James Elton Baker, known professionally as Elton Britt, was in my view the greatest of all country and western singers. He had a high, natural tenor voice, as beautiful as those of Dennis Day or Roy Orbison but without the mannerisms of either. Like them, he possessed an amazing high range, part falsetto and part voix mixte, to which he allied a perfect legato and astonishing breath control. Like most country singers who came up before 1950 he yodeled, but even in this he was a virtuoso. His yodels had the sharply etched clarity of an Alpine singer, and he could maintain that high range with a breath control as good as that of John McCormack in his prime. In addition, his voice had warmth and exuded friendliness, and he kept his voice intact over an astonishing 42-year career.
So why isn’t he better remembered? In part, it was because he didn’t have a great stage presence. He only appeared in two films (there are rumors of a third, but it was never made) and the clip I’ve seen of the first, where he sang Chime Bells, he looks about as comfortable onscreen as a nervous waiter who brought the wrong plate to a customer. Another reason was that, once he stopped singing, he had no personality. He couldn’t schmooze with the audience the way Gene Autry, Hank Williams, Eddy Arnold or Roy Clark could. In addition, though he wrote some of his own songs, almost none of them became hits. His repertoire included a good number of pop tunes that he simply sang in a country style. And finally, he was always a little behind most new trends in country music whereas his much younger colleague Hank Williams was ahead of them. All of this added up to a fairly frustrating career despite his being signed to a major label (RCA Victor) for 19 years (1937-1956) and producing one real blockbuster hit, the rather dated World War II song There’s a Star-Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere.
When I was growing up and beginning to expand my listening to classical music and jazz, I also turned, briefly, to country music. There was this little AM radio station, I think from Hackensack or the Meadowlands, with a weak frequency that wasn’t always easy to pick up in my hometown of West Paterson, New Jersey, but pick it up I did. In addition to playing contemporary records like Jerry Wallace’s Diamonds and Horseshoes, the Statler Brothers’ Flowers on the Wall, Johnny Cash, Eddy Arnold and Buck Owens, they also played country oldies like Kenny Roberts’ I Never See Maggie Alone, Hank Williams discs and, yes, the occasional Elton Britt record. It was there that I got my first taste of him (as well as Hank Sr.) and thus, when I got out of high school for the day, I’d go to the record store near my bus stop where I picked up The Best of Britt and Yodel Songs. Of course I didn’t like all the material on these records, but one thing jumped out at me, and that was his superiority to any other country singer I’d ever heard in terms of vocal control and expression.
But, as I learned much later on, Britt had another quirk, and that was retiring and unretiring from show business through the 1950s and ‘60s. Even though he had a modest hit for the ABC-Paramount label in 1965, Home Sweet Homesick Blues, I somehow never heard that on the country radio station I listened to—and I never caught his one live appearance on the Jimmy Dean TV show where he sang that and a few other tunes. I thought Britt’s career was pretty much over by the time I discovered him.
In addition, Britt almost never gave interviews or appeared anywhere except onstage to sing. As stated in an excellent article on him by W.K. McNeil and Louis Hatchett, “He was a very private person offstage and never comfortable with the idea of stardom. Once he stepped offstage, his charisma vanished, and he reverted to that of a quite normal human being. As someone who got to know him once said, ‘He could have been a bus driver.’” A sickly child, what we now call a “blue baby,” Britt, or James Elton Baker, just barely survived infancy. In fact, he was so sick that his parents didn’t even name him until he was more than a year old; until then, they just called him “Cute” or “Cutie.” He was named James after his father and Elton after Dr. Elton Wilson, who kept him alive. But by age ten he was playing the guitar and at age 14 became fascinated by the singing style of Jimmie Rodgers, whose first Victor records began to appear. Rodgers inspired him to become a singer himself. He made his professional debut in 1930 at age 17 with the Beverly Hill Billies (yes, there was such a group name, decades before the famous TV comedy program that recycled it) and it was while with them that Glen Rice, an employee of the McMillan Oil Company which sponsored their broadcasts, convinced James Baker to change his professional name to Elton Britt.
Unlike many “hillbilly” singers, as they were known before the term was changed to country & western, Britt took his singing very seriously. In order to build up his breath control, he swam underwater for long periods of time, holding his breath—something that the famed Mexican trumpet player Rafael Mendez also did. He also worked very hard on his yodeling abilities, developing a clear, pure tone that easily surpassed that of his idol Rodgers and even the later Williams. In addition to Star-Spangled Banner, his hits for RCA included Someday, Detour, Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain, Candy Kisses, Mockin’ Bird Hill and, at the height of the early R&B era, an excellent cover version of Ivory Joe Hunter’s I Almost Lost My Mind. Some of his 1940s records had a backup band that included strings and brass instruments, more like that of contemporary pop records but without drums, which were then considered taboo in country music. (Only Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys had the audacity to flaunt that convention during the 1940s.) At one point in the ‘50s, Britt even mined for uranium, which led to his wife Penny writing the song Uranium Fever for him.
A couple of years after leaving RCA Victor, Britt came “out of retirement” again and signed with ABC-Paramount. His first album for them was a collection of stereo remakes of many of his RCA hits of which one, Chime Bells, was a distinct improvement on the original. But then he “retired” again to run for president in 1960, a move that was viewed as a publicity gimmick. Out East, in New Jersey, I wasn’t even aware that he had run for president.
Britt came back for at least two more good-selling hit records, neither of which I was aware of at the time. The first was Home Sweet Homesick Blues in 1965 and the second, from 1968, was a seven-minute track called The Jimmie Rodgers Blues in which he paid tribute to the man who had inspired his career. Britt suffered a heart attack while driving his car on June 22, 1972, five days short of his 59th birthday, and died in a Pennsylvania hospital the next day. Ironically for the man who lived so much of his private life in the shadows, his death was scarcely noticed by the national press.
But listen to recordings like Maybe I Was Wrong, Chime Bells or any of his other hits and you’ll hear just how good Britt was as a singer. There are a great many classical tenors (and countertenors) who could take lessons from him in terms of diction, purity of tone, expression, breath control and vocal management. He was truly one of a kind.
—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley
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