My father, Johnny Seay, was born to John, Sr. and Helen Seay in Gulfport, Mississippi on July 15, 1940. Most of my father's musical genes come from his mother's blood. My Grandmother, Helen Bernice Pitts, could have been a singer or a fine artist. She was a great singer and could paint portraits with amazing likeness, but was known only in her small world, raising children and making a home for them. She was born June 29, 1923 in Picayune, Mississippi. She had just turned 17 only two weeks before my father was born.
My Grandmother's father was Jessie Pitts, born April 27, 1901 in Westonua, Mississippi and died February 27, 1967 in Houston, Texas. He was a musician and singer on the radio in Mississippi in the 1930's.
My father got his first guitar when he was about 9 or 10. It was a Stella and had Gene Autry on it. He didn't have it very long, as his stepmother Sue who bought it for him, sold the guitar to buy his sister, Jo Ann, a pair of shoes. He didn't get his next guitar until he was 15 years old. The guitar was a Harmony. He learned to tune it himself from instructions in a Ken Maynard Song Book. This song book also had cord diagrams. The first cord he learned was "D" then "G" and "A". He learned to play a song on the guitar and it was non-stop learning for many months to come. By the time he was 16, he had met a few other guitar players that helped him learn. When he was 17, my grandmother helped him buy an old D-28 Marlin Guitar on a monthly payment plan. He was still paying for it when his first record was released.
My father's music career all started when he was still in Smith-Hughes High School in Atlanta, GA. He accidentally got into show business on a dare by entering a talent show in East Point, GA called the Georgia Jubilee. You had to win three months in a row, plus the finals. Bill Anderson was in the finals with him, but my father won. He was given a one-year recording contract with the National Recording Corporation. My father was 17 years old when he made his first record, "It Won't Be Easy To Forget." Jerry Reed, who wrote the song, played guitar on the record. It did pretty well and that was the beginning.
The second one, "Frankie's Man Johnny," made the national charts and then the Top Ten in some. All of a sudden he had a music career. He had a manager, Shelby S. Singleton, who took him to the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport in November of 1958. He stayed there for about two years, but wanted to go to Nashville. He made the move in 1960. After about a month and with a new manager, Hubert Long, he began guesting on the Grand Ole Opry and he felt that he had really made the big time. He left NRC Records and signed with Capital Records at that time.
My Father made friends with Johnny Western, who had written and recorded the "Have Gun Will Travel" television show theme song. Johnny Western encouraged my father to go to Hollywood to try and get into the movies. While waiting for a break, the actor Ben Johnson got him a job on Ben's father-in-law's ranch. My father loved the ranch work. He often wondered if he had wasted his time, but he was having a great time doing it. Both of his first children were born while out there, Shannon in 1962 and John lll in 1963.
He returned to Nashville by hitching a ride with Marty Robbins, who was doing some shows on the west coast. After getting a place to live set up he sent for his family, signed with Phillips International and was back in the music business. His first release on Phillips Records was, "My Baby Walk's All Over Me" and was a hit... He toured with several big name stars that provided opportunities to boost his career. He stayed on the road most of the time, working night clubs and stage shows. He found Marty Robbins, Hank Snow, Red Foley and Tex Ritter to be kind and considerate. A lot of people thought Faron Young was cocky and hot tempered, but my father got to know him well and says he was a terrific person and would give you the shirt off his back. Hubert Long managed and booked Faron Young, Ferlin Husky, along with many other stars. This gave my father a great opportunity to work on all the road shows Hubert booked, along with guest shots on the Grand Ole Opry when not on the road.
An interesting encounter at Tootsie's Orchid Lounge near the Grand Ole Opry, showed my father how helpful one "legend" was by nature. When he first arrived in Nashville back in 1960, he was told to go to that lounge and that he would find someone there that he knew or someone who knew him. Two of his records were in the jukebox in the lounge, so that made him feel pretty comfortable. In a few minutes, he was seated at a table with Patsy Cline and her husband. He told her he had come to Nashville to stay. Patsy and her husband took him to their home and she cooked a meal for him. When he told them that he was looking for a place to live, they took him to the old Clarkston Hotel where he met his good friend, Darrell McCall. It cost him $14 a week and was only a short walk to WSM's Radio Studios.
Another star who helped so many newcomers was Ernest Tubb. My father just can't say enough good things about him. The first time my father ever sang on the radio in Nashville was on the "Midnight Jamboree" that was broadcast from the Old Original Ernest Tubb Record Shop.
In 1966, my father's patriotic narrative record, "Day for Decision," took the American music market by storm and earned my father a Grammy Award nomination. During the war in Vietnam, when flag burning and draft dodging were popular, my father encouraged listeners, instead, to lift your eyes to the flag and sing out "America!" He recalls performing it with the Walt Disney Orchestra in Los Angeles on the morning of July 4th, and again that evening on the Liberace Show at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas. He was in for a big surprise. After he performed "Day for Decision," Liberace presented him with a gold record there on stage at the Sahara.
His previous time in Hollywood had been a good investment, after all. In 1967, he returned there to costar with Leroy Van Dyke, Tex Ritter, Al Hurt and Faron Young in the movie, "What Am I Bid?"
Of the more than 100 songs that my father has written, "Willie's Drunk and Nellie's Dying," about an impoverished Tennessee couple he knew, has been the most controversial. He had met Willie York and his family when my father lived outside of Nashville. My older brother and sister, Shannon and John lll, played with his grandkids that he and his wife, Nellie, were raising. After my father wrote and recorded the song, listeners began mailing letters with money to Willie and his family. The situation was so unusual that an article, "Willie York from Big East Fork," was published in the July 17, 1970, edition of Life magazine. To view the article, click here.
It wasn't long before my father realized that his life just wasn't what he wanted. You have a Hit Record and instead of a royalty check, the record company tells you that you owe them money? It was a style of living that my father tired of and he wanted more lasting relationships. So, in 1969, he simply walked away. My father has no regrets. He made a lot of good friends in the music business and they are still his good friends today.
After leaving the music business behind, he fulfilled his dreams by doing everything he ever wanted to do in his life. He came to Texas and worked at the Miller Ranch as a cowboy for a couple of years and he found peace and satisfaction in a career with the Santa Fe Railroad as a conductor and brakeman and later with Fort Worth and Western Railroad, retiring as a steam locomotive engineer. Along the way, my father has been a Commander for the 131st Air Search and Rescue Squadron, U.S. Air Force Auxiliary and Civil Air Patrol as a pilot; he is an award-winning painter, sculptor and gun engraver. But above all else, he loves flying crop duster aircraft. He says it's the only job he's never tired of.
My father now resides at his Texas ranch with his wife, Two Star (my mother). They have been together almost 40 years and he has 9 children and 16 grandchildren; Fawn Lester (me), Lakota Octavia Dawn Gwenivere Seay, Mary Checotah Two-Star Seay, Chancey Mandan Seay, Amber Cheyenne Hummer, Sabra Lahoma Seay, Shannon Seay Dail, John A. Seay lll and Alana Godin.
My father is now 75 years old, and has lived a life that most only dream of. He has accomplished everything he has ever dreamed of doing, (he will tell you, he has done everything but get rich) although his fiddle can really frustrate him at times. He is the greatest man in the world to me and to all of his children and to his grandchildren. He is the most wonderful person you will ever meet.
I love you, Daddy.