In the 1950’s radio station WESC in Greenville, South Carolina carved out it’s share of the local market with country and gospel programming like Earl Baughman’s Country Earl and Gospel Train shows and Floyd Edge’s Uncle Dudley show.
Both Baughman and Edge (who would come to be known as Don Dudley) had their eyes on careers outside of the broadcasting booth. Country Earl performed with his band the Circle E Ranch Gang and Don Dudley with The Tunetoppers. These bands shared members plucked from a cast of local pickers and WESC studio musicians. Some of these musicians, like Paul Peek and Johnny Meeks, would ride the rockabilly wave to national stardom. For others, like guitarist Pee Wee Melton, these bands would be the start of long careers behind the scenes of the music business.
Besides playing guitar, Pee Wee Melton worked the sales floor at Allen’s Music store in downtown Greenville. One day he struck up a conversation there with a young guitarist who was browsing the Stratocasters.
The young guitarist Melton met that day was Bill Huffman. I sat down at Stax Original diner in Greenville with Bill and his brother Joe Huffman to get the whole story.
“I can’t remember exactly how it happened, but Pee Wee was instrumental in bringing me into WESC and introducing me around to other musicians in town. He was a pretty popular musician in Greenville then,” remembers the then-fledgling player.
Bill was the first of his brothers to test his guitar skills out on the public. But, along with two other Huffman boys, Joe and Harold, he had prepared the hard way.
It started for the Huffman boys in 1943 when older brother James was serving in the Navy. On leave and back in Greenville, he left an instrument with his younger brothers that would shape the rest of their lives
“That’s the first introduction we had to guitar. And that thing got in such bad shape from us trying to learn to play it,” remembers Bill. “It was a cheap guitar and the tension on the strings had caused the neck to (bow). Well, we took a belt and hooked it to the end up where you tune it and brought it around the back to put the tension on it so it pulled the strings down close enough to the fretboard where we could play it. We’d fight over who got to play next. We finally developed a way two of us could play at the same time. One would play the chords and the other would reach under and play the lead. Stupid stuff, but you do what you have to do when you’re trying to learn.”
Eventually Bill, Harold and Joe got their hands on some more playable instruments. By emulating their guitar heroes, they began developing technique and that ineffable quality known as “ear”.
“We both learned to play listening to Chet Atkins records, Merle Travis and Hank Garland,” Joe Huffman told me. “If you weren’t those three people you didn’t play guitar, in our minds.”
After the introductions by Melton, Bill began playing in the WESC studio band and became a regular member of Country Earl’s and Don Dudley’s outfits. When Harold Huffman got out of the Navy he joined in the fun, playing dueling Fender Stratocasters with Bill
“Some way or another I got associated with Country Earl first. Earl became very popular on WESC radio and we did shows around at the local high schools and things like that. We were the local stars, so to speak,” chuckles Bill. “Then I got in with Dudley. They called him Uncle Dudley then”
It was on WESC that the Huffman’s got their first exposure to recording their own music. The station had tape recorders and the bands could listen to play back of their rehearsals.
“They had a recorder and we could go in with (the band) and hear ourselves play. Just for our own good. It never went anywhere. But that was the inkling of our exposure to hearing something back.” Joe recalls.
With Bill and Harold picking in local country bands and that “inkling” of recording planted in there minds, a new avenue was opening up for the Huffman’s and their music.