In the current climate of political correctness, it's amazing to think that a scant few decades ago, a quarter-Cherokee country singer named Marvin Rainwater would shamelessly trade on his Indian pedigree to make himself a name on the country music circuit. But backing up this ridiculous charade was some very solid music from an artist who could work and create in a multiplicity of styles. Few artists in country music ever made music as quirky and just plain weird as that of one Marvin Rainwater. His recorded cannonade — featuring his strong, rumbling baritone — showed that he was equally adept at Western ballads and pop confections with breathtaking go-for-broke forays into rockabilly.
He was born Marvin Percy Rainwater in 1925. After a stint in the Navy during World War II serving as a pharmacist's mate, he turned to music full-time. He had originally been a classically trained pianist, but after an accident had removed part of his right thumb, he turned to country music and soon learned to strum a guitar proficiently enough to accompany his singing and compose songs on it. After putting down roots in nearby Virginia, Rainwater quickly became a fixture on the Washington, D.C., area honky tonk circuit, putting together his first band featuring a young Roy Clark on lead guitar and himself decked out in buckskin jacket and Indian headband. His first recordings came through the auspices of Bill McCall at 4-Star Records. Picturing himself as a songwriter first and performer second, Rainwater was hooked up through McCall with Ben Adleman, a songwriter with a small studio. Rainwater recorded several song demos to be pitched to other artists through Adleman's and McCall's publishing concerns, only to see the demos poorly overdubbed and released at the height of his later fame on a myriad of dime-store budget labels like Crown and others too microscopic to mention.
But McCall also took three completed masters from other sessions ("I Gotta Go Get My Baby," "Hearts' Hall of Fame," and "Albino Stallion") and had them pressed on a custom promotional 45, then promptly sold the masters to Coral Records. Rainwater's recording of "I Gotta Go Get My Baby" was promptly handed over to Teresa Brewer, who covered and had a hit with it in the pop market. But what propelled Rainwater up the show business ladder was a successful television performance on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, the early-'50s equivalent of Star Search. Godfrey had a top-rated morning show as well, and after his win, Rainwater made frequent guest spots on it, reaching a national audience for the first time. Rainwater responded in kind by recording a composition in his honor, "Tea Bag Romeo," a reference to Godfrey's sponsor, Lipton Tea. By late 1955 he was a full-time member of Red Foley's Ozark Jubilee television and touring show, relocating to Springfield, MO. On one package show, he was introduced backstage to a precocious little girl who wanted to sing that night on the show. After hearing the moppet belt out part of a tune, Rainwater was convinced and introduced young Brenda Lee Tarpley to Red Foley, and the rest — as they say — is both country and rock & roll history.
Shortly after signing with Foley, Rainwater started recording for M-G-M Records, his longest lasting label affiliation. The recordings are as scatter-gunned of an approach to commercial recording as you can possibly imagine. Solemn Americana recitations ("Pink Eyed Stallion") sat alongside novelty fluff like "Tennessee Hound Dog Yodel," which were B-sided by straight-ahead country weepers rife with down-home sentiments. Suddenly at his next recording session in March 1956, Rainwater shifted gears again, deciding to cast his lot with the emerging rockabilly sound. The result was a two-sided blast of tonal mayhem, coupling the out-of-control "Hot and Cold" with the slightly less frenetic "Mr. Blues." Though both sides kicked up sufficient noise, it cost him big time in the country fan department, the members of his fan club confused that this former folk balladeer had suddenly become an apostle for the big beat.
But rockabilly was a way for country artists to achieve pop stardom and, with the first successful attempts at crossover appeal already in place, Rainwater didn't have to wait long to find his song. That tune was "Gonna Find Me a Bluebird," a tune that went to number three on the country charts while simultaneously climbing to number 18 on the pop charts. Suddenly flush with success, Rainwater quit the Ozark Jubilee and moved his base of operations to New York City, ready to take on the world. But the follow-ups to "Gonna Find Me a Bluebird" were as diverse and quirky as his pre-hit output (one included a duet with Connie Francis) and his slide from the charts, coupled with one bad business deal after another, was swift and sure. In order to keep his slippery footing on any kind of chart, Rainwater had taken on a personal appearance schedule that would reduce lesser individuals to babbling protoplasm. By 1961, with his days on the pop charts largely behind him, Rainwater showed up for several recording sessions with his voice so burned out from show dates that he was unrecordable. His final M-G-M sessions not only remained unissued, but most of them appear to have been either lost or destroyed. In Rainwater's own words, "I had no voice and no money."
After a nine-month layoff, he signed with Warwick Records and with Link Wray and the Raymen backing him, put out a pair of singles that were as fine as anything he had recorded in his heyday. But the marketplace in both pop and country had changed a lot since 1957, and the sides fell stillborn at the presses. Going for it one more time, Rainwater and new partner Bill Guess built a studio in Chicago and started up Brave Records, solely devoting its catalog to new songs from the singer. Aside from a brief stay with United Artists in 1964 and a one-off session for Warner Brothers in 1969, the Brave singles document Rainwater's last commercial sides. Since the '70s — aside from an occasional appearance on a European rockabilly revival — Rainwater has been living in a house trailer in northern Minnesota on an undeveloped tract of land, spending most of his time ruminating on what might have been. He may not have become a big name, but he left behind a great number of sides that showed real musical depth and originality. And that's got to count for something. ~ Cub Koda