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About The Artist
Jess Willard Griffin was born in Altis, Oklahoma according to his World War II registration record. His parents were Isaac John and Theodosia (Reding) Griffin. His first and middle names were derived from that of boxer Jess Willard who had recently won the world heavyweight crown. Not much is definitely known of his early career although he worked and played some with Jack Guthrie of "Oklahoma Hills" fame.
His World War II registration also indicated his wife then was Florence Griffin.
At some point, he married Lorene Northcutt and the couple had a daughter named Doreen. By the end of 1949, Jess was in Los Angeles and he was signed to Capitol by Lee Gillette. For recording he dropped the last name Griffin and simply recorded as "Jess Willard."
Johnny Sippel reported in The Billboard in June 1950 that Jess had signed with Capitol Records according to Charley Adams, the head of Vanguard Music. From June 1950 through September 1952, Willard cut twenty-six numbers for Capitol. While some were covers of Columbia artists' hits like those of Lefty Frizzell or Johnny Horton, others were not such as the humorous "Mail Order Mama" and the honky-tonk "Drinkin' at the Bar." Some came from former Prairie Rambler, left-handed fiddler Tex Atchison, who also fiddled on many of Jess's records. Other session musicians on his numbers included Jimmy Bryant, Speedy West, and Cliffie Stone. He also toured military bases in Korea and Japan in 1953. A 1954 magazine article indicated that Eddie Hazelwood was part of the group that traveled overseas with Jess.
In early 1951, Jesse was making regular appearances at the 97th Street Corral in the Los Angeles area.
After his Capitol contract expired he cut a single in 1955 for Ekko. Jess did a session with C. G. (Red) Matthews in Dallas for Ekko in the summer of 1955. Prior to this recording he teamed up with Hank and Eddie Cochran and they joined the California Hayride in Stockton. He continued there after the Cochrans departed.
The California Hayride first began as the Hoffman Hayride. The show was a concept from
electronics manufacturer Leslie J. Hoffman and his Hoffman Electronics company. His effort
after World War II gave rise to the electronics manufacturing growth on the west coast as
well as the introduction of the television.
In early 1956, Jess and the Cochran Brothers were in a lengthy engagement at the Dream Bowl in Napa under Farmer Red Ladner's management.
The summer of 1956 saw Jess take part in a benefit show at Lil's 117 Club in Vallejo, California. Other entertainers included Hank Cochran, Cal Smith, Jerry Jones, Bill Ring, Paul and Cliff Whaley, the Austin Brothers, Lille Mike, Bill Carter, Little Mike Calkins, Jimmie Rivers, Junior Van Horn and others. The show raised over $500 to help Bud Whaley who had been recently stricken with paralysis.
After the mid-fifties, Willard, residing in Auburn, continued to play locally until his death. In 2000, Bear Family released a compact disc containing a good biographical sketch by Kevin Coffey that included all of his Capitol recordings, two of them previously unreleased-"Boogie Woogie Preachin' Man" and "Honky-Tonk Boogie"-as well as the Ekko single with backing by the Cochrans. Hank Cochran continued to hold Jess in high regard.
News accounts indicate that Jess was stricken with a heart attack as he was driving into town (Auburn) one evening. A passing motorist came to his aid and he was taken by Augurn Rescue Squad to Highland General Hospital. Resuscitation efforts failed. Survivors included his wife, Hazel L. Griffin and a daughter, Doreen. He is buried in the Auburn District Cemetery. He had lived in Auburn the past two years of his life.
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