Bigger and Better: The Hytones and Sandra King Story

E. Mark Windle 30 October 2020

William Everett Justis Jr. (1926-1982) was an example of a key industry player who bridged the gap between rock ‘n’ roll, pop and R&B in the 1950s and 1960s. Justis would play a pivotal part in developments at Sun records in Memphis. Graduating from Tulane University, New Orleans, the accomplished jazz trumpet and saxophone player was given a short but significant career at Sun during the 1950s. He would work on sessions and arrangements for Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and others, discovered Charlie Rich, and even scored a hit with his own rock ‘n’ roll sax and guitar driven instrumental “Raunchy”. The record remained in the top 40 pop charts for fourteen weeks, and secured Justis a place at Sun for the next few years. With a wealth of experience behind him and collaborations with a number of country and rock ‘n’ roll artists who were receiving national, even global recognition for their work, Justis was determined to make a success of his own career in different elements of the industry.

Professional differences with Sun provoked an eventual split from the label and led to the creation of his own publishing/production company: Tuneville Music. Justis’ initial intention was to use Tuneville as a platform to independently, write, produce and arrange for other artists in the Memphis area. He also dabbled briefly with his own Play Me label to release his own material but this venture was short lived. Within a year, and possibly with the encouragement of Fred Foster at Monument, operations would be relocated to Nashville.

The early to mid-1960s in Nashville would prove a busy time for the sax player and producer. As an artist he recorded several instrumental 45s and LPs on the Mercury subsidiary Smash, which had varying levels of success on the US pop chart. Through Tuneville, he continued to arrange and produce other recordings for a variety of pop and R&B labels. This often included matching artists to songs, which at least on paper may have seemed incompatible, but actually worked musically. As an example country singer William Edwin “Ed” Bruce was given “See The Big Man Cry” (Wand 140). Bill Justis applied a big city soul arrangement, resulting in a vocally powerful and orchestrated recording which the listener could easily imagine was destined for label mate Chuck Jackson. “See The Big Man Cry” would become a much bigger country hit for Charles Louvin a few years later.

Justis and Tuneville were closely associated with two major labels: Mercury and Bell. Larry Uttal, the previous owner of Madison Records, had procured Bell and its subsidiaries Amy and Mala in the early 1960s. He initially left Bell dormant, utilising Amy and Mala as outlets for pop and R&B recordings. Ronny and the Daytonas, who were managed and produced by Bill Justis, scored massively for Mala with their pop hits “G.T.O.” and “Sandy”. Uttal revived Bell in 1964. Regarding the Justis-Bell connection, two artists of particular interest to the 1960s soul record collector are vocal group The Hytones and Sandra King.

In 1963 Eddie Frierson (baritone), Freddie Waters (lead vocal, d. 2000), Arthur “Skeet” Alsup (tenor) formed a group which was later to become The Hytones (also known as The Hy-Tones). All three were students at Cameron High School. Freddie Waters’ father was a Baptist minister. Freddie started singing in his father’s church in Cookeville, TN. After high school graduation from Cameron High he joined the army as part of the entertainment corps, then joined the group when he was discharged.

Within a year of forming as a group, Bob Holmes took them on as manager, and when he was hired as musical director for Night Train he brought The Hytones to the TV show. They would appear on a number of episodes, as themselves and on backing vocals for Peggy Gaines on “One Step”, Sandra King on “Leave It Up To The Boys” and others.

The Hytones’ first vinyl recording was “You Don’t Even Know My Name” (Southern Artists 2023), produced in 1965 and penned by Bob Holmes. Label credits indicate a relationship between the recording and Bill Justis/Tuneville Music Publishing, although whether Bob was a staff writer for Tuneville is unknown. Buzz Cason, who was a paid employee of the company at that point has no recollection. The song almost appeared simultaneously on Bell as catalogue number 627. The Hytones’ recording on either label has remained exceedingly rare; reportedly only one hundred copies on Southern Artists were pressed. Although largely remaining a collector’s favourite only on the northern soul scene, it was popular at Stafford Top of the World all-nighters in the UK in the 1980s when played by DJ Pat Brady, covered up as Lee Otis Valentine and the Lost Souls “I Love You Just The Same”. The second 45 was for Abet, titled “I Got My Baby” (A-Bet 9415), however there is more interest on the soul scene for the flipside “Bigger And Better”. “Bigger And Better” was known to a few soul collectors in the UK in the mid-1970s, though it’s popularity increased in the following decade when there was underground interest for mid-tempo soulful dancers. The record is now a highly sought-after rarity on the northern soul scene.

Sandra King (now Sandra J. Stewart) was sixteen years old when she recorded “Leave It Up To The Boys”:

“I was born Sandra Jean Eubanks in Nashville, 1948, to Lillie McDowell Eubanks Stallworth and Buford Eubanks” says Sandra. “I was one of five children. My grandmother started me singing at age six in church. I hated it because she made me sing “In The Garden” constantly! My grandparents had four daughters and thirty grandchildren. Most are musically oriented. I always liked harmony groups. My mother, older sister Andrea and I always sang together and had beautiful harmony. My mom was part of the gospel group “The Aires of Harmony” which later became the name of the family gospel group.”

Sandra was first spotted by Bob Holmes as he visited local school talent shows, searching for young artists. On one visit to Cameron High he observed Sandra and her best friend Clarice performing on stage:

“We were always performing “Me And My Shadow” and “Be A Clown”. Clarice was taller than me and made the perfect shadow! We were to be part of a group but Bob Holmes decided to have me solo. He became my manager.  My voice was more commercial I guess. Each time I went for a session, Bill Justis was there. Bob was known for changing artists’ names. I don’t think The Hytones were actually called that until they started recording. He wanted to call me Erma King! I said NO – no one will know who I am. So they let me keep my first name. I recorded “Leave It Up To The Boys” at the Tuneville studio located on Music Row.  The flip side, “Please Heart” was written country, but not my style, so we changed it to fit my voice. Bill would always say “give me some of that funky sound”. The song was played a lot on WVOL radio by DJ Gilly Baby. I was a regular on WLAC TV; Night Train to Nashville aired on Friday and Saturday nights.  Everywhere I went guys would start singing and it was sometimes embarrassing.  I remember being the youngest when we travelled by revue bus to city after city.  I didn’t like being on the road as I was away from family and friends. They wanted my mother to let me move to New York but sixteen was too young and I had seen enough of the business to know it was not for me.”

“Leave It Up To The Boys” (613) was recorded with The Hytones and The Tydes (a.k.a Tides) on backup vocals:

“The Hytones were friends of mine even though they were older. We always performed at the same high school talent shows at Cameron High during the 1960s.  Eddie Frierson still resides in Tennessee and owns a barbershop in South Nashville. I saw him the last time we had a reunion at the Country Music Hall of Fame. The Tides were best friends; there were three of them though only Linda Page and Linda Everett are on film (Margaret Walker does not appear).”

Sandra remembers there were several late night recordings for Night Train and performing backup for the other entertainers. Most of the time she would only be in the studio with the musicians.  During the weekends however, artists such as Jimmy Hendrix, Jackie Wilson and others, would stop en-route to other cities to perform and to record at WLAC. Bob Holmes would also use his singers for commercial jingles for various advertisements. Though she provided soprano backup on the recording of “Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte” by Patty Page, Sandra didn’t sing with any other groups at that time. She would temporarily step out of the spotlight, being drawn back to the church and taking on the responsibility of raising a family:

“In the late 1960s I started to lose the passion for singing commercial R&B and gradually went back to the church, breaking my contract with Bob Holmes.  In the fall of 1968 my son was born. For a short while I was the opening vocalist for The Tyrone Smith Group – my husband at the time played trumpet. While working for the president of Meharry Medical College in Nashville, I became a member of The Meharry Singers. I remarried in 1981 to Richard G. Stewart, Jr. I left Nashville in the spring to accompany my husband to California. I had two children; my son James Tauri (from a previous relationship) and daughter, Tanesha Shyvonne Stewart. Tanesha is now a lead soloist on the new AIDA Cruise Ship. People would hear me sing at churches throughout the country (because Richard was a Navy JAG officer and we travelled frequently) and ask if I had ever performed professionally. It was not until a re-release of “Leave It Up To The Boys” that people became aware of my career. Because I started using my married name and I had stopped using my recording name, no one outside Nashville knew my story. As I matured, I started to miss being on stage. Now, I pick and choose if I want to perform.”

The two 1965 releases on Bell by Sandra King and The Hytones were pretty much the full extent of the interconnection between Bob Holmes, Bill Justis and Tuneville, other than the Avon’s “Just As Long As I Live” (Sound Stage 7 45-2561) which came out a year or so later. Justis continued to arrange for major country singers of the day as well as on his own recordings for Mercury subsidiary Smash. In time his career moved toward the cinematic industry; contributing to Elvis film soundtracks, then later created scores for popular films such as Smokey and the Bandit and Hooper.

Regarding The Hytones: Freddie and Eddie performed as a soul duo for a while. Freddie’s career was advanced further when Ted Jarrett and Bob Holmes added him to the roster of their new Ref-O-Ree set up. Six 45s ensued. “Singing A New Song” (Ref-O-Ree 716) in 1969 provided a regional hit for Freddie and received further distribution on Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom label the following year (Curtom 1952). Other releases through the 1970s included his “Groovin’ On My Baby’s Love” (Stax 0246), released just prior to Stax folding; and the ballad “I’m Afraid To Let You Into My Life” for October records (October 1011). Freddie continued to perform live, on occasion solo and also with The Jimmy Church Revue. His last vinyl release was the LP “Just Enough To Get Me Cool” for the Edinburgh-UK based Move label in the mid 1980s, though he continued to record soul and contemporary blues into the 2000s. Freddie Waters’ last work was the “One Step Closer To The Blues” CD, released posthumously. Skeet Alsup moved to Michigan to work on the car plants in the early 1970s, and was later reported to have been killed in a hit and run incident in Detroit.

Over the last decade or more, a number of masters of previously unreleased Nashville material, including some by The Hytones, have been unearthed by UK-based Kent Records . “Good News” (Kent TOWN 141) was released in 2008 to meet northern soul scene demand after the limited release 100 Club copy (100 Club 29th Anniversary 6T-24). A 10 inch acetate of “Good News” appeared on eBay via a Nashville seller in 2012, containing the flip “Love Is A Strange Thing” which was recorded previously by Freddie Waters on Ref-O-Ree. “Good News” then may have been destined for the label, recorded circa 1968 or 1969. The acetate (which sold for just under $2000) comprised the original backing tracks but with different vocal takes. The latest discovery at the time of writing is “Runaway Girl” leased to Kent via permissions from Eddie Frierson (Kent 37th anniversary special 6T 32), released in 2016.

This article also appears in the book House of Broken Hearts: The Soul of 1960s Nashville by E. Mark Windle (copyright 2018, 2020). Photo courtesy of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Nashville.

Published by E. Mark Windle

Freelance writer, biographer and soul music lover.

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