HEAP, JAMES ARTHUR [JIMMY]

Deirdre Lannon

Jimmy Heap
At the height of their national popularity, the Melody Masters line up in front of their tour bus in preparation for a June 1954 Grand Ole Opry tour of the West Coast. Due to the success of their nationally-charted hit, “Release Me,” the group was selected as the house band to back Opry artists Ray Price, Marty Robbins, and Carl Smith. From left: Houston “Perk” Williams, George Harrison, Cecil “Butterball” Harris, Arlie Carter, Horace Barnett, “Big” Bill Glendening, and Jimmy Heap. Photograph by Bubs Brill, Courtesy Paul Schlesinger.

HEAP, JAMES ARTHUR [JIMMY] (1922–1977). James Arthur “Jimmy” Heap was a bandleader, songwriter, and guitarist. His group, the Melody Masters, is one of the best exemplars of the post-World War II-era style of honky-tonk music and introduced two of the most iconic country songs, “The Wild Side of Life” and “Release Me,” to a wide audience.

Born in Taylor, Texas, in Williamson County on March 3, 1922, Heap first became interested in making music while working at a service station at age eighteen. He recalled that a frequent customer, local business owner and guitar player Herman Bruno "Slim" Gensler, used to bring his guitar in and play, sparking Heap’s interest in learning that instrument. With the outbreak of World War II, he enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps and was stationed in Sedalia, Missouri. There he met his future wife.

When Heap was discharged after the war, he began pursuing his musical career in earnest and assembled the first iteration of the Melody Masters, which consisted of high school friend Bill Glendening, Arlie Carter, Louie Rincon, Bill Kaspar, and Tommy Swenson. Heap’s band began playing dances at popular halls around Central Texas. Their Saturday night residency at a dance hall just northeast of Austin, Dessau Hall, was an important venue for the Melody Masters early in their career. In 1948 the band began its own radio broadcast on KTAE in Taylor, sponsored in part by Dessau Hall. By this time, Arlie Carter and new member Horace Barnett had adopted an old-time fiddle tune that Barnett dubbed the “Dessau Waltz.” A rough demo of the song was featured on the fifteen-minute radio broadcast daily, and it quickly became a regional hit. Soon, Jimmy Heap and the Melody Masters recorded the song for Lasso Records in Austin. That single’s success led to a second single, “Lonely Waltz”/“Rugged But Right.”

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Heap and the Melody Masters were offered a recording contract with Imperial Records in 1949. By this time the lineup included steel guitarist Cecil “Butterball” Harris and fiddler Houston “Perk” Williams, whose distinct vocals would later help advance record sales. Their debut single with Imperial, “That’s My Baby”/“Today, Tonight and Tomorrow,” did well. A subsequent recording, “A Million Tears,” won the group a spot on Big D Jamboree. Their release of “The Wild Side of Life,” primarily written by William Warren of Cameron, Texas, sold well throughout Texas and later proved highly successful for Hank Thompson who took it to the top of the charts in 1952.

Jimmy Heap and the Melody Masters recorded for Imperial between 1949 and 1951 and enjoyed great success in Texas and the Southwest. When nationally-distributed label Capitol offered them a contract, they quickly accepted. With Capitol, they recorded the biggest hit of their career, “Release Me.” Heap recalled that Perk Williams found a recording of the song done by Eddie Miller on 4 Star Records. The flip side had a song called “Motel Time” which had suggestive lyrics, causing most disc jockeys to discard the entire record. After adding “Release Me” to their live repertoire to great response, they recorded it for Capitol, who released it in 1953. It hit the Top 5 on the national charts in January 1954. Cash Box magazine named the Melody Masters one of the ten most-programmed country dance bands in the United States in 1955.

No other of their Capitol recordings made the Billboard Top 10, and Heap and the band left the label in 1956. Perk Williams left the band less than a year later. In the following years, they recorded on the band’s own labels—mainly the Fame, Big Band, and Splash labels. They also leased some of their masters to other interested labels, including Winston and D Records.

By the late 1950s the core lineup of Heap, Harris, and Glendening put together a new group that ventured into rockabilly music. Their recordings featured noted vocalists Dale McBride and Bill Taylor. During the 1960s the Melody Masters included Butch Keith and Ken Idaho, who helped transform the group into a popular show band that performed the top hits of the day. Their concerts included a stint in Las Vegas at the Golden Nugget casino, where they developed a controversial floor show, featuring sex comedy routines by Idaho, that resulted in a series of sex party albums.

Although they never reached the heights they experienced with their Imperial and Capitol hits, the Melody Masters enjoyed continuing success on the touring circuit and played dances and clubs until Heap disbanded the group in 1977. He then recorded an album on Huey Meaux’s Crazy Cajun label. Later that year, Heap died in a boating accident on December 3, 1977, and was buried in Taylor City Cemetery in Williamson County. Meaux released the album Jimmy Heap at His Best posthumously. Heap was inducted into the Country Music Foundation’s Walkway of Stars in June 1978 and into the Texas Western Swing Hall of Fame in 1997. In 2001 Governor Rick Perry declared March 9, 2001, as “Jimmy Heap Day.” Heap’s legacy as well as that of the Melody Masters has been celebrated through various annual tributes that occurred from 2001 through 2009.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

All Music Guide (www.allmusic.com), accessed July 6, 2010. Ray Campi, Jimmy Heap Interview, conducted September 4, 1971 (http://www.electricearl.com/campi-22.html), accessed July 6, 2010. Paul Kingsbury, ed., The Encyclopedia of Country Music: The Ultimate Guide to the Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004). Bill C. Malone, Country Music U.S.A., 2nd rev. ed. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002). Paul Schlesinger, Email correspondence, June 29, 2011; August 4, 2011.

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Handbook of Texas Online, Deirdre Lannon, "HEAP, JAMES ARTHUR [JIMMY]," accessed September 22, 2018, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fhehc.

Uploaded on September 11, 2014. Modified on October 24, 2015. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

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