The Unjustly-Overlooked Bullet Records

John Morthland

By John Morthland

on 08.29.12 in Spotlights

Bullet Records of Nashville doesn’t turn up often in discussions of significant postwar independent labels. But it should. Co-founded in 1946 by former radio announcer Jim Bulliet, it was the first indie of consequence to emerge from what would eventually be known as Music City USA, and its catalog was diverse; in fact, its only two national hits were pop: Francis Craig’s 1947 “Near You,” which topped the charts for 17 weeks on the way to becoming the biggest seller of the year for any label, and the local pianist/orchestra leader’s follow-up “Beg Your Pardon,” which reached No. 3. Given Nashville’s current status, Bullet is remembered today mainly as a country label, recognized for releasing the first sides by Ray Price (as well as Chet Atkins, Minnie Pearl and others known mainly to country fans) and writer Leon Payne’s original version of “Lost Highway,” which became a Hank Williams signature song.

The reason Bullet is so often overlooked is that when the label was shut down in 1952 – Bulliet himself had been forced out by his partners three years earlier – the masters were destroyed. Or so it was always said. And because Bullet was thus left out of the initial reissue rampage when CDs replaced vinyl, the label grew obscure. Until now. Some of the tracks on the Bullet reissues that have become available are clearly taken off the original vinyl 78s, suggesting the masters were not available; but others sound so clean that they could easily come from the masters. Perhaps it’s enough to note that such albums as The Bullet Records Story: The First Americana Label, Bullet Records: Jump, Blues and Ballads, Bullet Records Blues and The Bullet and Sur-Speed Records Story now exist, and that’s what really matters.

Where there were recording studios there were blues and R&B scenes, and Nashville was no exception. Bullet also released B.B. King’s first four sides, early efforts by Guitar Slim (recording under his real name of Eddie Jones) before he made history with “The Things That I Used to Do” and by Wynonie Harris before he made his name as Mr. Blues, some first-rate Cecil Gant, and random sides by big names like Roosevelt Sykes and Willie Dixon’s Big Three Trio, cult figures like Rudy Greene and obscurities like the Red Miller Trio (whose 1948 “Bewildered” briefly reached No. 1 R&B).

The Gant material is especially noteworthy, since he was one of the most popular R&B pianists and singers in postwar America thanks to his original “I Wonder,” a massive 1946 hit for Gilt-Edge that he re-recorded in a more exotic-sounding version for Bullet. Sung from the point of view of a soldier overseas thinking dark thoughts of his girlfriend back home, it’s a dire, slow tune, not unlike one of Charles Brown’s heart-tugging cocktail blues, and it provided the template for his future hits. But the oft-ignored truth is that Cecil Gant was one breakneck boogie woogie pianist with more than a little stride mixed in, and uptempo romps like “Nashville Jumps” (an ode to his hometown’s drinking culture) are every bit as strong as his best ballads; so are the less frantic “Anna Mae” and “Boogie Woogie Baby.”

The B.B. King material shades more towards boogie than the subsequent hits (“Three O’Clock in the Morning”) that highlighted his early career; his voice here bears no resemblance to the pipes he would display just a few short years later, and he takes no guitar solos. But “When Your Baby Packs Up and Goes” and “Take a Swing with Me,” respectively walk and swing with real force and, as always, King knows how to assemble and lead a tight band. The two Wynonie Harris sides available are hardly poor, but certainly pale next to the exhilarating, barrel-chested jump sound he would later develop; perhaps the most interesting thing about them is the slightly unorthodox accompaniment from his pianist, one Sonny Blount, making his recording debut. Blount would soon move to Chicago, change his name to Sun Ra, and show fans what unorthodox could really mean while exploring outer space and beyond in his own music. As for rocking Rudy Greene, the only one of his five tracks here that even approaches the craziness that would win him his cult following is “Buzzard Pie,” and it’s a long long ways from “My Mumblin’ Baby” or “Juicy Fruit.”

Blues fans will find other small pleasures scattered across these compilations. Nashville homeboy St. Louis Jimmy’s version of his standard “Goin’ Down Slow” is a remake that doesn’t embarrass itself. Big Joe Williams is as prickly as ever on “Jivin’ Woman” and “She’s a Married Woman.” Memphis favorites Tuff Green and His Orchestra step out with the always-timely “Let’s Go to the Liquor Store.” The Big Three Trio, Willie Dixon’s first group, manages a non-risque version of “Signifying Monkey.” Max Bailey’s “Rockin’ the Blues” verges tantalizingly on rock ‘n’ roll. “Candy Man Blues” and “Why Should I Cry” are typically two-fisted piano blues from Roosevelt Sykes.

Bulliet’s original partners ultimately ran the label into the ground by signing pop stars like Milton Berle and Bob Crosby instead of exploiting the local omnipresence of country and blues/R&B. Bullet was briefly revived in the ’60s, along with the subsidiaries Sur and Speed, for about a dozen single releases (Shy Guy Douglas’s novel instrumentals “Midnight Soul” and “Shy” and the Burton Majors Band’s pop-soul “Cry, Cry” stand out). Jim Bullet kicked around a few more labels and other music companies – an early backer of Sun Records, he got out before the gettin’ at that breakout Memphis label got good – before winding up in…the candy business. His legacy is rather a modest one, but that’s okay; he was in the right place at the right time, and he delivered.