Mark V Meets the Public

In the early 1960’s WMRB disc jockey Bob Poole was branching out. Poole had spent 1960 hosting the Championship Wrestling program on Greenville television station WFBC.

After leaving that program he started a Sunday morning gospel television program that would bring the great gospel quartets of the 1950’s and early ‘60’s into the homes of Americans in television markets across the country.

 Groups such as the Speer Family, the Blackwood Brothers and the Statesmen were established national stars. Broadcasting performances of these groups on television was a ratings boon for the local station

The Trav’lers were a local quartet who bore the influence of these classic groups. They became regulars on Bob Poole’s Gospel Favorites. The Trav’lers and the Bob Poole’s Gospel Favorites show would be the linchpin in the expansion of Mark V Studios.

In 1961 the Trav’lers were a young group. Pianist Otis Forrest was just nineteen years old, the oldest members only in their mid-twenties. The groups talent for harmonizing was already gaining recognition in the gospel music world, though, and they quickly established themselves as a draw among gospel quartet fans.  When Poole had the group on his show the response was positive enough that the Trav’lers got to thinking about making a record to build on the momentum. Mark V Studios was still working out the bugs when the Trav’lers approached them.

“We had done a couple of little country things,” Joe Huffman remembers. “But it was all experimental at that point. We weren’t charging any dollars for anything.”

The Trav’lers sessions were in this category. The group came into the studio and recorded their record The Trav’lers Sing Songs You Have Requested with the staff musicians and engineers of Mark V backing them. They did numbers that were hits from Bob Poole’s Gospel Favorites. No money changed hands for the sessions.

The sound of the recordings was pleasing enough that the Trav’lers wanted to feature the Mark V band on their future television appearances. The Huffman brothers sensed a door opening for them, but there were some issues to be worked out first.

“We had watched Bob Poole’s show and, to us, the sound was terrible,” Bill says. “So, we had talked to Poole through (Trav’lers members) Tommy Brown or Jack Pittman, I can’t quite remember who. But we got with them and decided that we would assist their sound engineers to get the sound right. The Trav’lers wanted their TV appearances to be like the record. But if it didn’t sound good, we didn’t want any part of it. That was our thing; sound.”

Joe Huffman finishes the story. “He asked us what we wanted for performing on the show. What we wanted was to be the staff musicians. And we wanted him to talk about how” we’re proud of our staff musicians from Mark V” on the show. Not Joe Huffman, not Bill Huffman; Mark V.”

“Back then Poole had a sidekick, Bill Hefner. Bill Hefner was with the group the Harvesters Quartet out of Charlotte. Hefner and Poole were kind of like Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon. Now, Bill Hefner would work it in where he would ask Bob Poole something like, “What do you think of our music.” And Poole would say something like, “I tell you what these old boys from Mark V can play. If you need any recording done you should go down and see these guys.”

Their appearances on Bob Poole’s Gospel Favorite’s television program are what put Mark V Studios on the map in the gospel music industry. The studio and its musicians gained a level of notoriety that made it the place to record for gospel entertainers in the 1960’s and into the ‘70’s. This was, in no small part, due to the caliber of players at Mark V. The Bob Poole publicity helped the studio assemble the players who would become it’s stable of session musicians.

“After that we were able to attract the attention of the best players in town who had the desire to work and do something in recording. These guys would come in and volunteer their time to rehearse. We started working on how to do a recording session. I’d write this out and I’d hand it to the band. Now, how fast can we get it to sound like professionals have been working on it for days. These musicians would train with us; no money involved. The Poole show was how we started to attract musicians other than us. Because we couldn’t do it all.”

A group of the best musicians from the Upstate began to coalesce at Mark V. The names of these players appear again and again on records that came out of the studio from 1962 until the mid-1970’s. Michael Burnette appears as art director, drums, bass and guitar, Pee Wee Melton on lead guitar, steel guitar players Larry Orr and Tommy Dodd, Joe, Bill and Harold Huffman on guitars and bass, Jesse Evatt writing and playing guitar, , Bill Medlin drumming or engineering, Buster Phillips, Billy Reynolds and Mitch Humphries on drums, Steve Mauldin on bass or as arranger, his brother Russell on drums and arrangements, and former Trav’lers pianist Otis Forrest on piano or handling orchestral arrangements.

Business expanded quickly after the brothers started taking clients and Mark V Studios soon outgrew the Mayberry Street location. A team of the studio’s musicians came together to create a new space that would accommodate the growth. Michael Burnette worked a day job as an architect. He designed a building on Michael Drive, just off of White Horse Road, to house the studio’s ever-growing arsenal of equipment. The studio team all put in time as laborers and the team turned to one of their own for construction as well, tapping Horace Mauldin’s firm as the builder.

Working On A Building

The seed was planted at WESC and the Huffman brothers set out looking for the tools to commit their guitar noodling to tape. It was not aspirational yet. They were hobbyists, pure and simple.

“(Bill) and Harold found somebody in Atlanta that had an Ampex recorder and two or three little items that made up basic recording,” Joe Huffman remembers. “We set it all up at Bill’s house, but we soon realized we would need somewhere to play where we wouldn’t disturb his family. We needed a place where we all had a key and we could go play anytime we wanted to.”

Henry Simpson, one of the owners of the Belk Simpson department store chain, held an interest in radio station WMRB.  There was an empty building on a lot on Mayberry Street where the transmitter was located. Bill paid a visit to Belk-Simpson’s downtown offices.

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Downtown Greenville, SC in 1960

“Seems like Harold had a connection with him, maybe through daddy,” waxes Joe.” Our dad was a taxi driver in downtown Greenville and somehow, we found out that building was for rent. And somebody knew Henry Simpson well enough to talk to him.”

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The Mayberry Drive building that originally housed Mark V Studios

“It’s the Mayberry Street building, by the old Meadowbrook ballpark,” Bill recalls.” The condition was we had to clean it out. But acoustically, it was already set up to be a radio station. I think he rented it to us for $100. So, the three of us worked out that we would each put up whatever a third of it is, not thinking that it would be an income producing thing. It was our hobby.”

On May 16, 1960, the studios of Spartanburg station WSPA had a fire. The station’s president, Walter Brown, estimated the damage at around a quarter of a million dollars.

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Don Dudley had a production credit on a minor hit by another WESC staffer, Allen Riddle’s The Moon Is Crying and he had his engineering chops from radio that he could expand upon. Looking to get in on the Huffman brothers recording project, Dudley drew on his radio contacts to inquire about any equipment that might be salvaged from the WSPA fire.

The Moon Is Crying on Greenville label Plaid Records

 “(Bill) was playing with Dudley when WSPA had the fire. Dudley said he knew some people over there and he thought he could get their Gates console, though it would have to have some restoration. And Dudley loved music, in his way, just like we did. So that’s how (Bill, Harold and Joe Huffman) came together with Dudley. So now, there’s four of us. So, sure enough, Dudley was able to get that recording console, I think it was for three hundred dollars.”

Bill corrects, “I thought it was a hundred and twenty,”

“It could be,” Joe allows. “It was not much. It was almost like it was meant to be.”

“A guy named Don Tompkins was an engineer at WESC. And he cleaned up all the contacts and restored that recording console for us. So now we got three musicians and a DJ and all this equipment and nobody knows where anything goes.”

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1950’s Gates recording console

In the early 60’s the recording industry was switching over from monaural to stereophonic recording. Anticipating the shift, Dudley and the Huffman’s came up with ingenious methods of using their ragtag equipment

“There was a left studio and a right studio that they used for the radio station and then (the building) had a little control room. They would switch back and forth between left and right studios so that, at the end of a thirty-minute program, the mics in one room would go dead and the mics in the other studio would go live. We never connected those two rooms, so we would just have the singers in one room and the musicians in the other and run them both through the control room so they could hear each other.”

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“Dudley was a DJ, so he had worked the WESC console. He knew how the buttons worked, but he was also figuring it out as he went along.” recalls Joe. “But the first thing we did was re-wire the console because it was monaural, which means you only had one output. And we knew that stereo was on its way.”

“What we did, we took that radio console that had the left and the right for the two different studios and we made it so the feed would go from left to right. So, it would be on the left track or the right track on stereo. We used that as our direction for sending it out to the tape machine in stereo.”

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The Mauldin family has a long association with Mark V Studios going back to the earliest days. Harold Mauldin was a vocalist with a wide vocal range who billed himself as the “One-Man Quartet.” In this example, Harold Mauldin sings all four parts of a four-part harmony himself, using the inventive multi-tracking method described by Joe Huffman.

The Huffman’s had a valuable mentor as they worked out all these technical bugs. Across the road from their brother Sam’s Carolina Plating Company facilities was a manufacturing concern owned by Robert Rigby. Rigby had worked as electrical engineer with Les Paul when Paul was developing his innovations in recording technology.

 Les Paul demonstrates his recording innovations

“Rigby gave us some advice that we hated to hear at the time, but found out later was right,” Bill says. “Because of Les Paul we kept trying to build gadgets and amplifiers and echo systems and things that would make us sound like Chet Atkins. But (Rigby) laid the cold, hard facts on us. He said, if you guys will practice your guitars you won’t have to do all that.” Both brothers laugh

The Huffman brothers also devised a way to turn a normal tape player into a device to create an echo effect for their recordings. By adjusting the interval of the echo, the space between sounds, they could play music back at slower speeds without losing the pitch of the recording. This way, they could listen to Hank Garland’s and Chet Atkins’ guitar solos note for note and learn their techniques.

“That allowed us to look inside of their playing,” explains Joe.

“We would sit into the middle of the night learning how to play one groove on the record, just to get that one lick right,” remembers Bill

Bill, Harold and Joe had a harrowing experience when they built a reverberation room in the new studio. Bill tells the story.

“We were listening to records and trying to figure out how they got that perfect sound. We decided that a good echo system was it. So, me and Harold and Joe went into the basement of that little radio station and we built our own echo chamber. It was sixteen feet long and three feet wide and we figure it out so all the angles were like they should be. We had that room air-tight. Anyway, me and stupid there got in there with that epoxy paint.”

The epoxy paint they were using emitted highly toxic fumes. In the air-tight echo chamber, the brothers could have easily lost consciousness or worse.

“And the more we painted the happier we got,” Joe interjects. “We could have died. We would have just gone on echoing in there with everything else. We often wonder who was looking out for us.”

At this point the studio was still a hobby for the Huffman brothers, but momentum was building and they started to think about giving their project a name.

“I don’t know why we thought we needed a name, but we had seen the new Lincoln Mark V and we liked that car. We didn’t want to put our name on there. And the Mark with the Roman numeral felt like quality.”

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Brother Sam Huffman had built a very successful business in the Carolina Plating Company. He did not care a lick about his brothers’ musical aspirations, but he was willing to lend some start-up capital, with interest, of course.

“I think it was $1200,” Joe recalls.

Before the departure of Don Dudley, this investment made Sam Huffman the fifth owner. That and the Lincoln solidified the name, Mark V Studios.

Sam’s affiliation was short-lived, however. A close friend and musical partner of Joe’s, Michael Burnette, had become a regular fixture at the new studio. The other four could tell he wanted to get involved. When Sam Huffman asked for the return on his investment, the door opened for Burnette.

“Mike thought he could come up with the money to pay Sam back. So that brought him in. Now, we are five again,” said Joe Huffman.

The relationship was a meaningful one. Mike Burnette was a multi-instrumentalist, an architect and a gifted photographer and designer. A great many of the records from Mark V credit him as art director. He became a key component that the fledgling studio did not even know it would need. 

Don Dudley withdrew from the studio, probably to pursue ambitions on the stage. But the personnel was in place with the inclusion of Michael Burnette, and the studio was set to document the sound of the South, as it was in the 1960’s.

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The Genesis of Mark V Studios

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.

Joseph Floyd Edge adopted the pseudonym Don Dudley
Country Earl Baughman

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.

Pee Wee Melton album recorded at Mark V

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.”

Spartanburg, SC native Hank Garland made a big impact on the Huffman boys. “Nobody plays with the speed, with the quality of tone and the beautiful melodic line of Hank Garland,” said Joe Huffman.

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.

WESC Morning Show band featuring Don Dudley (standing center), Bill Huffman (seated with electric guitar) and Allen Riddle (back left)

“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.