"I could hire out to the other side, the big money side, and get several dollars every week just to quit singing my own kind of songs and to sing the kind that knock you down still farther and the ones that poke fun at you even more and the ones that make you think you've not got any sense at all. But I decided a long time ago that I'd rather starve to death before I'd sing any such songs as that. The radio waves and your movies and your jukeboxes and your songbooks are already loaded down and running over with such no good songs as that anyhow."
Details of the early life of John Schooley are sketchy, and historians are still unsure of many of the details. Various sources place his birth either in Columbus, Ohio or Vancouver, British Columbia. We do know that his family moved to the rural enclave of Niangua, Missouri when he was still quite young. His parents were sharecroppers, barely scratching out a living from the rocky soil of the Ozark Mountains.
The youngest of eight or possibly nine siblings, John Schooley did not take to farming, or, apparently, work of any kind. He could be found, often as not, shirking his chores to hunch over his guitar. He did not have a “One Man Band” setup as yet, locals report only that he would stomp his foot on a board or on the front porch, frequently scaring the cows. Though it was not a musical family, the youngest of the Schooley clan was “plum gone over that guitar,” according to one family member interviewed years later.
Since it was nearly 50 miles to the nearest proper record store, young Schooley had a hard time coming by the country, blues, ragtime, and punk music he was so enamored with. The family Victrola was stocked with any 78's that could be found, mostly by Jimmie Rodgers, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Doctor Ross, and Don Van Vliet. Most evenings the family tuned to radio station KWTO out of Springfield, to hear the “Carter Sisters and Mother Maybelle with Chet Atkins and his Famous Guitar” perform as part of the syndicated “RadiOzark” network. Although the “Carter Scratch” of Mother Maybelle Carter seems to have been an early influence on Schooley's playing, the more genteel jazz-influenced picking of Atkins most certainly was not.
School was never to his liking and Schooley quit after graduating the fifth grade. Chafing at the dreary small town life of Niangua, Schooley left never to return. He rambled north to Columbia, Missouri, where the local musical combo “The Untamed Youth” had been making a name for themselves. Untamed Youth had recorded for Norton Records out of New York City to some acclaim, but by the time Schooley arrived the band was no longer active. Founder Deke Dickerson had moved to California, and there were really no other bands in town.
Into this musical vacuum Schooley entered, first trying to put together a hot-jazz combo along the lines of the then-popular Django Reinhart. Schooley was unable to find suitable musicians, and also couldn't really play very well, so that idea was soon abandoned. Then, billing himself as “John Schooley and His One Man Band”, he rigged up a kick drum and hi-hat and began performing at “house frolics” and on the sidewalk in front of local record store Whizz Records. He met with minimal success. The repetitive pound of the kick drum combined with Schooley's rather gruff vocals seemed only to drive business away from the already failing retailer. He was frequently chased away by the proprietor with a broom shortly after setting up. He fared little better at the “house frolics.” Being unwilling (or perhaps unable) to learn pop hits of the day, Schooley tried to force his listeners to dance to his own frequently atonal blend of blues and country, again with minimal success.
The musical scene in Columbia was so stagnant that when it was announced that bluegrass stars The Oblivians were coming to town, Schooley was able to secure the opening slot even though he had no band together at the time. A suitable bass player was never found, and with the Oblivians show rapidly approaching Schooley set out to work up a set with scarcely a week remaining before the show. The guitar, drum, and vocal trio dubbed themselves “The Revelators” and much to the surprise of everyone they didn't suck too bad.
Eric Oblivian was so impressed with this lack of suck that he offered to record the band on his “Goner” record label, a new Memphis enterprise he had begun in partnership with talent scout Ralph Peer. The Revelators had already sent a demo to Crypt Records, however; and Crypt president Tim Warren was very excited about the band.
Schooley continued performing as a one man band on occasion, and even worked up some home recordings. Using the (even then) antiquated technology of the “boom box” in conjunction with one Radio Shack microphone, he recorded two songs in the basement of the Alpha Gamma Sigma agricultural fraternity. One was a Billy Childish number, “Pretty Baby”, and the other a re-working of the traditional folk holler “Rock and Roll Hootchie Koo”. When he sent the tape to Eric Oblivian he was very excited. Oblivian rushed the single (released on the new “45 RPM” format) into production. It failed to chart.
Meanwhile, Crypt had released a single by the Revelators and now wanted an LP. When the record, titled “We Told You Not To Cross Us” was released it caused a sensation in at least three Missouri counties and parts of Arkansas and Illinois. The Revelators were immediately rushed off to a whirlwind tour of Europe, which included performances for the as-yet not-dead Princess Diana and Archduke Ferdinand. Following a grueling North American tour, the group recorded one more LP (still unreleased) and promptly broke up.
Tiring of Missouri, Schooley lit a shuck for Texas and took whatever work he could find, from oil roughneck to hotel elevator operator. He eventually started another musical combo, the Hard Feelings, not unlike the Revelators in musical style and spirit. Collectors have turned up at least two LP's and a number of 45's by the Hard Feelings, and it is known they made infrequent tours of Europe and North America.
The recordings of John Schooley and His One Man Band, however, are not as well documented. Only one other single, on “Ball Records” from Maine, has turned up. Eventually, Schooley added harmonica, snare drum, and washboard to his kick and hi-hat apparatus, enabling him to make an increasingly louder racket. Voodoo Rhythm recently uncovered the tapes of these songs, long presumed lost, in an oil drum outside of Lockhart, Texas. They seem to represent a shift by Schooley away from the rougher sound that characterized the Goner and Ball recordings to a more full, rhythmically complex sound. While the story of John Schooley and His One Man Band remains shrouded in half-truths and outright falsehood, these recordings should help give musical historians and folklorists a more accurate portrait of the man and his music.