Jimmy Donley’s music career spanned a brief six-year period. Beginning in the late 1950’s, it ended on March 20, 1963 with his suicidal death. By then his name had become as synonymous with swamp-pop music as that of Bobby Charles, Rod Bernard, Dale & Grace, Warren Storm, Joe Barry and Johnnie Allan. Donley wrote “What A Price”, which Fats Domino recorded and took to #7 in the R&B charts in 1961. Six more Donley compositions, four of which are on this CD, were to be recorded by Domino during the years after Jimmy’s death. Besides Fat Domino, renowned recording artists Jerry Lee Lewis, Mickey Gilley, Clarence “Frogman” Henry, Freddie Fender, Ferlin Husky, Billy Swan and Eddy Raven have paid tribute to this great artist by recording his compositions.
The inevitable question I’m asked repeatedly during countless interviews both domestically and internationally has been “Johnnie, Who’s Jimmy Donley?” Many find it puzzling as to what intrigued Dr. Bernice Webb and me to devote so many years researching and writing this enigmatic songwriter/recording artist’s life story. To put it simply, it deserved to be told.
Jimmy Donley’s music career spanned a brief six-year period. Beginning in the late 1950’s, it ended on March 20, 1963 with his suicidal death. By then his name had become as synonymous with swamp-pop music as that of Bobby Charles, Rod Bernard, Dale & Grace, Warren Storm, Joe Barry and Johnnie Allan.
jimmy donley bio
Born on August 17, 1929, to an alcoholic father and an overprotective mother, James Kenneth (Jimmy) Donley had an accident-ridden childhood in Jonestown, Mississippi - the poorest section of the town of Gulfport. Jimmy formed a love-hate relationship with his father and idolised his mother. His talented mother, Myrtle, encouraged his musical endeavours from early childhood. His father (James Gilmore “Tag” Donley) in contrast rejected his son’s musical ambition as an unmanly career goal.
Jimmy spent his teenage years with Gulf Coast musician friends perfecting his vocal and multi-instrument skills. “I’m going to be a big star one day” he kept telling them. Those were the happiest days of his life. Things were about to change.
Jimmy spent his teenage years in the US Army. That enlistment was to become a turning point in his life. Foreign duties led to homesickness for his mother and beloved sister, Myrna. He turned to drugs, incurring a record of military disobedience. On November 10, 1949, he was issued an undesirable discharge, returning home.
His family and musician friends saw that Jimmy was a different person than the one who had left Gulfport to become a soldier. The joie-de-vivre that had once characterised him had changed to a schizophrenic-like alteration of moods. He went through four unsuccessful marriages in less than four years. Though adored by his wives he often subjected them to physical abuse, tiring quickly of each one. “He was searching for something, he was a changed person” stated Myrna. From then on everything he did in his music career was an attempt to lift himself and his loved ones out of poverty.
Through the efforts of Mississippi promoters Frank (“Yankee”) Barhonevich, Marion (“Prof”) Carpenter and Murphy Monroe (“Pee Wee”) Maddux, Jimmy obtained a recording contract with Decca Records under the guidance of magnate Owen Bradley. Several ensuing recording sessions produced unforgettable regional hits like “Born To Be A Loser”, “Our Love” and “Radio, Jukebox And TV”. Believing in Jimmy, Owen Bradley had hired the elite of Nashville’s session musicians, Hank (Sugarfoot) Garland and Chet Atkins alternating on lead guitar, Harold Bradley on bass guitar, Grady Martin on vibes, Glenn Douglas and Floyd Cramer alternating on keyboards, Frank Duke on drums and the best vocal backup group in Nashville, the Anita Kerr Singers. A Decca-sponsored national promotional tour followed. Swamp pop bands along the Gulf Coast were bombarded with requests for his songs at performances. Despite this, none would become national hits.
The disappointments would lead to despair. Jimmy’s life became a hodgepodge of entertaining honky-tonks, getting drunk, constantly finding himself in trouble with the law and finally spending a brief period in a mental institution.
1959 witnessed a new direction to his music career. On January 30th he married Lillie Mae Ugas. She became his one true love and the subject of many songs he used to write. Better than did his other wives, she learned to tolerate the physical pain he inflicted on her, although she frequently packed her bags and left him for a few days. During one of these separations he wrote “What A Price” which he convinced his mentor, Fats Domino to record. Six more Donley compositions, four of which are on this CD, were to be recorded by Domino during the years after Jimmy’s death. However opportunistic entrepreneurs managed to reap the benefits of his songwriting labours. He would sell his compositions for a mere pittance just to pay the months rent or buy groceries. This is the reason why his name rarely appears on the writer’s credit of any song he ever wrote for other artists or recorded himself.
As he told Huey P. Meaux (Jimmy’s Houston, Texas-based record manager from 1962 to March 20 1963), “I can always write more songs tomorrow, but I need money today”. Some he sold for as little as fifty dollars.
Though Jimmy Donley’s greatest national accolades were achieved through his compositions for Fats Domino, he is probably best remembered for the numerous regional hits he wrote and recorded for Huey Meaux. A Cajun from Kaplan, in south-west Louisiana, Huey P. Meaux was first a barber in Winnie, Texas, a small town one third of the way between Beaumont and Houston. Later he turned promoter and record producer, setting up the Crazy Cajun Enterprises. He was a hail-fellow-well-met who went out to clubs where bands played, mixed with the musicians and cozied up to disc jockeys. Although he did not read music, he had developed a keen ear for commercial talent in a singer, a song or a band and he had a knowledgeable way in a recording studio. He could recognise the potential for a good business deal and always capitalised on what he found. Meaux produced four national hits during 1962-1963, namely “You’ll Lose A Good Thing” by Barbara Lynn, “I’m A Fool To Care” by Joe Barry, “Talk To Me” by Sunny and The Sunliners and “The Rains Came” by Big Sambo.
A happenstance meeting at Cosimo Matassa’s famous recording studio in New Orleans, Louisiana led to a recording contract between Jimmy Donley and Huey Meaux. A session date was set. “Leroy Martin’ll produce the session”, Meaux said. “He’ll bring Joe Barry’s band, the Vikings with him, I won’t use New Orleans musicians except Mac Rebennack”.
Jimmy Donley’s songwriting acumen shifted into high gear. Despondent over his beloved mother’s death on March 15, 1962 and his inabilities to achieve national fame with the Decca Record Company caused him to repeatedly vent his frustrations on Lillie Mae. Her departures would inspire his songs of pleas for her return. In the words of Huey Meaux, “Jimmy had to be the most lonesome guy on earth. Reminded me so much of the late Hank Williams. He wrote songs and sang them in a ‘Heartbreak Key’. At times he could write as many as eight songs in one day. You could give him an idea and Boom! he had you a song that could be recorded in any style”.
Personally, I can never listen to the words of “Think It Over”, “Hello! Remember Me”, “Please Mr. Sandman”, “Forever Lillie Mae”, “Santa Don’t Pass Me By” and “You’re Why I’m So Lonely” without feeling the hurt he had projected, the cry for Lillie’s return.
The years have come and gone since March 20, 1963 but Jimmy Donley’s name and music lives on. One year before the millennium and his songs are still on Gulf Coast jukeboxes. Each year on his birthday, radio stations in Mississippi have memorial programs, playing strictly Donley songs. No swamp-pop artist’s performance along the Gulf Coast is complete without doing at least one of his songs.
Besides Fat Domino, renowned recording artists Jerry Lee Lewis, Mickey Gilley, Clarence “Frogman” Henry, Freddie Fender, Ferlin Husky, Billy Swan and Eddy Raven have paid tribute to this great artist by recording his compositions.
Dr. Bernice Webb and I chose to honour him by revealing his life story in the book “Born To Be A Loser - The Jimmy Donley Story”. A forthcoming video movie, by a reputable Californian movie company, based on his life story is currently in progress. The Journal Of Country Music (Vol. 15, No 3) has published our five page synopsis of his association with Fats Domino. Need I say more? Hopefully, now you know the answer to the question, “Who’s Jimmy Donley”.
~Johnnie Allan, October 1998
(The South Louisiana swamp-pop artist)