Train to Nowhere
"Train to Nowhere" by Dave Dupree was the aptly named single released by Challenge Records on January 15, 1958. Newly founded by Gene Autrey, "The Singing Cowboy" of Hollywood fame, the Los Angeles
based label was looking to land its first hit record. The single itself was on the road to "nowhere" until something highly unlikely happeneda disc jockey in Cleveland
, Ohio listened to the flip side of a single by an unknown artist on an obscure new label. He liked what he heard and put the B-side in rotation, and by March 28, 1958 it was the #1 song on the Billboard Charts. That flip side, as you've probably guessed from the title of this piece, was "Tequila," one of the best selling instrumental singles in music historya song eventually covered by the likes of Dizzy Gillespie
, Wes Montgomery
, David Sanborn
, and Larry Carlton
"Tequila" had been hastily recorded by the session musicians who were in the studio for Dupree's "Train to Nowhere." There was no band at that point, they had simply needed to fill the other side of Dupree's disc. The idea for the song came from the saxophonist Danny Flores and it was quickly worked out in the studio. The drummer and guitarist from his trio were also part of the session. Because Flores was under contract with another label, he used the pseudonym Chuck Rio for the B-side song credits. Dave Dupree was a stage name, the actual name of the artist on "Train to Nowhere" was Dave Burgess. He was under contract with Challenge and suddenly he and his new label had a hit on their hands and needed a band to hit the road.
A touring band, the Champs, was organized around Dave Burgess on rhythm guitar, Chuck Rio on saxophone, and the original drummer from the sessions. A new bassist and lead guitarist were hired and by April the band was in the studio recording enough material for an album. After that they embarked on a bitter end tour. Weeks later, May 3, 1958, they actually played "Tequila" live on Dick Clark's Saturday Night Beechnut Show. Dick Clark displayed their Gold Record for selling a million copies, and they rocked the house. Behind the scenes things did not go well and this born-out-of-necessity band quickly imploded following angry clashes between Dave Burgess and Chuck Rio. The following month, Chuck Rio and his drummer, Gene Alden, abruptly quit the band and left the tour. In a panic Dave Burgess desperately sought a replacement saxophonist and drummer. At this point, the already unlikely story gets even more improbable when two Texas teenagers enter the picture.
Teens to the Rescue
I've never been to Rankin, Texas, hometown of Jimmy Seals, who became the Champ's saxophonist in 1958 at 16, but I have taken a virtual tour via Google maps. The landscape is barren, you pass the city limits sign with its population of 778 people and in the distance you see a few buildings lining the roadmaybe a bar & grill and a general store? Once you arrive "downtown" no such luck, there are some weathered old structures and a nondescript oilfield supply store. It was in fact the promise of work in the oil fields that initially lured Jimmy Seals' grandfather away from the Big Sandy in Tennessee to Texas in 1919.
Jimmy Seals shared this with the Los Angeles Times in an article dated Oct. 26, 1991: "When I was a kid, we didn't have a whole lot aroundwe had to send off for our clothes in the mailso we'd play music for entertainment, and Texas is a strange country. You can't really put your finger on it, but it allows you to grow up using your imagination. I think any kind of isolation causes you to want to do something. You sit there and wonder what it's like on the other side of the world."
Fred Seals brought his banjo with him from Tennessee, and when he wasn't working, making music on the front porch was about the only game in town. His son Wayland (Eugene Wayland) was six years old when the family arrived in Texas, and he quickly absorbed everything his father could teach him about music. Wayland also went to work in the oil fields, played guitar on the porch, and eventually fronted a '50s rockabilly band called Wayland Seals and the Oil Patch Boys. You can search YouTube and hear a few of their singles. Initially I listened to them as curiosities, but they are full of raw energy and capture the spirit of the area and the era. Wayland had three sons who, like himself, were taught music on the front porch by their father and his father. Following in Wayland's footsteps they took their music to the next level.
In 1983 an intrepid reporter from the Galveston Daily News drove to West Texas to interview Wayland for an article that appeared in the Sunday edition on January 1, 1984. Why? Wayland Seals is the father of two major recording artists, Jimmy Seals, half of the legendary '70s duo Seals & Crofts, and Dan Seals. Dan, under the name England Dan, was part of a moderately successful pop duo, and later under his own name he was a highly successful Country artistwith eleven #1 hit singles.
Wayland at the time of the interview was 71 years of age, and told the reporter he still loves to play his Gibson flat top guitar, but his arthritis made fretting difficult, saying, "I'm not near as slick as I used to be. But it's like riding a bicycle. You always remember how to stay on the thing, once you learn, but as you get older you just can't pedal as fast."
Jimmy and Dan's older half-brother was a real estate investor who did not pursue a career in music, but he was also musically gifted. In Wayland's words, "That oldest boy of mine, Eddie Ray, he can flat play a guitar. He's always done his own show, up in Dallas
, out in Las Vegas
or now in Nashville
. I had an old Gibson guitar with red rosewood sides and a yellow sunburst top. My daddy gave it to me in the 30s. I wore it out, had it fixed and wore it out again and had it fixed again. Then I gave it to Eddie Ray. He still has it, and he still plays it, too."
They played anything they could get their hands on. Jimmy started out on guitar at the age of four. They bought him a fiddle from the Sears & Roebuck catalogue and by the age of nine he had taught himself to play and won the Texas State Fiddle Championship. Jimmy Seals and Dash Crofts met in junior high school, and Dash became part of the Seals family music circle. Dash was the son of a Texas rancher, a dapper gentleman named Sutton Crofts. Dash, he's actually named Darrell, grew up in Cisco, Texas, a small town, but probably five times the size of Jimmy's hometown. He has a twin sister, Dot, short for Dorothy, thus they became Dash and Dot. In the 1950s Dash appeared with the Seals family on local television as recounted by Wayland:
"Back then, the youngest, Danny, used to play a big ol' bull fiddle with the rest of us. We all played on a television show one time in the '50s and people in the audience got the biggest kick out of watching Danny. He was so little that he'd have to jump clean off his feet to reach some of them low notes way up on that fiddle neck. He was only 4 or 5 years old then."
When you think of the barren isolation of their hometown, it's easy to imagine that the Seals household must have been the place to be in Rankin, Texas. That is reflected in these lines Jimmy Seals penned for the song, "29 Years from Texas": "Come a long, long way from Rankin, Texas
And the days when Dash and my daddy played
People would come from miles around
Bring the food and just stay and stay"
"And every time I think of the days gone by I can't help but feelin' a little sad
'Cause I think of all the years and miles and the tears
And I hear the voice of my granddad"
"Good country picking going down every night
Good clean living underneath the starry skies
I'm 29 years from Rankin, Texas
But I really haven't gone anywhere at all"
Eventually after guitar and the fiddle, Jimmy Seals added another important tool to his musical toolbox when he taught himself tenor saxophone. By the time he was 15 he had already recorded a single on sax, "Sneaky Pete" released by a regional label operated out of Slim Willet's garage. Willet was a radio personality in Central and West Texas, a singer, and an all around music impresario and entrepreneur. He also happened to manage a band, fronted by a pianist, that included young Dash Crofts on drums and Jimmy Seals on saxophone.
You'll recall, Dave Burgess of the Champs was desperately looking for a replacement saxophonist and drummer. He spoke to a friend who reached out to Slim Willet, who then sent him a copy of Jimmy Seals' "Sneaky Pete" single. After Burgess heard "Sneaky Pete" he let Slim Willet know he wanted Jimmy Seals and Dash Crofts to join the tour. Long story short, it clicked extremely well, they finished the tour and were then invited to join the band.
Wayland was reluctant to let his 16 year old son leave home and move to California. Based on Wayland's interview it appears Slim Willet played the Gene Autrey card, giving Wayland the impression it was the legendary star and label owner himself who wanted Jimmy in the Champs. Also of note, the following year an unknown guitarist from Arkansas joined the Champs, it was none other than Glen Campbell. He would of course go on to be a legendary session guitarist, star of his own television variety hour, movie actor, and platinum recording artist.
A January 19, 1976 People Magazine profile of Seals & Crofts gave this impression of how their situation changed during their time with the Champs: "Money poured in, and soon there were flashy mohair suits, fleets of two-and four-wheel vehicles, reckless races and motel-room brawls. When shirts got dirty, they were simply replaced, not washed." According to the official Seals & Crofts website they were earning between $500 to $600 a week in 1960. A 1960 dollar is worth 8.55 dollars in 2019thus Jimmy and Dash, 19 and 20 respectively, were making between $4,275 and $5,130 a week in today's money.
In 1962, Dash was drafted into the Army and returned to the Champs in 1964. By the following year the British invasion was in full swing with the Beatles, Stones, Kinks, the Who, Yardbirds a couple of dozen other groups dominating the American charts. The Champs and their management saw the writing on the wall and the band came to an official end in 1965. It's hard to imagine, but Seals & Crofts, thought to be so mellow, actually came to blows when the Champs ended. In an interview with Tony Bentivegna, who operates the Seals and Crofts website, Dash Crofts shared this about the demise of the Champs: