Go to Russ Hooper - Part 2 >>
Bud Dickens, Tony Bonta and I recently had the good fortune of getting to sit down with my good friend Mr. Russ Hooper to get his perspective on the influential career he’s enjoyed playing Dobro for more than 60 years.
It’s kind of interesting, when I first started pickin’ my Dobro, people would tell me, “You’ll never be Russ Hooper”. Man would I get upset. Who is this Russ Hooper? I never heard of him and really didn’t care.
Some years later though I had a chance to meet Russ, and I tell you, they were right.
There will be only one “Mr. Dobro”.
He’s had a huge career in bluegrass music. He’s played in a number of influential bands here in the Baltimore area… Bob Baker and the Pike County Boys, Ray Dickerson and the Pine Valley Boys, Marvin Howell and the Franklin County Boys, the Dukes of Bluegrass with Walter Hensley, Delmar Delaney and the Windy Mountain Boys, and Shades of Blue. He’s done fill in work with the Country Gentlemen and Seldom Scene and session work with a who’s who of bluegrass royalty.
He’s currently playing in a band out of York Pa called
Try to catch a show with these guys if you can. They’re a great bunch of musicians and they’re playing really solid stuff.
He’s also received quite a few rewards for his achievements. He’s just been inducted as a Pioneer at the IBMM (International Bluegrass Music Museum) and he’s the honored artist at next year’s gathering of Resonateurs in Wilkesboro N.C.
Even with all this, he’s pretty humble about all the accolades he’s received.
I consider it an honor to spend time with him and to have him call me his friend. There has never been anyone more supportive of my Dobro playin’ than Mr. Hooper.
Thank you Russ for your support and friendship. Enjoy the interview folks.
Video clip of the first track from Marvin Howell and the Franklin County Boys - Live Bluegrass from WMET-TV 1968. It starts off with the station call letters and then the TV show intro, a tune called Rainbows and then a transition into the Jimmy Martin tune Hi De Diddle. Playing on this track was Marvin Howell - banjo, Frank Joyner - guitar and lead vocals, Russ Hooper - Dobro, Dan Curtis - Mandolin, Carroll Swam - bass
Bluestone - L-R Russ Hooper - Dobro, Jeff Laird - Guitar, Dick Laird - Mandolin Vocals, Patrick McAvinue - Fiddle, Heath Laird - Bass, Tommy Neal - Banjo, Carroll Swam - Guitar
BD – So let’s start at the beginning. Were you from this area?
RH – No… Washington DC
BD – So how did you wind up in Baltimore?
RH – Came over here when I was fifteen. I had grandparents that lived here and who were sick. So I came over to help take care of them. And it’s just like riding the turnip truck... It stops, you get off and you’re here the rest of your life.
TB – Did you come up here with your parents or did you just come up by yourself?
RH – No I came up here by myself. Actually I had a sister who I came up with. My grandparents lived off of Bank Street, not far from Patterson Park, then eventually on Lakewood Ave. They bought a row home down that way.
So I helped them out. My grandmother passed away about two years after I came over here. Then my grand-dad passed away after about another four or five years.
BD – So when did you start playing?
RH - I started playing with some local guys probably around ’51 or ’52.
BD - Was that before you moved to this area?
RH – No that was over here. The only thing I did over in the DC area was something at McKinley Tech High School. That’s where I went. I played a basketball rally one time with a guy who lived in Virginia that had a dobro and a guitar. They actually let us go early one morning over to his place, get his stuff and come back and after the game to play for everyone. We played for about 10 or 15 minutes and that was my first claim to fame.
TB – How old were you when you did that?
RH - I was probably about 14, 15
TB – But you’d been playing before then?
RH – I started when I was twelve. My Dad bought me a Rickenbacker 6 string lap steel for Christmas. And I tried to learn on that for about 3 years until I found my first Dobro at a place over here on Charles and Centre Street… used to be called Ted’s Used Instruments.
TB – I remember that place. It was amazing.
RH – Yes, he had all these guitars lying up against the wall and you’d stumble over them as you walked through the store. And there was a dobro back on the wall. There were probably about three or four guitars in front of it. It was an original model 27, and I got that and I started playing that.
BD – How much did you have to pay for it back then?
RH – Ted said to me… “Up on the headstock it needs to be glued… I’ll tell you what, I’ll glue it and sell it to you for fifteen dollars.” And I said “SOLD”.
Russ with his first Dobro
TB – Now for us non dobro players, when you say an original, can you tell us a little about the original dobro and the brothers that developed it…
RH – There were five brothers, the Dopyera brothers. They were cabinet makers who came here from Czechoslovakia and lived in Long Beach Ca. Then there was a fellow named George Beauchamp who came into the shop one day with an idea about making a louder guitar using a speaker cone. Back then there were all mandolin bands and all Hawaiian guitar bands and nobody was louder then anybody else. So George, looking for a louder guitar, comes in with this idea and gives John Dopyera a rough sketch of a guitar with a speaker type of a cone that he thought would make it louder. John started working on it.
So it was John, Emil, Rudy, Robert and Louis. But they started to commercially make these things in ‘26 or ’27. They took patents out on these instruments and they took off like crazy selling those things. But that was the only location they were making them. That was west of the Mississippi. They finally contracted Regal who was in Chicago; to make the Dobro according to their specifications…still put the Dobro sticker up on the headstock. Between the two, they built these things probably until ‘41 and then stopped building them because of the war.
I talked to a guy who ran the Chicago place, his name was Al Frost and he said they had a fire there in ’44 and it destroyed all the dyes… everything they had on the original Dobros. So somewhere around ‘60, about 3 or 4 guys got together and financially backed up the brothers again to go back into production. At that point they didn’t own the name Dobro. So they started calling them the Hound Dog or they called them the Original Music Instrument… Yeah the OMIs… and then Standel bought into the company and they were making them for Standel and they put the Standel name on the headstock.
Then Standel got out of it and they went to Mosrite. And Mosrite was building them with their name on it. Finally [One of the Mosrites helped Dopeyra get the name back] Dopyera got the name Dobro back and then they started making them under the name Dobro again. That was probably in the ‘70s going into the 80s. By that time the brothers had all passed away. They all lived to be 90 some years old. The only person left running the company was their sister Gabriel. Her son Ron Lazar was helping her run the company and when Ron had a massive heart attack; she was left by herself not knowing how to run the business. So she sold the business to their bookkeeper and I think the bookkeeper eventually sold it to Gibson.
Now Gibson’s gotten awfully antsy about this because they won’t let you use the name “Dobro”, If you write about the guitar, they call it a resonator guitar. So right where the Dobro sticker used to have the name Dobro and it had a lyre on it. Now it says Gibson.
TB – So when you got your original from Ted’s, that was one of the pre-war models?
RH – Yeah, that was a pre war model. And then I traded that thing in because it never sounded right to me. I traded it in for an F hole I found that somebody had that was also a pre-war. But that one was stolen. So there was a place on Eastern Avenue called Yeager’s music, right across from Haussner’s. I knew Mike Yeager and I went upstairs to his storage room up there and played about eight Martin D28s … and I bought one… and raised the strings on that sucker and played it like a Dobro for about a year, year and a half.
Then Mike Seeger came through town and called me up and said. “I’ve got a guitar. You want to take a look at it?” So I met him up on Erdman and Belair Rd and it was a Dobro and we traded even. I knew I lost my rear end money wise. But I got what I wanted. And I used that guitar for about 16 years.
Eventually there was a luthier over in Fairfax named Don Bradley who used to come over and watch shows when I was working with Hensley then at the Green Hill on Erdman Avenue. So I got to know him and he built one for me in 1970 and I used that probably for 10 years until he built another one in 1980 which is an exact duplicate off a prewar model 27. It’s got all the old guts in it…all the pre war metal. So I’ve been playing that a lot.
Recently I met a fellow down in Sanford North Carolina named JP Johnson who builds these things. I met him through that Resonator gathering they had in Wilkesboro. We got to be friends and he also custom built me a guitar. He had a good idea of that old sound that I like to get from a dobro and he did a great job putting one together for me. He calls his company “Pearl River” and I play that model a lot these days too.
TB – Okay. So let’s get into some historical stuff about who you played with and when… so when you got your first dobro, you’re in Baltimore and you started playing. Go back again to where you started playing here.
RH – There was a place on Howard St called Fred Walker’s. It was a music store and you walk in on the first floor and it was all records and sheet music. But on the second floor he had show cases full of instruments. And the way Fred was, you could go up there on a Saturday and pick anything out of the case and sit and play it all day long and he didn’t care.
So I met two guys up there. One fellow was Bob Arney. Bob passed away a couple years ago and Dickie Rittler. Dickie died last year. Dickie was playing banjo and Bob was playing guitar and Bob lived out in Woodlawn at the time on the property that belonged to Weiss who owned Weiss Ford in Woodlawn. It’s now the property where the social security sits. But they had a tenant farmer house out there. So we’d go out there on weekends and just sit and play…all night long.
And the three of us started playing some of these little things. There was this thing called Roadies Revue where they’d take you out on a chartered bus and go to nursing homes or schools. And it was just a big troop. There were dancers and singers and more. And we would play some of those things and that’s how I met Danny Curtis.
I met Danny in Ft Meade. Danny was backing some girl singer up by the name of Barbara Lease and it was Dickie and Bob and myself and we saw Dan come in carrying a mandolin case and a guitar case. So we went over to him and said “Do you know how to play bluegrass?” and he goes “Yeah” and we said “Come ‘ere” [chuckle]
We went into a supply closet and rehearsed for about half an hour and he went on and played our show with us.
You had to know Danny like I knew Danny… Danny and I played music together probably for about 55 years… My best friend… when he died it just took a big chunk out of me. But his family was very wealthy. He lived over on Highfield Road right across the road from Sherwood Gardens and they had servants. His dad owned Curtis and Diggs Insurance Company.
So you’d call Danny and you’d get a servant that would answer the phone (funny accent) “Curtis Residence?”
“Can I speak to Danny?”
His mother was pretty much a socialite, but they were just ordinary people. You would never know that they were that wealthy. And if you knew Danny like I knew Dan. He’d never give you that impression. He was just a great guy.
I was 16 and there was a TV show on channel 2 here in Baltimore that was run by a guy named Oliver T Hughes. He owned a lumber company out there on Reisterstown Road and Garrison Blvd. The TV show was called the Collegians. And they were on Saturdays between 12:00 and 2:00 I think. I played that for almost a year and that’s were I met Marvin Howell.
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