American Routes Shortcuts: Tommy McLain
Our guest is singer, pianist and octogenarian Tommy McClain, one of the last standing Louisiana swamp pop singers. He told us how much he enjoyed being on the road, singing for new audiences. Tommy is known in Louisiana for his hit 1966 cover of “Sweet Dreams” and his contributions to swamp pop. He’s also recorded gospel music, wrote songs for Freddy Fender and toured with the Dick Clark Road Shows in the 1960s. Tommy’s now back in the studio with Elvis Costello and producer C.C. Adcock and recorded a 2022 album I Ran Down Every Dream. Entertaining has been a constant for him since his early days in Pineville, LA singing for his family and listening to the Grand Ole Opry. But his whole path changed when he went to a concert nearby in Alexandria.
Tommy McLain: Well when I was in high school, I always liked rhythm and blues. I mean everyone liked it, but I went to see Little Richard at the Joy Theater in Alexandria. Man look, my first ticket I was sitting on the back of my seat. I went right back for the second show and did the same thing again. I immediately started dyeing my hair and playing the piano.
Nick Spitzer: You mentioned that you dyed your hair, what color did you start with?
TM: Blonde! I wanted to dye my hair blonde–I was a black-headed dude back then, now I don’t have much left at all!
NS: Well what is it about Little Richard that grabbed you, I mean obviously–
TM: The rhythm! The rhythm they had, oh man, they were just exciting, the rhythm. He was the one that stuck in my head. I mean he was terrific. Just unreal, you know.
NS: How did your father and family members feel about you getting into all this African American R&B music, roots rock and roll, I mean how did they feel about it?
TM: Well now, my mother was for that. My daddy wanted me to go to work. He said, “That boy laying around here sleeping all day and going out at night playing those clubs,” he said, “he needs to get a job.” Mama said, “Leave him alone, he’s gonna do something!” Well that went on, and my daddy was kindly curious about me playing and women I was running around with–I was kindly loose back then. He told me sister, he said, “I leave Tommy all this property in this house I got, and he’s got too many girlfriends, and he plays music, sleeps all day.” One day one of my royalty checks come in. I brought it over and showed it to him, he said, “My god, boy, that’s yours?” I said, “Yeah.” From then on, “That’s my boy!” He wasn’t worried no more about me. I said, “That’s from songs that I write, Daddy, I get all that in my mail box.”
NS: Tell me about “Sweet Dreams” and how it came about.
TM: I was coming from Monroe, Louisiana late one night. I heard Patsy Cline do that song.
NS: And it’s a Don Gibson song right?
TM: Yeah, Don Gibson wrote that song, and I heard Patsy Cline doing it, and I was playing for a supper club, Leroy’s Lounge. I mean look; they had the money there. I said, “I can do this for my audience, the ones that come in.” I started doing that, and right away the doctors and lawyers said, “Tommy go record that man!” So I borrowed $500 from Ms. Ermine Chandler that owned Leroy’s Lounge. Went down to Stanley Projection Company and cut “Sweet Dreams.” I ordered 500 copies, brought them back to Effie Milligan that had the record shop in Alexandria. Within a month, she sold out of that. I had a friend of mine on KBBS, Buddy King, who passed away, he started playing that song, and he was getting more requests for that than Don Gibson or Patsy Cline or any of them. And he told his boss, he said, “Man this boy’s gonna have a hit,” and his boss said, “I’m gonna fire you and everybody if you keep playing this record!”
To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 5 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.