Born: Feb. 27, 1925 Birmingham, AL
Born Sidney Louis Gunter, 27 February 1925, Birmingham, Alabama
Singer, guitarist, songwriter. Many different artists laid the foundations for rock 'n' roll in the late 1940s and early 1950s, both black and white. Among those contributing from the country field was Hardrock Gunter, whose "Birmingham Bounce" (1950) was included by Jim Dawson and Steve Propes as one of the 50 entries in their book "What Was the First Rock 'n' Roll Record" (1992).
He picked up the name Hardrock in 1939, after a car trunk lid fell on his head without fazing him. His bandmate remarked that his head must be hard as a rock and the name stuck. By then, Gunter had already formed his first band, the Hoot Owl Ramblers. After his discharge from the army in 1945, he (re)joined Happy Wilson's group, the Golden River Boys, a country swing band. But Gunter never saw himself purely as a country musician. "I didn't like out 'n' out hillbilly music. I wanted something with a beat." His biggest influence at that time was Hank Penny. Gunter had already built up a reputation in the Birmingham area when he was approached by Manny Pearson, owner of Bama Records, to record some stuff for his label. This resulted in the single "Birmingham Bounce"/ "How Can I Believe You Love Me", both sides self-penned. The backing was supplied by the Golden River Boys, renamed The Pebbles for this occasion. "Birmingham Bounce" quickly caught on and Decca's Paul Cohen wanted to buy the master. When Manny Pearson refused, Cohen recorded a cover version by Red Foley for Decca, which went to the top of the country charts in May 1950 (for 4 weeks, not 14 weeks, as alleged elsewhere) ; it also peaked at # 14 pop. There were some 20 other cover versions, including recordings by Amos Milburn, Lionel Hampton, Pee Wee King and Tex Williams. So as the writer of the song, Gunter earned good money, even though he didn't have the hit version. A second release on Bama, "Gonna Dance All Night" (Bama 201, summer 1950) was significant in that it introduced the phrase "rock 'n' roll" to many people, four or five years before it became fashionable. After Bama folded, four unissued Bama masters by Hardrock were issued on two singles by the Bullet label in Nashville.
On the strength of "Birmingham Bounce", Paul Cohen signed Gunter to Decca. However, within days of his first Decca session in January 1951, Hardrock was recalled to active service because of the escalating war in Korea. Though Gunter was not sent to Korea and could record when he was on leave, he was not available for touring and promotion for a full two years. As a result the sale of his Decca recordings was disappointing. Among these Decca sides was a cover of the Dominoes' smash "Sixty Minute Man", aimed at the country market. (White artists covered R&B hits long before the Crew Cuts and Pat Boone.) Gunter's version (a duet with Roberta Lee) never fails to make me smile. The lyrics were (and still are) so much at odds with the usual country song that it's almost a parody. And I just love that fierce attack on the piano after "Fifteen minutes of blowing my top". If you don't know Hardrock's version, you can listen at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wcmd78vf4Sw
In 1953, Gunter took as job as a disc jockey at WWVA in Wheeling, West Virginia. The next year, while in Birmingham, Gunter cut a new version of "Gonna Dance All Night", which was leased to Sun Records. Sam Phillips was looking for an artist who could bridge the gap between R&B and pop and he may have thought that he had found just that in Hardrock Gunter (before hitting the jackpot with Elvis Presley later that year), but the Sun version (201) sold just as poorly as the Bama version of four years earlier. A second release on Sun (248) was "Jukebox Help Me Find My Baby" in 1956, credited to the Rhythm Rockers. This had originally appeared on the small Cross Country label and ran over three minutes. Phillips edited down Gunter's single to a more commercial length (2:31), but sales of the record, which had been gathering momentum prior to Phillips' involvement, ground to a screeching halt. Gunter was very dissatisfied : "Sam Phillips edited the hit out of the record. Without the novelty parts, the record fell flat." Between the two Sun singles, Gunter had recorded for King in Cincinnati. In 1957, he started his own label, Emperor Records, together with WWVA colleague Buddy Durham. He recorded several singles and an LP ("Songs They Censored In the Hills", 1958) for Emperor, but chart success continued to elude him. In 1964 he took a break from the music business to build up a career in insurance.
In 1995 he returned to the stage, headlining the International Rockabilly and Rock 'n' Roll Meeting in Munich, Germany, backed by the Ragrtime Wranglers from Holland. Since then he has performed in many countries, including the UK. Now living in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, with his wife Sheila, Hardrock is still available for bookings.
Acknowledgements / more info :
- Al Turner, Liner notes for the Roller Coaster CD (see below).
- Hardrock's official website at http://www.hardrockgunter.com/
The biography there is an updated version of Al Turner's notes.
- Nick Tosches, Unsung Heroes Of Rock 'n ' Roll (Rev. ed. 1991), p. 114-118.
- Jim Dawson & Steve Propes, What Was the First Rock 'n' Roll Record? (Boston : Faber & Faber, 1992), page 69-72. - http://www.bhamwiki.com/w/Hardrock_Gunter
CD's : - Gonna Rock 'n' Roll, Gonna Dance All Night (Roller Coaster RCCD 3013). Released in 1995. 31 tracks.
- I'll Give 'Em Rhythm (Hydra BCK 27108). Released 1999. 30 tracks.
The two CD's complement each other nicely ; no overlaps. But most of the tracks on the Hydra CD have been dubbed from vinyl and it shows.
Though he doesn't get the same attention as other rock & roll pioneers, Hardrock Gunter was one of the earliest country boogie artists to start shifting the music into full-fledged rockabilly. A native of Birmingham, AL, he was born Sidney Louis Gunter Jr. in 1925, and earned his nickname when a car hood fell on his head with no noticeable effect, leading to the observation that it was as hard as a rock. An admirer of Hank Penny, Gunter formed his first band, the Hoot Owl Ramblers, at age 13, and also played talent shows under the name Goofy Sid. In 1939, he joined Happy Wilson's Golden River Boys, with whom he remained for several years; after Gunter and the other members served in World War II, they reorganized the band in 1946. Gunter began appearing on a local children's television show in 1949, and the following year he got a chance to record for the Bama label. His first release, 1950's "Birmingham Bounce," was tabbed by a small minority of critics as the first (or one of the first) rock & roll records, even prior to Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88." It was covered by Red Foley for a hit, and recorded by the likes of Amos Milburn and Lionel Hampton as well.
Gunter signed with Foley's label, Decca, and his 1951 duet with Roberta Lee, "Sixty Minute Man," was one of the first country records to cross over to R&B audiences. He released several more singles on Decca through 1953, also working a couple of years as a DJ in Wheeling, WV. He went on to cut some material for MGM and Sun, the latter of which included some of his best-known singles — "Gonna Dance All Night" b/w "Fallen Angel" (1954) and "Juke Box Help Me Find My Baby" (1956). The latter song originally appeared on a smaller label, but was leased and re-edited by Sam Phillips without success. Gunter recorded for several other labels during the late '50s and early '60s, including King, Emperor, Island, Starday, and Seeco, without much commercial success. He quit the music business in 1964 to run an insurance agency.