Tragedy Protecting: A Louisville Tale

Like many cultural artifacts, 45 rpm singles often act as narrative lightning rods. Stories seem to cluster around them, especially the smaller, independent releases. It often feels like this catalytic quality is directly proportional to how far from the main channel of the music industry the disc emerged. In moving from obscurity to being noticed, on however small a scale, a record will pull threads of narrative into the light along with it.

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A winter scene in Louisville, Kentucky, 1960s

On the afternoon of December 30, 1969, police responded to a call of suspicious activity at Greenwell’s Market at the corner of 25th and Osage in Louisville’s Parkland neighborhood. By the end of the day, due to a botched robbery attempt, two of the responding officers were dead and another two were clinging to life in a local hospital.

Sergeant Edgar N. Kelley, a police officer in nearby Jeffersontown, had long fancied himself a poet. It wasn’t long after hearing of the deaths of Detective James Ratliff and Patrolman Donald Gaskin that he composed a pair of poems to memorialize the two dead men. The first, “Tragedy Protecting,” was a straightforward recounting of the events of December 30. The second, “He’ll Never See the Springtime,” looked at the tragedy through the eyes of the widow of one of the fallen officers. Kelley took the poems into the police station and circulated them among his friends there. “Everybody kept telling me to put them to music,” he later told the Louisville Courier-Journal. So he went off in search of musicians who were up to the task.

Throughout most of the 1960s, the independent rock scene in Louisville was dominated by an organization that curiously called itself SAMBO, Inc. SAMBO was formed in 1959 by a pair of local musicians—Hardy Martin and Floyd Lewellyn, who would soon change his name to Ray Allen—who had proven themselves very successful at self-promotion. Seeing their success, other musicians began approaching them for help, and before long they found themselves something of a local music powerhouse. SAMBO stood for Sanders, Allen, & Martin Booking Office, Jack Sanders being a local DJ who helped the duo by providing airplay for their acts in their early days. Soon, the enterprise consisted of a booking agency called Triangle Talent, at least three publishing companies, a number of record labels, and a recording studio located in a converted house at 9912 Taylorsville Road, just on the edge of Jeffersontown. During the heyday of the post-Beatles 1960s rock boom, Allen and Martin were responsible for booking, recording, and promoting most any rock act of note in the greater Louisville area. This dominance extended even outside the city limits, as Triangle Talent booked gigs as far away as Mitchell and Jasper, Indiana, and Lebanon, Kentucky. In August 1966 the partners told Billboard magazine that their little enterprise was grossing $250,000 in annual revenue, a huge sum in those days.

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Triangle Talent ad, 1967

By early 1970 when Kelley set off in search of someone to record his poems, SAMBO had become Allen-Martin Productions. Asking around the local scene, it is likely that anyone in the know would have pointed Kelley in the direction of Allen and Martin to find local musicians to work with.

Evidence suggests that it was indeed Allen and Martin who put Kelley in touch with a local band, The Opposite Reaction. Little is known about this group except that they “played in Louisville-area nightclubs” and had broken up by July of 1970. The group donated its services to the project, recording both of Kelley’s poems in May, almost certainly in the Allen-Martin studio on Taylorsville Road. The record was quickly pressed by Precision Record Pressing in Nashville, and appeared on the unfortunately-named Trump label, one of many label names used by Allen and Martin. The disc was offered for sale at the traffic bureau of the Louisville Police Department by the end of the month, and later at the Jeffersontown town hall. Although it’s unlikely that Kelley actually set the poems to music himself, both sides are credited solely to him, with Allen and Martin’s Falls City Music—which shows up on the label as “Fall City,” an apparent typo—listed as publisher.

According to a June 1970 article in the Louisville Courier-Journal, Kelley was worried about being accused of capitalizing on the deaths of the officers. “Everything above the $450 I spent getting the records made will go to the Louisville Police Officers’ Association,” he told the paper. A follow-up article in late July stated that the initial pressing of 1,000 copies had sold out very quickly, and that Kelley had ordered another 2,000 pressed. Reportedly, the record had been sent to five local radio stations but had not yet received airplay, although one local station told Kelley that the disc was “under review.”

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Listening to a copy of the disc, it becomes clear why local radio would be hesitant to play it. Despite the best of intentions, Kelley’s creation sounds like exactly what it is: a song poem record. In the 1960s and 1970s companies ran ads in magazines offering to set aspiring songwriters’ lyrics to music. As long as the fee was included, these outfits would record a musical arrangement of the lyrics and press a short run of a disc, no matter the quality. The thousands of discs that resulted from this practice are known as song poem records. Many of them are hilariously bad. Most of them are just bad. Even though Kelley managed the release on his own, the result was still very similar to the output from the song poem houses.

Kelley’s lyrics are basically doggerel. Forced rhymes, clunky meter, and saccharine sentiments place him firmly in the world of the amateur poet-lyricists the song poem companies so eagerly preyed upon:

It was a cold day with snow on the street
Police cars were answering a call, not knowing death they would meet

If the disc is representative of the group’s usual sound, Opposite Reaction seems to have been a lounge-rock band, a style that was very common in the late 60s and early 70s. Lounge rock combined pop-rock sensibilities with touches of jazz and folk. The result was usually an uninspired, inoffensive music that passed for hip to the traveling salesmen and adulterous couples who frequented the cocktail lounges in which this style briefly thrived. This is the musical space that Opposite Reaction apparently inhabited. The slightly nasal delivery of the female vocalist and the band’s overall sound are competent enough, but the performance has the lackluster feel of a local Holiday Inn act, which only adds to the amateur song poem vibe of the record.

A tragic local event, an earnest scribbler of doggerel, and the complex machinations of the regional music scene all intersect in the birth of this thin slice of vinyl. The pressing plant in Nashville, the members of Opposite Reaction, the music directors at the radio stations who politely ignored it, and anyone who bought the record (or found it while crate digging three decades later) all become part of the story. Had Kelley not decided to have his poems set to music, the threads of this tale would be disconnected from one another, lost in an infinite mire of possibilities. The creation of the record becomes an act of storytelling that far transcends Kelley’s original intent. The core event, the death of the police officers, is no longer the tale, but only its beginning.

—Stephen Canner

Resources

Side A: He Will Never See the Springtime

Side B: Tragedy Protecting

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