One morning in 1974, not long after his father’s death, Mike Day was sitting in his parents’ Okmulgee living room contemplating his murky future and idly watching the John Chick Variety Show on Channel 8, out of Tulsa.
Mike’s father, Red Day, was a weekend bass player from Okmulgee who had worked Oklahoma’s honky-tonk circuit in the ‘60s. Mike’s parents bought him a bright red drum set for Christmas when he was 12. By the time he was 15, he was sitting in on gigs with his father. The two of them made a whole rhythm section, which brought more money into the household.
Chick’s musical guests looked like a bunch of cowboy hippies, with their long hair, beards, and cowboy boots. When they began playing “Take Me Back to Tulsa,” Day sat up and took notice. Longhairs playing Western swing was still a novelty at the time.
When Chick mentioned that the band were students from the Hank Thompson School of Country Music in Claremore, Oklahoma, Day stood up and said aloud to himself, “What I need is a college education!” The next day he drove to Claremore and enrolled.
In 1971, after 52 years as “The West Point of the Southwest,” and in the wake of the anti-war movement of the ‘60s, the Oklahoma Military Academy in Claremore reinvented itself as Claremore Junior College. The administration of the new college needed programs that would distinguish it from its past. Larry Fowler, dean of development, was an old friend of Jim Halsey’s. At the time, Halsey was running the biggest country music talent agency in the world from his nearby Tulsa office. Halsey and Fowler came up with the idea of creating a country music school.
Halsey had been Hank Thompson’s agent since 1952.
Thompson was Halsey’s first client. They had remained close friends and business associates, so Halsey suggested naming the school after his old friend Thompson. Plus, Thompson lived in Sand Springs, Oklahoma, at the time, so he would be available to lecture occasionally, and, more importantly, perform at annual fundraising banquets. He agreed to let them use his name.
By 1973, the school was accepting students. The curriculum included classes in writing, performing, music theory, country music appreciation, and fundamentals of the business side of the music industry.
Day remembers the music courses sometimes being rather loosely structured, often consisting of the class just playing each others’ songs for three to four hours, critiquing, and getting used to playing together. Classes in music theory gave him the valuable skills of reading music and transcribing. His instructors included Western swing legends Leon McAuliffe and Eldon Shamblin, as well as Darrell Magee, a multi-instrumentalist from nearby Inola. Day graduated with the class of ‘75, with an associate degree in country music. He has been a working musician ever since. His life in music has taken him to all 50 states, touring with Stone Horse, Eddie Rabbitt, and others. He worked in Nashville for 10 years for a music publisher.
Day’s career in music wouldn’t have happened, he says, if not for the training and the contacts he made at Hank Thompson School of Country Music. Day has long been a familiar figure in the Tulsa music scene, driving the drums behind Tom Skinner’s Science Project. Lately, he’s withdrawn from performing to focus on recording in his Okmulgee home studio.
A couple of evenings before visiting with Day, I met with guitarist Paul Benjaman, who had just come off a nationwide tour with up-and-coming Americana act The Secret Sisters. We sat on a bench outside Chimera Café, on Bob Wills Boulevard, in Tulsa’s bustling Brady District. The September air was cool, and spiced by the chimneys of a dozen nearby café kitchens. Lines were forming outside Cain’s Ballroom, just up the street, and at Brady Theater, just around the corner. Groups of people dressed for a night of rock and roll brushed past us going both directions on the sidewalk. I asked Benjaman about his experience at the Hank Thompson School of Country Music.
Benjaman grew up in Inola. In 1985, when he was 11 years old, he took guitar lessons from a neighbor, Mrs. Magee, whom he describes as “a nice church lady.” She taught him how to play “The Marine’s Hymn” and the like. Once he’d gained rudimentary skills, he dropped the lessons. When he turned 13, he was ready to rock and roll. He wanted to resume lessons. Mrs. Magee couldn’t help him when it came to rock though, so she asked her husband Darrell if he knew anyone who could. Darrell Magee was by then director at the Hank Thompson School of Country Music. He told Benjaman that one of the instructors at the school might be willing to give him private lessons. The instructor’s name was Junior Brown. This was not long before Brown’s breakout into country music stardom, when he’d be compared to everyone from Ernest Tubb to Jimi Hendrix. They made arrangements, and for the next year or so Benjaman’s dad drove him to Claremore once a week after school to take guitar lessons from Junior Brown on campus.
When they met for the first lesson, Brown asked Benjaman why he wanted to play guitar.
“I dunno. ‘Cause it’s cool?” Benjaman attempted to answer. Brown stopped him before he could say anything else.
“No. That’s not why. We both know why you want to play guitar. To get girls, right? That’s why everybody does it. That’s why I did it.” That broke the ice. Brown was dressed in a suit and tie, a white cowboy hat, and boots. Benjaman doesn’t remember ever seeing him dressed any other way. Benjaman was fascinated with “Ol’ Yeller,” Brown’s yellow custom-made combination six-string guitar and steel guitar, which Brown called a “guit-steel.”
Brown taught Benjaman Western swing, surf rock, honky tonk, blues, country, and more. One day he was teaching Benjaman how to play stop-time blues, where you play a riff, stop, play it again, stop, and so on. He told him at each stop to howl at the top of his lungs like an old blues man. Benjaman’s voice was changing at the time, so when he howled it sounded like some four-legged beast in terrible pain. Benjaman remembers seeing his father, waiting outside, looking through the window with an expression of alarm.
Brown wanted Benjaman to listen to Jimi Hendrix. “Get you some Hendrix!” he said. Benjaman read some articles about Hendrix, and at the next lesson he asked Brown what he thought about the song “Voodoo Chile.” Benjaman didn’t recognize the word “Chile,” so he pronounced it “Voodoo Chili,” which caused Brown to double over with laughter. He made Benjaman a Hendrix tape. Later, Benjaman made a cassette of his own songs for Brown. As a joke between them, Benjaman had named one of his songs “Voodoo Chili.” Brown met his wife and rhythm guitarist, “the lovely Tanya Rae,” while he was teaching and she was a student at the school. Sometime in the late ‘80s, they moved to Austin, Texas, where his virtuoso playing made them a sensation as the house band at the Continental Club. By 1990, they’d released their first album, 12 Shades of Brown, which was followed by a string of hit songs and videos. In October of 2014, Brown released a video to promote the upcoming AMC program Better Call Saul, a spinoff of Breaking Bad.
After finishing high school, Benjaman enrolled at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, where he majored in music. He played trombone in the marching band and continued to hone his skills on the guitar. About 10 years after they’d parted company, Benjaman and Brown encountered each other in Coffeyville, Kansas, where they were both booked to play a festival. When Brown saw Benjaman, he said, “Hey, I still have that tape you made! I play it for the guys on the bus all the time!” He introduced Benjaman to his bass player as “the kid who made that tape with ‘Voodoo Chili’ on it.”
Benjaman has become one of the most respected players in the Tulsa music scene. Many of his biggest fans are other guitarists, including the extraordinarily talented Steve Pryor, whom Benjaman considers a mentor. “I see the guitar solo as a dying art,” he told me. “When I see Steve do that, it goes into a whole spiritual realm that musicians rarely get to talk about, because we don’t even want to assign words to it. And if I’m able to do that sometimes, it’s because I had Junior Brown teach me when I was younger, and I can tape Pryor and later transcribe it and learn from it.”
The Hank Thompson School of Country Music conducted its last classes in the summer of 1991, due to declining enrollment, the loss of faculty, tightening budgets, and a different vision for the college’s future. By 1998, the college had reinvented itself again, this time as Rogers State University, a four-year university, with campuses in Claremore, Pryor, and Bartlesville.
Jim Halsey remains active in music education. In 1995 he created and directed the highly regarded music and entertainment business program at Oklahoma City University.
Hank Thompson’s last performance was October 8, 2007, in his old hometown of Waco. He died a month later, at age 82. His career had spanned seven decades.
He inspired the character Bad Blake in the movie Crazy Heart, for which Jeff Bridges won an Academy Award in 2009. The film was adapted from Thomas Cobb’s novel of the same name. Cobb was inspired to write the novel when he saw an aging Hank Thompson open for Conway Twitty in Houston in 1981.
Thompson’s biographer, Warren Kice, estimates that by the time of his death, he’d sold between 60 and 65 million records. They’re still selling.
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 24, December 15, 2014.