The Moody River story

John Fogerty’s new album is out, and it’s a collection of his versions of (for the most part) old rock and country numbers.

There are a couple of susprises, for those who think they know Fogerty’s taste. “Garden Party” isn’t one — he’s enough of a Rick Nelson fan to have given the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction speech.

But John Denver? Yes, evidently. Fogerty performs “Back Home Again.”

But what brings the album up here is Fogerty’s rendition of “Moody River,” a song first popularized by an early teen idol.

As Fogerty mentioned to L.A. Times guy Randy Lewis in an interview promoting the album,

“If the choice was between Elvis and Pat Boone in the ’50s, I guess you know which side I came down on,” Fogerty said, a wry smile coming to his lips. “But ‘Moody River’ is a great song, and Pat sang his butt off on that one.”

I have some familiarity with the song; its history is a story (originally published in my notes for a Bear Family box set that may even surprise Fogerty.

Gary Bruce was a young Nashville singer who worked on a weekly variety show hosted by disc jockey Noel Ball. Frank Slay was a record producer out of Philadelphia (his hits included Silhouettes by The Rays and all of Freddy Cannon’s singles), who had started his own Southern Sounds label, and was in town looking “for a young man, 19-20 years old, to sign to his label”, says Bruce.

“It was along about the time the Everly Brothers had ‘Ebony Eyes’ and Mark Dinning had ‘Teen Angel.’ Noel said if I could write a death song that was tasteful, I’d have a smash. And that’s what I came up with.”

Ball suggested a meeting with Slay. A recording session ensued, which came to halt when Bruce kept popping the “p” on the phrase “more deadly than the sharpest knife.” He rewrote the phrase on the spot. That the result – “more deadly than the vainest knife” – didn’t make any sense didn’t seem to hurt anything. Bruce’s single, issued as by Chase Webster, failed to hit outside of Nashville.

Pat continues the story:

“Noel Ball in Nashville told me about the Chase Webster record, and suggested it to me. Milt [Rogers] arranged it a little higher than my key so I wouldn’t sound croonerish; more desperate. . After the session, I went over to a friend’s house with Shirley. When we were saying goodbye, KFWB was in the background, and I heard the intro – I said ‘wait, I’ve been doing that song all afternoon!’

[Dot Records chief] Randy [Wood] had cut an acetate and took it to [program director] Chuck Blore, who liked it and made it pick hit if he could he could have it as an exclusive for a week. I’m not home from the studio from recording this thing, and it was pick hit of the week on one of the biggest stations in the country. That was when the music business was interesting and exciting.”

Bruce says that Randy Wood, ever conscientious, had called Noel Ball to verify the lyric. Subsequently, radio stations ran contests, Pat says, with listeners guessing that kind of knife he was referring to. As for Pat, “It didn’t make any sense to me – I just sang it the way he wrote it.”

Moody River has been used on film soundtracks including ‘The Last Boy Scout.’ And, of all of Pat Boone’s hits that Frank Sinatra might choose to record, Moody River is one that he actually did.