Johnny Dollar, rockabilly artist and producer, was born John Washington Dollar, Jr., in Kilgore, Texas, on March 8, 1933. He was the son of Nellie Mai “Millie” (Morgan) Dollar and John Dollar and one of six children. His parents, Creek Indians, had relocated from Oklahoma to East Texas with the onslaught of that region’s oil boom. Apparently, the family moved often, as Johnny attended schools in Kilgore, Fredericksburg, Crab Apple Creek, and Junction. About 1948 he lived with an older brother in Sheridan, Texas, and attended Schreiner’s Military Academy. At odds with his father, at age seventeen Johnny Dollar joined the Marines and left home permanently. After the service, he worked in the oilfields of West Texas and as a truck driver and lumberyard hand while performing occasional singing jobs.
At his own expense, Dollar recorded a single (“Walking Away”) for D Records in 1952. Then he worked as a deejay in Louisiana and New Mexico. He started a band called the Texas Sons and for awhile performed regularly on Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport. He also recorded another single (“Lumberjack”), this time on Slim Willett’sWinston label.
By the late 1950s he was in Dallas and had embraced the popular style of rockabilly. With a ready-made stage name, Johnny Dollar got in touch with Ed McLemore, owner and promoter of Big D Jamboree, and Dollar became a regular member of the cast. The singer, with his dark sideburns, rock-and-roll voice, and attitude that carried a bit of swagger and rebellion, seemed a natural for the stage and studio. He collaborated with songwriter Jack Rhodes on a series of what would be rockabilly standards such as “Green-Eyed Cat,” “Action Packed,” and “Rockin’ Bones,” which was later made famous by Ronnie Dawson. Initially Rhodes and Dollar worked in a small recording studio in a room at Rhodes’s motel in Mineola, Texas. Later the two, with the support of McLemore’s Big “D” Publishing Company, recorded at Sellers Studios in Dallas. With producer Johnny Hicks and backed by a group of homegrown rockers (two would go on to perform with Gene Vincent), Dollar recorded a series of tracks that represented the epitome of rockabilly bravado. For some reason, they were never released.
By the end of the 1950s, as enthusiasm for rockabilly had waned, Dollar left music and sold financial investments in Oklahoma. At that time, he met Ray Price, who rekindled Dollar’s musical prospects and had him signed with Columbia Records. Now known as Johnny $ Dollar and “Mr. Personality,” Dollar released a series of modest country hits, including “Tear-Talk” and “Stop the Start (of Tears in My Heart).” He was nominated as Billboard’s Best New Artist in 1966 and as Best New Artist for Record World in 1967. That year he signed with Dot Records and later Date Records and had some success with “The Wheels Fell Off the Wagon Again” and “Everybody’s Got to be Somewhere.” With Chart Records from 1968 to the early 1970s he scored several respectable hits with a series of truck-driving songs. These issues were effectively the last of his career as a performing artist.
During the 1970s Dollar became a producer in Nashville. His clients included Jim Cartwright, “Little” Jimmy Dickens, and Teddy Nelson, whose record sales went platinum and gold in Europe. In the early 1980s Dollar was diagnosed with throat cancer, and his surgical treatment seriously damaged his voice. By the mid-1980s he had divorced four times and suffered from alcoholism and depression. When his cancer reappeared, Dollar sank further into depression and committed suicide on April 13, 1986.
In 1997 the reels of audio tape—Johnny Dollar’s unreleased rockabilly recordings from the late 1950s—resurfaced in a north Dallas home. Subsequently, David Dennard of Dragon Street Records released them on CD in 1998 as Johnny Dollar: Mr. Action Packed. The collection also included two live performances from Big D Jamboree in 1958. Thus Johnny Dollar’s talent reached new rockabilly fans after forty years. He was also recognized for his early contributions in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
David Dennard, “Johnny Dollar,” Rockabilly Hall of Fame (http://www.rockabillyhall.com/JohnnyDollar1.html), accessed June 26, 2011.
Genres (Rock and Roll, Rhythm and Blues, and Rockabilly)
Dallas/Fort Worth Region
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
Laurie E. Jasinski,
“Dollar, John Washington, Jr. [Johnny Dollar],”
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed September 17, 2021,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
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