Winston Records was a record company based in Abilene, Texas, and owned by singer–songwriter and popular radio disc jockey–television personality Slim Willet, best-known as the composer of the 1952 bestseller “Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes.” Willet began producing his own recordings in 1952 for his Slim Willet Special Release label. The records were pressed for Willet by 4 Star Records OP custom service in Pasadena, California, and 4 Star had the option to re-release any of the recordings under its own banner, something the company regularly did.
With the success of “Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes,” Willet expanded his business activities. He launched the Edmoral Western Series and commenced recording some of Abilene’s hillbilly favorites: Archie Jefferies & the Blue Flame Boys (Edmoral 952), Shorty Underwood & the Brush Cutters (Edmoral 954), and Bill Fox with his Big State Jamboree Gang (Edmoral 955). He also recognized the growing popularity of rock-and-roll, and the last two releases on Edmoral were anything but western: Dean Beard and the Crew Cats’ piano-saxophone-driven “Rakin’ and Scrapin’” (Edmoral 1011) and Gene Morris with the Pages’ Elvis Presley-like rocker “I’ve Got a Love” (Edmoral 1012). Willet leased Beard’s record to Atlantic Records for national distribution. Morris re-recorded his for Vik, a subsidiary of RCA Victor.
In 1957, by now having split from 4 Star and owner Bill McCall, Willet discontinued Edmoral and started Winston (Slim’s given name was Winston Lee Moore) to record local and area talent and provide an outlet for his own recordings. He had recording equipment set up in his backyard studio and in the rear of the Slim Willet Ice Cream Parlor, plus he had access to the facilities of Key City radio stations KNIT and KCAD. Some sessions were recorded outside of Abilene. For example, Hoyle Nix waxed his four sides for Winston in a downtown studio in Big Spring. Even with limited production capabilities, Willet experimented with dual-tracking vocals, and he had access to a talented pool of session musicians. Dean Beard contributed vital piano backup along with songwriter and arranger duties. Teenagers Jimmy Seals (tenor sax) and Dash Crofts (drums), later of Seals & Crofts, also participated as session musicians before joining the West Coast-based the Champs of “Tequila” fame. Willet and Beard, along with Sweetwater native Ray Doggett, provided a cache of songs from which the Winston roster could choose. And Slim kept a pulse on the contemporary sounds of the day.
On the pop side, Winston offered everything from primitive rockabilly to teen ballads. Gene Morris (Winston 1021, 1032, 1046, 1066) remained in the fold, but no one rocked quite like Darrell Rhodes (Winston 1026, 1029, 1041), a 1958 Abilene High School graduate. The Zircons (Winston 1020, 1022) were from Sweetwater; Willet leased the group’s “I Need It”/“Only One Love” to Dot Records. Two young out-of-town women of note were Fonda Wallace, known as “The Teenage Thrush,” (Winston 1014) from Munday and Jan Moore (Winston 1035) from Andrews. Willet sold Moore’s “Play It Cool”/“Reassure Me” to Todd Records in New York City. Although issued under Slim Willet’s name, the instrumental “Pandemonium” (Winton 1019) offered a showcase for Dean Beard.
On the country side, there was Permian Basin oilfield pipe-fitter Wayland Seals, the father of Jimmy and Dan, and the Oil Patch Boys (Winston 1016, 1024). Paul Huffman (Winston 1015, 1034, 1045, 1049, 1060) later signed a songwriting contract with a Nashville music publisher. Television repairman Ronald Mansfield (Winston 1023, 1028) had already cut some tunes for local Beam Records. From San Angelo, Jimmie Fletcher and His Drifting Ranch Hands proved popular enough to warrant four releases (Winston 1025, 1031, 1047, 1054). Billy Thompson (Winston 1048) and Curtis Potter (Winston 1030, 1042) each did stints with Hank Thompson’s Brazos Valley Boys. Slim also turned to former Big State Jamboree regulars the Starlight Sisters (Winston 1018), Roland Smith (Winston 1050), and Shorty Underwood (Winston 1062), and he connected with Hoyle Nix (Winston 1056, 1059) in Big Spring, Jimmy Heap (Winston 1058) in Taylor, and Johnny Dollar (Winston 1064) in Dallas.
Nothing captured the musical spontaneity and informality of Winston better than “Ain’t Goin’ Home” (Winston 1017), one of several entries issued under Willet’s nom de plume Telli W. Mills (Slim Willet spelled backwards). “Ain’t Goin’ Home” feels like a disheveled late night jam session taped in the backyard studio with Slim “the Fat Cat’s” hipster jive improvised over Dean Beard’s pumping piano, James Steward’s scalding electric lead guitar, and Jimmy Seals’s squawking tenor sax.
With the emphasis on the singles market, Willet crafted one album for Winston: Texas Oil Patch Songs by Slim Willet (Winston LP 1040). Slim never worked in the oilfield, but the songs on the album (all written by Willet) presented a microcosm of the oil patch culture: “Rig Moving Man,” “Tool Pusher (On a Rotary Rig),” “Oil Patch Girls,” “El Paso Gas,” “Off Shore Drilling Rig,” “Boom Town Man,” “Smell That Sweet Perfume,” “Johnny Don’t Drill Here Any More,” “Drill Bit Honky Tonk,” “Morning Tower,” “Haywire Jones,” and “Roughneck.” Recorded in 1959, Texas Oil Patch Songs is one of the earliest country music concept albums and the first devoted entirely to the petroleum industry.
Winston went out of business in 1966 after Willet died of an apparent heart attack. Appropriately enough, the final release was Slim’s “The Lights Don’t Shine”/“You’re the Only Woman” (Winston 1178, not Winston 1078 as often listed), recorded in April four months before his death. And for the first and only time, producer credit is printed on the record label; however, the name is not Willet’s but rather that of Tommy Allsup, storied guitarist–producer, who then had a recording studio in Odessa.
For eight years, Willet and Winston released a steady stream of rock-and-roll and country music with flair, capturing the grit and the flavor of the West Texas music scene. Today many of the 45 rpms are highly prized by rockabilly record collectors and aficionados of the sounds of the Lone Star State.