Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


HALL, Clayton and Saford

(b 4 May 1919 in The Hollow, between the Patrick mountains in Virginia and the North Carolina state line) Bluegrass singers and pickers. Saford (d 11 February 1999) played the fiddle and Clayton (d 22 April 2003) played the banjo; in the end they could both play anything with strings, and they sang beautifully tight harmony. Americana is replete with brother acts: the Delmores, the Monroes, the Stanleys, the Louvins, the Blue Sky Boys (Bill and Earl Bolick) all achieved fame, and the Hall twins might have been as big as any of them, starting from before their style was called bluegrass, if WWII hadn't wrecked everything.
      The twins were the last of ten children; their mother was never married. The Hollow was the perfect place to be bastards, it was said, because Virginia didn't claim them and North Carolina didn't want them, but somehow or other Judie Hall, who was called Mamo, raised all of them. They lived in such poverty that when Saford and Clayton first went to school they wore dresses, because gowns were easier to make and easier to wash and mend, but the teacher sent them home and their mother and grandmother had to make britches for them. Yet being the youngest in the family had its advantages: there was music all around (Mamo sang a great many traditional ballads) and the older brothers scratched a living while the twins learned to play. When the Depression came along, it made no difference in the Hollow, where they couldn't get any poorer, and in fact things improved, because radio came along at the same time. The Twins went to work in a furniture factory in the finishing room, which meant working with chemical stains and polishes and breathing fumes every working day, but the little town of Bassett bristled with musicians; at night the twins drank and fought (often with each other) and sang on the local radio.
      Meanwhile Roy Hall had left a cotton mill to make a living as a musician. In 1937 he recorded 12 sides for Bluebird in Charlotte, North Carolina with his brother Jay (yet another brother act). Jay left to join Wade Mainer's group, and Roy formed the Blue Ridge Entertainers. He was not a huge talent, but he was a very good bandleader, a practical manager (he had already managed baseball teams) and a good judge of talent and of songs. The band included Tommy Magness, a sensationally good fiddler; in November 1938 they recorded 18 songs for Vocalion, in Columbia, South Carolina, including the first ever recording of "Orange Blossom Special", never released (until 2000 in a Sony anthology) because the authors wouldn't give permission.
      Soon the band was sponsored by Dr Pepper, which meant moving to bigger and better radio stations. Then banjo picker Clato Buchanan and Tommy Magness were leaving the band, Magness to go with Bill Monroe. Roy "no relation" Hall had heard about the Hall twins, and went to find them. When his big car rolled up in Bassett they wondered what kind of trouble they were in; they had heard and admired Roy's band on the radio and were astonished to meet him in the flesh. They joined Roy's band, and not long after that, Dr Pepper decided to build a bottling plant in Roanoke, Virginia, and wanted the band to move there to become regulars on WDBJ, where their corny jokes and mountain music made them regional sensations. In October 1940 they recorded for Bluebird in Atlanta, Georgia, 12 tunes including Bob Wills' "New San Antonio Rose", and the Twins' original "Little Sweetheart, Come And Kiss Me".
    It was the last time the twins recorded with the band. Tommy Magness was not happy with Bill Monroe and wanted to come back to Roy, where he could raise hell instead of rehearsing all day. He was not supposed to replace Saford, but the inevitable happened: he was a better fiddler, and Saford asdjusted to a secondary role.
      Then came the war.
      The gentle Clayton and and the hothead Saford were both drafted, but Clayton had been in a car crash and received a deferment, so Saford was the first to go. There was another recording session in Atlanta in October 1941, with only one twin. Then Clayton left. The twins served honorably and well and saw plenty of action and bloody violence, Clayton in Europe and Saford in the Pacific, including the hell of Okinawa. While they were away, Roy Hall (b c.1907; d 16 May 1943) was killed in a car crash. The twins had appeared with the Sons of the Pioneers and Roy Rogers on stage; Roy Hall had an unsigned contract from a movie studio for after the war: the twins might have been in the movies if it hadn't been for a lot of bad luck.
      Meanwhile, Tommy Magness had worked for Roy Acuff, one of the biggest names in the business, and appeared in two Acuff films. In 1946 he quit to form his own band, the Orange Blossom Boys,a dn hired the Hall twins. This band played on WDBJ and cut one record in September 1947 for Roanoke's Blue Ridge Records. Then they got an offer from KWKH, a 50,000 watt station in Shreveport, Louisiana. The twins didn't know whether they wanted to move that far, but it was a moot question. Tommy Magness was an alcoholic, and blew off a gig at the Roanoke Theater, where an another act had already blown off an afternoon show (the afternoon drunk is said to have been Hank Williams). The twins carried the show, but afterward the whole band quit and the Louisiana offer was withdrawn. Tommy Magness (b 12 November 1916, Mineral Bluff GA; d there 5 October 1972) had missed the big time too. The twins went back to work in furniture factories. They never stopped playing and singing, but their lives as professional musicians were over. They continued fighting like cat and dog, never realizing until they were old men how much they needed each other.
      Clayton's grandson, Ralph Berrier Jr, an award-winning reporter on the Roanoke Times, published If Trouble Don't Kill Me in 2010. He says Roy Hall made 52 records altogether (he means 52 sides, or 26 records) and the book should have included a discography. He doesn't seem to know that the reason "New San Antonio Rose" is so called is because when the Irving Berlin organization published the original song, they reharmonized it and screwed it up, being New Yorkers and not knowing anything about Western Swing, so if Bob Wills wanted it done right he had to do it over again himself, changing the title slightly. But Berrier's book is beautifully written, full of understanding and affection, and deserves to be made into a first-class TV mini-series.