LARRY DONN writes for Now Dig This
A CONVERSAION WITH OLIVER N. 'OLLIE' 'THE BIG O' WARREN
In the early '60s, I was playing bass with The Spyders,
consisting of Bobby Tucker on lead guitar, Dan Rains on piano,
Sammy Creason on drums and lead vocalist Bill English. When I
quit to re-organise my own band, Fred Crook took my place on the
bass, and the band eventually toured their first US tour.
Shortly after I left, they changed the name to The Tarantulas and
had a modest hit called, of all things, 'Tarantula'. It must
have taken many hours of discussion, research and Budweiser to
come up with that title. It was an instrumental, and that's
about all I remember of it, except the fact it was recorded at
Fernwood sudio in Memphis in 1960. All the guys but me were
students at Arkansas State University, which was Arkansas State
College in those days, and I don't recall how I got into the
band. It was probably because, though I was a high school
"kick-out", they wanted me around so they could benefit from my
great wisdom, but maybe not. There's always the slim possibility
that the bandleader, Tucker, as he is known to his friends, liked
the way I played.
Somewhere in that era, Tucker called and asked me to play with
them at a talent contest at the college. The drummer that day
was Oliver Warren, who was also a student, and I'm not sure if
Sammy had quit and Ollie was the new drummer, or if this was
before Sammy started with the band. I do know he played with the
band for a while, and I know Sammy played on the Beatles tour, so
I assume Ollie was the drummer before Sam.
He also played with Sonny Burgess and me at a college near Pine
Bluff, Arkansas, which was probably in late '63, as I owned a red
'63 Volkswagon, I picked him up at the dormitory where he lived,
and discovered he had a whole herd of drums, The packing job we
did was a work of art. In fact, I think there is a bronze plaque
on that spot in the parking lot commemorating the event. I won't
go into details, but the only place in the car that a drum didn't
occupy was my lap. None of them would fit between my belly and
the steering wheel. Somehow we made the 150 mile trip played the
show and got back to the dorm by daylight without any exciting
I think those were the only two times we played in the same band,
but something in the back of my mind keeps whispering "C&R Club",
so he may have played there with Sonny and me, as the club was
only 15 miles from the school. All this happened long before he
became The Big O to Roy Orbison.
A few days ago, I visited Ollie at his recording studio at 506 North
Missouri in West Memphis, Arkansas. I didn't take a tape recorder to
record our conversation, and I'm glad I didn't as we talked steadily
from 2:30 to 9:20 pm. Brenda, Ollie's "significant other" (as he put
it) joined us about 5:00, and with all three of us talking, I would have
had to run the story in serial form for the next year or two to get it
I found the man of the day leaning against a cabinet in the
kitchen area, watching Joe Beasley and Jared Houck glue
sound-absorbing foam panels onto the wall of a new sound
isolation room. After inspecting the wall, Ollie and I found
chairs in the mastering room and began our marathon conversation.
When we stopped to catch a breath, he played me some recent
tracks from an album he is doing for Bill Haney, whose Elvis act
was quite well known in the late '70s and early '80s.
"So tell me again... how did Roy Orbison come to call you The Big
"Some people called him that, and he didn't much like it. He
started using it on me as a joke."
"Which of his records did you play on?"
"Several of them... 'Oh, Pretty Woman', 'Candy Man', 'Crying'..."
"I want to find out who you had to bribe to get a job playing
drums with Roy Orbison, and there's the story about your first
meeting with Elvis, but first, tell me about the studio."
"I was almost totaly out of music from '70 to '93. I got
involved in electronics, and after working for other companies
for a few years, I started my own business building computers.
In the early '90s, it was doing well and I had some free time and
some extra room in this building, so I decided to put in a small
recording studio. The studio has done so well, I'm phasing out
the computer business."
We were surrounded by machines with lots of knobs, dials and
meters, and I was a bit uneasy until I spotted the familiar words,
"bass" and "treble". I mean this guy builds computers, has a
small beard and is a musician... he could easily fit into the "mad
scientist" mold. With the push of a button, he could possibly
send me back to the fourteenth century or somewhere else without
air conditioning. However, having seen several science-fiction
movies, I knew that time machines do not have bass and treble
controls, so I relaxed a bit.
"Now you can tell me about the first time you met Elvis."
"Well, I had heard of him... he'd been playing some of the clubs
around the area. The girls liked him, but we made jokes about
him. We were clean cut, 'ivy-league' types, and we though we
were cool, but the girls liked him better. One night, he was
playing on a flatbed trailor at the Mustang football field when I
was in high school at Forest City. We had just finished band
practice and descided to walk over to the football field to see
what was going on."
"Yoy mean you actually took lessons?"
"I played the baritone horn in the school band."
"So, Elvis was wailing and y'all went to see him."
"No, we didn't really go to see him... we were just curious, I
guess. We saw a Ford Crown Victoria... I think it was a '55...
parked behind the flat bed. As we stood there admiring it, the
field lights were reflecting off the windows and we couldn't see
inside, so I put my face up to the window to shield it from the
light. Gladys was looking at me from the other isde. She rolled
the window down and said, 'Honey, can I help you?'. I told her I
was just admiring the car. She told us Elvis was her son and
asked if we'd ever met him. We said we hadn't, and she invited
us to sit in the back seat until he finished his set and said
she'd introduce us to him. In a few minutes, he showed up. We
talked for a while, he autographed a picture for me, and then he
headed back for the next set. Gladys hugged us and invited us to
visit them in Memphis."
"Do you still have the picture?"
"I gave it to my girlfriend and got another hug."
"Did you ever take Gladys up on the offer?"
"No, but later, I went to Graceland a few times with Roy. Their
birthdays must have been close totgether or something... there
for a few years, they semed to be having birthday parties at the
"You didn't play baritone horn with Roy... not that I know about,
anyway... so how did you get from there to drums?"
"My high school band director had a country club type band... I
guess you could call it jazz band... and I played drums with him
on weekends. I met a fellow named Boone Kenyon while I was in
high school. His father moved up to Forrest City from Baton
Rouge, Louisiana to work on the St. Francis River Levee project.
I found out Boone could sing, and we started talking about
putting a band together."
A bass player named Jesse Tharp had been doing some recording at
Conway Twitty's studio in Marianna (about 20 miles south of
Forrest City), and one day they needed a drummer for a session.
Jesse had heard Ollie play somewhere or other, so he gave him a
call. Other sessions followed, and Ollie said he met Sonny
Burgess there and played on Sonny's first album, though neither
of us could remember which album was his first. Ollie, Boone and
Jesse started a band called The Spinners, but, as you may already
know, it wasn't the famous group of the same name. They hired a
guitar player, whose name isn't necessary for full enjoyment of
the story, and decided to hold a weekend dance at the National
Guard armory. Then the guitar player got himself arrested and
thrown in jail on Wednesday. Ollie had a Thursday night session
at the studio with Fred Carter Jr. and Robbie Robertson, who
played lead guitar and bass in Ronnie Hawkins' band. He
mentioned to Fred about the guitar player being in jail and the
dance on the weekend, and Fred and Robbie offered to play with
them. They did, and made twenty dollars each.
Who else had Ollie played with?
"I played with Charlie Rich a few times, and at The Silver Moon
at Newport with Jerry Lee Lewis. We had a lot of wild times back
then. We were playing at The Rebel Club one time and I fell
completely out of the club."
"That must have taken some practice."
"No, I got it right the very first time. The bandstand was a
couple of sheets of plywood on top of wooden Coke bottle cases
stacked about a foot high. The most logical place to put it in
the room just happened to be against the back door. When sitting
at my drums, my back was directly in front of and only a few
inches away from the door. Some people were arguing at the front
of the bandstand and somebody got shoved against my drums, which
in turn, pushed me out the door. I landed on my back on the
gravel parking lot behind the club, and the door closed behind
me. It all happened so fast... I was a little dazed and it was
pitch black outside, and for a few seconds I didn't know where I
was. When I figured it out, I got up and found the door was
locked. The band was still playing, apparently thinking I would
come back in shortly. I went around the front door and the
doorkeeper didn't know who I was, and wanted me to pay the
admission charge to get back in. I told him I was in the band,
and he told me I couldn't be in the band because the band was on
the bandstand playing at the time, I yelled for the manager, who
told the doorkeeper who I was, and I made it back to the
bandstand before the band finished the song."
So how did he become Roy Orbison's drummer?
"It's a long story", he said. "Conway Twitty had been trying to
help Fred get going as a solo artist, and had helped him get an
agent who had booked a tour. For some reason or another, the
drummer was unable to finish the tour, so Fred called me. I quit
school and put myself and my drums on a bus for Lorain, Ohio.
After the tour, we wound up in Nashville and decided to stay
awhile. We rented a house on Finn Street and lived on bologna
and Kool-Aid (a sweet drink mix) for a couple of months, and ate
many free meals at Tootsie's Orchid Lounge on Broadway. Tootsie
liked musicians and I guess she felt sorry for us, so she let us
eat there several times without paying. We couldn't find a job,
and Fred borrowed $500 from Conway to keep us going until we
could make some money. Then he met Mel Tillis, who was working
for a publishing company, and Mel said he would try to get the
band some work. He wanted to hear us, so we auditioned at the
publishing company's office. A couple of weeks later, he called
and said he liked the way we played, and he was sending this guy
out to our house to listen to us. He said, 'If he likes you,
you'll get some really good work', but he wouldn't tell us who it
was. Fred pestered Mel about it until Mel told him it was Roy
Orbison. I have to admit we got a little worried. We had four
hours before Roy was due at our house, so we rehearsed every
Orbison song we could think of during that time. When Roy arived,
he told us, 'I'm looking for a band to tour with me that can also
record with me'. Naturally, I was worried that he wouldn't like
my playing, because everybody picks on drummers. Well, Roy did
about an hours worth of songs and told us 'I don't know who you
guys are, but your hired'. Our first tour was two weeks later,
and for the next two-and-a-half years, it was ninety days on
tour, thirty days off. When we weren't on tour, we sometimes
recorded, and occasionally played the Bel Air Lounge in Hobbs,
By this time, Fred Carter was producing Roy's recordings, and the
band was doing sessions with other artists when not on tour with
Roy. Ollie became acquainted with Patsy Cline, Marty Robbins,
Jim Reeves, Pete Drake and several others in these sesions, and
knew Willie Nelson when he was just a songwriter.
Ollie said Roy threatened to fire him, but only once. They were
playing for a crowd of 25,000, and it was the first time he had
played for more than about 200.
"It was one of those songs that start with the drums, and I was
suposed to do the kick-off, but I was too busy looking at the
girls around the stage. Fred saw what was happening and did the
intro on the guitar. After the show, Roy told me, 'Son, if that
ever happens again, you're gone', and it never happened again.
Roy was a really nice guy, but he was verry strict about what
happened on-stage. He wanted it to be right for the fans. I
just got caught up in the 'star' thing, and forgot to do my job."
"The few times I met him, he seemed to be quite a nice and
"He was. He was one of the nicest people I've ever known. I
feel privileged to have played with him because those three or
four years were when he was the hottest thing going. I remember
one time when the audience came onto the stage and started
grabbing things. They grabbed my drumsticks and my tie and
almost choked me. Finally the police came and rescued us."
"We've all heard stories about why Roy wore sunglasses. When I
first met him, he had blonde hair and wore regular glasses. The
last time, he had black hair and wore sunglasses. I asked him
why, and he told me he had problems with his eyes... they were
weak, he said, and the stage lights were very bright and caused
him a lot of discomfort."
"That's right. He started wearing them in Europe. He was going
to tour with The Beatles and left his regular glasses on the
plane. He had a pair of sunglasses, so he wore them on-stage,
and the fans thought it was cool, so he kept wearing them. But
he did have an eye disease, and the stage lights hurt his eyes."
"Why did you quit playing with him?"
"We were off for about six months because he wasn't touring. We
were living in the house in Nashville and playing around town
once in a while, but it just wasn't enough. Jesse was the first
to leave, then Fred got married and wanted to use the house, so
Rany and I (Randy Minci, the rhythm guitar player) moved out and
rented another place. Fred wanted to spend more time writing
songs and doing sessions instead of touring, and I was so worn
out from being on the road for so long, I decided to quit. I
went to work for the Arkansas Highway Department as a flag man,
standing on the highway all day with a red flag, contolling the
flow of traffic at constructions sites."
"That must have been quite a shock, going from playing with one
of the biggest stars in the business to waving a flag on the
"Yeah, there was a definite difference, but it didn't last long.
I started playing drums for Bill Lafferty, who was a student at
the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, and played some that
summer with Charlie Rich."
"You mentioned playing with Jerry Lee at The Silver Moon in
"Yeah, I had quit school to finish the tour with Fred, so I went
back to Arkansas State to finish my education, and played
occasionally with Roy, Charlie Rich and several local bands.
Jerry Lee had a night booked at The Silver Moon and didn't have a
drummer, so he offered me twenty-five dollars to do it. I
arrived a little early, and the club manager, Charlie Watson,
told me Jerry Lee and some others had gone down to Porky's
Rooftop Club to have a few drinks before the show. Nine o'clock
came and they weren't there. after a while, they showed up, and
it turned out that Jerry Lee thought his first show was at ten.
Charlie had just bought a new white grand piano for the club and
was so picky about it, he even warned me to not set up to close
to the piano because the drums might scratch it. when Jerry Lee
kicked the bench over, Charlie came running up to complain.
Every time Charlie complained, Jerry Lee got worse. He threw the
bench on top of the piano, causing the lid to fall and break off
the support rod that held it up. At breaktime, we went outside
and fifteen minutes later when I went back in, Jerry Lee was
gone. after about forty-five minutes, I asked Charlie where he
was. Charlie said, 'I ran him off! He was tearing my piano up!'
I never did get my twenty-five dollars."
My notes stop at this point, but the conversation continued.
Ollie went on to the computer and "accessed" the Internet to show
me his "website", "webpage" or whatever it's called. You can see
it too, at www.deltasound.com. And when you get there, you'll
see a list of people he has worked with. Down near the bottom is
my name. If you put your little thingamabob (doohicky,
whatchamacallit...) on my name and punch the button you'll be
immediately transported to where you are right now.
As we moseyed down the hall and into the main studio, Ollie
mentioned that we should write a book, "You know, rock n roll
came from right here... within about fifty miles of Memphis", he
said. (Make that sixty-five miles, Ollie. That's how far it is
from Memphis to my house.) "We could tell the backstage stories.
We've heard all the 'star' stories... we should tell the stories
of the musicians behind the stars. They know the real stories."
Eventually, we made it out the back door into the parking lot,
but by this time my brain was turning to jelly from the nicotine
of about thirty cigarettes, and I don't remember much of the
twenty minutes we talked after he locked the place up.
Incidentally, Fred Carter Jr. is the father of current country
star Deana Carter, and has written, produced and played on many
hit records, but for some reason, I can't think of a single one
right now, except Simon & Garfunkel's 'Bridge Over Troubled
Water', wich he produced and played on.
Don't hold your breath waiting for this book we're going to write. It's
a good idea, and one that arouses my interest, but finding the time to
do the research and interviews could be a major problem maybe we can get
it finished in time for the fiftieth birthday of rock n roll in 2004.