Chuck Secrest / the Western Spotlighters / A. Blink / Dave Linn / the Sunset Rhythm Boys / the Mystery Riders
Canton, late 1940s - 1960s
L-R: Jim Gilliam, Verle Clapper, Chuck Secrest, Alfred Oakes
The story of Chuck Secrest and his various recording and performing groups reads more like the resume of a 2000s indie rock auteur than a pioneering country performer. Chuck recorded under several names and used a moving combination of players to release at least 8 records in the 1950s, all but two on his own label.
The story begins, not with Chuck, but with Arlie Kinkade. Arlie's story is pretty amazing as he goes back to the 1920s before country music as a genre existed, when proto-country dance music was a combination of reels and jigs from the UK area, eastern Eurpoean polkas, and a little jazz. Kinkade was afllicted by polio as a child, and became a one-armed fiddle player, moving and fingering the fiddle under a stationary bow. He was born in Ohio, played in many different places during the 20s and 30s, before settling back in Canton.
After World War II, Kinkade apparently mentored a new generation of musicians who were playing the now-established style of country string music, with an accordion, unlike the country bands from the South. The leader of the young musicians was guitarist and singer Chuck Secrest.
Story from April 1946
The first evidence we found about Secrest dates from 1946. Canton was booming with post war factory worker prosperity, and country/western dance bands were a welcome entertainment for the workers. Chuck, around 31 years old, played in the Variety Boys, the first pairing of him, Jim Gilliam, and Verle Clapper. There were only couple mentions of this group. A few montths later Chuck formed the Sunset Rhythm Boys, with Earl Moore, James "One Note" Gilliam on string bass, and Fiddlin' Red. They had a daily show on Canton's WAND radio station. This lineup was together for a few month, as by April 1948 Red and Earl were in a different band, the Melody Rangers, The new band was Chuck, James Gilliam, Verle "Two Gun" Clapper on guitar, violin, and steel guitar, and Alfred "Oakie" Oakes on accordion. This lineup lasted for several years, as the band's 1949 promo pic was used up through 1955.
Ad from October 1947
The band started out playing the Bar 30, but moved to the Golden Arrow, which was their home base. They played constantly, including numerous one-off shows at different events and parties. They were probably the biggest pre-rock and roll band in Canton.
Ad from October 1947, Chuck and Jim Gilliam from the left, with (possibly) Fiddlin' Red and Earl Moore.
May 6, 1951 article
The next step for the band was to make a record. Chuck started the Sunset Trail Record Company (S.T.R.C). Some accounts have Arlie Kinkade as the label 'owner' but base on the newspaper articles Chuck was the main man. Chuck certainly had a sense of humor when it came to their band as they came up with some unusual names for themselves. On the first record Chuck used "the Phantom". During this time, the first half of 1951, the Sunset Rhythm Boys were not listed in the papers, and Chuck was playing with Earl "Tex" Moore. Jay Stuman, and Jack Wiggens in a band named the Mystery Riders. The band recorded their first four sides at the same session, in Cleveland if a later article is correct, and released the discs in May and June of 1951, on 78 only. There was only one sighting of the Mystery Riders playing out, but Chuck was not mentioned,
July 1957 ad, with only two of the four Mystery Riders credited on their second record.
December 1951 story
June 1952 story
By late 1951, Chuck was back with the other Sunset Rhythm Boys from 1950. The band's next recording was for Tin Pan Alley records. Tin Pan Alley was an early song-poem operation. The record was credited ti Verle Clapper and the Sunset Rhythm Boys. The songwriter credit is Jack Covais, who is listed as the founder and owner of Tin Pan Alley. Covais' writer credit suggests this is a reverse song-poem record where the label's writer sent the music to the band to record, or mabye the co-writer (lyricist) was omitted from the credits. The label nunbers 101/2 mean the record was probably the first TPA release. The record was released as a red vinyl 45, and probably a 78.
Billboard record review from June 1952
The same month, June 1952, as the "What's It Gonna Get You?" release there was a second Verle Clapper and Sunset Rhythm Boys 45 on Tin Pan Alley, according to a notice in Billboard. The titles are "The Juke Box Song" and "Why, Oh Why". We've not seen a physical copy of the record to confirm the information.
August 1953 with the first?, or second?, or third? breakup
In August of 1953 a notice appeared in the Canton paper declaring the partnership of Secrest, Gilliam, Clapper, and Oakes. With all this nearly 70 year old history and none of the principals alive to tell, reading ahead into newspaper and trade magazine info says that Secrest and Gilliam formed a new band, the Western Spotlighters, while Clapper and Oakes were playing together as a duo or in some other group. This is the start of several years of various lineups for the Spotlighters and the apparent reunion of the Sunset Rhythm Boys.
August 1954, from the Akron Beacon-Journal
A story from August, 1954 lists the Western Spotlighters as Chuck Secrest, Rusty Stanley, Dave Linn (both from Akron), and Freddy Calhoun from Massilon. In October 1954 Dave Linn is listed as a member of the Nervous Nephews, although he could have been in two band at once.
The Western Spotlighters picked up on recording and made at least 4 45s, and Arlie Kinkade comes back on the scene. In the late 1940s through early 1950s he was publishing songs through music folios, a very common practice for country/western writers back then. Chuck must have made some agreement with Arlie as all the Spolighters' records had Kinkade as co-writer and publishing listed as Kinkade's Songs. The first Spotlighters 45 is probably the best and most desirable of their 8 records, a primitive 'country bopper' titled "Skeleton Bookie" with some cool 'spooky' sound effect generated by the steel guitar player. The record was credited to "Abe Link", another odd name that Chuck used. In the intro, Chuck calls out "Are you ready James" - maybe referencing James Gilliam. The sound is much more primitive and counrtry then the eariler records, with no accordion. The record was issued on the S.T.R.C. (Sunset Trail Record Company) and also credited to Canton records. Online sources say from 1955-6 but documentation from the time would make it from 1954-5 more likely.
The Spotlighters released 3 more 45s, crediting "A. Blink" (maybe they thought folks would confuse Abe Link with some Abe Lincoln tie-in?) and another record as Dave Linn. The records listed Canton as the label and were probably issued in a pretty short timeline. The last of the 4, credited to Chuck on one side and Dave on the other, was mentioned in a September 1956 Billboard. The personnel listed was Chuck, Dave, and Rusty.
From Billboard, Spet 22, 1956
The record dates say one thing, but the ads appearing in the Canton paper in 1956 have the Sunset Rhythm Boys getting back together. Depending on which date, the Boys included Chuck, James Gilliam, Verle, and either Oakie or Pete Vukes on accordion. To make more confusion, a 1955 ad for the Sunset Rhythm Boys uses the 1949 promo pic. The most obvious explanation is that the two groups were all friends and would get together and play as needed, with the Spotlighters having a purer country sound and the Rhythm Boys adding the accordion to play a broader range of songs. There were no listings for the Spotlighters playing after 1954 in Canton, but there were a couple ads for the three member Spotlighers (Chuck, Rusty, Dave) in Akron for 1956.
March 1957 ad
The band played all the time through 1957-8, alternating between the Golden Arrow and Silver Moon. The two clubs probably had something more in common than the similar names. Early in 1957 they were billed as three, without Chuck, and by the summer of 1957, Chuck was back, and Pete and Oakie would switch on accordion. The live listings started to dry up in the spring of 1958 with the band playing the Canton YMCA, often billed as square dances with callers.
September 1957 ad, with the band still playing on WAND
There are only a few listings in the paper for the band from 1959 to 1962, playing at Penny Lou's and Frangene's Tavern, and a show at the Golden Arrow. The band had a revival in 1963-4, playing often at the Eagles Hall and other local functions. The band was Chuck, Jim, Verle (mispelled Berle in some ads), and Pete. There were a couple more shows into 1965 and one from 1966. The name reappears once in 2003.
Ad from June 1962
Arlie Kinkade passed away in 1962, and Chuck Secrest had a brief writeup in Billboard saying that he was handling anything related to Arlie's business.
There is not much else online about any of the members. Chuck Secrest died in 1987, Alfred Oakes in 2008. There is no info about Verle other than he had some hard times in the 1980s, he was in his 60s.
(the Phantom) Don't Be Blue My Darlin' / I'm Spending My Time Counting Tears - Sunset Trail Record Co. 7090 (RCA masters E1-K8-1515/6), May 1951
(Chuck Secrest) Love'N Blues / Love, Laughter and Tears - Sunset Trail Recording Co. no # (RCA masters E1-K8-1556/7), June 1951
(Verle Clapper and the Sunset Rhythm Boys) What's It Gonna Get You? / I Never Knew - Tin Pan Alley 101/2, 1952
(Verle Clapper and the Sunset Rhythm Boys) The Juke Box Song / Why, Oh Why? - Tin Pan Allet 103/4, June 1953
(Abe Link and the Western Spotlighters) Town And Country Polka / Skeleton Bookie - S.T.R.C. Canton 105/6, 1955 note: most copies have Abe Link gouged out of the label
(A. Blink) Yodelin' Blues / You're Wearing Your Heart (On Your Sleeve) - Canton 108, 1955/6 (master numbers 107/8)
(Dave Linn) Anybody's Baby / Hesitate - Canton 109, 1956 (master numbers 109/10)
(Chuck Secrest // Dave Linn with the Western Spotlighters) An Old Fashioned Waltz / Dixieland Western Swing - Canton 211, Sept 1956 (master numbers 211/2)