Johnnie & Jack mined the familiar turf of singing brother duos in the late '40s through the late '50s with a few distinct twists. For openers, they weren't blood brothers, just brothers in law. Secondly, they brought a new rhythmic strain to country music, both in their use of Latin beats and the unfettered drive of their combo, the Tennessee Mountain Boys. And of all the singing duos, they were the most inclined to stretch the boundaries of their sound, from bluegrass to sacred to amazing covers of R&B tunes with none of their country-soul diluted in the bargain. But for all their melding of outside influences, few artists -- even in the mid-'50s -- were as wholesale committed to sounding as "country" as they were. Whatever they played, sang, or wrote, it always sounded like Johnnie & Jack.
Johnnie Wright and Jack Anglin started playing together in 1938, forming a loose-knit country string band featuring Johnnie's new wife Muriel Deason, whom he would later rename Kitty Wells. Their sound in the early days was heavily influenced by both the Delmore Brothers and the Monroe Brothers, Charlie and Bill. As Johnnie plainly put it, "We were so green we didn't know you needed to develop your own style. We just out and out copied their sound in the beginning." An important member of the unit was Jack's brother Jim Anglin who contributed a high, lonesome tenor harmony both live and on records and contributed mightily as a songwriter during the duo's 25-year partnership.
Johnnie & Jack's band, now named the Tennessee Hillbillies, were just starting up the country food chain with sustaining radio broadcasts on local stations when World War II temporarily put the project on hold as Jack joined the Army. Reunited after the war, Johnnie & Jack -- with Kitty now a permanent fixture of the band -- picked up where they left off, adding an emcee/bass player named Smilin' Eddie Hill and a young guitarist named Chet Atkins to the fold. By 1947, they were filling in for Roy Acuff on the Grand Ole Opry, under the edict that they change their billing (Opry officials were loath to associate with any acts that used the word "hillbilly" in their name) to the Tennessee Mountain Boys and that Kitty sit out the radio performances as the Opry was top-heavy with female singers at the time.
At years' end, they had finally made their first records for the R&B-based Apollo Records out of New York City. After the non-success of those early 78s (the company refused to send promotional copies to radio stations to promote sales and airplay) and a quick side project with Ray Atkins and Clyde Moody as the King Sacred Quartette for the King label, the duo started recording for RCA Victor -- their longest lasting label affiliation -- in 1949. But even with Kitty recording solo and supplying high baritone harmonies on the duo's records, success proved elusive for the next few years. The troupe moved from one radio station to another, logging in time with the Louisiana Hayride and stations as far afield as Georgia and North Carolina. All of that changed with the release of their first hit, "Poison Love," in 1951, the tune making the Top Ten on all three Billboard country charts at the time. What Johnnie & Jack had done to crack the charts was to take their straight bluegrass harmonies and wed them to a distinct rhumba beat, principally supplied by studio bassist Ernie Newton, playing a maracca and wire brush simultaneously while handling the bass part. In the dark days of country music, where drums were outlawed on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry and electric instruments were only grudgingly accepted, this new approach was novel and influential. The combination proved a winner, one that the duo would return to on several recordings, complete with cha cha endings, which would become a Johnnie & Jack trademark. With Kitty's success assured after the mega-success of "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels," the duo combined with her to become one of the most in-demand road shows in country music. Within a couple of years, their sound would change again, adding bass singer Culley Holt from the Jordanaires to countrify a batch of R&B recordings, including the Moonglows' "Sincerely," the Four Knights' "(Oh Baby Mine) I Get So Lonely," the Delta Rhythm Boys' "Kiss Crazy Baby," and the Spaniels' "Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight," all hits in the country field for the duo. This helped handle the onslaught of rock & roll better than most country artists of the day while keeping the roots of their sound intact. Johnnie & Jack made the Billboard country charts a total of 15 times and probably would have had more entries if the mid-'50s charts weren't limited to only mirroring the Top Ten songs of the day.
But by the late '50s, Johnnie & Jack's records were being mainstreamed into the Nashville Sound, with the Jordanaires, the Anita Kerr Singers, saxophones, and full rhythm sections burying their plaintive vocals beneath layers of reverb and pop sugar coating. Dissatisfied, the duo let their contract run out and signed with Decca Records in 1961. Their new company changed the spelling of their name to "Johnny & Jack," but at last the duo and Kitty were all on the same label again and with labelmates like Patsy Cline, Ernest Tubb, Webb Pierce, Red Foley, and Bill Monroe, they couldn't have been in better company. The contract produced no more hits than the tail end of their tenure with RCA, but with Kitty racking up hit after hit, the troupe had all the road work it could handle. It was coming back from one of these road trips that they were to learn of the plane crash deaths of Patsy Cline, Cline's manager, Randy Hughes, Hawkshaw Hawkins, and Cowboy Copas. On his way to the funeral parlor to attend memorial services for his fellow performers, Jack Anglin's car spun out of control, killing him instantly, thus ending the duo of Johnnie & Jack on an especially sad note. ~ Cub Koda, Rovi