Sidney Louie "Hardrock" Gunter, Jr (born February 27, 1925 in Birmingham; died March 15, 2013) was a singer, guitarist and songwriter who helped pioneer rockabilly and rock and roll music in the early 1950s.
Early life and music
Gunter was the first of Sidney and Ola Mae Gunter's three children, raised in Hoot Owl Holler through the Great Depression. They gave him a toy guitar one Christmas, but he had no way of learning how to play it. He got his first lesson from Buck Weaver, who worked with Sidney, Sr as a gas fitter. Weaver also introduced Gunter to the music of his friend Goebel Leon Reeves, who appeared on radio as the "Texas Drifter", adapting his hit "Big Rock Candy Mountain" to shill for his sponsor, 7-Up. Gunter was also heavily influenced by Hank Penny, who formed the Radio Cowboys, an early Western swing band which was popular for its mixture of slick music and appearance as well as for Penny's corny comedy routines, featuring him as the "Plain Ol' Country Boy".
In 1938, at the age of 13, Gunter put together his first band, the Hoot Owl Ramblers and began entering talent competitions with the nickname and hillbilly persona of "Goofy Sid". After about a year, Gunter's act had gained notice. He won an Irondale competition organized by Mrs Sy Wages 13 weeks in a row. It was on her recommendation that he was invited to join the Golden River Boys, a country swing band being organized by Happy Wilson as an accompaniment to a screening of some of his Western action films in Atlanta. Gunter's nickname, "Hardrock" was given to him by Jack Baggett before they left for that first gig when the car's trunk lid dropped on Gunter's head and the 14-year-old didn't flinch.
The band became a success, appearing on the air as Happy Wilson's Radio Show and securing a regular Saturday night gig at the Narrows Inn and later a tour of the Princess Theatre chain in Alabama and Georgia. When World War II began, Wilson and a couple of other band members were drafted. Gunter continued on as a solo act and backed Molly O'Day and Lynn Davis. He also performed with the Delmore Brothers and Fiddling Arthur Smith, two of the featured acts on WAPI-AM.
Gunter himself joined the U.S. Army in 1943, rising to the rank of First Lieutenant before his discharge in 1945. He lost the Kalamazoo guitar Buck Weaver had given him at the Battle of the Bulge. Gunter remained in the reserves after the war and became one of the army's youngest Majors at age 27.
The Golden River Boys regrouped after Wilson was discharged in late 1945 and made a few recordings with Joe Rumore for Vulcan Records before Gunter left the group in 1948. He continued, however, to act as manager and booking agent for the Golden River Boys as he pursued his own musical career, sometimes re-uniting with the band under a double-billing. He also booked other acts into Birmingham area clubs.
Based on his WAPI appearances, Gunter was given a television show in 1949, spinning country records on WABT-TV. Given free reign to create his own show, he adopted a children's format with hand-puppets dressed as country and western stars of the day. Later, he and Wilson reunited for the "The Happiness Boys", preceding the news on weekday evenings. Meanwhile he was still performing nightly at the Beverly Hotel's Rose Room, on Saturday nights at the Jewish Country Club and on Sunday afternoons at a Greek church.
Rock and Roll
Based on his growing fame, Bama Records' Manny Pearson approached Gunter about putting a few of his songs on record. Some former Golden River Boys backed him up as The Pebbles. On his way to the group's first recording session at Huel Murphy's house, Gunter composed "Birmingham Bounce" in his head as a way of showcasing the band members. John Daniels shopped the master to studios and Nashville and was told that it needed to be re-recorded. The Pebbles gathered at WBRC-AM and recorded the version that was released on Bama Records. That record, issued in early 1950, is sometimes considered to be the first rock and roll record ever produced, beating Sam Phillips' "Rocket 88" by over a year.
The song was a regional hit and led to a highly-successful tour. In some cases the show was relocated to airport hangers to accommodate the crowds. After Pearson turned down offers from Decca Records' Paul Cohen to re-release the master, Decca chose instead to issue a cover by country singer Red Foley. That release quickly climbed the national charts, sitting at number one on the country charts for 14 weeks. The presence of a hotter-selling version led stores to send back Gunter's earlier release.
"Birmingham Bounce" was later covered by Lionel Hampton, Tommy Dorsey, Amos Milburn, Pee Wee King, Tex Williams and others. Gunter wrote more songs for Nashville's Acuff-Rose publishing company. Another Gunter-penned song, "A Sleepin' at the Foot of the Bed", was recorded by Jimmy Dickens in 1950 and also became a national hit.
Gunter followed "Birmingham Bounce" with "(Gonna Rock and Roll) Gonna Dance All Night", one of the first tunes with the words "rock and roll" in the lyric. After Bama folded, Gunter signed with Decca Records. "Sixty Minute Man", his 1951 duet with Roberta Lee, became an early crossover hit with both country and R&B listeners. Just as his Decca career was poised to take off, he was returned to active duty for the Korean War. With their star unable to tour and promote his songs, Decca invested little in his 1950s releases.
In 1953 Gunter took a job at WWVA-AM in Wheeling, West Virginia as an emcee and producer of the hit radio show "The World's Original Jamboree". He continued recording, but with only limited success. MGM Nashville signed him on for one session, but did not renew the contract. Gunter returned to Birmingham later that year and took a job as a DJ on WJLD. The station's program director, Jim Connally was the brother-in-law of Sun Records' Sam Phillips. Gunter recorded a new version of "Gonna Dance All Night" and "Jukebox Help Me Find My Baby" at the station and gave the master to Sun, which released it in 1954, a few months ahead of Elvis Presley's first Sun single, "That's All Right"/"Blue Moon of Kentucky".
Gunter returned to WWVA in 1954 as a member of the Jamboree cast and, later, as talent director. He signed a new recording deal with King Records in Cincinnati. He later recorded two tracks for Wheeling's Cross Country label, including a remake of "Jukebox Help Me Find My Baby". That track found its way to Cleveland, where influential DJ Bill Randle made it a local hit at his station. Phillips stepped in to negotiate for a re-release, but Sun's edited version failed to make a splash on the national charts.
Gunter and WWVA colleague Buddy Durham subsequently launched their own independent label, Emperor Records. They recorded numerous unsigned acts who had appeared on the Jamboree show, as well as their own tracks. Gunter later went out on his own with a Gee Gee Records label.
Gunter eventually took a break from music in 1964 to focus on building up a career in insurance. He relocated to Golden, Colorado and opened an insurance firm.
He returned to the stage in 1995, headlining the International Rockabilly & Rock'n'Roll Meeting in Munich, Germany with Wanda Jackson. From there he began working with Joe Sixpack and the Ragtime Wranglers in a series of international bookings. In 2003 Gunter and his wife Sheila moved to Rio Rancho, New Mexico. Gunter died from complications of pneumonia in 2013. He is buried at the Santa Fe National Cemetery in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
- Hardrock Gunter (1950) "Birmingham Bounce" / "How Can I Believe You Love Me." Bama Records 104.
- Hardrock Gunter (Summer 1950) "Gonna Dance All Night" / "Why Don't You Show Me That You Love Me". Bama Records 201
- Hardrock Gunter (Spring 1951) "Dad Gave My Hog Away" / "Lonesome Blues". Bama Records 202
- Hardrock Gunter (1952) "My Bucket's Been Fixed" / "The Little Things That You Do." Bullet Records 725
- Hardrock Gunter (1952) "Maybe Baby You'll Be True" / "Rifle, Belt and Bayonet." Bullet Records 727
- Hardrock Gunter (1954) "Gonna Dance All Night" / "Jukebox Help Me Find My Baby" Sun Records 201
- "Hardrock Gunter" (June 12, 2007) Wikipedia - accessed August 31, 2007
- Dawson, Jim ad Steve Probes What Was the First Rock and Roll Record?
- Parker, Sylvia (March 3, 2010) "Hardrock Gunter - That Bouncin' Man from Alabam." Alabamalama
- Loukes, Matthew (March 28, 2013) "Hardrock Gunter obituary" The Guardian
- Kemp, Mark (April 22, 2013) "Hardrock Gunter & the Pebbles" Oxford American