Thursday, November 1, 2012
The GM Record Company
Johnny told me, “Elvis came into town one day. He was driving a beautiful pink and black 1956 Cadillac... I didn’t get my autograph because Elvis was in a water fight!”
Today it’s not much to look at. You could drive down a little side street in one of the old areas of Gladewater and perhaps not even notice the wood frame building that could easily be mistaken for a sagging storage facility from days gone by. The pier and beam building may look like just another eyesore in an aging neighborhood that should be torn down, but in its slightly decrepit defense… if you could squeeze the history out of this place, you could make musical lemonade sweet as sugar. The hand painted sign is now gone that once hung by the doorway. It announced to anyone walking or driving down Quitman Street that this was the home of GM Records. Perhaps it should have read, “Music history was made here: The East Texas hangout for Elvis, and the place where Johnny Cash wrote one of the biggest hits of his career.”
I grew up in East Texas with a father who was a musician. So, from the time I was born, if there was a place within an hour’s drive where more than any two people were getting together with a guitar, fiddle or banjo, my dad was going to load my mother and me into the car, and it was going to be a long day. As I got older, I began to realize musicians tell a lot of stories about where they’ve been, their many brushes with fame and the chance they had to make the big time. Within those many stories, I began to learn the history of music in East Texas.
Yes, many musicians actually did get their chance for greatness because of our location. The Louisiana Hayride radio show’s national popularity brought a lot of attention and a lot of stars to our area. The Hayride started to book road shows throughout the south. One of those stops was Gladewater since it was on the highway almost halfway to Dallas from Shreveport and very centrally located close to many East Texas towns. The large, beautiful brick high school’s state-of-the-art auditorium was a great venue for live music shows.
Just southwest of town on Highway 271, a series of four small cinder block and brick dance halls sprung up at the intersection of Highway 135 for easy access from Kilgore. They were also just across the dry Smith County line attracting anyone from Tyler who wanted a drink or a dance. Gladewater was on the entertainment map. There were no concerts for thousands of people in those days. Playing a big show would mean an onstage performer squinting through the brightness of the hanging stage lights might see a crowd of 300-400 people.
As you can imagine, there are hundreds of stories that can be told within a community when you have the likes of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jim Reeves, and Roy Orbison coming to your town on a regular basis. Today I will try to control my musical A.D.D. and tell you one of them. The story of one man who had an idea to do something different and ended up securing a foothold in music history.
In the 1930s, a young man named Gerome Mills moved to the flourishing small town of Gladewater. The oil boom was underway, and East Texas was the land of opportunity. Not quickly finding work in his trade as an electrical engineer, Gerome went to work for Keoun Music downtown. Since he was a guitar and piano player, he was no stranger to music. In the 40s, he found work at LeTourneau in Longview as an electrician. Gerome settled into the home he bought on Quitman Street in Gladewater and started a family. Wanting a workshop for the electrical work he did on the side, he bought an army barracks building that was for sale at the Fort Fannin Reserve and moved it in beside his house.
Since he was an industrious young man unafraid to try new things, Gerome started moonlighting by servicing jukeboxes. He would take the old records he had replaced in the jukeboxes and store them in his shop. At that time, the local radio station was KSIJ AM located on the top floor of the Lee Office Building a short drive away on Highway 80. A local DJ originally from Carthage was working there and was attempting to start his own singing career. His name was Jim Reeves, and he would later become one of the legends of country music. Jim would come to Gerome’s shop from time to time and go through the old jukebox records. He would choose the ones he wanted (usually instrumentals) and pay Gerome twenty cents a piece for them. After clearing all the legalities, he would then take them to the production room of the radio station, reproduce them, add his own voice, then sell the revised recordings.
Gerome decided if Jim Reeves could do it, so could he. He cleaned out his electrical workshop and started preparing to build his recording studio. In 1950, he visited a location in Shreveport, where the very popular Johnny Horton was doing some recording, to research what equipment he would need. Although they insisted it would take thousands of hard earned dollars, he left determined to carry out his plan. On his way home from Shreveport, he made a stop in Marshall and bought a 2-track tape recorder for $35, then returned home and used his electrical engineering skills to start building the rest of the equipment he needed. This was the birth of GM Records and Sound Studio. Gerome Mills recorded his first record in 1951. Soon after, local singers were asking him to record. In just a matter of a couple of years, entertainers came from all over East Texas to record at the homemade recording studio on Quitman Street.
As America grew out of the post World War II era and entered the “fabulous fifties,” along came the birth of rock and roll. At the time, it was called rockabilly: a word made up by disc jockeys to label the new music. Rock and roll had actually been the genre of many black artists for several years. As soon as Sam Phillips of Sun Studios in Memphis released a young white male named Elvis singing those same songs, rock and roll went mainstream.
It’s not known if Gerome Mills liked or cared for rock and roll at all, but it brought a lot of people to his studio to cut their records and hopefully be discovered like Elvis. And the recording business wasn’t bad at all. With the popularity of these rock and roll singers taking America by storm, promoters were quick to put their new stars on the road – stars such as Elvis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins while later adding Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and more. With mature Americans not quite as enthralled with the music to which the kids were listening, rock and roll shows were not first welcomed or allowed just anywhere. Most live performances of 1955 had to be booked in little honky tonks and dance halls like The Mint Club, The Wagon Wheel, The Round Up, and The Bluejean Club. Those clubs were frequent stops for early rockers. Anytime he was in the area, Elvis played The Mint Club until he later switched over to The Round Up because of nicer facilities and a few more dollars.
Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins continued stopping in Gladewater as rock and roll grew, only the shows moved into the high school auditorium and baseball park instead of the dive honky tonks. They would play the high school, then stay overnight at The Res Mor Court Motel just a block away from the campus on Highway 80. When in Memphis, these young men grew accustomed to going to the Sun Studio and hanging out for hours just playing, listening to new music, and writing their own new songs. And it just so happened that GM Records and Sound Studio was just about a block away from their motel. They all befriended Gerome Mills quickly. Perhaps the GM studio reminded the homesick boys on the road of their Sun Studio in Memphis, or maybe they just felt comfortable in a studio. Regardless, after the shows were over, many times Elvis, Johnny Cash and even Carl Perkins made the short trip across Highway 80 to Gerome’s place. It was reported that they would stay there until all hours of the morning singing, listening, and just hanging out with Gerome. On some nights, Gerome would reportedly go on to bed and tell the guys to lock up when they left.
On one such night, a young Johnny Cash showed up after his show with Carl Perkins in the high school auditorium. Johnny had served in the Air Force in Germany, and on this night, he had a melody he had heard in a German song stuck in his head and was determined to write his version complete with lyrics. Gerome left Johnny to stay in the studio as long as he wanted and went to bed as Johnny picked at his guitar. He played with the melody over and over until he was satisfied. Then he added words. The song was recorded in Nashville a few months later and became Johnny Cash’s first number one song in 1957. The song was “I Walk the Line” – written in the GM Sound Studio in Gladewater, Texas.
There were many reports over the next few years of the big cars and Cadillacs that would roll up to the reformed army barracks building, sometimes in the middle of the night. Some names that I personally have heard are Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis, but there are no confirmations to prove those. Gerome Mills continued to improve his studio and recorded local singers until he passed away in 2000.
Hundreds of East Texans can say they passed by that GM Records sign that hung by the door as they entered the studio to record their songs. I am proud to say that in 1986, I was one of them. As so many others had done, I went in and recorded a song with me singing to pre-recorded music. I knew Mr. Mills had heard Elvis sing here many times, and I was nervous and hopeful that he would hear me sing and want me to record an album and sell millions of copies or at least say what an awesome talent I was! I sang my heart out to Elvis’ “Don’t Be Cruel.” I finished and sat there with sweaty palms and the anticipation of my newfound stardom beating in my heart waiting for him to complete my recording. He finished the recording and labeled it. As he walked out of his master control room and slowly turned toward me, I could hardly wait for his words. Then they came. “That’ll be 25 dollars, son. Here’s your cassette. Tell your daddy ‘Hi’ for me.” What??? That was all??? I still laugh. What was I thinking?
Gerome was called “Pappy” by anyone who knew him well. My apologies go out to the long list of East Texans who Pappy recorded that I cannot name individually. Some sold records. Some became regional heroes. Others just took their slightly off-key cassette of an old Elvis song home and hid it. Today there are literally dozens of boxes of 45’s sporting the GM label from various singers over the last 60 years that fill the shelves in one of the back rooms of the studio.
GM Records and Sound Studio was taken over by Gerome’s son, Johnny Mills, when Pappy passed away. Johnny grew up in the house with Gerome but missed the late night sessions at the studio because he was a boy and most of those things happened past his bedtime. Johnny left Gladewater at the age of 16. He worked all over the country playing drums for such acts as Buddy Miller, Johnny Horton, Tommy Cash, Jerry Kilgore and several more before moving back home. Today, he and his partner Morris Shelton own and reside at the house beside the studio. Johnny officially closed the doors of GM Records and Sound Studio shortly after the new millennium. Although much of the building is now used for personal storage, all of the old equipment is still there among the newer pieces that have been added over the years with one exception: the microphone that Elvis and Johnny Cash sang through on those nights in the 50s has been donated to the Gladewater Museum which is found downtown.
When I decided to pay Johnny a visit to gather stories and information for this article, I invited my friends and fellow music lovers, Darby Warren and Gary Krell, to go along. As I talked with Johnny and Morris that afternoon, Gary and Darby had the opportunity to explore the autographed photo covered walls, rooms of old equipment, and shelves of old 45’s. It was like finding the lost museum of East Texas music history.
Johnny Mills told me many great stories in the time we spent talking, and I would like to pass one along to you in closing. Being a huge Elvis fan from birth, I had to hear every detail of his personal encounters. Johnny told me, “Elvis came into town one day. He was driving a beautiful pink and black 1956 Cadillac. Now, I had never met Elvis any of the times he had come around my dad. I wanted to see that car and meet him. He did the show that night at the high school auditorium. The next day, he and the guys went down to the radio station to do an interview. I went down there to meet him and get an autograph. Well, I went in and there he was in the hall by the water fountain. He had one of those little cone paper cups and was filling it up with water. His bass player Bill Black was right down the hall. I walked up and, just as I got to him, he took off down the hall after Bill Black with that cup of water. They were having a water fight right there in the building. I didn’t get my autograph because Elvis was in a water fight!”
Today, records are a thing of the past. If we want to see a live concert, we shell out at least forty bucks to sit in a coliseum of thousands. Gerome Pappy Mills is no longer with us, nor Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jim Reeves, or Roy Orbison. On Highway 271, the buildings that held the Mint and Round Up clubs have burnt with just remnants of slab left. The other two clubs are crumbling shells of the buildings they once were. The Lee Building on Highway 80 that housed KSIJ AM Radio station is an apartment building. The Res Mor Court Motel is now a low rent apartment complex on Highway 80 recognizable by the same white stucco and metal awnings from the motel days. And just across Highway 80 is the sagging former army barracks building that became GM Records and Sound Studio untouched by any historical or preservation society.
As the years roll by, I guess the studio will finally decay away with no plaques, no historical markers, and very few mentions in print. I hope East Texans will dedicate the little studio to memory, at least, and pass down its history by word of mouth. Maybe Johnny Mills will let me put up my own sign by the street in front of the building. I think it should say, “YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENED HERE!”