amusement park caricature album cover. Lee Caron? Big Red Fletcher? Never heard of them, nor have I ever heard of the Carnival Club in Cocoa Beach, Florida, and not much makes me happier than mysteries spinning at 33 and a third.
Turns out that Lee Caron’s Carnival Club was a pretty jumping spot in the ’60s and ’70s, attracting artists like Jerry Lee Lewis and patrons like the original NASA astronauts thanks to its proximity to Cape Kennedy/Canaveral. A huge fiberglass elephant nicknamed Pinky served as navigational aid for motorists in the pre-GPS era–the kind of roadside attraction that was easy to spot from the highway. Pictured here with Pinky are Lee Caron, Red Fletcher, and actress Barbara Eden.
Inside the club was tablecloth and curtained stage dinner theater chic, and that’s where Big Red’s blend of music and comedy entertained tourists, literal rocket scientists, and the aforementioned astronauts. During the first half of the ’70s club owner Caron also served as Cocoa Beach’s mayor, so let’s assume that local dignitaries gathered at the Carnival Club, too. That late ’60s/early ’70s blend of country and comedy was commercially quite successful–think Hee Haw–so I imagine Red drew quite a crowd on a Friday night.
Unfortunately, country comedy pigeonholed some really great musicians as corny hicks–keep thinking Hee Haw. But looks, particularly in country comedy, can be deceiving: Roy Clark and Jim Stafford were brilliant instrumentalists, for example, and Buck Owens, Jerry Reed, and Hoyt Axton were equally brilliant songwriters. And that’s the mistake I made judging Big Red by his album cover. I fired up the turntable and settled in for two sides of mocking superiority that immediately seemed vindicated courtesy of the hayseed “I’m taking my motorsickle to Nashville to record me an album” opening bit (with book-ended closing bit on side two), but much like tuning into Hee Haw I dropped my smug quickly when I realized how much I was enjoying myself. Red’s tenor is strong and the band backing him tight. Tracks range from novelty (“Harvey Harrington IV-The Roach”) to jazzy (“South”) to absolutely killer, like his cover of the Tony Joe White classic “Rainy Night In Georgia.”
Unfortunately, Red never made it to the big time. Oh Boy!! appears to be his only album, and it was not distributed by a major (or even a minor) record label. My guess is that a couple of thousand copies at most were printed to sell after gigs, so who knows? Maybe that awesome album cover actually was drawn by an amusement park caricaturist. I’d love to hear from friends, fans, family, and old bandmates of Big Red who can fill in some details.
This one regularly trades online in the $35-40 range, but I suspect there are quite a few copies lurking in central Florida charity shops for a buck or two. (Note: I’m not suggesting that you follow my example and move to the South in hopes of finding cool records like Oh Boy!! In fact, it would be better for me if you stayed where you are–less competition.)
Categories: From the Stacks