Remembering Rockabilly Legend (& My “Uncle”) Malcolm Yelvington

camping as families in the 1970s

There are those people in our lives that we come across and for whatever reason, there is an immediate and lasting connection. I grew up with an “Uncle Mac” (previously mentioned in my Flat Stanley series).  Our families went to church together, took summer vacations camping together and he bowled in the same league as my dad … for us, he was always Uncle Mac. I always thought he was awesomeness in action. One of the most vivid memories is probably an amalgamation of memories of several different times we sat around the campfire with Mac playing guitar and singing some of the craziest songs I had ever heard…

It was great fun to hear a grown up singing about how “grandpa Jones was a good ol’ man but there’s one thing that he can’t stand, he’d grab that cane and start to pack whe grandma started that yakety yak, he’d say ‘I’ll be walking, while you’re talking,’ said ‘I’ll be walk, walk, walkin along.” We’d laugh and smile like crazy. He’d also sing a song that would raise eyebrows as it talked about just how bad someone needed a cigarette and how smoking them would puff yourself to death. And I can remember coming up with berries so we could add them in when he would sing about “wine spodee odee” and we’d all join in. Or any of the other songs he’d come up with cause we loved them all.

It wasn’t until I was in high school or college that I found out that my Uncle Mac (aka Malcolm Yelvington) had recorded those “made up” songs (they were rockabilly) for Sun Records. I’ve always loved music, but in college with a professor who was part of music history — Bill Randle — I got into it. And I remember spending time with Uncle Mac and his wife Louella figuring out things, getting him to play some for me and walking down the two memory lanes — his in the music business before raising a family and mine of being a kid entranced by a friend of the family who sang with a big smile.

Discovering his connection to Sun sure made my visits home take a different spin. On several occasions, I found a way to get time with Uncle Mac and his guitar! He loved it as much as I did (and maybe more!) I had the chance to visit he & LouElla at their home and got to see him play music in a variety of venues. I got see him play live at street parties in front of Sun, at bars on Beale Street (though Mac & LouElla never had anything stronger than a Coca-Cola, in festivals downtown and probably other places too! And I had more chances to just chat with him about things. After putting music on hold til he retired in his 60s, Malcolm heard from a promoter in Europe. That’s around the same time I got interested in popular music history. But let me tell you about Mac’s piece of history….

Mac grew up a country boy near the small town of Covington outside of Memphis (for those of you who read the blog regularly you’ll enjoy knowing that the Ripley Cotton Pickers was another band in the area). He’d tell me about how that made him a lot more hillbilly than the rockers he recorded alongside. The other names are the names that are spoken in households and on radio stations — Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and one of the countrier folks that recorded at Sun, Johnny Cash. Lots of people (probably including me) wondered what it was like to be recording music and see that your track was just after some young kid named Elvis and then see Presley and others become famous while Mac focused on his job as a pipefitter. But Mac just sort of shrugged it off talking about those guys were younger and didn’t have families so they had different choices. He found church in that timeframe and joined the church my family grew up in. He had a big family with five kids and lots of grandkids, and great grandkids.

I was lucky enough to be there to hear the stories and see the scenes. One of my all-time favorites (and I wish I had photos to prove the story!) was a time Mac played on Beale during Elvis Week. We went in the club and sat down. There was a Turkish Elvis impersonator (no, I’m not making that up) who was singing a couple of songs. He finished and began pacing around — staring at Mac. Mac got up and played (probably with Gary Hardy and James Lott who were part of a lot of the Memphis gigs Mac played). The guy circled us for quite a while getting closer and closer. He was star-struck. I had seen him taking photos earlier so I asked if he wanted a photo with Mac. WOW! Was he excited! And Mac was grinnin’ from ear to ear. When he sat back down, he told me how many times that same thing had happened in Holland and the UK. How college-age kids knew more about his music than he did. Southern Living magazine

There were several more times he was in the limelight. One that I pulled out today is a 1999 issue of Southern Living that featured a one page article on him. (All this came to mind after my cousin checked to made sure I had Mac’s CD “There’s a Little Life Left in This Old Boy Yet” on my iPod — by the way, why isn’t it among the options for Malcolm Yelvington on iTunes?) And I have another magazine that came from Europe that had an article or two on Uncle Mac. He brought me a couple from one of his tours. That’s safely tucked away but since I moved recently, I can’t be sure where the new safe place is LOL!

Another story that totally makes me smile…. Malcolm would love this story too. He loved music and his church both and found various ways to combine them, including playing with a group of musicians and recording songs there too. While I’m getting off track, I have to mention that I had the chance to go down to Sun & snap photos of Mac while they were recording. 😛 But knowing how Mac loved the rockabilly sound & the rise of his music late in life and his church, I think he had to be smiling when The Dempseys showed up in their 1950s clothes and great fifty-fied hair! The Dempseys were a rockabilly band that played Memphis a lot and entertained Mac greatly when they played together, especially when the bass player would stand on his bass and play! Just watch!!! Mac had to be smiling at that!

If you didn’t know Mac, I hope you had someone like him in your life. Someone who loved his life and enthusiastically tried new things in his seventies when others were thinking they’d slow down, Mac took his first flight AND IT WAS TO DO CONCERTS IN EUROPE!

If you love Malcolm Yelvington as much as my family (or if you are family), you should check out this video that was done for a film student’s school project. Its kind of fun to hear Mac & see clips from back in the day. It is 10 minutes long though so sit down and relax. And if you’d like to share a story about Mac, feel free!

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About Janice Person

I'm Janice & this blog is about my passions -- photography, travel, agriculture & whatever else comes to mind. Putting all those things together is intriguing to me…. I can spend a lot of time soaking it up! It's almost always a colorful adventure!

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28 Responses to Remembering Rockabilly Legend (& My “Uncle”) Malcolm Yelvington

  1. Pretty heartfelt story about your uncle, I would love to repost it 🙂

    • Janice aka JPlovesCOTTON December 5, 2011 at 11:10 am #

      Feel free! I just checked out your site and bet some of your folks would enjoy reading it. Had you ever heard of him before?

      • Sad Man's Tongue: Rockabilly Bar & Bistro - Prague December 6, 2011 at 11:09 am #

        Actually I had not, I’m still pretty new to the scene. But i am sure glad I did and I loved how you described him.

      • Buster Fayte December 6, 2011 at 4:48 pm #

        I’ll post it to my blog too, if that’s cool. I haven’t been able to read it yet, but I’m looking forward to reading it tonight! I’ve definitely heard of him and I love reading this kind of stuff and sharing it with my blog readers!

  2. Ken Burke December 6, 2011 at 1:32 am #

    Wonderful story! I dig your uncle’s music. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Bill December 6, 2011 at 9:02 am #

    I just woke up. I can’t sleep so I checked facebook. I’m glad I did! Cousin, your story made me smile and brought back so many great memories. I used to stay with Phil Yelvington and his family 2 weeks during every Summer while my folks were counselors at Bethany Hills. What a treat to hear his music sometimes at his home, but mostly I remember him playing at camp. I miss his humor. I miss his teasing. He had a grip like a vice whenever I gave him a handshake. He was a man’s man. I don’t ever remember him losing his temper and his boys have the same sense of humor that he did. It was nice of you to write the blog entry honoring him. As you stated in your blog (and I’m paraphrasing), everybody should be so lucky as to meet and spend time with a one-of-a-kind like Mac!

  4. Bruce Sallan (@BruceSallan) December 6, 2011 at 11:21 am #

    So fun! I’m a major old music fan and love this! The video is great. I’m a major Elvis fan and those great bio’s of his touch well on these years…what was that great 2-part bio? Ahh, the first was called “Last Train to Memphis.”

    • Janice aka JPlovesCOTTON December 6, 2011 at 7:12 pm #

      Thanks Bruce! I have a copy of last train to Memphis… It is one of the paper books I will forever keep! Growing up in Memphis, I just thought it was music, but as I moved, I realized I grew up in a city of great music. Not everyone has the music experiences I have been able to enjoy!

  5. Paul MacPhail December 6, 2011 at 6:38 pm #

    I knew about Malcolm back in the mid 50s when I first became interesting in everything Sam Phillips put out at Sun. Mac was the first white singer after Elvis put out his debut disc on Sun in 1954, to have the next Sun disc. I didn’t meet Mac till March, 1994, when he was giving tours at Sun Studio on Union. No one knew him on the tour but me. When he got into the studio talking about the greats, I stopped him saying, “And this guy is another great”. I told the people on the tour all about him. Mac was flabbergasted. He let me take over and finish the tour. Afterwards, we talked with him back in Taylors Restaurant and he was fascinating. A great man. A walking history of Sun Records. Wish he was still with us. Paul MacPhail, Canada.

    • Janice aka JPlovesCOTTON December 6, 2011 at 7:15 pm #

      He LOVED doing tours down there! And I would go down to share a coke with him now & then on breaks…. He loved sharing his passion with others and I am sure he loved letting you do the same! Thanks so much for sharing your story, you made me smile as well as making me tear up. Thank you!

  6. kasse December 9, 2011 at 10:50 pm #

    Janice that was so cool. I love the music- this was my Friday night! Love your posts- don’t always have time to reply. Thank you for amazing adventures- I love following you.

    Kasse D.

  7. Matt Stewart December 27, 2011 at 11:11 am #

    An awesome video and article. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Linda Jones January 8, 2012 at 11:38 pm #

    Chuk sent a signed CD to me when Malcolm released “There’s a Little Life Yet in the Old Boy Yet,” signed to “Linda Jo,” of course. All those times hearing Malcolm sing at BH at Family Camp are some of the best memories I have. And, I wasn’t a life-time family camper. I think I went 18 years of so. I had no idea until later in my life that Mac was “who he was!” I just thought he was this cool, nice man who played and sang well…and it was so much fun to sit and listen and sing along. Loved his smile. Great memories and there was a song about butterbeans, wasn’t there? Did he teach us “Cabbage Head?” Okay, now you have the memory bank open!

  9. Linda Jones January 8, 2012 at 11:40 pm #

    That was supposed to be “There’s a Little Life Left in this Old Boy Yet.” Got my words mixed up!

  10. Jan November 22, 2012 at 3:53 am #

    A compliment from overseas, Holland, Europe. A very nice film about one of my old time favorites, Malcolm Yelvington. Although we’re snowed under by todays meaningless music, it’s good to see on this site that there are still so many people out there that like the times that music was played from the heart and with feeling, just like your ucle, and his buddies from then, did. Whenever I feel sad or depressed all I have to do is put on a cd with this kind of music. Better than seeing a doctor in my opinion. Thanks for the article and the film.

    • Janice Person November 22, 2012 at 11:03 pm #

      What a gift your comment is for me on our US holiday Thanksgiving! I have to agree, Uncle Mac could always lift spirits and heal hearts! Thank you for stopping by and know I think frequently about how Europeans gave Mac a chance to really enjoy his retirement and gave him the chance to be on stage. He loved it! (PS – I’ve been to Holland a few times and loved it. Looked for the Euro releases by Mac but came up short.)

  11. Jan December 1, 2012 at 1:43 pm #

    Hello Janice, thanks for your reply on my mail. I know of an album issued by a Dutch company called “A Tennessee saturday night with Malcom Yelvington”. It’s a recording of a 1988 concert in Rotterdam by your uncle. The company is Collector Records, and the cd has number cl cd 4403. Maybe you could send them an e-mail and ask if it’s stll available. Won’t be hard to find the company on the net I guess.
    I went to a lot of concerts in the 1980’s, when I was in my twenties. A lot of American musicians came to play here in what was called the Rock and Roll revival. It were great times and I remember seeing artits like Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Mann, Janis Martin and the likes. They were at age by then, but believe me, they realy gave younger musicians which also performed at these shows a run fortheir money. All happy memories.
    Best regards, and take care

    • Janice Person December 1, 2012 at 3:27 pm #

      Thank you! I’m listening to the disc now! Amazingly they added it to i-Tunes recently, not sure I ever would have searched for it since I’d previously bought everything I could find on i-tunes! You have truly given me a great gift! THANK YOU and HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

    • Janice Person December 1, 2012 at 3:43 pm #

      Hearing Uncle Mac talk between the songs warms my heart in so many ways! Thank you!

  12. Skip Yelvington February 26, 2013 at 2:02 pm #

    I enjoyed reading what you had to say about my about my dad Malcolm Yelvington . I have recorded a couple of his songs and placed them on You Tube. They are not nearly as good as he did them , but I had fun recording them in my office at school on Garage Band. Thanks for you kind expression of caring about my dad.
    Skip Yelvington

    • Janice Person February 26, 2013 at 6:41 pm #

      You’re welcome Skip! What’s your youtube channel address? Would be fun to check them out. I could see you Phil & Tony doing something like that back in the day! LOL!

  13. Skip Yelvington March 1, 2013 at 2:13 pm #

    Type in Malcolm Yelvington Jr. on You Tube.

  14. Joe Sardena September 27, 2013 at 5:26 pm #

    Just had to say the first time I ever heard of Malcolm Yelvington was on a Charly lable in England singing Way Down Blues. What a voice as I was hunting around for Charlie Feathers who was on the same record. Whenever I’m down I play that song along with Delmore Brothers and Hank Williams to Gene Vincent. I could go on but Malcolm Yelvington is up there with the rest of the best!

    • Janice Person September 29, 2013 at 12:38 am #

      Thank you so much for the kind words! I play “there’s a little life left in this old man yet” pretty often and smile at the memory of him playing those songs and so many others! What a great voice, and I remember Charlie Feathers too! Part of growing up in Memphis to see those guys play. 🙂

      Thanks for sharing your memory…. Love knowing others are still enjoying his tunes!


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