Buck Owens had a friend in Bob Morris. Without the Newton County native, Buck would have never had his signature theme song, “Buckaroo.” There would have been no “Made in Japan.”
Owens would have had to settle on a different bass player for his early albums, find someone else to manage his Blue Book Music publishing and trust that someone nearly as capable could run his studio.
Some say this made Morris a bona fide member of Owens’ backing band, the Buckaroos. In fact, he was credited as such on sporadic pressings of Buck Owens’ 1965 LP, I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail, along with sidemen guitarist Don Rich, drummer Willie Cantu, pedal steel guitarist Tom Brumley and bassist Doyle Holly – probably the most heralded lineup of all the Buckaroos’ incarnations.
When Morris recorded with Merle Haggard, he was definitely credited as a Stranger, as in Merle Haggard and the Strangers. Merle, and countless others, sang his songs.
Remember The Champs? The rock ’n’ roll group best known for its iconic, one- hit wonder, “Tequila”? Morris was a member of them, too.
And if this sounds like another one of those Arkansans-who-left-the-state-for-bigger-success-only-to-never-return stories, guess again.
Bob Morris came back.
‘TOO MUCH TEQUILA’
Hasty, located a few miles east of the northwest Arkansas town of Jasper in Newton County, is a typical rural Ozark community. Hills. Streams. Winding roads. The only real sign of activity comes from Arkansas 123, which stretches by a small post office and bisects a smattering of county roads – some paved and some gravel.
Random buildings are located acres apart amid fields and meadows. The Buffalo River flows through here, and there’s even a designated point where whitewater enthusiasts can launch their kayaks and canoes.
This is also the birthplace of Robert Dean Morris. The journey began February 3, 1930, when Morris was born into a family of 12 children. Music was a love, especially the fiddle, which he picked up at an early age with his talents extending to guitar. His family moved to Oklahoma, and he attended high school in Bixby, a town a few miles southeast of Tulsa. To be located near the city where Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys had a home base at the famed Cain’s Ballroom had to have made an impression on young Bob. One of his early jobs as a musician occurred circa 1953 when he played guitar for Bob Wills’ younger brother, Johnnie Lee Wills, who had a radio show on Tulsa radio station KVOO. Morris appeared on a few of Wills’ singles recorded at the station and for the RCA Victor record label.
Morris relocated to California and, by the late 1950s, fell in with the Latin-inspired, frat rock instrumental group The Champs, best known for the hit song, “Tequila.” Morris missed out on the band’s initial success, joining the rotating lineup a couple years later as the band struggled to produce a hit as worthy. The group recorded for Challenge Records, a Los Angeles label started by cowboy singer Gene Autry, who just happened to be The Champs’ manager.
Challenge Records, probably feeling the pressure to squeeze out yet another hit for The Champs, put its money into a promotional music video – long before music videos became standard fare. What resulted was this slightly bizarre film – with weird laughter and all – of the group lip-syncing (and musical instrument-syncing) a highly choreographed answer song to “Tequila.” That would be, of course, “Too Much Tequila.” Morris is the one playing bass guitar on the far left.
By the time Morris joined The Champs, it’s worth mentioning that its lineup would have constituted a “super group” of sorts had it been the 1970s. In addition to Morris, the band included Jimmy Seals (tenor saxophone) and Dash Crofts (drums), who would later become the 1970s soft rock duo, Seals and Crofts, known for their hit songs “Summer Breeze” and “Diamond Girl.” In fact, Morris and Seals would pen several songs together, including the very listenable, pre-surf instrumental, “Jumping Bean.” Also joining was fellow Arkansas native Glen Campbell (guitar), who would dominate the late 1960s to 1970s pop and country music scenes with songs like “Wichita Lineman” and “Rhinestone Cowboy.”
While The Champs’ success ran out of gas, another genre was gaining momentum some 100 miles north of Los Angeles. Morris would be one of its key players.
THE BAKERSFIELD SOUND
As both an Arkie and Okie, Morris had a lot in common with many of the country musicians around him. Many were children of the Great Depression – a time when droughts, floods and dust storms in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas prompted many to journey to The Golden State for migrant farm work (think The Grapes of Wrath). And when looking at many of the Bakersfield, California, musicians who gained fame, there’s often a direct, or indirect, connection to Arkansas. Two of the city’s biggest stars – Buck Owens and Merle Haggard – both had mothers who were born in Arkansas (Vilonia and Harrison respectively).
Buck Owens, a Californian at heart, led a movement. He felt there were many West Coast country musicians who could rival the honkytonk heroes and heroines of Nashville’s Music Row. In fact, some were saying what was being produced in Nashville in the early 1960s wasn’t country at all. What’s with the lush, orchestral strings backing the smooth vocals of Jim Reeves? Where were the weepers and barroom brawlers? Where were the fiddles?!
The Bakersfield Sound was being birthed. In addition to Owens and his Buckaroos, other Californians entered the scene: Merle Haggard, Wynn Stewart, Freddie Hart, Jean Shepard and more. All would help put this farm town on the musical map.
No longer a member of The Champs, Morris was putting his songwriting chops to good use, and trying to figure out what all he wrote is near impossible – he was that prolific. As noted, Morris wrote several with Jimmy Seals. Some were covered by The Champs, others, apparently placed in a publishing catalog for others to pursue. One of the more popular Morris-Seals compositions, though never charted, was a number called “True Love Never Dies.” A quick YouTube search brings up versions by Paul Anka, The Walker Brothers, The Cascades and Jerry Fuller.
Morris also teamed up with former Okie, Eddie Miller, a musician who is probably best known for his torch song megahit, “Release Me,” which has been recorded by a plethora of musicians from Ray Price to Tom Jones. (Miller also penned the Ernest Tubb hit, “Thanks a Lot.”) The duo’s tunes were sought out by many of Bakersfield’s biggest. One of their most popular songs they wrote together was “Playboy,” which was covered by Wynn Stewart, Roger Miller and Buck Owens, to name a few.
In 1963, Morris signed to Capitol and continued to write and record on his own along with his wife, Faye Hardin, a gorgeous blonde who could stun audiences with her yodeling and then turn around and belt out lead vocals and harmonies reminiscent of Connie Smith. She and Bob complemented each other, and their chemistry was evident. Listen to their songs like “Let’s Do What’s Right, Even If It’s Wrong” and “We Can Love (Again),” fine honkytonk worthy of any tavern jukebox. This is real country – the stuff country music purists try to resurrect today. It should also be noted that Faye got top billing on these singles, as in “Faye Hardin & Bob Morris.” There was some real love going on here.
Needless to say, Morris’ talent was well known in California’s country music circles. In 1963, he performed as a solo artist in an all-star concert emceed by Cousin Herb Henson that also included Buck Owens, Glen Campbell, Roy Clark, Jean Shepard and Merle Travis. The concert was recorded and released on LP as Country Music Hootenanny. (And check out this Toys for Tots benefit concert that aired in 1967 on Bakersfield radio station KUZZ. Morris and Hardin appear at the 14:30 mark.)
This was also when Buck Owens began using Morris on recording sessions at the Capitol Tower Recording Studio in Los Angeles. You can hear Morris’ bass licks in “Down, Down, Down,” “Love’s Gonna Live Here” and “Together Again” and several other songs. In the studio, Morris frequently took the place of regular Buckaroo bassist Doyle Holly, whom Owens believed performed better live. Holly was reassigned to rhythm guitar on recording sessions.
On one particular session, with 15 minutes studio time remaining but no more tunes to record, Owens asked his bandmates if they had anything. “I’ve got one,” Morris said. This was not in character for Bob, but the band was curious. Morris changed out his bass for a guitar and began picking a catchy little riff. The band chimed in, and the engineer pressed the “record” button. When they were done, they had a complete instrumental, which Owens temporarily titled “Paris.” That little tune would forever be associated with Buck Owens and was eventually knighted “Buckaroo.” It became the first instrumental to hit No. 1 on the country charts and personifies the Bakersfield Sound to this day.
In addition to the Buckaroos, during 1965 to 1968, Morris played bass on no fewer than 10 recordings with Merle Haggard – a designation that would earn Morris the status as a “Stranger” as in Merle Haggard and the Strangers. His work can be heard on Haggard’s “A House Without Love is Not a Home” (with Bonnie Owens) and “Hobo’s Meditation,” to name a few. On Haggard’s 1968 album, Sing Me Back Home, Haggard covers Morris’ and Eddie Miller’s song, “If You See My Baby.” Merle recorded another, written entirely by Morris himself, called “What’s Wrong with Stayin’ Home,” which appeared on the 1969 album, A Portrait of Merle Haggard. (Morris also recorded it as a single under the extended title, “What’s Wrong with Stayin’ Home [With Julie]” for Capitol.)
To get an idea who all has covered his songs, and with whom he has played, just go to his “Credits” page on allmusic.com. While his biography is nonexistent, be prepared to scroll quite a while viewing Morris’ contributions. You’ll see the names Charlie Louvin, Rick Nelson, Wynn Stewart, The Byrds, Moe Bandy, Ernest Tubb, The Wilburn Brothers, Jean Shepard and others. And if Morris didn’t write the songs, then he was likely providing the bass licks for those artists.
AWARDS AND TV SHOWS
While both Buck and Merle were well aware of Morris’ talents, it was confirmed when the first Academy of Country Music Awards was held in 1965. And it wouldn’t have happened without Faye. She and Morris were nominated as Best Vocal Group in the inaugural event, losing to the powerhouse Merle Haggard and Bonnie Owens. Morris was also voted Best Bass Player in 1965 and 1966. He and Hardin, who would also be nominated for Most Promising Female Vocalist three years straight, continued to receive ACM nominations for their musicianship through 1968.
Owens’ fandom of Morris didn’t wane. He invited Morris and Hardin to his pre-Hee Haw television program, The Buck Owens Show (sometimes called The Buck Owens Ranch Show, though not its official name) a number of times, including this one that features a rollicking performance of “Fishin’ on the Mississippi.” (The entire episode is posted below.) At the 5:45 mark, Buck lavishes Morris with praise, and check out Morris and Buck Owens’ sideman, Don Rich, duke it out on fiddles on “Orange Blossom Special.” They’re having a blast!
While Morris’ association with Haggard wound down by the late 1960s, his affiliation with Buck extended into the 1970s. When Buck’s catalog was slow to produce any more hits, a little tune written by Morris and Hardin provided some promise. Morris sang the song for Don Rich and Jim Shaw, who joined the Buckaroos as a keyboardist in the late 1960s. It started with “My transistor radio comes from far away, and when it’s night over there, over here it’s breaking day …” Rich and Shaw worked up a demo and played it for Buck, who took an immediate liking to it. The Buckaroos recorded it in the studio and then released it as a single. In 1972, “Made in Japan,” as sung by Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, bolted to the No. 1 position on Billboard’s Hot Country chart.
It would be another 16 years before Buck would earn another No. 1 hit — his last. Morris had a hand in that one as well but, this time, not as writer.
‘THE STREETS OF BAKERSFIELD’
Stories of what exactly happened vary, but what is known is that Morris was managing Buck’s studio in the early 1970s when he encountered a young musician named Homer Joy, who had signed to Owens’ Blue Book Music, which was, by this time, also managed by Morris. Joy (a Heber Springs, Arkansas, native) agreed to record an album of Hank William’s songs in Buck’s studio in exchange for some studio time to record his own material with the Buckaroos. Joy recorded those Hank Williams songs, but when he returned repeatedly to the studio to record his own music, the Buckaroos were nowhere to be found. Feeling dejected, he went back to his hotel room and penned a song to vent his frustration. When Joy returned to Buck’s studio once again, Morris asked Joy to go ahead and sing him something. As Joy sang the chorus, “You don’t know me, but you don’t like me,” Morris quickly recognized the potential of “Streets of Bakersfield.” He informed Buck that, hey, you really need to get down here. The Buckaroos made good on the promise and backed Joy on the song, which was released as a single. Unfortunately, it failed to chart. Buck Owens tried his hand at recording the tune. Again, nada. The song sat around for years. Then, in 1988, a young, popular country artist, and diehard Buck Owens fan, provided the magic touch. Dwight Yoakam accompanied Buck on a Tex-Mex version of “Streets of Bakersfield,” and it was a smash. It would also be Owens’ last No. 1 hit.
BACK HOME IN THE OZARKS
By the early 1970s, “Bashful Bob Morris,” as Owens dubbed him (Owens often gave nicknames to his band members – Don Rich was “Dangerous Don Rich”), along with Faye and their children, moved back to his birthplace of Newton County. He and Hardin stayed with the music business, however. They had already been on a package tour with Merle Haggard, performed various dates with the Buckaroos, and Morris managed Buck Owens’ publishing catalog – sometimes a struggle over a rural Newton County telephone line. The couple also performed throughout Northwest Arkansas, including several appearances at the Ozark Opry, located in the old Palace Theater on the Fayetteville square, and venues in the Harrison area. It was clear that Morris championed the music in the Arkansas Ozarks.
In a newspaper interview, Morris said he came back to Newton County to retire. In addition to performing locally, he and Hardin produced records for other musicians and even appeared on a TV special for Arkansas’ PBS affiliate in 1979.
On October 22, 1981, the Baxter Bulletin of Mountain Home ran a foreboding article noting that Freddie Hart – a Bakersfield music giant whose hits included “Easy Loving” and “My Hang Up is You” — would appear at Marble Falls Convention Center near the now-closed Dogpatch USA amusement park south of Harrison in an “appreciation concert” for Morris, with proceeds to benefit medical costs. The article also mentioned that a fire had recently destroyed Morris’ home, including his musical collection.
What wasn’t mentioned was that Morris was in very poor health and had less than two months to live.
When Morris, 51, died from cancer on December 3, 1981, at the Boone County Hospital in Harrison, the Associated Press and Billboard magazine produced small articles. He was buried in the Sand Hill Cemetery in the community of Yardell in Newton County, Arkansas. The same year of his passing, his song “The Matador,” recorded by Sylvia, reached No. 7 on Billboard’s U.S. Hot Country Singles.
His songs continue to be woven in the fabric of popular culture – and some in surprising places, like when “Made in Japan” was featured in a segment of the movie, Jackass. “Buckaroo” has also been performed by countless musicians, ranging from Duane Eddy to The Flying Burrito Brothers. His work can also be found on the music compilations such as Original Country and Western Music and Original Country and Western Music, Volume 2, both on the Elite Special label.
In 1995, Sundazed Records produced a reissue of Buck Owens and the Buckaroos’ I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail album. It features bonus tracks, including one written and sung by Morris, “This Ol’ Heart.” Buck and the gang back him up – a nod to Morris that he was, indeed, a Buckaroo all along.
Information for this article came from (in no particular order):
Buck ‘Em! The Autobiography of Buck Owens with Randy Poe (Backbeat Books). Published 2013.
Harrison Daily Times, Aug. 4, 1972, “Old Country Boy from Hasty Doing Alright in California,” p. 6.; June 28, 1974, “People from All Over Come to Come to Hear ‘Bob and Faye’ and Country Music,” p. 16.
Arkansas Democrat, Dec. 20, 1979, “Best Bets” TV listing, p. 21A; “Bob Morris, 51, Hit Songwriter, Hasty Resident” (Associated Press), p. 9B.
Baxter Bulletin (Mountain Home, Arkansas), “Freddie Hart Coming Oct. 29 to Marble Falls for Benefit,” p. 58.
The Bakersfield Californian, Feb. 10, 2006, “Robert Price Column: Two Men, Two Recollections of How Buck’s Hit Was Born,” accessed April 30, 2016.
Cashbox, Feb. 2, 1963, “Capitol Adds New Femme, Male Voices,” p. 40.
Billboard, Nov. 30, 1963, “Country Music Hootenanny.”
Praguefrank’s Country Music Discographies
- Bob Morris entry, http://countrydiscoghraphy2.blogspot.com/search/label/Morris%20Bob, accessed June 29, 2018
- Merle Haggard entry, http://countrydiscoghraphy2.blogspot.com/search/label/Haggard%20Merle, accessed June 27, 2018.
- Johnnie Lee Wills entry, http://countrydiscoghraphy2.blogspot.com/search/label/Wills%20Johnnie%20Lee, accessed July 3, 2018.
Allmusic, Eddie Miller, https://www.allmusic.com/artist/eddie-miller-mn0001347196, accessed June 29, 2018.
Seals and Crofts, http://www.sealsandcrofts.com/champs.html, accessed June 29, 2018.
Academy of Country Music, https://www.acmcountry.com, accessed July 2, 2018.