Diane Jordan: Almost Famous
by John O’Dowd c 2009
Hear Diane Jordan sing “Stay the Night”!
Stay the Night”
Born in Hastings, Nebraska, but raised in the nearby farm town of Sutton, Diane Jordan harbored childhood aspirations of becoming a successful singer and recording artist, but in her wildest dreams never imagined the crushing dues she would have to pay along the way. Signed to her first record deal at age 16, Diane was off to an auspicious start with her rousing, rockabilly single, Come On and Dance With Me, which was produced by Felton Jarvis, who later produced none other than The King himself, Elvis Presley. Though commercially viable in the percolating teen market of the early 1960s, the single, alas, was not a success, and perhaps gave Diane more than a taste of what was to come. Over the next twenty-two years, she would record several more sides for four more labels, but would never have that elusive hit record that could have propelled her to superstardom. It is a tribute, however, to both her endurance and her courage that she persevered, especially when one considers the sometimes shocking incidents she encountered. As Diane will tell you herself, the road she traveled in Music City was a rocky one indeed…full of twists, turns, and even a few dead ends.
Although Diane admits she was never a country star, it was not for a lack of experience—or exposure. In fact, during her nearly 40-year career, she performed all over the world; in Holland, Denmark, Belgium, England, Italy, and France, as well as throughout the US and Canada. She also entertained at several US military bases in Japan, Iwo Jima, Marcus Island, Germany, Labrador, Greenland, Puerto Rico and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Diane was featured with fellow country singer Stu Phillips at Opryland Theme Park and made over 35 guest performances on the Grand Ole Opry, even earning three of the Opry’s rare encores. If die-hard persistence equaled stardom in country music, Diane Jordan would stand among the most well-known artists in the genre. As it is, she is certainly among its most tenacious.
Diane’s show business resume is praiseworthy for someone who freely concedes to just missing the brass ring. During her career, she performed with some of country music’s biggest stars, including Marty Robbins, Porter Wagoner, Hank Snow, Faron Young, Ernest and Justin Tubb, Kitty Wells, Don Gibson, Mel Tillis, Hank Thompson, Ronnie McDowell, Charlie Daniels, Eddy Raven, T.G. Sheppard and Glen Campbell. From her month- long stint at the Hacienda Hotel in Las Vegas with the Tommy Cash Show, and her nine Country Cruises to the Caribbean, to her being the first American entertainer invited to appear on the Best of British Show at the Silk Cut Festival of Country Music at Wembley Stadium in London, Diane worked tirelessly to build a career she could be proud of. In the 1980s, she appeared at several Celebrity Golf Tournament shows with Classic Rock ‘n Roll acts Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell, Fabian, The Diamonds, The Drifters, Johnny Tillotson, Ronnie Dove and Ray Peterson, and was thrilled to work with many of the men who had been her teenage idols.
Immensely photogenic and blessed with a knockout figure, in the late 80s Diane made memorable appearances in Alabama’s music video for their song Touch Me When We’re Dancing, as well as in the Hank Williams Jr. video for We Are Young Country. She also appeared in a now famous 1985 comedy skit with The Statler Brothers on the nationally televised Music City News Country Music Awards. Among her many other television credits are her performances on TNN’s Nashville Now and Wrap Around Nashville,and on the syndicated shows Pop Goes the Country and That Nashville Music. Diane was also a semi-regular on WSMV-TV’s The Ralph Emery Show (then the highest rated local morning TV show in the US), often donning a swimsuit to preside over its immensely popular outhouse races. She was featured in a 1977 documentary film, That’s Country, with veteran TV actor, Lorne Greene, and in November of 2002, The Monster and the Stripper, a late 60s cult movie in which Diane played a sexy chorine, was shown (to a packed house) at the Nashville Independent Film Festival.
For several years, Diane was a featured singer with Nashville’s classy Louis Brown Orchestra at many private party and country club engagements in and around Music City. Over countless road miles, and in her performances in both upper echelon, and far less lofty venues, Diane more than proved her mettle. Married since 1971 to veteran musician Larry Fullam and retired now from performing, Diane is concentrating these days on songwriting, most recently co-writing with the late Merle Kilgore, veteran tunesmith of such classic hits as Ring of Fire and Wolverton Mountain.
Diane Jordan’s almost uncanny ability to surmount the many crushing career disappointments she experienced in country music is both wholly fascinating and inspiring. She may be, as she will tell you, “Almost Famous”, but she is also gutsy and honest and wonderful, as well. In 2008 and 2009, she worked for many months with writer John O’Dowd to document her life story, and their collaboration follows below.
Born Diane Jean Klein on July 26, 1946 in the pastoral Nebraska heartland, Diane’s childhood, alas, was somewhat less than perfect. “I remember lots of fighting and screaming and swearing,” she says, “and I carry some painful memories of it to this day. But I’m forever thankful for books and music. They got me away from a life that was pretty tough at times.
“My parents John and Irene Klein both came from families that originated in eastern Europe. My father was a full-blooded German, and a descendant of the Hofmann family. Individuals of the German racial and language stock who were citizens of the Russian Empire at the time of their immigration to the United States were called German-Russians (as they are today). On the voyage from Europe, in the 1860s, my father’s mother, a small child at the time, contracted the black measles, which left her deaf. Her father later took her back to Germany twice, to see some doctors about restoring her hearing, but nothing could be done for her. After arriving in America, the family settled in Sutton, a tiny farming community in Nebraska. Unfortunately, my great-grandfather wouldn’t let my grandmother marry anyone as long as he was alive. He told her that a man would marry her only for her money because she was deaf, dumb, and ugly. But as soon as he died, she did marry, at age 30. Her husband was only 20 years old, and he was allegedly a very cruel person. He was a bootlegger during Prohibition and my father remembered going with his dad on his route to sell whiskey. He carried it in a doctor’s bag and sold it for ten dollars a pint, which was a lot of money back then. Some of his customers were even doctors. My dad spoke only German until he started school. Fortunately, the school teacher knew the language and was a great help to him. At 11, he had to quit school when his father left their family. He was sent to live with an old bachelor, on his farm, where he had to work to earn his keep.Later on, my father chose to farm for a living. I could never mention that I hated school around my father. He would always say, ‘Diane, don’t say that. I wish I could have finished school.’
“My mother, whose maiden name was Jordan, was of German and Scots-Irish descent. She was a country school teacher from the age of 18 until she turned 25, when she married my father. As a young girl, my mother loved music and even saved money from selling eggs to take piano lessons for two summers. She always loved to sing and she also played the ukulele. Back in the late 1920s, a lot of the radio stations featured live bands. Mom listened to a daily radio program that was broadcast from a station in Grand Island. The performers would often talk on-air about a restaurant where they went between shows. My mother wanted to move to Grand Island and just “happen in” to that restaurant. I think it’s very cool that she wanted to hang out with musicians. But her parents threw such a fit about it, she never made the move. I think that’s why she encouraged me so much when I told her I wanted to pursue a singing career.
“My father farmed until his early 60s. He would farm from spring through harvest and then, as my mother used to say, ‘he bummed around all winter.’ After he quit farming, Dad took a truck driving job with an irrigation company in Hastings, Nebraska and worked for them for nine years. He really enjoyed traveling and it’s a shame he couldn’t have done it his whole life.
“I am the youngest of four children—my siblings being Carol, John and Jim. To say that we were a dysfunctional family is putting it mildly. My mother was very meek and my dad had an extremely bad temper. He was gone much of the time, which my mother never seemed to question. He never allowed her to learn how to drive, either, and that embarrassed me. Once when I was just a little girl, my father got angry about something, and had the telephone taken out of our house. We didn’t have a telephone again until I was in the ninth grade, which was another great embarrassment to me. With my Dad away so much of the time, my brother John pretty much ruled the house. He was cold, mean, and cruel, and he beat our brother, Jim, just about every day. Although the violence was never directed at me, I was a constant witness to it. When John wasn’t beating Jim, he was verbally abusing him. The never ending turmoil in our house was very upsetting, and made me learn to hate altercations of any kind. I often say that my family was nothing like The Waltons, but more like The Daltons! There was always fighting and swearing at the dinner table, so I would usually eat as fast as I could, and then I would go out to the barn and cry. Sometimes I would even go to our local library—the Sutton Public Library was a big part of my escape. I wanted to run away from home many, many times. My dream world, however, made it bearable. And in that dream world I was always up on stage, singing. And I was a star.
“My sister, Carol, who is ten years older than I, discovered country music when she was a teenager. She ordered a cheap guitar from a catalog and learned to play a few chords. Carol taught me some songs, though she herself couldn’t sing. I used to tell that story onstage, adding, ‘So, if you don’t like my singing, keep in mind that I was taught by someone who couldn’t carry a tune.’ (laughs) Carol was one of the few bright spots in my very unpleasant childhood. She made it possible for me to believe that there was a way out and that I could be somebody.
“When I was nine years old, Carol took me to Nashville on vacation on a Trailways bus. My Dad kept saying that I couldn’t go, but my mom was always behind me and she got him to change his mind. Carol bought the tickets and paid all the expenses. When we got to Nashville, she and I got a room at the old Sam Davis Hotel. She had written to the Junior Grand Ole Opry, which was a radio show broadcast every Saturday morning on WSM, and arranged for me to sing on the show. I remember telling my classmates that I was going to sing on the radio in Nashville, during Christmas vacation. One of the girls came back and said, ‘My mom says that you have to be able to sing, in order to sing on the radio.’ I gulped hard and said, ‘Well, I can sing.’ And sing I did. I insisted on doing the old Jim Reeves song, I’ve Lived A Lot In My Time, which must have been quite amusing to the audience, considering my tender age. I’ll never forget it…I wore a pink and black cowboy shirt and black western pants. I remember that Saturday night vividly, when Carol and I left the Ryman Auditorium after the Grand Ole Opy. I looked back and then asked my sister, ‘Do you think I’ll ever sing on the Opry?’ She said, ‘Sure you will.’ I believed her and she was right. I eventually got to sing on the Grand Ole Opry, and it was the biggest thrill of my career.”
As a Midwestern teenager in the late 1950s and early 60s, Diane’s musical sensibilities were molded by the many young female singers she heard on the radio. “When I was growing up, I really liked Wanda Jackson’s Decca and Capitol records. I also loved Brenda Lee and Dusty Springfield, and was very much influenced by their voices. Brenda’s song All Alone Am I was one of my all-time favorite songs, as was her ballad Losing You, and later on in the 1970s and 80s, Johnny One Time, Sunday Sunrise and Cowgirl and the Dandy. As a young teenager, I also loved Marty Robbins’ voice and was fascinated with the falsetto break that he would often use. I remember going out to our barn a lot and experimenting with my falsetto on a song that Marty did called My Isle Of Golden Dreams. After practicing it and practicing it, I was so excited when I finally got it down. In the early 60s, I loved Roy Orbison, too, and he also used falsetto, but not with a definite break, the way that Marty did. Connie Francis did a country album in the early 60s that I absolutely loved. I also loved the quality of Tammy Wynette’s voice and later on I sang a lot of her songs in my shows, but I didn’t always like her country pronunciations—they were too exaggerated for me.
“Speaking of exaggerated pronunciations, I enjoyed Crystal Gayle early on in her career, but then over time she developed such an affected way of pronouncing words in her songs that it eventually became a real turn off. I sang a lot of her early songs, though, in my shows…like I’ll Get Over You. I loved Anne Murray’s voice (and still do), and I sang many of her songs, too. I also loved Tanya Tucker’s singing and eventually learned a lot of her songs. There was also a girl named Kathy Barnes who was on Gene Autry’s label, Republic Records, and I just loved her voice. When I heard her version of Someday Soon, I was so blown away by it I started doing it in my shows. A song that I really wish I could have recorded was Tumbleweed by Sylvia. She did a great falsetto break in it and it would have been a perfect song for me. I did get the chance to sing it on Nashville Now once and Roy Acuff came up to me afterwards and said, ‘Young Lady, that’s some of the finest falsetto work I’ve ever heard.’ I wish I’d have been pushy and said, ‘Well, then, why don’t you let me come and sing it on the Grand Ole Opry with you?’ (laughs) But, I was never pushy in my career, and now that’s one of my biggest regrets.
“One of my favorite songs is Lee Greenwood’s record, It Turns Me Inside Out. I was blown away the first time I heard it and couldn’t wait to sing it onstage. The Song Remembers When by Trisha Yearwood is another favorite of mine, and in fact, she’s my favorite female singer. A dream producer for me in Nashville would have been either Billy Sherrill or Jim Ed Norman. It would have been nice to have the chance to work with them on some really strong material, you know? But, it never happened, and I guess that’s why I feel I am almost famous.”
In her over 40 years in country music, Diane has crossed paths with a veritable who’s who of well-known industry figures. When one listens to her stories about these people, it’s clear that some were saints while others were perhaps, somewhat lower than the angels. One of her first introductions to someone in the latter category happened when Diane was just a teenager and she met one of the industry’s leading hell raisers at the time—the talented (if tortured) country tenor Faron Young.
“I was staying with my sister, Carol, in Nashville that summer, when I had a very strange and unpleasant encounter with Faron Young one night when I attended the Friday Night Frolic (now called The Friday Night Opry), at WSM’s Studio C. The performers of the Friday Night Frolic would always sign autographs in the hallway, after their shows. I was in the hallway, talking to a girl friend, while Faron stood just a few feet away, signing autographs. Suddenly, he looked up and saw me and said to the crowd, ‘Look! There’s something wrong with that poor girl; her chest is all swollen up.’ Highly embarrassed and not really knowing who I was dealing with, I said, ‘Well, there’s something wrong with your mouth.’ Faron came back with, ‘There’s nothing wrong with my mouth that putting it on one of them big titties wouldn’t cure.’ I remember that people howled at his comment, and I felt my face get real red and hot. I was humiliated.
“I had another weird experience with Faron that probably should have clued me in on how he could be with women. At the Disc Jockey Convention, in the Fall of 1961, my sister and I were in the crowded lobby of the Andrew Jackson Hotel, which was one of the places in town where the various events were held. Faron and his wife, Hilda, moved through the crowd to a round of applause. Faron came to a dead stop when he saw me and kissed me full on the lips, and then proceeded to walk on. I was all of 15 years old! Hilda just smiled, but I thought it was odd that any wife would put up with that kind of disrespect.
“As I found out later on, Faron Young was really two people. One was a rude and mean drunk, and the other was a very likeable and generous person. Eventually, I got to know the likeable person, but before then, my encounters with him were very disturbing.”
When pressed to elaborate further on this last comment, Diane tells a story about Young that is actually quite shocking. “WSM was next door (or maybe two doors down) from the old Clarkston Hotel. Back then, a lot of music people frequently hung out at the coffee shop inside the hotel. While my sister was at work, I sometimes walked down there to get a cold drink and to see who was there. One day, I had just left the Clarkston and was walking down 7th Avenue, when a Cadillac convertible stopped along side of me. It was Faron Young. He asked if I would like a ride home and since I knew who he was, I accepted. I told him that I lived on 8th Avenue South, but he immediately started driving in a totally different direction. Within minutes, Faron started to unbutton my blouse with one hand, as he steered the car with the other. I got very upset and scared and tried to pull his hand away and he became angry. With his eyes blazing, he hollered, ‘Leave my hand alone or I’ll squeeze your titty right off!’ I kept asking him to stop and he finally did. He dropped me off at my sister’s apartment, and I didn’t tell her, or anyone else, about what had happened. I was all of 15 or 16 years old, and I will never forget it. I was terrified.
“You know, I first met Faron Young in 1956, when I was just ten years old. I had come to Nashville on my Christmas vacation to visit my sister, and I had gotten Faron’s autograph while I was there. I thought he was really cute, and I loved the beautiful fringed, rhinestone outfits that he wore back then. Little did I know what he would try to do to me later on.
“For years, it was well known in Nashville that Faron had a very serious drinking problem. He had undoubtedly been drinking when he did and said those disrespectful things to me, but still, that’s no excuse. Obviously, his disgusting behavior would not be acceptable nowadays. Faron had one lawsuit during his life (for spanking a little girl onstage while singing This Little Girl Of Mine), and I am sure if he were still alive today and still carrying on the way he did with me, he would have had even more lawsuits for sexual harassment.”
Her eye-opening, early experiences with Faron Young notwithstanding, Diane must have felt the country music gods were smiling down on her when she obtained her first recording contract just a short time after arriving in Nashville. “When I signed with ABC-Paramount Records, I was 15 but turned 16 shortly afterward,” she recalls. “It was exciting and it happened so easily that I thought I was surely destined for stardom! One day while my sister was at work, I walked downtown to the Clarkston Hotel Coffee Shop (again), as I knew there were always a lot of music people there. A Canadian singer named Hal Willis came in one day and sat down at my table. Of course I told him right away that I wanted to be a singer. Hal wanted to hear my voice so we went next door to the old Sun Studio, which was empty. I sat at the piano and played the three chords I knew, and sang him a couple of songs. Hal thought I was pretty good and he took me to meet Gary Walker, who ran the Lowery Music office in Nashville for Atlanta-based publisher Bill Lowery. Bill managed Ray Stevens, who had just had a hit record with Ahab The Arab and Tommy Roe, who had a hit song called Sheila. Through Gary’s efforts, I was introduced to a man named Felton Jarvis who was the A & R man at ABC-Paramount and ran their Nashville office. Felton signed me to the label and produced my first session in the fall of 1962. By then I had already decided to use my mother’s last name of Jordan as my professional name. When I signed with ABC I was still so new to the business I hadn’t even had a professional photo done!
“At the time he signed me, Felton was 29 years old and was married with a child. In fact, both Ray Stevens and Felton Jarvis were from Atlanta, and were married to two sisters (Penny and Twinkle). Felton hired Ray to write the violin arrangements and play piano on the song that was chosen for me to sing: a teenage rockabilly number called Come On And Dance With Me. The Jordanaires were hired to do background vocals on the record and when I heard that, I was in heaven! The lyric sheet was written for a guy so I had to change the words as I sang them. We did two takes and I had so much fun I would have liked to have done a couple more. As you can imagine, it was incredibly exciting for me to sing with an orchestra and The Jordanaires.
“The song started off with my saying, ‘Come on, come on’ really fast, and then singing ‘Come on and dance with me, dance with me…’ Well, Tommy Roe took that one line and incorporated it into his song, later that year, called Sweet Pea. The lyrics were: ‘Oh Sweet Pea, come on and dance with me; come on, come on, come on and dance with me.’ Tommy’s song became a hit while mine didn’t.
“Felton Jarvis came on to me, several times, in his office. He would tell me what a full-grown woman I was, and things like that. It made me very uncomfortable but I couldn’t tell my sister what was happening as I knew she would have sent me back home to Nebraska. So I just did my best to ignore it, and he finally stopped.
“Come On And Dance With Me was released to radio in February 1963. A review for it in Cashbox magazine said, ‘Thrush comes off as a sort of femme Elvis Presley with this lushly orchestrated item for the teen crowd.’ I was absolutely thrilled at being called a female Elvis! I have the clipping in my scrapbook along with one that has the record listed as a regional breakout. It was played on the two big Top 40 stations in Nashville, WKDA and WMAK, which was pretty exciting for me.
“WKDA had a show back then called ‘Dig it or Ditch it.’ They would play a new record and listeners would call in and say either ‘Dig it or Ditch it’. I waited, hardly daring to breathe, but they all dug it. (laughs) Hugh Jarrett, who had been one of the original Jordanaires, was a DJ with WLAC in Nashville, a station that played Top 40 and R&B. He started the ‘Big Hugh Baby Hop’ which was held at the Nashville Armory. All the pop singers who were in town to promote their new records would appear on Hugh’s show. I was thrilled to be asked on it to lip-sync my song. There was a crowd of screaming teenagers, cheering me on, having heard my record on the radio. It was here that I met Kris Jensen, a Fabian look-alike who had just had a Top 10 hit with a song called Torture on Hickory Records. He had heard Come On And Dance With Me and said that he thought it was great. Kris asked if I needed a ride home, and I did, because I had ridden a bus to get there. He and I started dating soon afterward and he took me to my Junior Prom at Hume Fogg High School. My manager, Bill Lowery, didn’t set up any record promotions for me, so I dropped in at the stations to meet the DJs, and do a little of my own promoting. One of the WKDA disc jockeys, Audie, liked me. He played my record one night and said, ‘Diane Jordan’s parents should receive a medal for architecture.’ My sister heard his comment on the air and she didn’t like Audie after that. He asked me to go swimming with him and I told him that I’d like to go, but I didn’t have a bathing suit! He gave me money to buy one, so I guess he really wanted to see me in a bathing suit. Of course he made a move at the pool, but I rebuffed him. He told me that I would never get anywhere in the music business if I didn’t go to bed with DJs. My naive little comeback was, ‘Connie Francis didn’t do that to make it.’ He said, ‘Are you kidding? Connie Francis is the biggest punchboard in the business.’ I didn’t believe that at all…her father was her manager and he went everywhere with her.