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HESS, ORVILLE [BENNIE]
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HESS, ORVILLE [BENNIE] (1914–1984). Orville “Bennie” Hess, hillbilly singer, record producer, and music promoter, was born on February 10, 1914, in Chriesman, Texas. He was the son of Vestral (or Festo) “Cap” Hess. His father, a railroad employee, apparently worked with Jimmie Rodgers, and later in life Bennie Hess claimed that the “Singing Brakeman” often stayed at the Hess home and taught him to play guitar. At any rate, Rodgers served as Hess’s most important musical influence throughout his life. When he was about fifteen, he left school and took to the road with his guitar. Reportedly, he tagged along with Rodgers when the rising star performed in communities in the vicinity of Chriesman. Hess organized his first band, the Rhythm Wranglers, and performed on KFYO radio in Lubbock.
Some evidence exists that Hess may have been in partnership with engineer/producer Bill Quinn in launching Gulf Record Company out of Houston in 1944, but the venture was soon abandoned. Around this time period, however, Hess was apparently playing on KRLP radio’s Cornbread Matinee in Dallas. In 1947 he traveled to California and signed a contract with the Black & White label. His release, “Someday You’ll Know”/“You Just Won’t Do,” apparently earned him roles as a singing cowboy in some B-movie Westerns. He formed his own label, Opera Records, and issued his first release under the name of Georgie Harrison with the Nation’s Play Boys in 1948. He also produced artist Iry LeJeune on the Opera label. Later that year, Hess signed with Mercury. His song “Tonight and Every Night” became a regional hit in July 1948, and Mercury followed up by releasing “With You I’d Be Satisfied”/“Come on Home Where You Belong” later that year. Just when Hess’s career seemed to be on the cusp of a major breakthrough, Mercury terminated his contract when the company discovered that Hess was bootlegging his own recordings on his Opera label. Subsequently, Hess’s career consisted of his formation of a string of record labels which were designed chiefly to release and promote his own recordings.
He continued to run Opera Records and moved back and forth between Houston and Los Angeles until 1951. After a low-budget studio endeavor, he formed the OK’ed label in 1953 in Houston and issued a record under the moniker of Buddy Page. The label also included musician Bennie Lueders. From 1954 to 1955 Hess operated his own Jet label, which also included country singers Houston Slim, Sleepy Skidmore, Marie Corley, and Doyle Jones. During this time Hess recorded “Travelling Blues,” a Jimmie Rodgers tune, and brought in Rodgers’s old band, including fiddler Shelley Lee Alley, to record it. Hess appeared on Louisiana Hayride. Though he was a tireless self-promoter and his talent roster included some enthusiastic artists, he lacked his own effective distribution network to get his products to a wider audience. H. W. “Pappy” Daily was his sole distributor— however, Daily focused his energies on his own artist, George Jones.
In 1956 Hess (with Doyle Jones) established Spade Records, a short-lived but significant label that showcased new rockabilly artists. Hess recorded Ray Doggett, Royce Porter, Jack Prince, and others. He signed Vern Pullens and recorded “Bop Crazy Baby” at Houston’s KTRH studio in September 1956. Rockabilly enthusiasts have regarded the tune as one of the great rockabilly recordings. The label shut down, however, in late 1957.
Hess subsequently married and named a new record label after his wife Pearl. Around summer 1958 he recorded possibly his best-known song, “Wild Hog Hop,” on his Major label. Through the years, Hess recorded under a variety of stage names, including Tarapin Jackson, Idaho Bill Westfall, and Little Boy Bluehorn. By the mid-1960s he had established his own publishing company, Granwealth, and had married a second time. He and wife Dorothy Collins had two sons and two daughters. In 1964 he was operating the Sportsman Capitol Hunting Resort near Caldwell, Texas.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, Hess ran his own Showay Productions, Inc., out of Nashville, and in addition to his own records, focused his efforts on promoting his son Troy as “The World’s Youngest Recording Star.” He also resurrected Spade Records and issued previously unreleased tracks as well as new rockabilly recordings, all of which have become highly-prized by collectors.
Bennie Hess died on November 22, 1984, in Houston. He was buried at McClelland Community Cemetery. His son Troy carried on his father’s country legacy and performed throughout Texas.
Bennie Hess: Discographie (http://www.rocky-52.net/chanteursh/hess_b.htm), accessed June 2, 2011. Andy Bradley and Roger Wood, House of Hits: The Story of Houston’s Gold Star/SugarHill Recording Studios (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010). Klaus Kettner with Tony Wilkinson, “Bennie Hess,” Black Cat Rockabilly (http://www.rockabilly.nl/references/messages/bennie_¬hess.htm), accessed June 2, 2011. Nolan Porterfield, Jimmie Rodgers: The Life and Times of America's Blue Yodeler (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979, 1992; Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007). Dave Sax, “The Bennie Hess Labels (Part Two),” 6 November 2010, Hillbilly-Researcher (http://hillbilly-researcher.blogspot.com/2010/11/bennie-hess-labels-part-two.html), accessed June 2, 2011. Michael Selman, “Vern Pullens—It’s My Life (Spade) 1956,” Archives: January 2011, imshakin.com (http://www.imshakin.com/2011/01/), accessed June 6, 2011.
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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.Handbook of Texas Online, Laurie E. Jasinsk, "HESS, ORVILLE [BENNIE]," accessed June 20, 2019, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fhe89.
Uploaded on September 15, 2014. Modified on March 7, 2017. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.