Christmas tunes yield tales of 1950s studio

By Don McAlavy: Curry County historian

The story is told that a New Mexico blizzard made its appearance during the two days (actually nights) when two songs by Jimmy Self were recorded by Norman Petty.

It was said that the recording studio was so cold the musicians had to wear coats during the sessions. Perhaps they also had to keep moving in order to keep warm, for — if you will listen carefully at the end of “An Old Christmas Card” — there is some studio noise for 2.5 seconds after the music stops … or maybe Norman’s fingers were too cold and stiff to turn the “fade” control very fast.

This was in 1954 just after the Norman Petty Trio recorded their first hit, an arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo.” This song enabled Norman to fund his long-term dream: to construct and operate his own recording studio in his hometown of Clovis. They began recording their music at the West Seventh Street studio. And the first recording, other than those from the Norman Petty Trio, to be released from this original studio was the mellow and calming singing voice of Jimmy Self.

Norman had asked Jimmy to select a “couple of Christmas songs” that Jimmy liked, and to sing them for him. Jimmy selected only two, and Norman liked them both. The songs, song by the “voice that touches,” were “An Old Christmas Card” and “Blue Christmas.”

Jimmy Self had already established himself as a booking and promotional agent with a primary focus on Gospel and country and western music and performers. He worked with Slim Whitman, Kitty Wells, and Little Jimmy Dickens, to name just a few of his clients.

He moved to Clovis in 1952, from Amarillo. In Clovis, he also worked as the program director of KICA radio, one of the oldest radio stations west of the Mississippi.

Jimmy had become noted for his speaking voice and singing voice. Thus the recording at the West Seventh studio by Jimmy was Norman’s idea and one that Jimmy really liked. The song “Blue Christmas” featured Jimmy as vocalist, with an instrumental background by the Norman Petty Trio, with Norman playing the organ, Jack Vaughn on guitar, and Vi Petty playing the celesta. Vocal backup was done by Vi And Jack.

On the other side of the 45 rpm record was “An Old Christmas Card.” A stranger named Shorty Messer, a steel guitar player, had dropped by the studio, having heard about the work being done there, and wanted to meet Norman. Shorty had been playing with Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, and the group was playing at the Midway Dance Hall. Norman asked him to stay and play his steel guitar on Jimmy’s “An Old Christmas Card,” which Norman recorded that evening. Shorty played and Jimmy really liked it.

After the recordings were completed, a producer associated with the Sunshine label came to Clovis. He paid off the session and decided that he would not use the name “Jimmy Self’ on the label, since there was a man in Red Foley’s band named “Jimmy Selph.” “We won’t change your name,” he said, “we will just add a smooth-sounding middle name to eliminate any confusion, like ‘Dean’ … Jimmy Dean Self.

Jimmy, apparently a rebel-with-a-cause, said he wouldn’t tell what his middle name really was and emphatically stated that it definitely was not Dean.

I have one of Jimmy Self’s 45s with the two Christmas songs on it; a priceless disk if I may say so. Everybody thought the name changing by adding Dean was out the door. When the Sunshine label produced the disk, there in full sight is the name in capital letters: JIMMY DEAN SELF!

His middle name started with a “C.” Nevertheless, the 45 rpm with the two Christmas songs was very popular across the country. At this time of the year, we all should be in the Christmas spirit and play this 51-year-old disk for old times’ sake. And play it for Jimmy Self, who died on June 16, 2000.

Don McAlavy is Curry County’s historian. He can be contacted at: dmcalavy@telescopelab.com