Thumbs Carllile

Juli Kearns Everyday Stories 13 Comments

With a nod to Dharma Bums who got me started thinking about it. Rexroth’s Daughter wrote a beautiful post on the how and why she is a collector of handshakes and her passion for it is a beautiful one unsullied by dropping-name ambitions, each handshake opening to the worlds of those others and the people with whom they’ve shaken hands, a the conviction of inter-relatedness symbolized in that brief touch, traveling on, connecting us with the journey and experiences of, eventually, everyone.

Anyway, this is something I’ve thought about putting together for H.o.p. from time to time, a brief collection of the people we’ve known and those tendrils. Because one day he may be curious. Or maybe not. And even if I don’t put it together, I for some reason have always thought I ought to write a brief piece here about Thumbs Carllile, so I will go ahead and do so. Don’t know why. He just has always come to mind in that way. A person you’ve known that ought to be remembered, and his family remarked upon.

Marty, my husband, sat in with Thumbs’ trio a few times and has played with his daughter, Kathy, in her band “Tabasco” in an off-and-on forever kind of way. She sings a shred-the-velvet-curtains blues, huge voice wringing out her diminutive frame until all that’s left is a halo of soul. Tammy, another daughter of Thumbs, and a hell of a singer as well, did the vocal for some music in a play of mine once. And I was present when Virginia, Thumbs’ wife, sang, “I’m so lonely I could cry” at his wake at The Freight Room in 1987, which is something I will never forget. Nor will I forget his funeral, which was a funeral one could respect, and that’s rare.

I’d heard that Virginia could sing. But Virginia was pure, unaffected, mortal intervention for us all, the-gods-must-turn-their-heads-and-listen transcendence.

The last time I looked up Thumbs’ name on the internet there wasn’t too much about him up there, which seemed such an injustice. But he has more of a presence now and there is a site selling rare, out-of-print recordings of Thumbs’ music. If you go over there, listen to “Me & Memphis” from “On His Own”, and “Curves Ahead” on “Jazz Carllile Style” is a nice one as well, despite the Fender piano, I’ve always hated Fender piano. Jazz and blues with an overtone of country influence.

Thumbs Carllisle was not only an exceptional guitarist, he was known for his unusual style of playing, sitting with his guitar in his lap and fretting, picking, strumming, twanging with fingers and thumbs. Thumbs is one of the guitar world’s greats and unfortunately one of the great unknowns. I read now of people who hunger for having seen him perform live or who treasure having seen him playing in Roger Miller’s band on television, and I feel privileged as Thumbs was playing Mondays at The Point when I was waitressing there back in 1987, so I got to hear him a number of times.

The Point was a rare little club located in Atlanta’s Little Five Points. My husband played and wrote music with Tommy Dean, a brother of the owner, Britt Dean, and because it was the kind of a club that would have Thumbs playing on Mondays is why I pursued a job there when I couldn’t stand the idea of another day gig from which I’d flee in horror after a few weeks. It was a middle-sized room with a nice large stage, a long bar at the back, a dance floor and tables between the dance floor and the bar, and was a venue where people did actually not infrequently go to listen to music rather than to just be seen listening to music. They certainly didn’t go there for the food, which though pretty good was an afterthought of a sequence of vendors renting out the kitchen.

Thumbs should have been packing out that room on Mondays, and that he wasn’t says something about the world because the quality of the music was stellar, but then his name did start getting around, people became aware of what was going on and attendance started picking up. It was the kind of music where you know you’re listening to its history and the history of music in the making, you know that someone should be there recording it for the future when people realize what they’ve missed and start turning over every rock looking for it. In that room was the history of the hardware of electric guitar, its knobs and strings, mixed with whispers of its fledgling players, of Les Paul who built one of the first electric guitars, and all the voices and hands with which Thumbs had made music over the years–they were all present on those Mondays. His wife, Virginia would sit at a table against the left wall near the front of the room. And sometimes Tammy would be there, and often Kathy would be as well, always barefoot.

Virginia is one of the most unassuming, genuine persons I’ve ever known–and whether it’s genetic or not I don’t know but her daughters and grandchildren are every bit the same. Still, she was always a bit of a mystery to me, not that she was sitting almost square in front of a door you perhaps weren’t supposed to notice. I would say it was only the night she sang that I felt there she was unbridled, but that’s wrong, for it is that genuineness which gave her voice such a spirit of truth, she opening the song to reveal its hidden parts, rather than it releasing something reserved in her.

Virginia sent me the above picture of Thumbs and it’s exactly Thumbs as I knew him, but the Thumbs in the pics on his albums also looks exactly Thumbs. “On His Own”, “Life and Times”, “Guitar Wizard”.

Below is a picture Kenneth Ray Carllile as a child on a tenant farm, stories of which were still close enough that they came up freely in conversation.

As you should have the vital statistics, here’s a brief bio of Thumbs from the Century of Country website:

Kenneth Ray Carllile (April 2 1931 to July 31, 1987)

Thumbs Carllile was a very talented musician who devised a style of playing guitar that would grace many a record and many a live performance. Thumbs grew up on a tenanted farm in Harrisburg, Illinois, where he wore overshoes made out of discarded truck tires. When he was 8, his sister Evelyn won a Dobro for selling Cloverine salve. He borrowed the instrument so much, that Evelyn hid the steel bar and so he started to play with his thumbs. His father later gave him a Sears Silvertone guitar but as Kenneth couldn’t curl his short, fat fingers around the neck he wore it Dobro-style and played it as if he was playing a piano. In recent times, only the blind Canadian Blues/Rock guitarist Jeff Healy has played like this. When he was 10, Thumb’s family moved to Granite City, near St. Louis, Missouri. He made his debut that year at the Music Box club in East St. Louis during a Ferlin Husky gig and played Sweet Georgia Brown. The audience was ecstatic. At 16, he was kicked out of school for “not shaving.”

When asked how he would make a living, he held up his thumbs. He did some gigs with Husky and then was discovered by Little Jimmy Dickens playing in a nightclub in St. Louis. It was Dickens who gave him his nickname, which he never really liked. He got the job with Little Jimmy after demonstrating that he could play both parts of Dickens’ twin guitar lines on his own. Carllile performed with Dickens’ Country Boys on and off from 1949 to 1952, including appearances on the Grand Ole Opry. From 1952 through 1954, Thumbs was a member of the Army’s Special Services. While on a base in Stuttgart, Germany, he met another recruit, Virginia Boyle, who was singing in an army show and they married in 1955. From 1954 to 1957, Thumbs was a member of Bill Wimberley’s Rhythm Boys. During this time, he also joined Red Foley’s Troupe and became a featured musician on the Ozark Jubilee. In 1961, Thumbs met Les Paul, who was excited by Virginia’s songwriting and Thumbs’ ability. He took them to his home in Mahwah, New Jersey and recorded enough material for two albums. That year, Carllile released a single on Epic with Ginny O’Boyle entitled Indian Girl, Indian Boy/Now That You’re Leavin’ Me. During 1963, he became a member of the Wade Ray Five and Wade Ray’s Las Vegas band. Shortly after this in 1964, Thumbs joined Roger Miller and stayed with him for eight years. In 1964 and 1965, he appeared at the Grammy Awards show with Miller when Roger swept the board. Thumbs also appeared on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show on NBC-TV five times between 1961and 1968 with Miller. During this time, Roger Miller got Thumbs signed to Smash Records. He released two albums for the label, Roger Miller Presents Thumbs Carllile and All Thumbs (both 1965). He also released one single for Smash in 1966, My Bossa Nova/Candy Girl. Several tracks that he recorded for Smash became popular, if not charting. These included Let it Be Me, Caravan, No Yesterday, Theme From Picnic, Blue Skies, Stranger On The Shore and Hold It. Two years later, Carllile signed with Capitol and released the album Walking in Guitar Land. No singles were released but again, certain tracks caught the public’s interest. These were It’s A Good Day, Work Song and High Noon. In 1980, Thumbs’ daughter Kathy had a middle order hit with Stay Until The Rain Stops on Frontline. During 1986, the family moved from Chattanooga to Atlanta, where Virginia had to work in a factory making springs. Thumbs had to undergo surgery for colon cancer, which, despite fund- raisers, left the family bankrupt; a sad thing to happen to such a talented man. He started to play on WRFG Atlanta’s Sagebrush Boogie thanks to David Chamberlain, who was a Carllile admirer. Chamberlain also arranged for him to open for guitarist Michael Hedges. On July 31, 1987, Thumbs suffered a heart attack and died.

I never think of Thumbs playing country, instead that jazzy-blues, but he was at the Grand Ol’ Opry for years. I’m not a musicologist, so if you’re looking for that kind of reading this is the wrong place, sorry, and I’m not a good one with anecdotes, but if you want a little story about his time at the Grand Ol’ Opry, Thumbs told Marty what when he started at the Opry there were three guitarists. One of them quit a while later, and they said, ‘Well, Thumbs, you can pick up the parts he was playing.” A couple of years after that the other guitarist quit. Again, they told him, “Thumbs, you can pick up the parts he was playing.” A while after that Thumbs realized he was doing the job of three guitarists. He went to management and asked for the pay of the other two guitarists since he was doing their job. The Opry management said no so Thumbs quit and went to work with Les Paul. The thing is, the way he played, he could play what three guitarists were playing.

The bio mentions Thumbs’ short, fat hands, and it’s true. I knew who he was before I met him, because of my husband playing with him. And when I met him I looked at those hands and wondered how and then you saw him play and would be transfixed, watching those hands.

Marty met Thumbs at The Point. Jerry Peek was the bass player in his trio, a jazz player who came out of the Steve Morse band. We don’t remember the name of the drummer.

The first time Marty played with Thumbs was a session for a simple little rock-a-billy song, a low-budget song demo for someone, Marty doesn’t recall who, and a drum machine instead of a real drummer. They started the first take and Marty realized half way through the intro that he wasn’t playing anymore, because he was so astounded by Thumbs’ playing. They started the second and third takes and the same thing happened. At that point, the bass player and Marty said they’d wait outside until Thumbs finished playing the basic track and then they’d overdub on it. Neither one of them could play with Thumbs, they were so overwhelmed by what they were hearing.

One more anecdote. A story of musicians being laid out by other musicians, Marty tells me, “Les Paul and Thumbs were driving down the Coastal Highway in Northern California and ‘Black Dog’ by Led Zeppelin came on the radio. It was the first time either one of them had heard the band and they were so overwhelmed that Thumbs told me they had to pull off the road and just listen until the song was over, they couldn’t even drive.”

Thumbs was a soft-spoken nice person, funny. He’d come back to the waitress station for coffee, water, whatever and chat and make jokes. I looked forward to his coming back and getting coffee. He always had a story. not spectacular stories that stand taller on a stage broadcasting over you. They were piece of sharing life stories, spontaneously taken from a shelf and dusted off in conversation, that make you feel comfortable with a person, so you look forward to chatting and hearing more of the same that you can piece together and make into a frame.

Things were going well. The air was gaining a burnished gold satisfaction that comes when people are doing what they love and things are picking up in the nice flowing way of tickets being handed out for front row center on something really good.

The music felt special. The room felt special those Monday nights Thumbs was playing.

The last time I saw Thumbs. He came back to the wait station between sets and he was telling me about how he was experiencing some angina. As the bio mentions, the family had gone bankrupt, and he was being seen by some doctors at Grady, where because you don’t have the money you see a different doctor every time and it’s rare if any of them care about who they’re seeing. He was talking about how he was trying to impress on another in that series of doctors that he was experiencing angina. And the doctor told him to run from one end of the hall to another. Utter disbelief at the kind of care he was getting. That’s the thing that’s wrong with medicine, I thought, they’re not treating the whole person, they don’t know who the person is, who Thumbs is, he’s just another body with symptoms, and I thought how wrong, how wrong that is. But he had finally gotten someone to listen to him, a cardiac specialist who had heard him play, who was treating him for free and thought he had a good handle on what was wrong. That week he was going to be going in for an appointment. He was relieved. We were relieved. Sometimes life was fair and did the right thing. Pass the smiles around on silver plates.

That week, a couple of days before the appointment, Thumbs was on his way back from Chattanooga with a car load of records, his newest release, when he had his heart attack.

It was a shock. We’d all been breathing freely, Thumbs had his appointment with a good doctor who could help him. Then before that appointment, he died.

Thumbs told my husband repeatedly that the time he spent in Atlanta was the happiest time in his life, a time he was able to do what he wanted musically.

Of course, we don’t have a single recording of Thumbs. Sometimes when you know people you don’t think to get the recordings, you just always assume you’re going to be hearing them and playing with them. And then afterwards, perhaps, one doesn’t think to get the recordings because you’ve already got the music in a way that a recording could never deliver. You’ve already eaten the one-of-a-kind meal.

And we’ve known Kathy and Virginia all these years, the family is still there.

So what’s the point of this story which is not a biography and not treasure fodder for musicologists. I don’t know. I’ve just always felt I should write a little something on those Monday nights when Thumbs would come in through the door of the Point and set up and play his history that wasn’t cool aloof jazzy blues, was instead warm, inviting, even joyful rich. And appreciative. Maybe that’s what I wanted to write about. There was something in Thumbs’ music, at least what I heard, that seemed a thank-you to I don’t know what, I didn’t know Thumbs well enough to be able to say, but seemed a song of rememberance and a message to the past, rather than from it as so many messages are, letting the past know that here is where he was, and all those years between refined into the then present tense was wonderful for all to hear, those who were privileged to be there and hear, such as I who had the honor on those Mondays.

I listen to “Curves Ahead” and when he bends those notes he still pulls a smile out of me.

“Me and Memphis” walks me somewhere, I don’t know where, but out of the apartment and down the stairs, into breezy visitations of angel feather notes separating dark from light, mixing the rough with glide textures into an easy flight through interstate long waiting rooms just this side of crossin’ the Mississippi heaven. Yeah, that where.

Comments 13

  1. As Roger Miller’s sometime roadie in the Sixties, I was privileged to hear Thumbs play many times. While others were frolicking in Woodstock mud, there I was, dressed to the nines as was the style in those days at their grand hotel/casino venues in Las Vegas or Lake Tahoe. Thumbs and Virginia were very friendly and accessible, much more so than the other musicians, and we became very good friends. We still are. We socialized and many happy holidays were spent at their home in Simi Valley, California, Thumbs in overalls, Virginia in gravy. Roger Miller and then-wife, Leah, Marty and June Allred, Jerry Allison, all the sidemen were there — usually.
    Thumbs was, and Virginia is, so kind as to be extraordinary. She’s an earth mother, ready to give help to anyone and everyone who needs it.
    I loved this piece about Thumbs and Virginia, and thank you for it.

  2. well gosh, you guys…..I’m a little short rite’ now, but your paychecks for all the nice things you’ve said will come in when I get rich….I saw Larry John Wilson night before last and he was just great as always….he had good stories and played a little run like Thumbs…He said he had learned to play guitar before he met Thumb’s music but he noticed right away that Thumb’s fingers never had to touch the strings, and it took him a long time before he learned how to do that….. anyway, thanks again you two….

  3. Virginia, you don’t know how much my little blog is honored by your visiting. Thank you again for the pics of Thumbs. They’re wonderful.

    Marty says I’ve heard Larry John Wilson. I don’t recollect it but he says it was before a Sean or a Matthew Kahler show so it would have been a while ago. (I don’t find a website for Larry John Wilson but do find this on his being in the studio in 2004 with a scant few sentences of bio.) I never get out to hear anything any more since I became a parent. Will have to start dragging H.o.p. (call son H.o.p. on the blog) along to some shows now that he is getting past the age of wanting to climb up on the stage with his dad or rearranging the percussion section to make sculpture.

  4. A well written and penetrating view of the most gifted guitarist I have ever had the opportunity to work with- or listen to- if only for a short time, the year before he left us. Christmas 1986 I recall how he transfixed the entire audience, the rest of the band, and myself with an impromptu solo performance of “Chestnuts Roasting o’er an Open Fire”, Might have been about to return from break, can’t recall exactly. But when he started playing, people stopped talking, started listening, and you would’ve thought it was Carnegie or the Hollywood Bowl by the response afterward. It should have been, but instead it was the fortunate hundred or so of us at the Marietta American Legion post that, and so many-yet-few other evenings there. That is a memory that I will always carry, and am sure others will as well.
    Thumbs was certainly the guitar player’s guitar player, and we threw any and all types of music at him. His response was to refine and sculpt it, or to recreate it, as it was originally, or even make something new and wonderful from it. He could not be caught by surprise.
    And the stories….! Each and every one deserve their own blog, and I could not bring the accuracy required. Let it suffice to say that Thumbs touched my young life while in the twilight of his own, in a very profound way- and so his memory is with me always.

  5. This note is to ANYONE who can help me get in touch with Virginia, or one of she and Thumbs daughters.
    I`ve tried many times to reach any one of them.
    I was a member of Thumbs band, in Stuttgart, Germany, back in the 50`s. We became very close friends. The last time I saw him , he was playing with Roger Miller. They were playing the rodeo in Waco , Thumbs came out to our house and spent most of the day with my family and I.
    Virgina was singing in our band when she and Thumbs met. With Thumbs, it was LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT. He told me right then, he would marry her. Hope some one will come forward. I have many pictures, including 8mm movies. Lou Rochelle 1 352-357-2670 or 352-250-5233

  6. I know an dlove Kathy. Great story here!
    I am looking for her to record a demo on a new tune I wrote.
    DO you know how to get ahold of her?
    THanks,

    Tedi May

  7. Pingback: And the Carllile Women Gave a Fantastic Show | IdyllopusPress Presents

  8. I called Thumbs my Uncle as he always stayed with us while he was in Nashville , I was around 10 years old and my Mom worked at the Carousel Club in Printers Alley and my stepdad was a session musician with many of Thumbs musician friends. He gave me my first guitars and I still have them –an old Telecaster and an old lap steel. He was a gentle giant of a musician and one helluva a guy. He even brought Roger Miller to our house on a couple of occasions. Not related by blood , but he was my Uncle Thumbs!!!

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