Saturday, August 22, 2009

Ward Darby And Willie Ward

Ward Darby and The Rocks (Darby is on the far right)

We recently did a post on Buddy Sharpe, Pittsburgh's rock-a-billy legend. The City's old R&R fans remembered him well, and a couple asked, now that they caught up to Buddy, whatever happened to Willie Ward, his compadre in the field.

We dug a bit, and here's the Willie Ward story:

He was born Ward Darby in War, West Virginia, near Bluefield, in 1939. He starting strumming at age 11, with his heroes being Chet Atkins, Bob Wills and Merle Travis. By the time he was 16, Darby had already made a name for himself locally, playing country guitar.

In 1954, he appeared on a Saturday morning 30-minute C&W program aired over radio station WELC in Welch. Darby could pick the strings, and helped by Porter Waggoner's fiddler, Mac Magaha, who took him under his wing, he was on local TV and a studio musician within a couple of years.

Darby started performing with Mel Street, a country up-and-comer that sadly passed away early. He then caught on with the West Virginia Mountain Boys.

They played for the Rural Farm District Jamboree shown on Channel 6 in Bluefield. It was a popular two-hour Saturday night TV show. The band performed with acts like Bill Monroe, Flat and Scruggs, and The Goins Brothers.

But like many other southern boys of the era, Darby was bitten by the R&R bug, and formed a group called The Rocks. The original members were Darby on lead guitar, Jimmy Robinette, Freddy Riffe, and Bill Rotenberry on rhythm guitar, with Jim Eanes on the drums.

The Rocks got to open for many of the RFDJ acts, and the exposure helped launch them. Once the country segment of the program was completed, The Rocks would take the stage and rock the joint with tunes recorded by Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, Gene Vincent and others early rock artists.

Ray Bowling, a musician and salesman for Pittsburgh's King Records, would sit in with the Rocks in impromptu jams. The group was impressed enough that they included him in several of their television appearances.

Bowling urged the Rocks to move to Pittsburgh because because of the media exposure its radio jocks could bring them. The band had some successful gigs there, and decided to make the move.

But several of the group decided to stay in West Virginia. The new edition of The Rocks was now a trio. Bowling did the vocals and played keyboard, Eanes played drums, and Darby played guitar.

There were other changes afoot, too. Bowling changed labels, moving to ABC Paramount Records. Darby took his spot with King Records through 1960. And Eanes didn't take to the big city; often the band had a fill-in drummer at the kit.

At any rate, Bowling felt the trio was ready to cut a record and contacted Bill Porter, who owned a small indy label. He had written two songs and they were taped at Porter's recording studio in Portsmouth, Ohio. The songs waxed were “Satellite” b/w “Arrow In My Heart.”

The two sides were released as Porter #10098 in November 1957 and the record sold well in the region. But that was it for the Rocks; they disbanded affably, all having different career goals.

Darby went to see Pittsburgh promoter numero uno, Joe Averbach of Fee Bee Records, introduced himself, and wrangled a recording contract from him. Averbach lined up a recording session to be held in Cincinnati.

Reuniting with Ward, for this session only, were Robinette, who played rhythm guitar, and drummer Eanes. They cut two sides reminiscent of the early Everly Brothers. In the summer of 1958, “Come Walk With Me” b/w “Emotions” (Star #227) was released (Star was a Fee Bee subsidiary) by the “Guitar Twins.” The record moved some wax in the Pittsburgh area.

Averbach sent Darby to the Bell Sound Recording Facility in New York City. The result was two Bowling tunes, “Iggy Joe” b/w “Be Mine” (Star #229). Chuck Jackson and the Five Playboys provided the background vocals.

The record was credited to Willie Ward. The name play was a common promotional gimmick used by Averbach, who tried to provide his acts with a catchy nom d' platter.

In August of 1958, “Iggy Joe” was being aired by Chuck Dougherty at KQV, Jay Michaels of WCAE, and Porky Chadwick of WAMO. The Platter Pushin' Poppa took Ward (we'll switch from Darby to Ward here), to his record hops and was a great aid in Ward's early career.

Ward changed directions for a few months, performing as Ward Darby and the Moore Brothers - who all happened to be black, and were actually brothers. They were managed by Bill Powell, a WILY DJ. They were a class act, with a floor routine and decked out in black tuxes, quite a sea change from rock-a-billy.

But while they were performing, Ward was also doing session work for Averbach as a guitarist, arranger and writer.

Ward, returning to his roots, recorded at Bell again . They cut “Ooo Wee Baby” b/w “I'm A Madman” (Fee Bee #233), released in October 1958. The same personnel from the “Iggy Joe” sessions were on this one as well, except that Averbach credited the Five Playboys as the Warblers. It was another local smash, but didn't have legs outside the Tri-State.

In fall of 1958, he put together a combo, Ward Darby and the Raves. Ward played lead guitar and sang, Leo Watkowitz pounded the drums, Ray Bowling was on electric piano, Jim Mendys honked on the sax, and Dave Baltos played rhythm guitar. The band was mainly instrumental; Ward decided to show off his guitar licks instead of his voice.

Averbach liked the sound, and taped the group at Universal International Recording Studio in Chicago. They cut their four tracks, and released “Safari” b/w “WHAM-O,” which would be issued on Averbach's Petite label (#509) in May of 1959. “Safari” was an instant hit, charting on the local charts of KDKA, WEEP, and WKQV.

Averbach released the sides to Dot Records for national distribution. “Safari” b/w “WHAM-O” was reissued as Dot #45-15942. The record broke open in the southern part of the country, especially in Texas & California. It nudged into the national charts.

But that was the first and last hurrah for the Raves. They had a steady gig at Bobby Star's Lounge in the East Liberty section of Pittsburgh and did a lot of one-night stands and concerts.

In 1962, Ward went to Baltimore, where he ran into a dude named Charlie Daniels. Together they formed a group called Charlie Daniels and the Jaguars. The band toured heavily, and shared stages with Bruce Channel, Buddy Knox, and Roy Clark.

Ward remained with the Jaguars until 1965 when he and Daniels split to pursue individual careers. Daniels, of course, went on the form the Charlie Daniels Band.

Ward went to Memphis and did some concerts with Charlie Rich. He also served a short stint with the Bill Black Combo, playing in the “Shower of Stars” tour with Gene Pitney, Bobby Goldsboro, Brian Hyland, Gary Lewis & The Playboys, the Crystals, The Reflections, and Dobie Gray. Hey, they even performed at the Syria Mosque.

He settled in Lexington, Kentucky. He remained there until 1980, when he moved to Florida. Ward is in Branson, Missouri, now, where he moved to in 1996. He's retired after many years of Nashville tapings, writing songs, touring and playing clubs; he's returned to his original love, C&W. He has 5 children and 7 grandchildren, and has recently remarried. As he says, he's "enjoying life."

As well he should. And now he can be just Ward Darby again, after years of being Willie Ward, the Rocks, the Guitar Twins, the Raves, et al. It's good to finally be yourself.

Willie Ward - Iggy Joe, 1958

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