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In the early months of 1964, on their inaugural tour of North America, the Beatles seemed to be everywhere: appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show, making the front cover of Newsweek, and playing for fanatical crowds at sold out concerts in Washington, D.C. and New York City. (1)
On Billboard magazine’s April 4, 1964, Hot 100 list, the “Fab Four” held the top five positions. One notch down at #6 was Suspicion, by a virtually unknown singer from Amarillo, Texas, named Terry Stafford. The following week Suspicion – a song that sounded suspiciously like Elvis Presley using an alias – moved up to #3, wedged between the Beatles’ Twist and Shout and She Loves You. (2)
Who was Terry Stafford and how did he find his way into the rarified air of American pop music seized by the British Invasion?
Stafford was born on November 22, 1941 in Hollis, Oklahoma. At seven, his family moved to Amarillo, Texas. Sports were a major part of his childhood as he played both baseball and basketball at Palo Duro High School. Music was also a large part of his life. “My dad played a little guitar, so I was always trying to play and sing as I was growing up. I made my singing debut when I was only ten years old singing at the local Moose Hall. I sang a couple of Hank Williams tunes, Your Cheatin’ Heart and You Win Again. … Later on I joined a country band and got some exposure to Texas swing music (with) Roy Terry & the Pioneer Playboys.” (3)
Terry was also influenced by the Rhythm Orchids, a group led by West Texas State college students, Buddy Knox and Jimmy Bowen that had latched onto the rockabilly sound after watching Elvis perform at Amarillo’s Municipal Auditorium in 1955. He was also aware of what was happening musically beyond the West Texas borders. “I really liked Buddy Holly and Elvis, they were major influences on my singing style.” (3)
After high school graduation, Terry moved to Los Angeles to pursue a music career staying with his cousin, Ted Bevan. His cousin managed a surf group, the Lively Ones, and oftentimes, the band invited Terry to sing at their concerts and dances. This led to a chance to record a demo tape in 1962.
As Stafford explained, “The Lively Ones were recording at the Sound House Studios in El Monte with (studio owner) Bob Summers. I decided that I would like to record at the Sound House, so I picked a tune off of an Elvis Presley album, called Suspicion. Bob Summers played all the instruments except bass. … We took the tape around to all the major labels in town … but they all turned it down.” (3)
This image is the from the front cover of the booklet in one of the few Stafford compilations on CD.
Photo courtesy of Collectables.
Summers, who’s previous claim to rock and fame was as the producer of Larry Hall’s Sandy, was also the producer and engineer of Suspicion. No word as to what instruments were used except for the Ondioline, “an electronic keyboard instrument invented in 1941 by the Frenchman Georges Jenny, and a forerunner of today's synthesizers.” (4) Curious to this writer is the question as to how Summers had access to this seemingly rare keyboard and why he chose to use it for this particular recording.
Also curious was American Bandstand’s Dick Clark, who asked Stafford about the unique sound of the background instrument. “May I ask how you got that peculiar sound in the background? Is there any particular instrumentation that caused it to sound the way it does?” “It’s an organ,” Stafford explained. “Sounds like muted trumpets to me, but it’s an organ.” (5)
Here's an ondioline circa 1950-1960.
Photo courtesy of Electro-Music.com.
Suspicion was written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman. Together, the duo wrote more than 25 songs for Elvis, including A Mess of Blues, Surrender, Kiss Me Quick, (Marie's The Name of) His Latest Flame, Little Sister and Viva Las Vegas. (6) Pomus had this to say about writing for Elvis. “You knew when you wrote for Elvis, you were going to get a performance plus…also you could make a great deal of money writing for Presley because his records sold.” (7)
RCA placed Suspicion on Presley’s Pot Luck album, which was released on May 18, 1962. Presley’s Suspicion was recorded on March 19 in RCA’s Studio B located in Nashville. The musicians included Guitar & Vibes: Grady Martin. Guitar: Harold Bradley, Scotty Moore. Bass: Bob Moore. Drums: Buddy Harman, D.J. Fontana. Piano & Organ: Floyd Cramer. Saxophone & Vibes: Boots Randolph. Vocals: Millie Kirkham, The Jordanaires. (8)
Once Stafford recorded the song, his cousin became his manager and shopped the song around Los Angeles. There were no takers—not even Herb Alpert at A&M, who recorded a few sides of Stafford just a year previous. Nearly a year later, Suspicion fell into the hands of Gene Weed, a DJ at AM powerhouse in Los Angeles, KFWB. Weed was impressed enough with the song to take it next door to John Fisher, president of a startup label, Crusader Records. Stafford recalled, “John Fisher liked it and he did some remixing, remastering (of the original tape) and promised to have it out by January, 1964.” It was Fisher who added to the song’s mystique when he stated that he placed a paper bag over the organ’s (organ and ondioline appear to be used interchangeably in reference materials) speaker that enhanced the distinctive accompaniment. He was also responsible for adding the female backup singers to the final mix. (1)
True to his word, Fisher had Suspicion out in January of 1964. It hit the charts first in San Bernardino in January, followed by breakout status in Los Angeles in February and landed at numbers 2 and 4 respectively on the top ten of KRLA and KFWB. (4) Nationally, the song debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 on February 22nd at #99. (2) Seven weeks later, Suspicion was sandwiched at #3 between the Beatles hits She Loves You and Twist And Shout. (9)
With Stafford’s single in the Top Ten, RCA took notice and released a single by Presley of Kiss Me Quick with Suspicion on the flip side. But it was too little, too late. Charting on May 2nd, the songs reached #34 and #102 respectively and sold just 200,000 units, the King’s worst-performing single at the point. (10)
This is the original dust jacket to the 45 single.
Photo courtesy of RCA Records.
Stafford was on a roll. He appeared with Dick Clark on American Bandstand on March 28, 1964 to lyp-synch Suspicion, and a short time later, appeared at New York’s Paramount Theater with Sam Cooke, the Four Seasons, Ruby and The Romatics and Lesley Gore. (11)
Crusader released the album Suspicion and a follow-up single I’ll Touch A Star in early May. The 45 peaked at #25 on July 4th. (2) Perhaps an interview with Dick Clark on Stafford’s second appearance on Bandstand on July 18 foretold Stafford’s future. The host asked, “You’ve had good luck so far. Does the future scare you at all? You know once you get one hit you have to get the second. Now you’ve had two in a row. Do you worry about the third one yet? Stafford frankly admitted, “Sure … I think it’s something that always scares you.” (12)
Stafford never had that next hit. Follow That Rainbow and Hoping, the next releases on Crusader went nowhere. Couple that with the sudden departure of John Fisher from the label, Terry’s career at Crusader was over. According to Don Perry, who met Stafford through Bob Summers and later worked with the singer, Crusader advanced Stafford “a few thousand dollars,” but when the company went belly-up, “Terry never received another dime in royalties.” (13)
Much has been written about Stafford’s sound-alike voice of Elvis. The same can be said for Ral Donner who had an Elvis-sounding hit with You Don’t Know What You’ve Got (Until You Lose It). Over the years, Stafford gracefully acknowledged the influence and similarities. “I have always been a big fan of Elvis’ ever since I heard his first record. I spent a lot of time listening to his records so I might have picked up some of his phrasing.” (3) However, as his future would prove, Stafford was far more than a mere Presley wannabe.
Stafford regrouped and recorded a few tracks for different labels over the next five years but nothing happened. In 1969, Terry wrote and recorded Big In Dallas. “It wasn’t out long and didn’t make any noise. But Buck Owens heard Big in Dallas somewhere and liked it.” (3) Owens continues the story, “I was in Dallas doing a tour, and I heard … a song called Big in Dallas (on the radio). … At the time, I was playing Las Vegas a lot and I thought, boy, I sure like that song. I wonder if I could change it around a little bit and call it Big in Vegas cause, you know, you make it big in Dallas – that of course is nice, too – but people think if you’ve made it big in Vegas, you’ve really made it.” (14) Owens contacted Stafford asking if he “could do a little re-writing,” along with the title change, and Stafford agreed. (15) Owens shortened the song from three verses to two, omitting several lines, but the sense of stoic acceptance is unaltered. Owens’s studio version of Big in Vegas climbed to #5 on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles in December 1969. (16) (17)
Stafford still toured and by 1973 made his way back to the recording studio. John Fisher was now working for Atlantic Records and signed Terry to record an album. Of the songs selected for the LP, two stood out. One was a country version of a Tony Orlando/Dawn’s Say, Has Anybody Seen My Sweet Gypsy Rose. The single was released and topped at #35 on the Country Chart in late summer of 1973. (17) The second song was co-written by Terry and Paul Fraser titled Amarillo By Morning. Released as the flip side of Gypsy Rose, it topped the charts at #31 in early 1974. (17) The song also defined Stafford’s later years.
Photo courtesy of Atlantic Records.
One story claims that Stafford hatched the idea on the drive back to Amarillo after performing at a rodeo dance in San Antonio. (18) Paul Fraser’s account of the song’s origin was a bit more ordinary. “One night Terry called me at home. He had been watching television and a commercial for a delivery service had just run. This commercial guaranteed they could get your package to places like Amarillo by the next morning (and) he wanted to write a song around that concept.” (19) Fraser scribbled down some lines and took them to Stafford the next day. They refined the lyrics, and Stafford decided to cut the tune at his initial session for Atlantic Records. (20)
George Strait recorded Amarillo By Morning and rode the song to #4 in 1983. (21) Throughout the Southwest the record was treated with rave reviews from fans and disc jockeys. In Texas it almost became a Lone Star anthem. A host of veteran country stars stood up to applaud the number. They were so glad to have what they considered real country music back on the charts. Fiddle players were again demand as people flocked on the dance floors moving to the two-step beat. (22) The song was named "#12 country song of all-time" by Country Music Television. (23)
Fraser later remarked, after George Strait’s success, “It is kind of funny, the song that had so much to do with bringing the Texas sound back was written by a couple of old rockers and inspired by a commercial.” (20)
Terry Stafford died of liver failure on March 17, 1996 at 54 years old. Longtime friend, Dugg Collins wrote Stafford’s eulogy that appeared on the Facebook group, Panhandle Tidbits. “He was laid to rest Tuesday, March 19, 1996 in Llano Cemetery (in Amarillo). As I sat there in the Chapel that day, I really didn't hear what the Preacher had to say. I was thinking about that shy man who was my friend for so many years and just remembering all the great times we had together. His own words kept going through my mind. ‘I haven't got a dime, but what I got is mine, I ain't rich, but Lord I'm free. Amarillo By Morning, Amarillo's where I'll be.’" (24)
From 1962, the original Suspicion by Elvis.
From American Bandstand, Terry Stafford lip-syncs to Suspicion. Dick Clark interviews Terry after his performance.
From the Astrodome, George Strait performs Amarillo By Morning.
1) Spect, Joe W., Amarillo By Morning: The Life and Songs of Terry Stafford, West Texas Historical Association, April 11, 2015. Link.
2) Whitburn, Joel, Billboard Hot 100 Charts The Sixties, 1990.
3) Robert Dalley, Terry Stafford, Goldmine, January 1981, Page 22.
4) Wikipedia, Suspicion_(Terry_Stafford_song), Link.
5) YouTube, Terry Stafford Suspicion. Link.
6) Elvis Australia, Songwriters Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, June 21, 2004, Link.
7) YouTube, Doc Pomus: Writing For Elvis, Link.
8) Elvis Presley Official Website, Elvis The Music, Pot Luck, Link.
9) Whitburn, Joel, Top Pop Singles 1955-2002, Page 670.
10) Guralnick, Peter and Ernst Jorgensen, Elvis Day by Day, 1999, Page 197.
11) Billboard, Teen-Agers Picky About Easter Rock & Roll Spree, April 11,1964, Page 8.
12) YouTube, Terry Stafford I’ll Touch A Star. Link.
13) Facebook, “Don Perry Music Company,” November 8, 2013, Link.
14) Horstman, Dorothy and Fritzi Horstman, America’s Best Loved Country Songs: An Encyclopedia of More Than 3,000 Classics Through the 1980s, (2010), Page 21.
15) Owens, Buck with Randy Poe, Buck ‘Em! The Autobiography of Buck Owens, (2013), Pages 222-223.
16) Whitburn, Joel, Billboard Top Country Singles 1944-2001, Page 258.
17) ibid., Page 333.
18) Albright, Max, Amarillo, A Place To Sing About, Amarillo Globe-Times, September 17, 2003.
19) Collins, Ace, The Stories Behind Country Music’s All Time Greatest 100 Songs, (1998), Page 234.
20) ibid., Pages 235-236.
21) Whitburn, Joel, Billboard Top Country Singles 1944-2001, Pages 341-343.
22) Facebook, Classic Country Music Stories, The Story Behind the Song “Amarillo By Morning,” February 12, 2015. Link.
23) Wikipedia, Terry Stafford, Link.
24) Facebook, Panhandle Tidbits, Terry Stafford, August 10, 2016. Link.
Photo courtesy of Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.
© 2018 Jerry Reuss