Saturday, August 13, 2011

RIP Marshall Grant, The Man Who Put The Boom in Boom Chicka Boom

L-R: Marshall Grant, Luther Perkins, Johnny Cash
I was saddened to read of the death of Marshall Grant, who played bass with Johnny Cash in the Tennessee Two. Marshall's contribution to popular music has often been overlooked, but along with Johnny Cash and Luther Perkins, he invented the extraordinary "boom chicka boom" sound which provided the link between country music, gospel, and rock'n'roll. I spoke to Marshall a couple of years ago, and found him a charming, modest man. Here's what he told me about this early years with Johnny Cash in Memphis. 

I was a mechanic and Luther was a mechanic and we worked at Automobile Sales Co on Union Avenue, and I went to work there in 1952. Roy Cash, John’s brother, and I worked side by side. So Luther and I took our guitars to work sometime and we would strum around a little bit in the dressing room when the work was slow. Roy kept saying, I got a brother in service, he plays guitar and sings a little bit, he sings a little bit like Hank Snow. I said, that’s good, maybe when he gets out we’ll get together. So, in the middle of July, I think it was July 15th, Roy went up to the bus station and picked him up and brought him down to the shop. And Luther and I met him there, and we discussed getting together and maybe playing a little bit. We all three played rhythm guitar.
But John's first priority when he got out of Service - he had met this lady in San Antonio, Texas, while he was stationed there, named Vivien Liberto. And he wanted to get married. So he went to San Antonio and got married and brought his little wife back.
I didn’t see him for about 30 days, then one day he came into the shop, and we discussed getting together. We kept hearing what we called ‘The Kid’ around Memphis, and we knew that he had recorded on a label in Memphis, but we didn’t know what it was, or who it was. But we ran it down, and we found out that it was Sun studios, which was very close to where we worked.
The kid is Elvis. We decided we wanted to get on the label. So: three old buddies just picking and strumming on the guitar. I made the remark, I said that’d be good, but we can’t go in there playing three rhythm guitars. I said it in a joking way, but I guess it was true. So Luther said: ‘I know where I can borrow an electric guitar’. I said, ‘Well, John you do most of the lead singing.’ At this time John and I were doing gospel stuff, and it was usually harmony, just he and I. And I said well you do most of the lead singing, you play the guitar and I’ll play the bass.
I bought a beat-up bass for $25. We didn’t know how to play it, we didn’t know how to tune it. Luther had never played melody in his entire life. With the help of some friends, we got the bass tuned. And then we started playing with it. Having fun. That’s all. So I got it all tuned up, and then I stood there and laughed at it, plonked on it, couldn’t do nothing. Luther and I were playing strange instruments, and John was the only one that knew what he was doing. I said: hold on, I’m not sure I can’t play this thing, so let’s start a little melody and join in and John can sing a little bit. And Luther said, well what key? So I said, well E looks pretty good. So he started playing in E and I joined in. I hit the strings and slapped. Hit the strings and slap. John with his old awkward lift that he had on the guitar, and Luther with his god-awful sound on the electric guitar. But the thing that people don’t understand: the first eight bars that we played together with this instrument arrangement, that boom chicka boom sound was right there, right then.
We didn’t like it too much. We weren’t musicians enough to play like those people on records, but that’s what we wanted to sound like. Anyhow, we went in for an audition, and we got it working a little bit, and we wanted to do a song called ‘I Was There When It Happened And So I Guess I Oughta Know’. Sam said ‘We can’t record a gospel song – I can’t sell it.’ He said ‘There’s something strange about you guys, I don’t know what it is, but we need something original.’ We went back and John had a poem called Hey Porter. And we changed that over, put a melody to it. John had another poem called Cry Cry Cry. So we put a melody to it, put it together and worked it up, and after about a week or so we went up to see Sam, and he said ‘OK guys I want to record you.’ That was the beginning of it right there. The first thing we ever put out was Cry Cry Cry. It got to, I think, number 14 in the nation, which was unbelievable. Then our 2nd song was the original version of Folsom Prison Blues. Folsom got up to number 6, I think. Our 3rdsong was a song called I Walk The Line, and it went straight to No 1, Country, No 1 Pop, and No 1 Rock’n’Roll. It’s what Sam called a triple crown. And from right there on our career just mushroomed, and that boom chicka boom sound had a lot to do with jockeys listening to us. Not taking anything from John’s ability to sing the song – he was great, he had a style all his own – but it just seemed that it was meant to be – this boom chicka sound, with John’s old awkward way of playing his guitar. And Luther with that funky way of playing his guitar, and me slapping the bass strings and hitting as hard as I could – it just created a new style and a new sound. Some people give us a little credit for changing the way that country music went – I don’t necessarily agree with that, but I will agree with the fact that Sun artists in general, like Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis – I think we all together did change the way that music went. I’m very proud of what we did.
But I miss my buddies, John and Luther, and I’ll never get over them, cos we did so much together, and affected so many people’s lives in a positive way. I think about ‘em all the time. I dream about them every night without fail. And people ask me,Marshall when you gonna play the bass some more, when you gonna play again? And I just tell ‘em: as soon as John and Luther come back. we gonna get together and we gonna play some more. That’s the one answer I can give.
Marshall Grant: May 5, 1928- August 7, 2011