Whitey Johnson was the first guitar player I ever saw that amazed me, and I always go back to that parking lot in Garland, Texas when someone asks what made me want to play. It was Labor Day 1963 with the new asphalt oozing a black goo that would rob your flip flops if you didn’t keep moving. My baseball buddies and me were hot footin’ all around the shopping center carnival, rocking the Tilt-a-Whirl and the bumper cars and ruling the Fun House. Leon Phelps was my ride to the fair. His dad played mandolin in a bluegrass band called The Breakdown Boys, they were all mechanics, that played before the Valiants, who mostly covered Elvis and Jerry Lee, Little Richard and Fats Domino. The Valiants had the perfect look for a combo of their day, powder blue shirts, white dickies, tight black slacks, pointed toe white loafers, and razor-cut pompadours standing tall. Their outfits were complimented with matching white Fender Telecaster, Stratocaster, and Precision Bass with beige Fender amps. They were smoking and laughing at each other’s dirty jokes the whole time The Breakdown Boys played their set of crippled up Flatt and Scruggs and Bill Monroe stuff. Leon and I tried to look cool and act like rockers, like we didn’t like his dad’s band, even lighting up behind the flat-bed truck that was the stage while his dad was busy workin’ the mandolin and couldn’t see us.
About halfway through a tortured “Rocky Top” the Valiant’s drummer’s girlfriend, picture a very tired Tuesday Weld, came running to the back of the stage and let out with the news that Jimmy Rains, their lead guitar player, had missed his plane back from his grandfather’s funeral in Lubbock and would not make the show. The news hit them hard. Leon and I watched their lead singer, Randy, instantly drop his cool collected James Dean swagger and start pacing around his candy apple red ’57 Chevy, looking up at the cloudless sky crying, ” What are we gonna do, what are we gonna do, we can’t play without Jim, he’s the only one who knows the songs, we’re screwed” on and on. They really were screwed. Randy did not play an instrument, he only sang and looked dreamy eyed cool. The bass player, Billy Ray, could only play the patterns that Jimmy had tirelessly trained him to play on twelve songs and Ron, the organ player, could barely block out three note chords with his right hand. They had never considered playing any music without Jimmy. Then Randy lit up with an idea. “Hey what about that albino dude that Jimmy always talks about being the best picker in town, plays at the Holy Roller church”
“How do you think we’re gonna find him in fifteen minutes” the drummer said, shifting his girlfriend on his lap. “I know his mama is the cook at the Nite Owl, my cousin busses tables over there,” said Billy Ray. “Well, get her on the phone quick or we’re gonna have to pack up and get outta here ’cause if all these people see us standing around they’re gonna want us to play whether we’ve got a lead guitar player or not, and we’re gonna suck,” Randy said, as he flicked his cigarette away.
So I guess Billy Ray called Whitey’s mom and somehow they found him and told him to come on down to the fair, because about twenty minutes later Whitey and his brother came pulling up in an old Ford pickup with a Fender Super Reverb covered with a quilt strapped in the back. It was then that I first realized that Whitey was actually black, cause his brother was black. I had never heard the word albino and had no idea what that meant, but taking a good look at Whitey you could see that though he was white, he wasn’t like all us other white boys. Whitey’s hair had a yellowish tint that almost looked dyed, and was real frizzy in small tight curls. His lips were big like his brother’s, but his eyes were very light blue with pink eyelids that seemed irritated. He wore black slacks too short with white socks and black penny loafers with lightning strikes on the sides and a white short sleeve shirt with skinnny black tie, a uniform for a side musician. While his brother unloaded his amp and lifted it onto the stage, Whitey put his ear down close to his red Harmony Rocket to check his tuning, asking Ron to give him an E note from the organ. He then quickly adjusted the knobs on his amp, cranking up a healthy dose of treble and reverb. He struck a few notes to test his volume, then turned and looked around for the first time to face the Valiants.
“What you guys usually kick off with?” He asked. “Let’s just do “Johnny B Goode” to get things going,” said Randy, nervously looking Whitey up and down, “in A”.
Whitey leaned into the drummer and threw down strong on the intro exactly like the record. The Valiants jumped in with him and they were rockin’, but the guys kept looking at Whitey with half smiles trying to adjust to his driving rhythm, something they had obviously not experienced the same way before. After the first chorus of “go, go Johnny go” they got a little more comfortable and fell into a groove. When the solo came up Whitey tore into it hard, doing all the Chuck Berry licks everybody was ready for, then stretching out a little, but not so much that it would throw any of them off. He just looked out into the crowd smiling, never looking down at his hands on the neck, it was all so effortless. They played the stock ending and before the cymbal crash died Randy jumped in singing “Whole lotta Shakin” in the same key. After that Randy introduced Whitey to the crowd, explaining that he had come to sit in for their regular guitar player who had missed his flight.
” Let’s have a big hand for him ya’ll, Whitey Johnson,” Randy said, and there came some scattered applause. ” Not quite white enough” we heard someone holler from the middle of the crowd. I was up close to the side of the flat bed truck stage and couldn’t really see where the voice was coming from, but a bunch of people turned around and looked in that direction. I realized it was some guys with letter jackets and burr heads who were drunk and lookin’ to make some trouble.
Randy had enough sense to jump right into “Gonna tell Aunt Mary ’bout Uncle John, said he had some misery but he’s having lots of fun oh baby, ohh ohh baby having some fun tonight” ala Little Richard. The trouble makers were laughing and moving around with their girls sorta but not really dancin’ and everything seemed cool for the moment.
Whitey was looking at the guy that he was pretty sure must have hollered the “not white enough” stuff, and the way the guy looked back at Whitey made it very obvious that he was the one and there could be more of his racist bullshit to come any minute. Whitey smiled a cold smile till the tune ended, then he turned to the drummer.
“Just give me a strong backbeat,” I heard him say. Then he turned to the bass player and organ player and said, “You guys just lay out for awhile, I gotta do this”. He reached down and turned the volume all the way up on his amp and went into the riff of “I’m a Man” by Muddy Waters. It got everybody’s attention quick. People who were playing all the sucker games down the side strip of the fair started making their way to the stage, along with the kids getting off the Ferris wheel and bumper cars that were nearby. Whitey had stepped up to the microphone and was singing “I’m a Man, I spell M A N” and glaring hard into the face of the loudmouthed letterman. The groove was so heavy and undeniable, with one huge distorted electric guitar and backbeat drums. Thinking back now I’m sure none of the folks at the little shopping center fair in Garland,Texas 1963 had ever heard anything even resembling what Whitey was laying down. It was acid rock before acid, Hendrix before Hendrix, his semi-hollow body Rocket was howling feedback and Whitey played with it, holding the guitar close to the amp to get the wildest possible electric moans. The sounds he was making were as if he were up in the kid’s face yelling at him. He then looked hard at the smartass and turned his smile into a stark stare that said “you should be ashamed of yourself, son.” The kid looked very uncomfortable, red in the face and embarrassed.
Whitey’s presence expanded before us, he seemed to get physically larger some way when he played a long mean dissonant solo then sang the last verse and ended by taking his guitar from around his neck and holding it next to the speakers to get the loudest feedback yet, then leaned his guitar against the amp and turned the reverb all the way up. He just stood there and glared awhile at the red-faced redneck kid before he reached behind the amp and turned it off to let the sound slowly fade, finally giving some relief to the amazed crowd. Everyone erupted into applause with shouts and whistling while the Valiants just grinned and stared at Whitey for awhile before Randy jumped to the mic and announced in his best show biz voice that they would take a fifteen minute intermission. It was obvious that Randy couldn’t handle following Whitey’s outrageous performance with more lame cover tunes.
After they put their instruments down and climbed off the truck-bed stage, the guys came over to Whitey and started praising his playing and thanking him for saving the day. I was standing off to the side watching Whitey show Randy his guitar and tell him what kind of strings he used when a loud voice came from behind me.
“If that little white nigger wants to start some shit, he’s come to the right place.” Everyone turned to look in my direction at the same time and I looked behind me to see a big ol’ Hoss Cartwright-looking dude taking slow and deliberate steps toward Whitey.
“I saw you lookin’ at my little brother like you want some trouble while you were makin’ all that racket up there, and I’m telling you to git your shit and git while the gittin’s good before I bust you upside the head with your piece of shit guitar,” the words roared out of his fat face.
“Wayne, you got no business coming back here trying to start shit,” said Randy, moving in front of Whitey. “This guy’s doing us a big favor sittin in for Jimmy, we couldn’t have played without him, besides that, he ain’t done nothin to you or your little brother.”
“Well I just don’t like the smartass look on his face, anyway, what are you boy, black or white? If you’re white you need to quit ridin’ around with niggers and if you’re black, you need to stay with your own kind.” Wayne’s big voice was not so loud now that he knew no one was gonna side with him, but he had to keep talkin’ his shit anyway.
“I guess I’m black and I’m white too,” said Whitey. “Nothin’ I can do about it, but it ain’t nothin’ but skin, man, and I sure don’t need no more name callin’, ” He was closin’ up his guitar case and winding up his cord. “Guess I’ll see you good folks on down the line, it was fun makin a little music with ya’ll.”
“Hey, Whitey, you’re not leavin’ are you, we gotta do another set,” Randy had a desperate tone in his voice.
“Oh, you guys will do all right without me, I think I’ve played about everything I know already,” Whitey was climbing in the truck, his brother had already loaded up the amp. I watched Randy walk over and put some money in Whitey’s shirt pocket and tell him thanks again. As we watched them drive away, everybody looked over at big ol’ Wayne and just shook their heads. He mumbled something nobody understood as he walked off. The Valiants didn’t make an attempt to play another set, the evenings entertainment closed out with another set by The Breakdown Boys, a repeat of the set they had done earlier in the day, they only knew twelve songs. Leon and I went back to hangin’ around the girls at the Fun House.
That was my first time to hear Whitey play, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I was so inspired by his performance that I made up my mind to really try to learn more, but as I started taking lessons I realized that what he had done that day was far beyond the reach of any teacher I could find, or any scales I could practice, or licks I could pick off of records. He was putting himself into the music in a way that I wouldn’t see again until I saw Hendrix the first time, about six years later. With Whitey it was all about feeling. He had honed a sound that blended all the styles of his heroes T-Bone Walker, the three Kings, BB, Freddy, and Albert, with a strong dose of some kind of surf guitar weirdness that no one around the Dallas area was hip to yet. His performances in local clubs became the thing all the musicians were talking about. He could be a wild one, doing everything from playing behind his back and over his head to playing with his teeth, falling to his knees, laying on his back slidin across the stage, anything you’d ever seen any guitar trickster do, Whitey would do it with a manic fun loving smile, making it look so easy. The story came around after Whitey’s death that he had seen Hendrix play in Vegas with some lame lounge act, a gig he had to take while Little Richard wasn’t working. Whitey went there every night after hours when he got off his own gig at midnight. Apparently he got to be friends with Jimi and learned everything he could from him. Anyway, it was a wonderful surprise to hear that first Hendrix record and begin to understand a little about where Whitey had been coming from.
About two weeks after the fair moved on, Leon came by the house one Sunday afternoon and told me he had heard that Whitey would be playing at the Pentecostal church over on the East side of town for a fund-raiser for a new building. He got this information from Billy Ray’s cousin, who worked at the Nite Owl, where Whitey’s mom was a short order cook. We had no way to get there except to ride our bikes because we sure couldn’t ask our parents to give us a ride to the black part of town to sneak into a church. It would be a longer bike ride than we would usually consider, but by now I had a few more guitar lessons in me and I was ready to go check out Whitey again and see what I might pick up. Leon and I took off right after supper, telling our parents that we were going bowling and would be home by ten. We got to the church a little early so we stopped in the 7/11and got a couple of Fudgesicles and cruised the area for awhile. It felt a little dangerous for us white boys to be riding through the black neighborhood. We got a few long looks from some kids playin basketball at the school and we heard someone holler “Where you goin’ whitey?” after we rode on by. Leon laughed and said “Yea it’s whitey, goin’ to hear Whitey.”
We circled back around to the church and watched people walkin in for awhile until the preacher drove up in his old green Oldsmobile. We were surprised to see Whitey get out of the back seat and come around to open the trunk. He pulled a new looking gray guitar case out and started walking in behind the preacher. At this point we made our move to get a little closer to the church, figuring we would let the service start and then sneak inside in the most inconspicuous way. But when I saw Whitey walkin’ in with that case I couldn’t keep myself from peddling on up, knocking my kickstand down as I coasted in, so I could walk right in behind them. When I realized what I’d done, I fell back a little so they wouldn’t notice me and sat in a back pew.
When Whitey opened the case I was amazed. Now I know that it was a Gretch White Falcon, the top of the line model that I would later see played by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, but that night it looked like the guitar that Michael the Archangel would play if called down from heaven on a special rescue mission for the Eastside Church of the Pentecost. The White Falcon has all gold hardware, including tuning keys, bridge, Bigsby tailpiece, volume and tone knobs, and of course the fine filtertron dual coil hum canceling pickups. The sparkling gold binding on the body and the neck and the snap-on pad on the back made it one of the most over-the-top flamboyant, but classy, electric guitars ever made.
I watched Whitey find a cord and plug into that same Super Reverb he had used at the fair. He turned on the tremolo and got that great Pop Staples shake going with a heavy alternating thumb rhythm. The preacher smiled and said “Praise the Lord, Whitey, I believe that’ll work just fine.”
Whitey then sat down in a chair behind the podium holding the magnificent instrument and smiling at the folks as they found their seats. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. With no volume on he was making some chords up and down the neck I had never seen before, maybe hearing some melody in his head, and I was fascinated. Then the organist came out and began to play “Doxology” and then “In the Garden” with Whitey quietly chording along. By now, Leon had made his way into church and found me on the back pew. He was a little mad at me for taking off without him and he said we should always stick together in case there was any trouble. But nobody ever gave us much of a second look, and I never felt unwelcome. I did feel out of place, like I was stepping into their world without an invitation, but it wasn’t them making me feel that way. The truth is, if anybody had asked me what I was doing there, I would have probably come right out with ” I’m here to watch that man play guitar!”
Reverend Eugene Davis got the service underway with a prayer and then made a few announcements regarding the building fund. He gave a brief sermon that didn’t sound much different than the usual things we heard at our Baptist church, but when the music started everything changed. Reverend Davis’ sister, Marvelle, made her way to the pulpit shaking a tambourine and humming a tune under her breath. When she finally got her 300 pound frame up the steps and turned to face the congregation, she opened her mouth to reveal all her teeth, white ones and gold ones, and let out with a long sustained soulful vibrato that exploded into a fast rockin’ two-beat version of “Jesus Gonna be here Soon.” The organist, who had been playing so quiet and reverently, was now kicking the bass pedals in a hard drivin’pattern that moved everyone to stand up and shout and shake and wave hands in the air and sing out loud. There were more battered tambourines and some cowbells and shakers made from coke cans filled with dry beans and duct taped on the ends. Everybody had something to rattle or beat on and everybody was up on their feet moving. Except, of course, Leon and me. We just sat in a back pew, never daring to get too close to the action. But I did find myself scootin’ around the room with my back to the wall so I could zero in on Whitey’s hands, which held all the salvation I had come for.
I remember talking to Leon that night while we were biking back home about Whitey’s playing in church. Leon was saying he wasn’t so impressed, because Whitey didn’t do any of the flashy stuff he had done at the fair. But I was even more impressed with Whitey for not stepping out and drawing attention to himself, he just played the hymns and accompanied the singers, keeping himself in the background with a respectful reverence that seemed right for playing in church. He was never too loud, with a sweet tone and that beautiful pulsing tremolo. Besides that, he played a lot of chord voicings and changes that I had never heard before, that were beyond the usual rock’n’roll and blues we were all used to, and I could feel his depth and soulfulness. The other thing that struck me that night, that I never brought up to Leon, was how much more black Whitey was in church that night with all his people around him. I guess I hadn’t thought much about it, but the only other time I had seen him had been on stage with some white boys, and the Valiants were really white. There in the middle of the congregation, laughing and carryin’ on and makin’ music, there was no mistaking Whitey’s race, and it made me wonder what it must have been like for him, having the disability of being white.
The summer days kept dragging by for me. I was mowing yards and helping Leon with his paper route, and trying to get a little better on the guitar. I was taking lessons at the Music Mart from Don McCord, who had once played with Bob Wills and had pictures on the wall to prove it. He had me playing “San Antonio Rose” and “Faded Love” and I was taking him Beatles records hoping he could show me some stuff that might impress the girls. He told me one day that Whitey had gone on the road with Bobby”Blue”Bland and they were gonna work in Vegas and then tour Europe. He said everybody was really talkin’ up Whitey, like he was the best around, and it made me proud that I’d seen him play a few times and that he was from our little town.
At my guitar lesson two weeks later I got the news. Whitey had been in a horrible car wreck on the road with Bobby Bland. The driver (Buzz Brown, sax) was in the hospital with a concussion and the front passenger (Kenny Keys, keyboards) broke three ribs and his left arm. Whitey broke his right leg. He was back in Garland staying at his mother’s house after seeing Las Vegas, London, Paris, Amsterdam, Switzerland, and who knows what else. We heard all about it from Billy Ray’s cousin over at the Nite Owl. Whitey’s mom had post cards he’d sent tacked up in the kitchen, so proud of him.
With Whitey off the road, he started playing all the time in church. In addition to the Sunday and Wednesday night services, there were Friday night fish fry fundraisers for the new addition, which would be a Sunday school room. I kept saying I was gonna go to another service, but Leon’s dad had found out about us and told Leon to never go back. He said it wasn’t because he had anything against blacks, he just thought we might be asking for trouble, that they might think we were making fun of their religion. Besides that, his Dad said, we weren’t members of that church, and why didn’t we just go to our own Church of Christ service. We didn’t have a comeback for that one. I thought about going by myself, but it was pretty scary to be biking alone through an all black neighborhood in those days, even if your destination was church. Besides, it was almost five miles, which seemed like a lot at age thirteen on my hand-me-down bike. Anyway, I never made the trip again. I’d give anything if I had.
The rest of this story is still so unreal to me that I picture it as a movie or a nightmare or a lie someone told that got all stretched out of control in the telling and the retelling. Anyway, with Whitey’s mom as a source, this is what happened. Whitey loved to play the beautiful White Falcon that he played in church. The guitar had been left to the church by Otis Reeves, a regional gospel singer who performed with his two daughters for years around North Texas, doing shows with such well known artists as the Staples Singers and The Mighty Clouds of Joy. When Whitey had his accident Reverend Davis offered to let him keep the guitar at his house and bring it to the Sunday and Wednesday night services. But Whitey didn’t feel good about taking that expensive instrument out of the church, afraid that it could get stolen or something might happen. So Whitey would get a ride to the church with his mom as she was going to the Nite Owl, and he would limp into the Reverend’s office and play all day long. His leg was in a full white plaster cast, movin’ slow on his crutches, so he would just sit there practicing scales and playing along with the radio, and sometimes a few folks from the choir would stop in and they would do a little rehearsal for the Sunday service. This all worked out great until Whitey’s mom got moved to the late shift, twelve midnight till nine in the morning. At that point Whitey lost his ride and he went a few weeks without playing the White Falcon. But one Thursday evening Whitey decided he really wanted to play and he was willing to just lay down on the Reverend’s couch and take a little nap if he got tired. His mom would stop by and pick him up on her way home in the morning.
Whitey’s mom said that when she dropped him off at the church that evening she came in for awhile, and Whitey played some hymns for her. She said he was complainin’ about his bad leg so she made him take some of the pain medicine the doctor had prescribed. She said he didn’t want to take it ’cause it made him too drowsy to play, and that’s what he was there to do. But he did take the medicine, and that further explains why he never woke up when the fire started.
I had never heard of the Klan before Whitey’s death. I didn’t know they existed. Later when I see films of them in their white hoods burning crosses raisin’ hell in the name of God I would try to imagine what might have taken place the night they torched East Side Pentecostal. They didn’t know Whitey was in there, but it’s still unimaginable to me that anyone could be so full of hate that they would destroy a sweet little harmless church where people liked to smile and dance and sing worship to God. How could they justify it? Wouldn’t they reason that their own White God would be a bit disappointed? It’s the kind of ignorance I’ll never understand. Two of the officers on the scene tried to promote the theory that it could have been some drunk teenage pranksters daring each other into some senseless vandalism that got out of hand, but none of the congregation was gonna buy that, everyone knew it was the Klan.
At least whoever did the torching would have had no way of knowing Whitey was there asleep in Reverend Davis’ office; not that it would have stopped them, but hopefully no one actually intended for him to be trapped in the flames, unable to hobble away fast enough from the thick black smoke he was inhaling, too slowed down by his full length plaster cast to get out the office door before the flames reached the adjacent storage closet where the lawnmower and gasoline were kept. They said it was the explosion of the gas can at about four in the morning that woke up the neighbors who called the fire department.
No one really knew exactly what happened to Whitey. They say when the fire trucks got there, his body was burned beyond recognition, with his charred white cast smoldering. I never let myself imagine how he might have suffered. I’ve heard that sometimes when sleeping people die in fires, they might not even wake up, that they just inhale the smoke and pass out and it’s over and they don’t have to feel the torturous burns while trapped in flames unable to run. I like to imagine that Whitey might have gone out in his sleep like that, and left his body to float above the blaze, looking down on his flesh melting with the flaming White Falcon, witnessing his own cremation with the beautiful instrument at the most holy place he knew, then easing off to heaven. But then I think about the gas can exploding, and how it must have woke him up, and I go back to picturing all kinds of horrible scenes.
I had to go there as soon as I heard about it, I had to see whatever was left of the church and say goodbye to Whitey some way. It took me awhile to get up the courage to ask my Dad to drive me, but I guess he could tell how much it meant, he just walked on out to the car. On the way there, he told me as much as he knew about the Klan and their activities. He said he had a Masonic friend who was a detective in Dallas and he was gonna talk to him about an investigation. My dad rarely cursed, but I remember him saying “Somebody’s gotta stop those assholes.”
When we got there we just sat in the car for awhile and looked over the scene. The arched front entrance of the little white frame church was slouching down humiliated, it’s scorched doors standing open. It appeared that the arsonist had broken through a stained glass window closest to the pulpit to start the blaze, the podium and steps for the choir were collapsed and reduced to ashes. Reverend Davis’ office, where Whitey had been, was just gone. The gas can exploding had left nothing but black on black charcoal, and a blown out metal desk to reveal that an office had once been there.
Dad was saying we should just go on and leave, and beginning to turn the ignition, when I overheard one of the officers say something about a melted guitar. I asked my Dad to give me a moment, and I got out and walked slowly up to the still smoldering rubble at the back of the church. I saw the gold hardware glittering before I saw anything else, then as I stepped through the ashes I could make out the neck. I stood there awhile and took it in. The White Falcon was a charred and twisted mess with blistered paint making ugly black bubbles on what was left of its body. The thick plastic of the pickguard was melted over the gold pickups and the Bigsby tailpiece was loose with a few broken strings waving. The neck, with its ivoried fret markers intact, was broken where it joined the body and pointed away. The headstock, with it’s fancy gold tuning keys, was so incinerated that the keys were just lying there, blackened but still attempting to shine. I looked up to see if the cop was watching before I slipped one into my pocket. I’ve still got it.