Vision of the Blues, The Vernon Garrett Story

as told to Don O.

Here's an interview with Vernon Garrett from January 20, 1999 that appeared in the May issue of Southwest Blues Magazine.

So why don't you know who Vernon Garrett is? You really should know. He has been on the cover of Living Blues Magazine, was a recent headliner at The Chicago Blues Festival singing in front of nearly 70,000 people, has sold more records than most of the blues people you can name (hundreds of thousands of records), and has been singing professionally for over 40 years. From 1986 to 1998 he called Dallas home and is in the process of returning here, now. He has a smooth silky voice, a stage presence so professional he should give lessons, and a smile as big as Texas. It's time you found out about Vernon Garrett. It's past time. So here is Vernon's story in his own words.

I was born in Omaha, Nebraska, on January 18. I first became interested in music through the gospel singers who came through town when I was a little boy. Seeing them made me want to sing. In Sunday school every week Deacon Robinson would ask one of the children to sing a song to start the lesson. All the other kids were ashamed. Well I wasn't and was always the first one to hold up my hand. That gave me a chance to sing just about every Sunday in Sunday school.

Other kids I went to school with at that time were from singing backgrounds. We would get together on the back steps at Tech High and harmonize. Eventually we formed our own little gospel group. That's how I first got started. We got pretty good and opened for some of the professional gospel groups who came through Omaha. I was 15 at the time. The group broke up and I joined another group called the Southern Wonders. Claude Jeter of the Swan Silvertones heard me when I opened for them and the Soul Stirrers. For a short time I was with the Swan Silvertones. Then I left and went into the service. I was aboard the USS Sarsfield EDD 837 in the Korean war. We worked all over the Atlantic and as far as Guam. We worked with the first US atomic sub, the USS Nautilus, out of Key West Florida. All around Cuba, Guantanamo Bay, where the rough waters are.

After I got out, guys I had known like Lou Rawls, and Sam Cooke were recording. I stayed in Omaha for about three months after I got out of the service and joined a vocal group called The Mixers. We were starting to get pretty good and I thought maybe they'd like to go to the west coast and try to get something started out there. My sister was in Omaha on vacation and would take us back with her. They wouldn't go, but I did.

In Los Angeles the hot talent show at that time was run by Johnny Otis at the Club Oasis every Thursday night. Guys like Ted Taylor, Johnnie Taylor, Johnny Morrisette, all kinds of folks were competing in that show. The prizes were $15, $20, and $25. When I first started appearing, I won. I won so much that comedian Leroy Skillet told me I should turn pro. I said "How do you do that?" They ran a talent show on Wednesday and Thursday at a club called The Brass Rail. He started introducing me to do guest numbers instead of the talent show and it began to grow from there. That's how I started singing on my own. From there I met a group called The Sliders. They needed a lead singer and I joined their group. We became a very well known group in L.A. along with the Hollywood Flames, The Penguins, The Fortunes and other groups. We did a recording called "Love is Like a Mountain" for George Garabinia. Gene Mumford hired away our tenor for Billy Ward and The Dominoes. That was the end of our group and I was back on my own again.

I was working as a solo vocalist when I met my wife Jewel. She wanted to sing with me but I continued as a solo for awhile. Finally, she went on a talent show and won second prize. That was my first chance to really hear her sing and she handled it very well. That's when we became the team of Vernon and Jewel. We started working together in a little club in Compton California every weekend. People paid 50 cents to get in. I was playing drums and singing and another guy was singing with us, King Solomon. They liked us so well I got off the drums and we really became a full fledged team. Illinois Jacquet, the jazz saxophonist, owned the Network recording label and heard about us through his brother in-law. He had his brother Russell put us under contract and take us in the studio. The first song we recorded was "You're Going to be Paid for the Way You Treated Me".

The first place it was a hit was in San Francisco. Jewel's brother and sister were there and they told us we needed to come up there because the record was doing well. We got us a little trailer, put it behind our car and hit the highway. We had hooked up with a very good guitar player named Claude High who had been stranded down in Los Angeles. By the time we got to the Bay area he had our stuff down and fit with us just like a glove. We were a team. Times were tough at first. One time, we had barely enough gas to get across the Bay Bridge. Jewel would steer while Claude and I pushed the car for a few blocks. Then we drove the last few blocks to arrive in front of the club. We went through some things, there. It's funny when I think of it now. Jewel was a wiz on a sewing machine. She made her own gowns and kept me and Claude dressed.

Finally, we did a guest shot at Slim Jenkin's club in Oakland and that was the beginning. Slim hired us for Friday and Saturday night. He provided a lady on organ and drums and paid us $75 a night. He said if the crowd got better he'd give us a raise. Jewel, the guitar player, and I split it even, $25 a piece. We had a full sound with that guitar player and the lady on the B3. People started coming and he started booking us to open for the big road acts like Bobby Bland, Etta James, and other big acts. People liked us and we were riding in Cadillacs and Lincoln Mercuries! Eventually, Kent Records heard us and put us under contract. That's where we made the male/female version of "Lonely Lonely Nights". We sold about 80,000 copies in Chicago alone. We did very well for several years together. We were so successful we even built our own 32 unit apartment building.

Then Jewel got sick with breast cancer. She did well after the operation, but eventually the cancer spread to her lungs and she passed away. I was so despondent I stopped my career. I just drove back between L.A. and San Francisco and drank a lot. I wasn't broke, I wasn't looking for anything, I just didn't know what to do. I was back in San Francisco in the Pickwick hotel downtown. I don't know if I was dreaming, had a vision or what. I felt I was very much awake. It was my wife. I buried her in a turquoise blue gown and there she was. She asked me what was I doing there when God gave me the talent to sing and I knew that what's she wanted me to do. That was it. I went downstairs, checked out, got in my car stayed on the highway for about an hour, cried, got myself together and drove back into L.A.

That weekend I walked into a club where Charlie Green had a 5 piece orchestra and a guy was singing the very song my wife had sung on that talent show. I asked the piano player if I could sit in and Charlie Green hired me that same night. That's when I started back to work. The return of Vernon Garrett, all by myself. Before that it had always been Vernon and Jewel. I was still under contract to Kent Records. They put me with Richard Parker and had him produce a session with me. Maxwell Davis did the production after that until Kent records went out of business. After that I did some on my own. I free lanced two albums with Jerry White. "Love Me Right" and "Johnnie Walker Red" did real well for me. He never paid me any royalties. Told me it didn't sell. Never even sent me a statement. I know "Stranger in my Bed" did well in Texas. I keep up with all the record shops, Mr. Blues and all the others, so I was familiar with how it was doing. There was no way for me to keep an account so I stopped fooling with him.

Al Bell, Longtime Stax producer also had me on his ICA label. Monk Higgins found a song for me, "I'm at The Crossroads I Got a Choice to Make" written by jazz guitarist Freddie Robinson. At the time I was at a crossroads myself. My girlfriend wanted to know if I was going to stay with her or go back to my new wife. I really liked that song. It took us about 12 hours to cut it, but when we were done we had a good record. It started happening in the last part of 1978 and went on into 1979 and it's still going on. That's the song most people know me by and the one they want to hear. It did great in Chicago, St Louis, all over. Made the top 20 in Jet Magazine. That was my biggest seller. I'm still working behind that record.

After moving to Dallas I signed with Ichiban. There's more work here. In Los Angeles I was considered local and it was pretty much L.A. and San Francisco. Dallas, Fort Worth, Tyler, Marshall, Oklahoma City, Austin, San Antonio, Midland are all in easy reach here. A lot of guys are working this circuit so I came down here and checked it out for a couple of weeks and then called my wife and told her to start packing for Texas. I was here in Dallas from 1986 until January of 1998. I've been back in L.A. since then and am now in the process of moving back to Dallas. I leased a club out there from a TV star we all know but she was very hard to work with. We were paying her $7000 a month plus what we spent on liquor and entertainment. During the rainy season it was raining in the club! We had Little Milton in there, wall to wall, sold out completely, and we had to put buckets out to catch all the rain coming in the roof. She wouldn't fix the roof or kitchen or anything. I lost a lot of money and had to back out of that. Better to quit before it put us in the soup line.

So now I'm back on the road to work. My wife Doris sings in church and she joins me onstage sometimes. She made her debut here in Dallas back in October at R.L.'s Blues Palace. My contract with Ichiban is about up. I have only done 3 albums in 7 years so they are behind on producing me. I haven't been pushing them or anything. I haven't pursued another label because I have been very happy with what Ichiban has done for me with the European market. All the other companies I had been with I had never made it across the water. They got me quite a lot of work in the European market and that helped me a lot. I played a hotel chain in Switzerland for three months the first time I ever went. Working 7 nights a week in the winter. People would ski all day and then come down to the lounge and listen at the blues in the evening. I did 3 weeks of one nighters in Italy. The greatest audience I have performed for was in Japan. They were singing my material! That was strange. They were really familiar with my music.

I consider myself a rhythm and blues, ballad, and blues singer. Back when I was doing talent shows I was doing top 40 stuff. The only gospel I have recorded was that one with the Swans. I write every so often. When an idea comes to me I'll write a song, but mostly I depend on other songwriters. I haven't had much chance to record my own stuff yet. "Doors of My Heart" on Too Hip to Be Happy is one of mine.

The Moore Brothers have been my band for about 8 years. They've been over to Europe with me, too. They're good guys. I first met them here in Dallas at the Cowboy Lounge. They had been playing gospel and weren't too familiar with the blues but they were willing to learn. We were rehearsing 4 or 5 nights a week in the guitar player's garage. We got tickets from the police because the neighbors were trying to get us to stop. We kept at it and finally they found out we were recording and on the radio. Now the yard is full of folks coming to hear us play! Now they're fans instead of enemies!

I'm looking forward to a few more years in the recording business. I'm alive and well and the public can look forward to some good new material from me soon.