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Rudy 'Tutti' Grayzell just can't stop rockin'

The 'Ducktail' singer, now 80, opened for Elvis in the 1950s (and yep, he can still wow the ladies)


by: JIM CLARK - Rudy Tutti Grayzell is one of the last living pioneers of rockabilly music and still sings and plays for fans worldwide.

The women range in age from their 20s through their 60s, yet all are enthralled by the guitar-playing troubadour rockin’ out before their eyes.

“Don’t mess with my ducktails/If you mess with my ducktails/I’m gonna get so mad at you!” the 80-year-old Texas singer belts.

Rudy “Tutti” Grayzell is dressed a bit like Elvis Presley in a jumpsuit as he tears it up in the Gresham Outlook office, singing his biggest hit, “Ducktail.” Covered in the 1950s by Joe Clay, and often listed among the 100 greatest rockabilly songs ever, the song makes it clear touching Rudy’s head is neither hair nor fair.

It’s supposed to be just a photo shoot, but the gregarious Grayzell turns the moment into a short concert, and the ladies in the office — not to mention a few of the gents — stop typing and form an impromptu audience for the man who toured with Elvis from 1955-56.

It’s no surprise Grayzell can upend the workday at an office — he’s one of the cats who helped pioneer rockabilly music, and even says he invented the term itself during a discussion with Roy Orbison, a friend of his way back when.

“I started mixing country and rock,” he says. “I started to put a little more beat to my country songs.”

Sharing moonshine one night with Orbison, a fellow Texan, the two got to talking about Rudy’s music.

“He said, ‘It sounds like hillbilly music with rock ‘n’ roll,’” Grayzell says. “I said to Roy, hey, let’s call it ‘rockabilly.’”

Teller of tales

When you meet Grayzell — who you may have seen on TV as an Elvis-impersonating spokesman for Pine Bros. Softish Throat Drops — you realize no generation of rock ‘n’ rollers was probably as wild as the first — Mick Jagger would probably turn red listening to some of Grayzell’s stories about wine, women and song, nights in jail, hotels, stages, and days and days rollin’ on the road.

As Grayzell tells it, for example, he was “kidnapped” by female fans one night and forced to sing in his underwear in a graveyard before being let go. It’s pretty clear from the story that Grayzell did not exactly resent being coerced into this performance.

Grayzell also says he’s kept Jerry Lee Lewis out of a few bar brawls when The Killer got a little mouthy with some of the locals, and adds he met Ritchie Valens not long before he died in a 1959 plane crash with Buddy Holly and J.P. Richardson, aka The Big Bopper.

“We met in a restaurant, and he gave me a copy of his new record, ‘Donna,’” Grayzell says. “I asked him, ‘What’s on the other side?’ He said, ‘It’s a Mexican song I don’t like.’”

The song, of course, was “La Bamba,” which along with “Donna” cemented Valens’ legacy as a pioneer rocker.

In addition to being part German, Grayzell shares Mexican heritage with Valens, and is cousin to another famous Mexican-American, accordionist Leonardo “Flaco” Jiménez of Freddie Fender fame.by: CONTRIBUTED - (Left) Grayzells 1998 compilation CD, released by Sideburn Records in Portland, proved he was one gone daddy.

Grayzell has lived on and off in the Portland-Troutdale area since 1960 and still stays with his family here when he’s not in California. He most recently was in Portland to introduce Justin Shandor, considered the world’s most authentic Elvis impersonator, at two February shows at Franklin High School.

Grayzell used to play a set of his own tunes, then back Wanda Jackson and Hank Locklin, and then introduce Elvis when they toured. He says Shandor’s voice matches Presley’s in an uncanny manner and that Shandor and Presley both had the same effect on him when he met each singer.

“They both gave me goosebumps.”

He then repeats what he said so many times before: “And now, ladies and gentlemen, fasten your seat belts, I’m gonna take you into a dream. I’m getting goosebumps talking to you as I get ready to introduce the first atomic propelled entertainer of the twentieth century — Elvis Presley!”

Texas Kool Kat

Born in 1933 in Sampasco, Texas, south of San Antonio, Grayzell grew up among people who dug country and TexMex music, and he started seriously playing guitar when he was 12 or so.

“A lot of the kids around me played guitar,” he says. “By the time I was 15, I started getting a lot of compliments from musicians.”

Playing guitar and singing drew the attention of the girls, he adds, noting he pined for a girl named Norma whose boyfriend played guitar, and “that just tore me up!”

“A lot of the girls liked country music, so I started playing it,” he says. Yet he notes he was flirting with a more rockin’ sound that he heard from such blues shouters as Big Joe Turner, the man behind the original version of “Shake, Rattle ‘n’ Roll.”

At 15, Grayzell found himself playing with his band, the Texas Kool Kats, on a radio show sponsored by Pearl Beer in San Antonio. He eventually made three records on the Abbott label, all of them country songs. His regional success led to bookings at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville as well as on the radio show Louisiana Hayride.

But he wanted to rock more, so he signed with Capitol Records to do rockabilly tunes. Eventually he switched to the Starday label, where he recorded “Duck Tail,” and the rest, as they say, is music history. He still earns about $89 a month in royalties from a song he penned at a drive-in theater one night in the 1950s.

“They weren’t ready for me because I was a little too wild,” he says of radio when he became a rocker. “I was something new.”

The king arrives

Grayzell was playing at a supermarket opening in San Antonio when he met Elvis Presley. Elvis liked Tutti’s sound and invited Grayzell to tour with him. Grayzell says he immediately took a shine to the Mississippi native on the verge of changing musical history.

by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - Elvis Presley befriended Grayzell after seeing him perform at a supermarket opening in Texas. Even after they went their separate ways, the two musicians occasionally spoke to each other almost up until Presleys death in 1977.“His voice was unbelievable,” Grayzell says. “He didn’t realize how good of a voice he had, I think, until late in life.”

Presley was humble, funny and kind, Grayzell says, noting it was the King who gave him the moniker “Tutti” after Elvis performed Little Richard’s famous song “Tutti Frutti” one night.

“Elvis said, ‘You should’ve recorded this!’ And then he started calling me ‘Rudy Tutti.’”

Shows with Elvis were a gas, he adds.

“The girls would throw their brassieres,” he says with a big smile. “They would go crazy for him.”

Grayzell eventually joined Presley on the Sun label in Memphis, also the recording home of Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Lewis and Orbison. With Jerry Lee Lewis’ band backing him, he recorded such songs as “Judy.”

Although he did not achieve the success his label mates did, Grayzell nonetheless has never stopped rockin’ and has played in Las Vegas for decades. He also has played in Brazil, Greece, England, France, Germany and Switzerland, all places where rockabilly is arguably more popular than it is in its homeland.

Grayzell also has done work in such films as 2009’s “The Mercy Man,” and says he plans to keep acting and playing until he drops.

“I told Pine Brothers that even if they need me when I’m in the coffin, I’ll start kicking and come out,” he says with a laugh.

Rockin’ with Rudy

Here’s a selected discography of Rudy “Tutti” Grayzell tunes.

“Looking At The Moon” 1953

“It Ain’t My Baby” (And I Ain’t Gonna Rock It)” 1954

“Hearts Of Stone” 1955

“The Moon Is Up” 1956

“Ducktail” 1956

“Let’s Get Wild” 1956

“F-B-I Story” 1958

For more information, visit raucousrecords.com.