Leon Bass

Rockabilly Singer & Guitarist, Farmington

Rockabilly and country musician Leon Bass lives in Farmington, just east of Corinth, and was born in 1937 in Alcorn County, “way back in the country,” in a home without electricity. His father died when he was three, and following his mother’s passing when he was just eight, he was raised by his older sister, who also took care of three other brothers. She later moved to Corinth, where she supported the family by working in a shirt factory.

Bass’ mother gave him his first guitars—a Stella and a Gene Autry model—as well as a fiddle (an instrument which he never learned), but it wasn’t until he was fourteen that he learned “how to back myself on the rhythm guitar.” His sister’s husband, Cliff Mathis, taught him his first chords and the first song he learned was “Deep Down In The Valley.” Bass would later occasionally play old-time country music with Mathis, a rhythm guitarist, and Mathis’ father, a banjo player; he also later played old-time music at the American Legion in Corinth.

In the mid-‘50s Bass formed his first group, the Spoon Players, whose name was based around the homemade instrument played by member Everett Cornellos. The group played at 5 am on Saturday mornings on Corinth radio station WCMA. By the late ‘50s Bass was fronting another band, the Peppers, and playing every Saturday night on the Dixieland Jamboree, held at the Coliseum Theater in Corinth and broadcast over WCMA. The show was founded at Booneville’s Von Theater by Charles Bolton in 1954 and moved in 1956 to Corinth, where it was on the air until 1960.

Like other regulars on the Jamboree, Bass’ band would usually get to play four or five songs, with member Gary Eldrige sharing the vocals. A recording of Bass performing a cover of Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Fools Like Me” appeared on the 2005 Norton CD Wildcat Jamboree: Rockabilly Radio Broadcasts from the Dixieland Jamboree: Corinth, Mississippi 1958-1959.

Bass made his first 45-rpm single in 1956 for the Tune label, based out of Florence, Alabama, and run by musician and songwriter James Joiner, a recording pioneer in the Muscle Shoals region. Bass contacted the label after it recorded a single by Buddy Bain, a local musician who also appeared on the Jamboree and recorded with his wife Kay for the Meteor label. Bass’ single, “Come On Baby” b/w “Love-a-Rama” featured local studio musicians as well as vocal backing by Corinth group the Harmony Four Quartet.

There were relatively few gigs for musicians in the Corinth area, prompting Bass to move to Memphis, where he worked in factories by day and played music at night. In the early ‘60s, he recorded a second single, “Country Hix” b/w “Little Liege,” on the Whirlaway label, a side label of Memphis’ Fernwood Records. He was backed by an African American band, which he recalls were the house band at the city’s showcase venue Club Paradise. Two other tracks featuring the band were not issued. Bass also recorded several tracks for Hi Records, which featured Hi star Ace Cannon on saxophone, but these were never issued either.

In the mid-‘80s Bass recorded another single for the Tune label, “Little Legia Too” b/w “Drinking at the Bar,” which were both in a straight country vein. Around the same time Bass, who has been working in factories and playing at country and rockabilly venues in Memphis since the early ‘60s, decided to stop performing due to having to start working his regular job at night.

His interest in performing was renewed in 1996 when he was contacted by the producers of the film Varsity Blues for permission to include in the soundtrack a version of his song “Love-A-Rama” by the rock group Southern Culture on the Skids, who had recorded the song for their CD Plastic Seat Sweat. Other artists who have recorded the song are the Country Rockers, the Ditty Twisters, and the New Duncan Imperials. Reissues of Bass’ two early singles have appeared on various compilations on European labels.

Today Bass occasionally performs with his nephew Tommy Mathis, a country performer and studio musician based in Collierville, Tennessee, who Bass taught to play guitar as a young man. Two tracks by Mathis appear on Bass’ self-produced CD Country Hix, which includes Bass’ old singles together with new material.

Scott Barretta

See Also:

Bass’ entry on the Rockabilly Hall of Fame website

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