Stayton driving force in birth of Delaware rock ‘n’ roll

It began on a day in late 1954 when Jimmy Stayton, of Felton, still a teenager, took a trip on the Norfolk Ferry across the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. It was not today’s relatively short trip on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. To while away the time, he perused the ferry’s jukebox and found a name that peaked his curiosity. That name was “Elvis Presley.”

Jimmy Stayton, right, of Felton, recorded some of the first rockabilly tunes in the history of music. Many of his recordings are eagerly sought by record collectors to this day and have appeared on any number of rockabilly anthology CDs. (Submitted photos)

Before 1956, Elvis Presley was mostly known throughout the South, still making records in Memphis, Tennessee on the Sun Records label. Jimmy dropped some nickels in the jukebox. Two plays caught his attention: “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and “I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone.” To say those tunes left an impression on him would be an understatement. So inspired was he that he penned a couple of his own tunes and eventually headed for Blue Hen Records in Harrington to cut some sides.

Blue Hen Records was founded by Sam Short with Hugh Lee Stevenson, who acted as the label’s A&R (artists and repertoire) guy. The company, located at 4 Center St. in Harrington, shared space with Short’s grocery store.

The label specialized in recording country music, particularly a sub genre called hillbilly bop. Their first recording was “Chili Dippin’ Baby” by Betty Coral. Others followed including several recordings by Mel Price and His Santa Fe Rangers, Tex Daniels and His Lazy H Ranch Boys, and Billy Wallace, who later recorded some rockabilly records on the Deb and Mercury labels.

For that first rockabilly record, or if you prefer, rock ‘n’ roll record on a Delaware record label, Mr. Stayton got together with Mort Marker on lead guitar and Honey Voshell on drums. That first record was “Hot Hot Mama” recorded at radio station WBOC in Salisbury, Maryland and released in early 1956.

Later in the year, Mr. Stayton released “You’re Gonna Treat Me Right,” adopting the band’s name The Country Cats and enlisting Patsy Saunders as the drummer while continuing with Mort Marker on lead guitar.

The flip side of the same record, ”Midnight Blue,” features Mr. Marker singing lead with Mr. Stayton doing the harmony. Both recordings are eagerly sought by record collectors to this day and have appeared on any number of rockabilly anthology CDs.

The fuse was lit. The rock ‘n’ roll craze, propelled by Elvis’ early national hit records, swept through Kent and Sussex counties and Jimmy Stayton’s Country Cats were in demand, particularly with the novelty, or progressive gesture, of having a woman rocking out on drums.

“It was easy for us to get work,” Mr. Stayton said. “First we played at Mick Hurd’s. It was kind of a rough place. Then we played in Milford at the Milford Canteen. Then at the Frederica Fire Hall.” He listed nearly every fire hall between Smyrna and Milford.

He didn’t stick strictly to performing either. He remembers visiting a club called O’Tool’s in Canterbury, Delaware where he saw rock ‘n’ roll icons Little Richard, Fats Domino, and Chuck Berry perform.

O’Tool’s, primarily where African Americans went to see and hear the latest performers, was welcoming to Jimmy Stayton in the tense mid-1950s.

“I was known as a musician, not a white guy,” he said.

Patsy Saunders joined Jimmy Stayton and Mort Marker in The Country Cats. The band was very popular locally in the mid-1950s. (Submitted photo)

Soon others from Blue Hen Records got on the rockabilly bandwagon. Lanie Walker, with backing from Mort Marker, cut some rockabilly sides: “Eenee Meenie Miney Mo,” “No Use Knockin’ On My Door,” and “Jumpin’ the Gun.” Bill Kinder’s “Hangover” also had a strong rockabilly sound.

Mr. Stayton joined the Army in 1958, for the most part to get out from under the wing of the Country Cats’ manager Reece Harrington. Returning from his service a few years later, he migrated to California and cut a couple sides for 20th Fox Records: “More Than You’ll Ever Know” with “Losers Can’t Win.” They were his first national releases.

In the meantime, Mr. Marker moved to Houston, Texas to record “Tear Down the House” and “Tell Me You Love Me” on the Back Beat label.

While in California, at the urging of Jim Mitchum, the son of actor Robert Mitchum, Mr. Stayton was commissioned to write a theme song for a television project proposal from Hanna-Barbera, of the “Flintstones” and “Jetsons” fame.

“Jim Mitchum was visiting Camden-Wyoming, and I took him my record ‘You’re Gonne Treat Me Right’.” Mr. Mitchum really like the record, so Mr. Stayton knew who to look up when he got to California.

The project, “The Hep Ol’ Frog,” never materialized, even though Mr. Stayton’s song had been written and recorded. When Mr. Stayton moved back to Delaware in 1961, the recording became his first for Del-Air Records in Dover, which he bought from Sam Short, along with the entire Blue Hen Records catalogue.

Throughout the remainder of the 1960s, Mr. Stayton worked at Dover radio station WKEN as an on-air personality and sales manager. He also produced mostly country music recordings for Del-Air records and performed at venues in Delaware and neighboring states.

Lanie Walker, with backing from Mort Marker, cut some rockabilly songs on the Blue Hen Records label including “Eenee Meenie Miney Mo,” “No Use Knockin’ On My Door,” and “Jumpin’ the Gun.”

The final recording on Del-Air was the label’s first and only LP. That 1971 LP was “Two Sides of Jon & Jodi,” a folk rock album of music described as “ . . . haunting ballads, with a dreamy production sounds and forlorn harmonies . . . “

Mr. Stayton, along with Mr. Marker, Mr. Voshell and Ms. Saunders were awarded the Delaware Rock and Roll Society’s Hall of Fame award in 2019. Mr. Saunders’ award was presented to her son Lenny Moon. She passed away in 1979.

Ruth Wolthers accepted Mr. Stayton’s., who now lives in Hopkinsville, Kentucky with his family.

Mr. Marker never left the music industry. Over the years he became a much sought-after sessions musician, working with many successful artists in the business, including Elvis Presley. He lives in Glendora, California.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Steven Leech is a vice president and historian on the board of directors of the Delaware Rock and Roll Society.