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Joe (Cannonball) Lewis
Born:  April 12, 1924
Died:  May 23, 2001

About The Artist

Jesse Elmo "Cannonball" Lewis, a Greenmount (Laurel County) Kentucky native, migrated first to Indiana and finally to Ohio. He played a style of music that straddled the line between country and what soon become known as bluegrass.

Along the way, Lewis authored and recorded "Before I Met You," a number that became a bluegrass standard via a popular version by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs as well as Carl Smith. BMI awarded Joe a "Citation of Achievement" award in 1957 for the song. The tune was also on Charley Pride's first album for RCA Victor. In the spring of 1958, he wrote a Letter to the Editor of Country & Western Jamboree letting folks describing himself as a 'former country music recording artist' but was going to record again in the near future. He told readers that he had a copy of "Before I Met You" by either Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs or Carl Smith and the first ten that wrote him would get a copy. He mentioned he had some left over promotional discs.

While living in Indiana in 1939, Joe won a talent contest that he considered his entry into the entertainment world. After that he played and sang at other local events until World War II broke out. He then served in the US Army until 1945, suffering injuries in the Italian campaign. After his release Joe renewed his musical activities on the club scene in the Greater Cincinnati-Dayton area.

Promo Ad - Gateway Records - Joe (Cannonball Lewis) - You've Been Honky Tonkin' - April 1953 In 1951, Lewis began cutting a few sides for Carl Burkhardt's labels such as Gateway and Kentucky including the first "Before I Met You," and also signed with the major label, M-G-M. Fred Rose added the additional nickname "Cannonball" to his long-time nickname of Joe. Through 1954, he did sixteen songs for M-G-M, some original and some covers of other hits. Several of the numbers had railroad and trucker themes such as "Train Whistle Nightmare" "Railroad Engineer," and "Truck Driver's Night Run Blues." Successful covers included the Korean War song hit "Missing in Action" and Jimmie Skinner's "Down the Road to Love."

It seems that Joe's manager in 1955 was upset with a columnist (Douglas Watt) in New York not giving Joe his just due in attention. El Rader pointed out that Joe was knocking them dead in personal appearances with a vocal trick. Joe was known for singing train songs. In those numbers he would produce a train whistle 'effect' what El Rader described as technically a whistle but was more like a "forced musical groan." It was said that the 'novel sound' "...originates in his throat as four separate and simultaneous music notes in harmony and then leaves his mouth sounding like a train whistle."

In addition to his home area, Cannonball proved popular in such areas as Missouri and Arkansas. For a time, he lived in Fort Worth, Texas that was also a region where he had strong appeal.

Billboard reported in 1958 that he partnered with El Rader to form the "Country Music Promotions" company that was headquartered in Cincinnati. Their aim was to engage in music publishing (Cannonball Music Inc.), free-lance record promotion and talent-scouting.

After some years Joe got tired of traveling so much and took a warehouse manager job at Southwestern Steel in New Miami from which he retired at age 65.

Overall, he was married twice, widowed once, and adopted several children. He also played a lot of churches and recorded some gospel numbers for the local label Melody. After retirement, he became more active, but still most of his activity was local.

He died at age 77.

Joe (Cannonball) Lewis
Record Reviews From The Billboard and Cash Box
Date Label Rec No. Review
10/13/1951 (BB) MGM 11071 Truck Drivers Night Run Blues — A run of the miil blues item is handed an okay chanting by Lewis. (Overall Rating: 68)

Whatever Has Become Of You — Lewis takes a semi-weeper at a tempo that's too fast to give it any meaning. (Overall Rating: 67)
5/9/1953 (BB) Kentucky 574 You've Been Honky Tonkin' — Joe (Cannonball) Lewis points an accusing finger at his honey, who's been honky - tonkin' around. A fast tempo, country novelty. (Overall Rating: 73)

Cold and Lonely Heart — Routine country ballad and performance. (Overall Rating: 70)
9/19/1953 (BB) Gateway 3006 I'm Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down — Lewis attacks this rhythm ditty with a lot of vigor. Lyric is a good twist on the standard theme of one-way love. Could grab sectional action. (Overall Rating: 65)

Before I Met You — This is the story of newfound love. Good job by both Lewis and the strings. (Overall Rating: 60)
12/12/1953 (BB) MGM 11636 Calling Out My Name — Country train song is nicely read off by Lewis. (Overall Rating: 67)

Yours To Claim — This is an okay ballad and its handed an okay reading. (Overall Rating: 66)

Credits & Sources

  • Hillbilly-Music.com would like to express its thanks to Ivan M. Tribe, author of Mountaineer Jamboree — Country Music in West Virginia and other books that can be found on Amazon.com and numerous articles in other publications for providing us with information about this artist.
  • The Hillbilly Reasearcher Team of Tricker, Turner and Sax provided portions of the discography listing.
  • Folk Talent and Tunes; February 17, 1958; The Billboard; Cincinnati, OH
  • Let's Look At The Records - Now Hear This, A Musical Groan; Douglas Watt; February 20, 1955; The Daily News; New York, NY
  • A Reader Comes To The Rescue; March 13, 1955; The Daily News; New York, NY
  • Letter To The Home Folks; Tex Clark; January 1956; Country Song Roundup (No. 44); American Folk Publications, Inc.; Derby, CT
  • RFD - Free Offer From 'Cannonball'; Spring Yearbook 1958; Country & Western Jamboree; Maher Publications, Inc.; Chicago, IL

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Recordings (78rpm/45rpm)

Rec. No. Side Song Title
  721 A And I?ll Get Even Now
  721 B You Must Be Jokin?
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  3006 A I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down
  3006 B Before I Met You
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  574 A Cold And Lonely Heart
  574 B You’ve Been Honky Tonkin’
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  4 A Today Is Tomorrow
  4 B Waltz Of The Ozarks
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  10994 A Train Whistle Nightmare
  10994 B Trust Me Again
  11071 A Truck Driver’s Night Run Blues
  11071 B What Ever Has Become Of Love
  11150 A Missing In Action
  11150 B Still Around
  11253 A (Down The) Road Of Love
  11253 B What’s The Use
  11400 A I'd Be Sweet Talkin' You
  11400 B Only In Dreams
  11636 A Yours To Claim
  11636 B Calling Out My Name
  11838 A I Wonder If I Can Lose The Blues This Way
  11838 B Railroad Engineer
  11996 A I’m Mighty Hard To Beat
  11996 B Take Me Back For Old Times Sake
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  116 A Is Your Wedding Band Too Heavy for Your Hand
  116 B Easy to Love (Hard to Forget)

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