While I was growing up, I often heard adults talking about some of the musicians who were popular at that time, and many of those artists are still pretty well known today. However, there were others who seemed to be huge stars in those days but are now largely forgotten, and sometimes I wonder why.
Of course, depending on childhood memories to judge the star power of a performer is probably a little iffy, but I do remember one singer who certainly seemed big around our house. Bobby Helms was a rockabilly pioneer who had several songs on the national charts – including a couple of number ones – but his popularity on our record player might have been helped along by something else.
At that time, my family and most of our various relatives were living throughout the region known as “Illiana”, a mostly rural part of the Midwest where central Illinois and Indiana merge. Bobby Helms was born and raised near Bloomington, Indiana, and there’s not much doubt that regional pride helped endear him to folks in the area.
Bobby was born into a musical family and his father ran a regional country music show. Not surprisingly, young Bobby soon found himself part of the family act, teaming up with brother Freddie and performing as the Helms Brothers.
As he grew to adulthood, he began to stretch himself a little as a solo act, singing in other shows and scuffling around for a while. Eventually he followed the same route that countless other musicians have taken — he went to Nashville and began looking for a way to make an entrance into the big time. He found it when his backup singing for Ernest Tubb – a big country star at that time – led to Tubb’s helping the young singer get a recording contract. His debut for Decca, “Fraulein,” started slow but eventually climbed to number one on the country charts.
Helping build his popularity was his performing style, which might not seem overly smooth when compared to today’s packaged acts. But his clean-cut good looks – complete with dimples – soon had girls buying his records and lining up for his shows.
His next release was an even bigger hit and crossed over to the pop charts too. “My Special Angel” became his signature song – or at least one of them – and it’s also the song that I most remember the female members of my family swooning over. However, his next best-seller is probably more familiar these days because of it’s seasonal aspects — “Jingle Bell Rock” has been a holiday tradition for many years.
Bobby had a few more good-selling country songs in the years after that, and an occasional minor hit, but gradually his sales diminished. He continued performing and recording throughout the next several decades and produced his last album, Pop-A-Billy, in 1983. He died in 1997, one of several Hoosier members of the Rockabilly Hall Of Fame.