‘The Great Unknown’

By: 
Staff Writer Kate Wehlann

Now 78, Jimmie Wilcoxson primarily plays close to home, though he used to travel throughout the south, performing with rockabilly bands in honky-tonks and other music venues, unaware some of his songs were reaching international audiences. He said he was very pleased to be recognized as the cover story for the Australian Rock'n'Roll Appreciation Society magazine.

Jimmie Dale Wilcoxson and his "Baby Doll," Norma Jean, were married as teenagers, having bonded over their love of rock'n'roll. His songs, "Baby Doll" and "Darlin'", which reached unknown popularity overseas over the past several decades, were written about her.

Jimmie Dale Wilcoxson started performing for pay at 12, playing music first on a river boat on the Ohio River, and later in clubs and honky-tonk venues with Bill Wright, another musician, who taught him to play guitar. He knew he wanted to play music for the rest of his life and split his financial ventures between music and working as a printer.

Local musician discovers his international fanbase 60+ years after recording songs

More than 60 years ago, a young, southern Indiana teen named Jimmie Dale Wilcoxson, now 78, sat down to write a song, like so many have done, and will continue to do, about a girl.

“… Well, I love her so
Never gonna let her go
Got her on my mind
Almost all the time
Just can’t do without that little girl of mine …”

He wrote a few songs about that girl — her name was Norma Jean — and he eventually sang those songs into a microphone at the Tommy Allen recording studio in Louisville. He made between 250 and 500 45s with his songs, “Baby Doll,” and “Darlin’,” and sent them off to radio stations.
Wilcoxson didn’t make it big in the United States, but little did he know as a 17-year-old boy in 1957, over the years, rockabilly fans overseas would fall in love with his music.

‘I was consumed with music’

Wilcoxson was the third child born to Geneva Maud Hunter and Frank Kincaid Wilcoxson in New Albany. He said, despite what some who know him now might say, he’s a bit shy off stage and has been since he was a child. He had a reputation for being a boy of few words, but he knew one sure-fire way to make his feelings known — music.

“Like a lot of people do, I used music to communicate,” he said.

His father, Frank, was also a performer, playing ragtime piano in roadhouses and dance halls. His father’s love of music spread to Wilcoxson.

As a boy, he met the children of, and then made friends with, a musician, Bill Wright, who taught him to play guitar. Wilcoxson and Wright would go on to play with each other as Wilcoxson picked up his first paid gigs at only 12, performing in Louisville honky-tonk clubs and bars. His first job was playing gigs on a river boat on the Ohio River.

“You could get in those in Louisville then,” he said. “You could not sit at a bar, but you could go in. Unbelievable, ain’t it?”

He said his father didn’t have strong feelings about him following in his footsteps.

“He wasn’t against it, but he wasn’t for it, either, as far as I know,” he said. “All those songs he played have just stayed with me.”

Wilcoxson wouldn’t stay in the Louisville area for long, however. He decided he wanted to follow some friends and his older brother into the United States Air Force.

There was only one problem. He was 14.

He fudged some numbers on his enlistment papers and joined, making it a bit more than a month into training in Oakland, California, before his mother found out and brought him back.

“I called my mother one day and she asked me where I was,” he said. “I was supposed to be in the neighborhood, but I was in California. She thought I was kidding. Of course, she notified them and sent the correct birth certificate and they discharged me after just a short duration. I didn’t even get past basic.”

Wilcoxson said it took some time for him to grow up and he ended up joining some local gangs. An article, “The Jimmie Dale Story,” by Dominique “Imperial” Anglares in The Big Beat of the ‘50s Magazine in 2019, published by the Australian Rock’n’Roll Appreciation Society, said Wilcoxson ran with “the Marlon Brando crowd — black leather jackets, all the cats being older than him. The sort that moms and dads didn’t want their daughters around.” Anglares added Wilcoxson was a part of the Blackiston Mill Gang in Jeffersonville, which fought with the Louisville Portland Gang. Knife and 12-gauge shotgun fights would break out on occasion, but Wilcoxson insists it was nothing like the gangs of today.

The year after he was discharged from the Air Force, he met a girl, the same girl he would write songs and sing about. Like him, she loved rock and roll and performers like Elvis, who Wilcoxson saw live in Louisville in 1956, and Fats Domino. On Nov. 26, 1957, Norma Jean “Jeanie” became his wife. He was 16 and she was 14. Wilcoxson and his “Baby Doll” would be married for 25 years, until she passed away in 1982 from cancer.

Throughout the years, Wilcoxson continued performing, sometimes joining musicians like Salty Holmes, a well-known recording artist, specifically lauded for his work on his “talking harmonica.”

Wilcoxson made more recordings, “Tennessee Whiskey,” “Virginia Bird,” and “Ain’t it Strange?” and others. He wrote a song, “Fog Alley,” about a car accident reported by Burnis “Barney” Arnold, a WHAS radio personality.

“It was just a need,” he said. “I was consumed with music.”

Between 1991 and 1998, Anglares said in his article, Wilcoxson had been fascinated by medicine shows, old-timey traveling shows often featuring “miracle cure” patent medicines from town to town, common in the 19th century. Wilcoxson decided to start his own, the “Boogie Woogie Man and His Travelin’ Medicine Show,” featuring 25 to 30 acts — music, wrestling, beauty contests and dancers — performing in Kentucky and Indiana.

More recently, he’s taught music at Danny Walton’s Guitar Shop in Salem, where he’s lived for the past 20 years, spreading his love of music to others. He continued performing in the area until the end of December, when he decided to stay close to home to care for his second wife, Kimberly, who has been having some health problems.

“Music has been the love of my life, outside of my wife,” he said. “I’ve got to be at home with her … I played [gigs] up until last week … I need her, too. She doesn’t just need me, but I need her, too.”

‘Dad, your song’s on the internet’

“I made the record in 1957,” he said, sitting at a table at the Leader Publishing office, in his jean jacket and his straw hat, fraying at the edges. “It’s when the age of the ‘50s started with rockabilly and all that. Everybody was doing it. We’d send them to radio stations and everyone has dreams as a teenager.”

While he didn’t make it to national renown, life continued as normal. He’d play in clubs and bars and other venues, sometimes on the road with a band through the south, trying to balance life as a father and husband and life as a working musician for the next 50 years. He played in honky-tonks and clubs, even at the famous Tootsie’s in Nashville.

“It’s right there beside the Grand Ole Opry,” he said. “It’s nothing exclusive or anything. It’s stayed true to its Honky-tonk roots.”

During this time, he completed an apprenticeship at the New Albany Tribune and became a printer.

“It’s like, in the musician’s world, you’d better have another job,” he said. “I leave it to others to say what type of musician I am; the audience decides that, but I can say myself, I was an excellent printer. I always had work when I wanted it. It’s still related to the arts in a sense, dark room stuff … Between music and printing, I always had a job. Music was something I’ve never been able to live without.”

In 2010, he found out through the internet that his work had made it across the pond.

“The record had been popular throughout Europe,” he said. “Actually, they had been hunting for who had recorded it. It was a 45 rpm. My daughter came to me and said, ‘Dad, your song’s on the internet,’ and I said, ‘What?’ I wasn’t familiar with the internet or YouTube.”

The man who had posted the song was named John Burton, a collector out of London. His daughter made contact with Burton.

“At first, he doubted her,” said Wilcoxson. “They had labeled the album as by ‘the great unknown.’ They had been looking for years. At first, they didn’t know whether they had the right person [when she contacted Burton] but they did.”

When Wilcoxson made the recording, he decided to streamline his name to just Jimmie Dale, dropping his last name.

“[The 45] was a collector’s item, still is in Europe,” he said. “I’m not the only one; there’s others like me, of course. They did a re-release of it in 2011 or so. They re-released a package on it, but the original one is the valuable one.”

Wilcoxson said multiple attempts were made to contact him by mail, at least two he knew of, but those letters were returned and the original sender informed they were undeliverable.

“They would have found it and been able to contact me,” said Wilcoxson. “Now they know it’s Jimmie Dale Wilcoxson, and that’s how it became obscure.”
Despite its success overseas, Wilcoxson said he wasn’t able to make any kind of financial profit from the famous recordings.

“I knew nothing about copyright at 17,” he said.

Before revisions to copyright law in the 1980s, Wilcoxson said, his copyright on the recordings were short-lived, lasting only 23 years before becoming public domain. A Texas company held the rights to “Darlin’” and gave the ownership back to him, but he said the California company, which ended up with the ownership of “Baby Doll,” were less gracious.

“They didn’t even answer my request,” he said.

Still, he has the support of his fans. He said he was stunned to find his fanbase had spread so far all these years later, and very pleased to be featured in the ARRAS magazine in September.

“I was completely stunned,” he said. “Serious musicians will never be happy. They criticize themselves more than anyone else. To get such an honor, to be on the cover, really meant a lot to me.”

He said he gets fan mail from Europe, Australia and even Japan, where American country music has a surprising following.

You can find recordings of “Darlin’” and “Baby Doll,” along with some of Wilcoxson’s other songs, by searching for Jimmie Dale Wilcoxson on YouTube.

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