Cover Story

The Record Man

by R. Reese Fuller

Goldband Records founder Eddie Shuler was viewed as a saint and a snake ' and made immeasurable contributions to Louisiana music before his death.

Country music superstar Dolly Parton has nothing but fond memories of her first producer. "Eddie Shuler was a gifted, special friend," she says. "With him goes the passing of an era. I know he is in a special place in heaven."

Parton met Shuler when she was only 13 years old. In 1960, she rode a bus with her grandmother from Sevierville, Tenn., to Lake Charles. Parton's uncle, Henry Owens, was living in Lake Charles near Shuler's Goldband Records recording studio, and the two men had become friends. Owens sent for his niece to come to Lake Charles, where she recorded two songs for Goldband ' "Puppy Love" and "Girl Left Alone."

Dolly Parton is the biggest name that ever recorded for Goldband, but from 1944 until 2000, Eddie Shuler recorded a slew of musicians ' including Iry LeJeune, Boozoo Chavis, Freddie Fender, Cookie & The Cupcakes, Jimmy C. Newman, Phil Phillips, Jo-El Sonnier, Rockin' Sidney, Clarence Garlow and Guitar Jr. When Shuler passed away this past summer, he left behind a musical legacy that includes a catalog of more than 12,000 songs, nearly 800 of them that Shuler either wrote or co-wrote.

Behind his folksy, down-to-earth demeanor, Shuler was a shrewd businessman and the driving force behind Goldband Records. Without him, Louisiana's musical heritage wouldn't be what it is today. In a previously unpublished interview from 1999, and subsequent interviews with Shuler associates and the artists he recorded, a complex man emerges ' one who clearly understood that simple songs had the power to pull at the heartstrings as well as the pursestrings.

Eddie's Music House sits alongside Interstate 10 on Church Street in Lake Charles. The white frame building was once home to an Assembly of God church before Shuler purchased it in 1955. The front door opens to a main room filled with bins of Goldband compact discs, LPs and 45 RPM records. A door to the right leads to the recording studio. A small room with a large pane of glass looks onto a large room, with an upright piano against the wall. Now, the area is being leased to a small graphic design company. Computers and printers occupy the space that amplifiers and microphone stands held for nearly 50 years.

It's April Fools Day 1999, and Shuler sits behind the desk in his office. Just five days earlier, he celebrated another birthday. "I'm now 86 years young," he says. "I'm not old. I'm young." Even though he's called Lake Charles home for 57 years, you wouldn't know it by his thick Texan drawl.

Shuler was born in Wrightsboro, Texas, in 1913, the oldest of three children. His parents separated when he was still a child, and the young Shuler worked odd jobs, picking cotton, corn and pecans and loading cottonseeds into boxcars. "I was one of those that had to grow up on my own," he says. "I started working when I was 9 years old. â?¦ All I was trying to do was make a living. I didn't have that much of an education."

Music wasn't important to his parents, but Shuler says as a kid he was always creating little ditties in his head. "I'm not bragging on me or nothing," he says, "but I was very creative and had all kinds of imagination, which is good in the songwriting field. Now today, I got a catalog of over 11,000 songs, and a big percentage of them I'm the co-writer or the writer on the song." According to Broadcast Music Incorporated's Web site, Shuler's music publishing company, Tek Publishing, has published 787 songs with Shuler as the writer or co-writer.

In 1942, Shuler moved to Lake Charles to take a job as a dragline operator. He took a part-time job in a music store and was carpooling to work in Sulphur with a group of guys who were playing music at night ' The Hackberry Ramblers. The band had already recorded for Bluebird Records, and Shuler enlisted with the group a year later. "Naturally, I'm working in a record shop, I know all the songs so I could sing all the songs, but I was nowhere remotely interested in being a musician. That was the furthest thing from my mind."

Shuler soon found out that there were fringe benefits to being a musician. "I might have been an Elvis Presley or something in that day," he says. He recalls one particular gig in Creole. "Boy, there were some pretty little gals. I'm telling you, them were good looking little gals, and I hadn't never even seen a Cajun until I come over here. All them little Cajun gals was ganged around me like flies around flypaper. So the second time we went out there to play, they carried my guitar for me and all my songs and everything. I said, 'To hell with that damn drag line! I'm going to be a musician.'"

Shuler wanted to record his own songs and focus more on hillbilly music, like his main influence, Bob Wills. "Any country band was hillbilly," he says. "It didn't make no difference who you were, you were hillbillies. There wasn't no country music then. They hadn't even invented the word." He left the Ramblers and started his own outfit ' Eddie Shuler and the All Star Reveliers.

In 1944, Shuler cut the first record for the Reveliers, featuring Shuler's compositions "Broken Love" and "Room in Your Heart For Me Darling." He called his new record label Goldband Records. "It had something to do with my mentality," he says. "I said, 'This is going to be a goldmine, so I'll just call it Goldband.'"

While the Reveliers were cutting records, they were also performing for three hours weekly on a radio show that Shuler hosted on KPLC. It was there that he met the man that changed his way of thinking and the direction of Goldband.

"So this little Cajun boy came along and wanted to record with us," Shuler recalls. "Seeing him coming down the street with an old floppy hat on and a flour sack under his arm, he looked like something that had been drug out of you know what. He was a real aggressive little feller. He walked up and told me his name was Iry LeJeune and he would like to perform on my radio show. He pulled this accordion out of the flour sack, and I had never even seen one of those things. The Hackberry Ramblers was a fiddle band. So here he is with this thing in the flour sack, and he called it a French accordion."

Shuler allowed LeJeune to perform that day in 1946. "Iry had really fast fingers. He had the fastest fingers I ever saw, and little short fingers at that, but he really could move them things around." The station owner burst into the control room after the show was over. "He was a little short guy," Shuler says, "weighed about 250 pounds and was 5 feet and 3 inches tall. He was just like a butterball, but he had a voice like a bull. He came bouncing out of that little room and he said, 'Eddie Shuler, you son of a bitch! What in the hell was that you had on my radio station?'

"I turned around and said, 'Mr. Wilson, the man told me it was Cajun music. I don't know. I've never heard any Cajun music like that, but that's what he said it was.'

"He said, 'If you ever do that again, I'm going to kick your ass right out the front door.'

"I said, 'Yes, sir' because I was making good money as a result of my air time and my bookings."

LeJeune knew Shuler was making his own records on Goldband and asked that he record him. Shuler was reluctant. It cost $200 to press copies of 78 RPM records, at about 9 cents per copy. But Shuler struck a deal with LeJeune. They would record one record, and if it made any money, they'd continue working together. If not, they would part ways.

Without a physical recording studio or even a tape recorder, Shuler found an inventive way to make records. "I would go into the radio station and give the engineer $10 ' and a pint of whiskey or a quart of whiskey, depending on what he had to have and how much I thought the record was worth ' to cut me a disc. Then I would take the disc and mail it off to the record company, and they would cut the master from that."

LeJeune's first two songs with Goldband were "Calcasieu Waltz" and "Lacassine Special." The record made a profit of $72. "I was in high cotton," Shuler says. "I could visualize all these big things I was going to do now because I figured out how to make money with the music business. And he never made one record that wasn't a hit. He was a star. By that time, I was hung up in this record business, and I didn't want to play anymore. I just wanted to make records. That's how I got into the record business."

In 1955, just 20 days shy of his 27th birthday, LeJeune was struck by a car on Highway 190 outside of Eunice and died from the injuries.

"Iry LeJeune made Cajun music what it is today," Shuler says. "All of the stuff that they're doing today is a result of what he and I did. The guy was just a genius in the music business. We did a lot of remarkable things. Today, Cajun music hasn't changed all that much, except with people like Wayne Toups. But the Cajun people want the authentic stuff. They don't want none of that there malarkey stuff, with that rock 'n' roll beat. That's one thing I learnt while I was out there ' you don't change their music. Keep it just like it is. K-I-S-S, as we say. Keep it simple, stupid. Keep on truckin', and you're going to make the money."

Throughout the years, Shuler had some national success. In 1961, Goldband released Cleveland Crochet's "Sugar Bee," which topped out at No. 80 on Billboard's Top 100. The raucous tune featured the Cajun accordion but included a driving rock beat with vocalist Jay Stutes belting out the English lyrics. "It was just a monster," Shuler says. "It sold 55,000 copies."

But Shuler's biggest monster wasn't on the Goldband label. Another local record man, George Khoury, brought in Phil Phillips to record at Goldband studios. Shuler recorded and produced the song, working on it for three months. The memorable lyrics are short and sweet:

Come with me, my love
To the sea, the sea of love
I want to tell you
How much I love you

After being leased to Mercury Records, "Sea of Love" peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard charts in 1959. "I knew it was a good song," Shuler says, "but I had no idea that it was what it turned out to be. It had the story line. The lyric content was there. The melody was following along like a little puppy dog. So the rest of it had potential."

"Back in those days, they didn't have air conditioners," Shuler adds. "They didn't have all the conveniences of what they have today. So when a guy said, 'I'm hurting,' he knew exactly what he was talking about, and it was coming from the heart. He had been there. He had paid the price, and he felt it. Today the guy says I'm hurting, and he doesn't even know what he's talking about. He's just using a phrase because it's been handed down to him from time immortal, so to speak."

Shuler was also the first to record Boozoo Chavis in 1954 on another record label he had formed, Folk-Star. Shuler met Chavis through local accordionist Sidney Brown, who had heard Chavis play. Chavis and Brown came into Goldband, and Chavis played "Paper in My Shoe" for Shuler. "That was a natural born hit," Shuler says. "That's what I was looking for. So we recorded it and sure enough, it's a classic today."

But there's more to the story. Shuler had a hard time getting Classie Ballou's backing R&B band on the same page with Chavis. They spent days trying to record the song, going nowhere fast. Even the final recorded product is an oddity; it sounds as if two separate songs are wrestling for the spotlight, while Chavis sings over the ruckus.

Shuler claims that in order to loosen up Chavis, he gave him a pint of Seagram's 7 whiskey to drink. "It was coming along real good," he says, "and I thought, man, if we can get through this one, we've got it. And about that time I heard the damnedest noise I ever heard in my life, but the music never stopped. So I wondered what in the hell went on in that damn studio. When I opened the door, there was Boozoo, laying on the floor, but he was still playing his accordion. He says this didn't happen, but it did.

"That thing took off like a ruptured duck," Shuler says. He leased the song to Imperial Records, then the home of New Orleans R&B sensation Fats Domino. Shuler contends that "Paper in My Shoe" sold 136,000 copies, but that Chavis didn't record another song quick enough to follow up on its success. Shuler says Chavis' brother had managed to convince him that Shuler was ripping him off and that he wasn't going to get paid. "You can't do that and still stay in business," Shuler says. "You can do it, but you ain't going to be there very long cause they're going to catch up with you. Then you're a dead chicken. You're gone."

Shuler says Chavis' first royalty payment was for $750, and when he called Chavis to pick up the check, Chavis responded, "That's all?" When Chavis did pick up his money, Shuler recorded him again, but made him pay $285 up front. "What I was saying was if you got enough money, we'll go in there and cut another one," Shuler recalls. "If you don't got no money, we ain't going to cut nothing, 'cause I ain't going to go down this damn same road with myself spending my money, screwing around like we done here."

Until his death in 2001, Boozoo Chavis contended that he never fell off a stool and that Shuler had ripped him off. He told writer Michael Tisserand quite bluntly in The Kingdom of Zydeco: "That dude stole my money." In Ben Sandmel's book Zydeco! (co-authored with photographer Rick Olivier), Chavis told Sandmel that he didn't think he had been paid enough for the amount of copies that Shuler claimed that the song had originally sold. Chavis said: "And when I be telling you this, I'm mad now. If they came from Goldband today and asked me to make another record, I believe I'd have to shoot 'em â?¦" In an interview in 1999, two years before his death, Chavis commented on recording for Shuler: "That was the worst thing I could have ever done."

Hackberry Ramblers drummer Ben Sandmel has also had his run-ins with Eddie Shuler. Sandmel says he had differences of opinion with Shuler over the ownership of some songs recorded by the Ramblers. The issues have yet to be resolved, and Sandmel won't elaborate on specifics of the dispute.

"For a guy who didn't speak French," Sandmel says sarcastically, "he wrote a lot of songs in French. He was pretty astute at sewing things up in his interests. He was very shrewd. He tried to intimidate me, and I saw him try to intimidate other people. At the same time, he was pouring on the good old boy charm. He was funny as hell. He was like Mr. Haney on Green Acres. Even in the ugliest situations, he cracked me up. If you're going to have an adversary, you might as well have one that's entertaining, even unintentionally."

But even with his negative encounters with Shuler, Sandmel doesn't dismiss his contributions. "A lot of people would have told Iry LeJeune to get lost," he says. "So thank God he did some of the things that he did."

Shuler himself alludes to the problems he had with musicians. "The funny thing that I've discovered about the music business," he says, "is that these people, these artists, they think that they're doing you a favor when you spend your money on them, making their records. To these musicians down here, it was not a business. What they were doing, how they lived and how they performed was simple. They went out to enjoy themselves, playing music and doing their drinking and their carousing and having all these perks in life. They didn't care nothing about taking it to the next level and being national successes. It was a here and now thing. There was no way you're going to get them to move to that next level. It ain't going to happen. They just won't do it. They wouldn't do it."

"But now, there's an exception to that rule," Shuler adds. "Dolly Parton is not like that. She puts heart up there, but she's smart enough not to let it interfere with the business." Shuler says he was invited to and attended several Dolly Parton functions and was treated like royalty. "That meant a whole lot to me," he says. "Now those other people ' like Jo-El Sonnier, Freddie Fender, Mickey Gilley, you name it ' they ain't never called me one time. They look at it like this: I'm just a crook. I didn't pay them their money, and I didn't do nothing for them. But not Dolly Parton. She remembers exactly who did what, and she always reciprocates in kind in compassion and human kindness. Those others guys never even looked at it like that. They never even thought of it in that context. Her, she did."

John Broven says he's heard musicians claim that Shuler didn't give them the money they were due. The author of South to Louisiana: The Music of the Cajun Bayous, Broven is working on a new book that focuses on the independent American record producers of the post-World War II era.

"Each case is different," Broven says, "and you just have to look at the original situation and the original paperwork. I would say in Eddie's case, certainly in his defense, he had a contract for everything. The contract may have been one-sided in his favor, and almost inevitably it was, but the fact that, to my knowledge, he's rarely been sued and I don't think anyone has ever got any settlement out of him, indicates that the original deal couldn't be contested."

In the case of Chavis, for example, Broven says the problem is that Chavis never knew how many copies of "Paper in My Shoe" were sold originally, which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to determine what money was owed to him. And long before the music industry became the juggernaut it is now, in post-World War II America, musicians weren't recording songs for publishing royalties but to use as a calling card to get gigs.

And while Shuler may have longed for big national hits, Broven believes he was also quite content to keep his business operating on a smaller scale locally. "It was something he could manage," he says. "His wife, Elsie, was a great rock. She looked after all the paperwork, the books, the royalties that were coming in and being paid out. She kept the paperwork end tied up tight, and Eddie was content to make the records." In addition to Goldband, Shuler also owned and operated the Quick Service TV business for 37 years, which during the 1950s was grossing annual sales of $200,000. Broven says the lucrative TV business allowed Shuler to speculate and record any musician who walked through his door.

Beneath Shuler's good old boy exterior, Broven saw more at work. "Eddie would hate me for saying this, but beneath that folksy façade was a character of steel. It was that steeliness and that determination which enabled him to do what he did. He was a very shrewd man. What he realized more than anything was the value of song publishing. I've been there once or twice at the store when his artists have come in, and he basically told them, literally, to get the hell out of there. He was a tough man. On the exterior, he was almost too folksy to be true. He was very sharp-witted, very sharp-minded, and was certainly very protective of his rights."

Broven says what distinguishes Shuler from the other south Louisiana record men of his day ' like J.D. Miller of Crowley and Floyd Soileau of Ville Platte ' is that Shuler was a prolific songwriter and was in a position to record any and all kinds of music in his Lake Charles studio. "He was very lucky to live in the era that he did," Broven says, "when there was so much natural talent around. Just think, you would have Iry LeJeune and Aldus Roger one day, then Jukeboy Bonner and Clarence Garlow the next. Then Cookie and the Cupcakes would suddenly descend upon you. He was certainly in the right place at the right time. One thing about the Goldband recordings is that they were very basic and certainly one wouldn't describe them as being hi-fi by any means. Despite all of the many great records he made, if he would have just had the right equipment or had an assistant as an engineer, he could have got so many more good sounds out of that studio than he did. But just think, if it hadn't been for Eddie Shuler, we wouldn't have had Iry LeJeune. If Eddie hadn't recorded him, that man would have been lost. That, to me, is as good as a justification as any. The other big credit is 'Sea of Love.' That's just an international classic, and that came out of his little, tiny studio in Lake Charles."

In 1999, Shuler was recording very little in his little studio in Lake Charles, but he wasn't concerned with the future of Goldband. At the time, one of his sons was living in Nashville and the other was living outside of Atlanta. "If we don't have somebody to go forward with Goldband," Shuler said, "the way I'll have to work it is this: I'll just do whatever I can until I die, and then I'll let them worry about it because I won't be around to know anything about what they did anyway. They can sell it. They can give it away. They can do whatever the hell they want to because I can't do anymore."

For the last eight years, Pam Wilkinson, Shuler's niece, has been running the day-to-day operations of Goldband. Although the Shuler family still owns Goldband, Wilkinson says she will continue to run the business. "They're pretty much leaving it in my hands because that's what Eddie wanted," she says. "He just always told me to hold onto the ropes and keep on going."

The recording studio hasn't been in operation since 2000, and Wilkinson wants to turn Goldband into a museum. She says she's in negotiations with Lake Charles Downtown Development to bring the plan to fruition and notes that Tek Publishing and Goldband's mail order business will continue as usual.

For Wilkinson, keeping Goldband running is more of a personal decision than it is a business one. "Eddie was a lot more to me than an uncle," she says. "I spent a lot of time with him when I as a young girl. I grew up without a father, so he kind of filled in that spot. Then I had the pleasure of working with him for seven years before he moved on. He was a very knowledgeable man, very smart. He taught me a lot of things. I'm really going to miss him."

Due to failing health, Shuler and his wife moved to Atlanta in April 2004 to be closer to their son, Johnny. On July 23, 2005, Eddie Shuler passed away at the age of 92. He was laid to rest in Lake Charles.

In 1999, at the age of 86, Shuler was asked his secret to a long life. He didn't hesitate to answer. "Work like hell," he said. "Give it all you got, and love what you're doing. The best part about it is you must love what you're doing. And in this case, as you've probably figured out by now, I'm in the music business because I love the music business.

"I did what I wanted to, and the way that I function is this way: If you can't do what you want to do and be happy with what you're doing, then why do it? That's what I've done all my life. I got my pleasure out of making these records, preserving history through music in a sense."

Shuler on Cleveland Crochet's "Sugar Bee"

"They wasn't playing like any other Cajun band. If you listen to 'Sugar Bee,' you don't hear nothing on there like you here on other records. Jay Stutes was singing at the top of his lungs because he was full of that VO [whiskey], and the rest of them just turned loose and let it all hang out. That's what it's all about. I was fortunate enough to be there to capture it on tape when it happened."

Shuler on Iry LeJeune's "Durald Waltz"

"I'll never forget this: I bought a tape recorder, and it cost $237, which was a lot of money. We went to Iry LeJeune's house when we first started, and he lived in an old house out there in Lacassine. His relatives had built it out of green lumber. Well, green lumber, when it's wet, it's tight like that, but when it dries, it's got cracks. All of the walls had cracks because the lumber had dried out. We would put the machine on the kitchen table and cut these things, drink coffee and play music.

"We made 'Durald Waltz' in there and took the accordion out of that particular song because the fiddle player was a good fiddle player, and Iry decided he didn't want to play accordion. He would just let the violin player shine, and he'd just sing the song. So we cut this song, and guess what? There's a dog barking in the record. Well, I had never even heard the damn dog, and people kept coming up to me telling me, 'You've got a dog barking in one of your records.' And I said 'I don't have no dog barking in my record.' Come to find out I did have a dog barking, and it was a big record. But guess what? It was a classic."

Shuler on Phil Phillips' "Sea of Love"

"It's a song that reaches all segments of the population. The words in the song tell the story, but there's also an underlying meaning that's not in the words. That's what you have to learn the hard way. You can't learn that because you would like to do it. You have to have been there and experienced it to know what it means.

"When all these words are put together, the computer on top of your shoulders tells you, 'That's me. That's part of my life.' It's that feeling that goes between the listener and the presenter through the words in the song. 'Sea of Love' is the best illustration. It's the simplest song in the world. You couldn't ask for one any simpler, but it explains everything that I'm talking about. It says, 'Come with me to the sea. I want to tell how much I love you.' Now there's the words, but underneath the words is the meaning, which can apply to whoever's listening to it, and he can place it in his life and apply it.

"That's what makes a hit song. That's how a hit song begins a life, and that's how hit songs survive life. It becomes the producer's job to take that particular song and to put it into context to where the listener can apply it to his or her life, 'That's part of my life. That's me. I couldn't say it like I want to, but he's saying already.' It's a little deep, but that's the story line. That's what makes it work."

Shuler on the recording industry

"Back in those days, we didn't have none of this promotion business that you have today. You wouldn't even dream of such a thing. Now today, that part of the business is the main thing. It used to be the music part that was vitally important. Now the part that's vitally important is the promotion business. Like I say, 10 percent music and 90 percent B.S., and that's what it is.

"These people that go into places now and produce the records, they're not musicians. All they are is CPAs and bookkeepers and people in that category. All they know how to really do good is the profit and loss statement. They can tell how it's selling by how much it made, but they don't know what made it sell.

"They got this profit and loss group running the thing. They have not the faintest conception of what it is that they're missing because they're just not music people. The labels have control of the thing simply because they got the stockholders backing them up. If they throw out 30 records, and they got two hits out of the bunch, and one of them sells 10 million records and another sells 20 million, that made all of the rest of the stuff worthwhile. They have to keep on bouncing them off of the wall. You'll see a guy out there with a hit record this month. Next year he's disappeared from the scenery. That's what it's all about. It's really complicated. It's not simple anymore. And that's where these CPAs and these profit and loss dudes come into play.

"But at the same time, it's gotten cleaner, and it's got less quality. The creativity and the artistic development that reaches from one person to another, is lost in the process. They used to go to school and graduate, get out, get a guitar, and get in a band to start playing music. Now they go to school, graduate, get out, get a computer, and go in the back room. They think 'cause they got this computer that they can record on that and that puts them in the thing. Well, it doesn't. It's all this other stuff that has to be learned the hard way, and you don't get that stuff unless you paid the price.

"That's another problem you have with today's concept of humanity; all of them want to start at the top. Well, if you start at the top, where are you going to go? You can't go up because you're at the top. But they don't want to pay the price that enables [someone] to be qualified to be at the top. That's the part that makes it really disgusting in a whole lot of ways.

"They'll have a hit song, and then three months later you can't even find it. You can't even buy it. You don't even remember that song anymore, and you're into something else because they got another snow job they just gave you, and you're working off of that thesis. So you throw this one in the wind and start all over. Just keep on shuffling them through, keeping the brass up at the top of the ladder, bringing in the money bucks for the stockholders. Everybody's happy. Except the concept of music is being killed off so that eventually the thing will have to be re-addressed. It's been around since the beginning of time, but it's developed to a more professional level, we might say, then back in the early days."