It's likely that no one will ever be able to sort out 100 percent of the truth about Roy Hall's life -- especially as he used a borrowed name for much of his career, and his legend still seems to get printed in lieu of what he claimed to scholar/historian Martin Hawkins was the truth. The legend is pretty well known in rock & roll circles -- born James Faye Hall in Big Stone Gap, VA, in 1922, he learned the piano from a local bluesman who was also a dedicated drinker, with the result that he became a keyboard wizard and also a serious drunkard when he was barely out of his teens. The truth was a bit more mundane, as he explained to Hawkins in a couple of meetings in the mid-'70s. He was, indeed, born James Faye Hall in Big Stone Gap in 1922, but he was introduced to the piano by his mother, and she was his first teacher. He discovered early on that he was a natural pianist, capable of playing by ear as a boy, and formal lessons proved superfluous. He absorbed all manner of influences around him, including country and blues, and one of those players whom he did cite as a major influence was Piano Red aka Willie Perryman, the itinerant pianist 11 years his senior, who began making his name in juke joints, honky tonks, and barrelhouses in Tennessee (and Hall grew up right on the Tennessee border with Virginia), Alabama, and Georgia. Rather ironically, both men, though born a long time before its advent, would play important roles in the early history of rock & roll.
By the time he was 11, he'd played enough around Bristol, VA, straddling the Tennessee border, that he was picked to play backup behind Uncle Dave Macon on a traveling broadcast offshoot of the Grand Ole Opry. That was in 1933 or 1934. Over the ensuing years, he played with lots of other outfits in the Roanoke, VA, area, and sometime in the mid-'40s joined an existing sibling act called the Hall Brothers, built around banjo man Clayton Hall and fiddler Saford Hall. There had been a third brother, named Roy Hall, who had played piano but had died in a car accident in 1943. It was a natural jump, especially as the name was open and he was filling the slot in the group, but James Faye Hall picked up the name Roy Hall himself after the trio quit, initially so that he could extend his string of popularity by association. Whatever the motivations, it stuck, and so did the success, to the degree that Hall was leading his own band, the Cohutta Mountain Boys. Named for the Cohutta area where he lived in Appalachia, they included Tommy Odum and Bud White on lead and rhythm guitar, respectively, Flash Griner on bass, and fiddle player Frankie Brumbalough. Hall played piano and did some of the singing, but he left a lot of the vocalizing to his bandmates.
They were good enough so that they actually got to cut some sides in Detroit, MI, for the Fortune label, making their debut in 1949 with "Dirty Boogie," a classic piece of hillbilly boogie sung by Brumbalough. The single, which appeared with two different B-sides, was a serious jukebox hit around the upper Midwest and he followed it up with two much more traditional country records that didn't get quite as much notice. The records got them gigs, however, including one as the backing band to a singer named Tennessee Earnie Ford who, in turn, helped get them some gigs in Nashville, where he was based. But where Ford was already recording for Capitol Records, then an up-and-coming major label, not quite a decade old and growing, the best recording deal that Hall and his band could make was with Bullet Records, a Nashville concern that was on its way out.
The band continued a journeyman existence, playing in Tennessee and Kentucky and making its way back to Detroit as a base, where Hall eventually put together a new group, called the Eagles, which cut sides for Citation with Flash Griner on lead vocals. None of these -- not even the estimable "Skinny Minny from Texas City" -- did the kind of business needed to sustain a group, and by the early '50s, Hall had moved back to Nashville and was running a club, known in various recollections as either the Music Box or the Musicians' Hideaway, where he also played piano, picking up odd session work with various musicians, in the recording studio and at the Grand Ole Opry.
The next few years saw Hall working in relative anonymity, crossing near the orbits of less talented people who seemed to be getting somewhere, while he always ended up back at the Hideaway, behind his own piano, nursing a drink or two (or more). At one point in late 1952, he even reactivated the Cohutta Mountain Boys, and cut sides for Fortune Records with Skeeter Davis, born Mary Frances Pennick; he subsequently played piano on demos by the Davis Sisters, which consisted of Pennick and her non-sibling partner Betty Jack Davis. None of this helped Hall get any steady recording work, and across the decades, he recounted those "lost" years of 1953 and 1954 in colorful terms, claiming that at one point he had Elvis Presley playing at the Musicians' Hideaway, and that he'd employed Jerry Lee Lewis. Those must have been agonizing years for him, watching from the sidelines, and his by then well-known capacity for alcohol probably didn't make matters better. Even his onetime idol Piano Red was getting recorded, at the R&B division of RCA Records, and playing good gigs before appreciative audiences, and all Hall was getting were scraps, leftover gigs, and last-minute slots well away from the ears of any record executives.
What finally happened to change this was his crossing paths with Webb Pierce, who saw in Hall a lot of untapped potential and got him scheduled to play on his sessions. It turned out that Hall, with all of his experience, knew the road well enough for both of them, and he ended up working as Pierce's pianist and road manager. This, in turn, led to Hall's being signed by Decca Records producer Paul Cohen to his first recording contract with a major label, in 1955.
One of the songs that Hall cut at his first Decca session, in September of that year, was a composition that he claimed as his own, entitled "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," which he maintained he'd written -- so he claimed -- on a European vacation using the pseudonym "Sunny David." Although Dave Williams subsequently established sole copyright to the song, most scholars are willing to give some credence to Hall's story, the waters to which were further muddied when his ex-wife got wind of his interest in the song and took court action to seize the royalties. Those didn't become a major factor, of course, until Jerry Lee Lewis cut his version of the song for Sun Records in 1957, but in the meantime, Decca seemed bent on casting Roy Hall as a kind of Nashville-based soundalike to Bill Haley, who was currently ruling the pop charts for Decca with his Pennsylvania-spawned rock & roll.
Those weren't bad sides -- even if Hall was older and more portly than Haley, he knew how to make good records -- and there was plenty of work for Hall as a performer, even if he saw no actual chart success. With Pierce's imprimatur, he was able to get gigs with people like Marty Robbins and Hawkshaw Hawkins, and he brushed up close to greatness with his release of "You've Ruined My Blue Suide Shoes," which anticipated elements of Carl Perkins' hit "Put Your Cat Clothes On." Hall's single was never promoted properly, however, and by the middle of 1956, his contract with Decca was over. Meanwhile, Jerry Lee Lewis' version of "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" so overwhelmed the rival renditions, the song effectively became his secondary signature tune, after "Great Ball of Fire"; and between the actions of his ex-wife and the courts, Hall saw nothing from the song, not even recognition.
Hall cut demos for Sun and was back with Fortune Records during the later part of the 1950s, including a version of Chuck Berry's "Little Queenie" that was pretty impressive. But most of his musical activity from 1959 onward until the end of the 1960s was in association with Pierce. He continued as the latter's road manager and partnered up with him in a label, Piece Records. By the 1970s, he'd started producing records by others and even tried his hand at newspaper publishing. Hall wasn't successful in any of these ventures, but at the end of the decade, he was rediscovered by rockabilly and rock & roll enthusiasts, and had begun to play gigs again during the final four years of his life. Hall passed away on March 2, 1983, at age 61, after a busy but mostly luckless 15 years in relative obscurity, ironically not long after releasing the first album of his career. ~ Bruce Eder