Thursday, November 22, 2007

U. P. rockabilly star left mark

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Al Barkle


Although he moved to California with the occupation of mason, the Upper Peninsula's Al Barkle built a solid music career with at least two recordings continuing to reverberate today.

A native of Iron Mountain, the young Barkle began recording in 1951, cutting two 45s for the Sheboygan, Wis. based Polkaland label. But, after playing around northern Michigan for a few years, Barkle put his masonry training in his hip pocket, and relocated to the Oakland, Cal. area.

He began recording on the west coast in 1956 with "Jumpin' From Six to Six" becoming one of his earliest efforts. The song was written by Odie Ervin, a new artist, who first committed it to tape in 1954. But, it was the version credited to Al Barkle and the Trailblazers which caused rockabilly fans to take notice of the budding musician's talents as a singer and guitar player.

Then, while Barkle was busy "launching" his music career, halfway around the world the USSR was occupied with putting the Sputnik I satellite into space on Oct. 4, 1957.

With the news quickly circling the globe, Barkle teamed with songwriter Les Kangas to record "Sputnik II," a catchy-- if kooky-- love song to the Russian innovation which shocked the United States into a
race to the moon.

Credited to Al Barkle and the Tri-Tones, the tune begins with the singer imitating the low-frequency beeps emitted by Sputnik I as it orbitted earth. Near the end, the singer urges the space craft to start "spinnin' 'round my heart" as the song is completed with a wolf howl.

< Other musicians rushed to record space age songs, too. Another rockabilly entry by Jerry Engler and the Four Ekkos was called "Sputnik (Satellite Girl)," while Roosevelt Sykes did a rythym and blues number, "Sputnik Baby," and Ray Anderson and the Homefolks offered "Sputniks and Mutniks."

Still, Barkle's song stood out. It made enough of an impact on popular culture that it was noted in a cover story on the 50th anniversary of Sputnik printed in the Sept. 26, 2007 edition of the USA Today newspaper.

While "Jumping From Six to Six" and "Sputnik II" were early successes for Barkle, he continued to record regularly. The U. P. native cut singles for M&M, Vita, Frantic, Koo Koo, Fiddle and Bow, Royal American, Voice of Country and Kangaroo.
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Based in San Gabriel, Cal., the Kangaroo label was owned by Les Kangas, the man behind the "Sputnik II" recording. The company's 45 rpm single called "A Talk With My Heart," pictures Barkle on the label with the "e" dropped from his last name.

The former U. P. resident recorded other songs written by Kangas, as well, including "Wait Till The Commercial" and "The Signal." Kangas, in fact, made a career out of novelty material. In response to the Beatles- led British Invasion, he later wrote "Beetle Bug Bop" for the Collins Kids, legends on the rockabilly circuit.

Barkle himself was well-known among rockabilly fans for his sound which effectively combined early rock 'n' roll and country, or hillbilly music, with western swing.

Most of Barkle's recording took place in the 1950s. He only entered the studio sporadically after that as the rockabilly craze waned.

Named Albert Frank Barkle, the rockabilly star was born in Iron Mountain, MI on May 17, 1927 to Clifton and Josephine (Smeltzer) Barkle. The musician married Lucille Ballario and the couple had three daughters, Carla, Debbie and Nicole.

In 1969, Barkle moved to Nashville, Tenn., the epicenter of counrty music, where he continued to perform for nearly three decades. He died in a nursing home there on May 6, 2006, just 11 days short of his 79th birthday.

Today Barkle's recording of "Jumpin' From Six to Six" is recognized as a classic in 1950s rockabilly music. The song received renewed interest when it was rerecorded by Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys, a rockabilly revival band, as the title track to their debut album in 1994. So impressed was critic Jana Pendragon, she wrote "Jumpin' From Six to Six" marked nothing less than "a new era in country and western music."

Due to its connection with the space race, Barkle's take on "Sputnik II" will remain iconic in pop music.

Rockabilly, so popular five decades ago, enjoyed a revival in the 1980s with acts like the Stray Cats gaining wide acceptance. The style now exists as a subculture, combining music and fashion.

With "Sputnik II" and "Jumpin' From Six to Six" Al Barkle's family members have two special reasons to be proud of his musical legacy.

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