Eddie Noack had a valiant run at country stardom in the '50s, cutting a bunch of good, straight-ahead honky tonk sides for Gold Star, Starday, D, and Mercury before dropping into the minor leagues in the '60s. During the '50s, he came close to reaching national charts with "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" and "Too Hot to Handle," but much of his recognition arrived as a songwriter. He penned "These Hands," which turned into something of a '60s standard -- it was cut by Johnny Cash, Hank Snow, Lefty Frizzell, and Bob Dylan -- and "Have Blues, Will Travel" and "Relief Is Just a Swallow Away" were popularized by George Jones, who had mogul/manager Pappy Daily in common with Noack. All of these are sturdy credits in a Nashville second-stringer but for later generations, they're all overshadowed by one thing: Eddie Noack is the singer who cut the first version of Leon Payne's unsettling "Psycho." Noack recorded "Psycho" in 1968 for K-Ark, a label so small it was almost non-existent, so it isn't a surprise that the single disappeared upon its release, but it somehow made its way up toward Michigan, where singer Jack Kittel cut his own version in 1974. This is likely the rendition that made its way to Elvis Costello, who released a live cover of "Psycho" in 1981 that promptly made the disturbing song a cult favorite, eventually buttressing the reputation of the forgotten Noack, who had died under tragic circumstances in 1978.
So powerful is "Psycho" -- and so little known is Noack -- that it's tempting to view Noack's entire career through its prism, thinking of him as an outsider artist when it's better to think of him as a lifer so determined to have a career in country music that he hung onto any thread offered to him, including recording for such fly-by-night labels as K-Ark. Born DeArmand Alexander Noack in Houston, Texas on April 29, 1930, Noack may have spent the first ten years of his life as a drifting grifter raised by his single mother Ethel during the great depression. Ethel found another husband in the early '40s and the new family settled down in Noack's birthplace of Houston. At the age of 15, he took a dare to sing at a talent contest and it struck a chord within the fledgling musician. Soon enough, he was working Houston's burgeoning country music scene, getting himself onto radio broadcasts by 1948. He had just turned 18 and decided to make a go of it as a recording artist, calling up Gold Star and asking for an audition. Bill Quinn, the label's head, liked what he heard and signed Noack, releasing "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" in 1949. It was the first of four singles that would appear over the next three years. These singles didn't get heard much outside of Texas but they helped establish him on the circuit, eventually leading to a steady gig with R.D. Hendon's western swing group the Western Jamboree Cowboys. With Hendon, he had his first genuine hit with "I Can't Run Away," a song Noack co-wrote and sang on record with Gig Sparks.
"I Can't Run Away" gained the ear of Pappy Daily, the Texas music man who was moving from juke boxes to management and A&R at this stage of his career. Daily had the Western Jamboree Cowboys record several sides for 4-Star, none of which went anywhere and in 1952, Noack left the band. He had been enrolled at the University of Houston since the previous year and he split his time between college and pursuing a solo career recording for 4-Star. These singles only appeared in Texas and went nowhere, but his colleague Sonny Burns recorded Noack's original "Too Hot to Handle" -- Eddie cut it back at Gold Star but it was never released -- and it buttressed Eddie's reputation as a writer and helped him move from 4-Star to Starday in 1954, the same year he graduated from University of Houston with a Bachelor's in English. "Don’t Trade," his first single for Starday, was a minor regional hit, but before his career could take off, he was drafted into the military to serve in the Korean war. He was stationed in Germany in 1955 and 1956, then returned to Texas.
While in Germany, he received yet another break as a songwriter, when Hank Snow recorded "These Hands" and brought it into the Billboard Top 10 in the spring of 1956. At the end of the year, he was back in the U.S. and recording for Starday, but by that point, rock & roll was steamrolling over the kind of pure country that was Noack's stock in trade. On the heels of George Jones' success, Pappy Daily aligned Starday with Mercury Records and several of the label's acts found a new home there, but not Noack. He was assigned to Starday's Dixie imprint, where he sang knock-off covers of then-current hits; he also appeared on the lesser-known Faith label singing country-gospel. Sales steadily dwindled -- his last single, "Dust on the River," sold only 185 copies -- and Eddie ended his association with Starday in 1957. Next up was Pappy Daily's new label D, where he recorded a teeny-bopping novelty, "My Steady Dream," that flopped, but Noack had better luck with "Have Blues, Will Travel" and "Relief Is Just a Swallow Away," which Jones soon cut himself. Covers like this were steady, but nothing Noack released for D between 1958 and 1961 turned into a hit. He spent time playing on country music revues sharing bills with the likes of George Jones, who turned into a friend of Eddie's.
Pappy Daily managed to give Noack one last shot, this time on Mercury in 1961 via the single "Where Do You Go (When You Say Goodnight)"/"Shotgun House." This too stiffed and Noack began sliding down the rungs of country stardom. Next up was a stint at Allstar, a label that specialized in "song poems" -- i.e., for a fee they'd set a submitted poem or lyric to music and send some pressed singles back to the hopeful songwriter. Noack dodged these flights of fancy, recording almost entirely originals between 1962 and 1965, but moving from a major to a fly-by-night indie was a blow to his ego. He adapted with the shifting tides, adjusting his sound to fit the train-track rhythms coming out of Bakersfield, but he was ready to jump ship when Lefty Frizzell offered him a job as the manager of his new music publishing company Golden Eye in 1966. That was short-lived, and in 1967, he was back out looking for a contract, finding one with the cheap independent K-Ark. In early 1968, he started releasing singles on the label and by the summer he had found the song that brought him notoriety, Leon Payne's "Psycho." Loosely based on serial killers Ed Gein and Richard Speck, the song was written from the killer's perspective -- a risky enough subject for a crossover hit -- but Noack's flat, affectless delivery made it chilling. It would later become a cult hit but it stiffed, as did Noack's original follow-up, "Dolores," which was another murder ballad. This also didn't gain any success, nor did the last handful of songs Noack released on K-Ark. At the end of the decade, he left the label.
Early in 1970, he cut a tribute album to Jimmie Rodgers but made moves to once again reside behind the scenes, teaching songwriting classes at the University of Tennessee and becoming a lifetime member of the Nashville Songwriters Association in 1970. He continued to record on occasion, as well as produce acts for Pappy Daily, until the record man retired in 1971. The next few years were marked by alcoholism and personal tragedy, and although he rallied for a British tour in 1976, he succumbed to his demons in 1978. His work remained out of print until Bear Family reissued his '50s and '60s work on two separate sets -- the former called Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and the latter Psycho -- in 2012 and 2013. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi