restricted access Mellow Milestone
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390 8 sounds 391 of deTroıT COUNTRY YORK BROTHERS AND LATIN MUSICA 392 L eslie York liked to craft songs alone with his guitar when Detroit’s midnight din dropped to a hushed echo of yesterday’s busy streets blended with a suggestion of tomorrow.Working in a factory imposed an unwelcome schedule, and he balanced monotonous days by performing hillbilly music most evenings with his older brother George as the York Brothers in taverns near east-side factories, in neighborhoods of people who, like George and Les, left the South for steady employment in Detroit. When the York Brothers’ first record, “Hamtramck Mama,” appeared in 1939, subsequent publicity, fan support, and money encouraged Les to devote more time to writing. His songs, and recordings with George, almost single-handedly built the legacy of Mellow Record Company, one of Detroit’s first independent record labels. Originally from Louisa, Kentucky, the York Brothers arrived in Detroit about 1937. George, born 1910, quit school and worked in coal mines as a teen before moving to Denver, Colorado, where he sang and picked guitar with a cowboy band on the stage and radio. In 1936, WPAY radio opened in Portsmouth, Ohio, and George took a job singing there. Leslie, born 1917, worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps and won musical talent contests in Kentucky before joining George at WPAY, playing lead guitar and singing harmony with his charismatic brother. As children, George and Les had performed with several siblings, so the debut of a York Brothers act may not have been a surprise to their family. Perhaps none suspected, however, that mild-mannered George would partner with the gregarious Leslie, who seemed on a constant hunt for good times, seeking the center of attention. The York Brothers spent about a year in Portsmouth before they moved to Detroit, hiring into auto factories and entertaining in local cafés and bars. Between gigs, one or both would return to Portsmouth to perform on WPAY and at the Sylvan Theater in nearby Lucasville. Mellow Milestone Craig Maki York Brothers. Photo courtesy of the Craig Maki Archives. 393 Craıg Makı After more than a year of working an auto assembly line, Les completed “Hamtramck Mama,” a playful blues about a lustful woman from Hamtramck, Michigan, a city incorporated within Detroit boundaries with a gangster history hidden behind the face of a Catholic culture brought by thousands of immigrant Poles. Talk about your truckin’ mamas, boys, I’ve got one She’s a Hamtramck baby, and she has her fun She’s a Hamtramck mama And she sure does know her stuff She’s the hottest thing in town Lordy, how she can love You can tell her not to do it, but she’ll do it just the same She’s a Hamtramck mama that no man can tame The York Brothers took their guitars to Universal Recording Studios, a custom recording company on East Jefferson Avenue, and cut “Hamtramck Mama,” along with “Going Home,” an adaptation of Bradley Kincaid’s “Little Whitewashed Chimney.” Marquette Music, a decades-old Detroit vending-machine company, financed the record and placed it among pop and hillbilly titles in their jukeboxes throughout the city. But just after the recording session, Les lost his job in the factory. George, who remained employed at his workplace, told his brother he’d call him if any musical opportunities materialized in the future, and Les drove south on the “hillbilly highway,” US-23. Back in Portsmouth, Les performed solo, picking up new musicians as needed. A few weeks after his abrupt departure from Michigan, Les heard NBC radio announcer Lowell Thomas broadcast news about Detroit’s district attorney seeking to ban “Hamtramck Mama” from the city’s jukeboxes because public officers thought it defamatory to the good citizens of Hamtramck. The report suggested the York Brothers had done something scandalous, and possibly unlawful, which generated enough fear in Les that he swore not to return to Detroit—until a few days later, when George sent for him. The publicity sent record sales into high gear, and the York Brothers fielded invitations from bigger Detroit nightclubs, some of which began hosting hillbilly music nights in their honor. “Hamtramck Mama” reportedly sold three hundred thousand copies in Detroit alone. George quit his day job, and the York Brothers worked lucrative, nightly bookings in Detroit. They performed their music, wrote songs, recorded, and sold records. The Yorks followed up their hit with more titillating titles...

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