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LEVEE SINGERS

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LEVEE SINGERS. The Levee Singers are a folk music group from the Fort Worth-Dallas area that came to prominence both locally and nationally during the American folk music boom of the early 1960s. Founded in 1961 by Dallas club owner Ed Bernet, the Levee Singers garnered much popularity and acclaim during the 1960s, and the group continued to perform in the 2010s.

During the earliest days of 1961, local musician Ed Bernet contacted the Sovereign Club, a private Dallas nightclub owned by Jack Ruby (later, he would be known as the man who shot and killed Lee Harvey Oswald after the Kennedy Assassination). Ruby was asked to grant a weekly appearance to Bernet's seven-piece band, the Dixieland Seven, at the Sovereign Club. Initially Ruby agreed to the appearances but ultimately refused to sign any contractual documents guaranteeing the slot; consequently, Bernet chose to search out other options.

Bernet soon found an opportunity to purchase and renovate a small club on Mockingbird Lane, which he named the Levee Club. The club opened in March of 1961, with Bernet's Dixieland Seven heading the bill on weekend nights. As the club grew in popularity, Bernet decided to add another bill for the weeknight slots, and thus the Levee Banjo Band (later the Levee Singers) was born.

The Levee Banjo Band consisted of four men; lead vocal duties were split between them, and two or three-part harmonies rounded out the sound. Two of the men were already well-known as regular members of the region's most successful western swing band, the Light Crust Doughboys. Rockabilly sensation Ronnie Dawson played in the Doughboys and had in the 1950s played on the Dallas Sportatorium radio spectacular Big D Jamboree and made several hit records. He had gained considerable popularity by the time he took up the banjo and vocal duties with the Levee Banjo Band. Original member Marvin “Smokey” Montgomery, leader of the Light Crust Doughboys, also played banjo and sang with the new Levee Club house band. Ed Bernet rounded out the banjo/vocal duties, and Bob Christopher kept a bottom-heavy rhythm on the bass saxophone or bass fiddle, alternately.

The Levee soon became one of the most popular clubs in the region; Bob Christopher later recalled that the band played for five nights a week for ten years and performed for an estimated million or more people during that time. At one of the early 1960s performances, a Los Angeles-based agent named David Sontag saw the Levee Banjo Band perform and worked out a management deal with them, with an aim to bring the group to national live and television audiences.

To prepare for these national appearances, the band trained professionally and changed their name to the Levee Singers; success soon followed. By the close of 1964, the band had made many television appearances, including The Danny Kaye Show, Hollywood Palace, The Jimmy Dean Show, and Hootenanny. They frequently performed on the Las Vegas circuit and opened shows for stars such as Henry Mancini and Joey Bishop.

During the 1960s, the Levee Singers also released three LPs on Levee Records: The Banjo Band from Levee, Everybody Clap Your Hands with the Banjo Band from the Levee, and Take Me Home. All LPs from this time feature Ronnie Dawson, Ed Bernet, Marvin “Smokey” Montgomery, and Bob Christopher.

The Levee Singers roster changed during the latter half of the 1960s; Bob Christopher took a hiatus from music, and Dawson left to pursue other musical ventures. Christopher was replaced by Grady Owen, another Dallas-area musician who was known for having played with Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps and country harmony duo the York Brothers. Dawson's replacement was Ralph Sanford, who was, like Dawson, yet another veteran of the Light Crust Doughboys and Big D Jamboree. Another record, entitled The New Levee Singers, was subsequently released with this lineup.

Throughout the 1960s Bernet had entered into other music-related business ventures; a booking agency, a record label and (most notably) Sumet-Bernet Sound Studios, where acts such as the Fabulous Thunderbirds, the Dixie Chicks, and the Rolling Stones would later record. As the 1970s approached, Bernet sold the Levee Club to Ronnie Dawson, and eventually the Levee Club went out of business.

Without a regular place to perform (and finding themselves balancing competing priorities with families and businesses), the Levee Singers decided not to pursue further national recognition, choosing instead to focus on other areas of their lives. They did not, however, stop performing altogether. Since the 1970s they have played to numerous audiences, including United States presidents Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush, and they were the official band for U.S. presidential hopeful Ross Perot during his political campaign in 1992.

Grady Owen moved away from the Fort Worth-Dallas area a few years after joining the Levee Singers, and Bob Christopher rejoined until 2005. Montgomery continued to perform with the Light Crust Doughboys and with the Levee Singers until the 1990s; he died on June 6, 2001. Dawson experienced a significant comeback in the last two decades of his life, and continued to perform for audiences worldwide until his death on September 23, 2003.

Ralph Lindsey and Ed's brother Dick Bernet joined the Levee Singers in recent years and, together with Ed Bernet and Ralph Sanford, comprised the lineup of the Levee Singers into the twenty-first century. In 2005 the group released a new CD titled Finally. They followed with The NEXT One (2006) and The Best Thing… (2010). In 2010 they also recorded a CD consisting of patriotic songs and titled America!!. Since 1961 through 2011 and beyond, the Levee Singers remained active, recording and releasing new material and performing regularly at private parties and at Dallas venues such as the Pocket Sandwich Theatre. In 2011 the group held its fiftieth anniversary celebration with nine nights of performances with local celebrity Ron Chapman as host. Dick Bernet retired in 2014, and Dallas entertainer Dave Tanner joined the group.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

  “Appendix 16: A Biography of Jack Ruby,” Report of the President's Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy (Washington: GPO, 1964) (http://www.archives.gov/research/jfk/warren-commission-report/appendix-16.html#nightclub), accessed February 15, 2011. Jean Kempe-Ware, “Bob Christopher ’55 Sings for U.S. Presidents,” Lewis & Clark Chronicle, Lew & Clark College, 2002 (http://legacy.lclark.edu/dept/public/chr_achristopher.html), accessed November 23, 2010. The Levee Singers (http://www.edbernet.com/id8.html), accessed July 15, 2015. “Levee Singers, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana #2,” The Best of Hootenanny, Season 2, Episode 29 (air date April 18, 1964) (Shout! Factory DVD, 2007). Chris Owen, “Grady Owen,” Rockabilly Hall of Fame (http://www.rockabillyhall.com/GradyOwen1.html), accessed January 19, 2011.

Caroline Gnagy

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Handbook of Texas Online, Caroline Gnagy, "Levee Singers," accessed November 22, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/xgl02.

Uploaded on May 26, 2015. Modified on October 25, 2015. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.