Wednesday, April 09, 2014

ILL-USTRATED SONGS #30 JOHNNY RUSSELL : THE OBSCENE PHONE CALL

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Legend has it that Johnny Russell's "Obscene Phone Call" single got stalled just inside the Top 100 because…a lot of radio station managers found it obscene. Sad…because while this IS a very creepy single, it does have a typical twist C&W ending. But how many disc jockeys would dare play it, with people turning off their radios and making angry phone calls after the first minute?

In a way, the fate of "The Obscene Phone Call" was typical of Johnny Russell's career...his best stuff either didn't chart, or became a hit for somebody else. Or...he was handed a song that he thought had hit potential...and somebody else's cover became the chartbuster.

Mississippi-born, California-bred John Russell (perhaps "Johnny" was a way to avoid any confusion with "The Lawman" actor John Russell) had his first taste of success in 1960. Only 20 years old (January 23, 1940 – July 3, 2001) his song "In a Mansion Stands My Love" was the B-side to Jim Reeves country smash, "He'll Have to Go." A few years later, and a Russell song did go to the top of the charts: "Act Naturally." Some know it via Ringo (1965) others via Buck (1963). Russell's song "Let's Fall to Pieces Together" was a hit for George Strait.

On his own as a singer, Johnny Russell, like most everyone it seems, was signed to RCA by the legendary Chet Atkins. But Chet couldn't make him a star, not with "Mr. and Mrs. Untrue" or "What a Price," although both received some good radio play. Johnny eventually had a few Top 20 singles: Catfish John" (1972), "Rednecks, White Socks and Blue Ribbon Beer" (1973), and "Hello I Love You" (1975). He made the Top 30 in 1978 via "You'll Be Back (Every Night In My Dreams)." That song was more of a hit via the Statler Brothers. In 1980, he was the first to record "He Stopped Loving Her Today," but it was the revised version, sung by the great George Jones, that became one of the all-time classics.

To some inane drones, "did not chart" means failure. Not so. The rotund Mr. Russell had loyal fans who bought his albums, and record labels that saw his potential and kept him on even if a single "did not chart." Aside from selling thousands and thousands of records, Russell was a great favorite in live concert, and was a regular at the Grand Ole Opry. He dabbled in comedy and teamed with Little David Wilkins in 1987 for the single "Butterbeans." The old-timer often worked as an MC at the Opry. One of his favorite gigs was an annual performance at the MS Delta Community College Coliseum, in Moorhead, Mississippi. He played there from 1987 to an unlucky 13th performance in 2000.

By that time, the hefty performer's health had deteriorated thanks to his diet of artery-clogging food, and a benefit concert had to be held for him, headlined by Garth Brooks and Vince Gill. The following year, Russell's legs were amputated due to diabetes. He died less than four months after the operation. As obscene as Southern cooking can be, and it's been lethal to many besides Johnny Russell…he lives on in his recorded legacy, and even in this "obscene" but memorable novelty tune…

Johnny Russell Obscene Phone Call

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