The Fabulous ’50s: Get to know Carl Mann, that ‘Mona Lisa’ boy

By  Hank Davis

Carl Mann wasn’t the first singer from Jackson, Tenn., to head on down to Sun Records in search of fame and fortune. Carl Perkins, Ramsey Kearney and Kenny Parchman had all made the same trip with different degrees of success. Kearney managed to leave his name on some unissued tape boxes, but not on any Sun releases. Parchman came closer, only to see what would have been Sun 252 withdrawn at the last moment in 1956. Carl Perkins, on the other hand, became a national star.

Even at the tender age of 17, Carl Mann didn’t need anyone to tell him that his chances of success were greater on Sun than on the local Jaxon label, owned by entrepreneur/musician Jimmy Martin. Carl already had seen his name on a self-financed Jaxon 45 in 1957, and the thrill had worn off quickly. The only real chance at a big-time payoff lay down the road in Memphis.

The exact circumstances surrounding Carl’s recording of “Mona Lisa” in late 1958 are no longer clear. Depending on which scenario you believe, Carl may have worked his way into producer Jack Clement’s interest by sheer persistence, or maybe he managed to get heard as part of an audition scheduled for guitarist Eddie Bush. There also is the suggestion that it was really Rayburn Anthony, another Jackson boy, who was the focus of Sun’s attention, and Carl stepped forward when Anthony failed to show up. The important thing is that Carl finally got to run through his novel arrangement of the Nat King Cole standard (a # 1 hit in 1950). Mann was a guitarist by trade. His rudimentary piano skills at that point required him to label the piano keys with tape and play with a total of five fingers. (“We took some of that white adhesive tape and wrote the names of the notes in black ink on the keys. By the end of the night some of that tape had started coming off and things could get pretty interesting.”)

Along for the audition were guitarist Eddie Bush, drummer W.S. Holland and bassist Robert Oatsvall. Oatsvall was to the bass what Mann was to the piano: an enthusiastic amateur. (Listen to the issued version of “Rockin’ Love” [PI 3546] for a sample of Oatsvall’s misadventures on the bass.)

“Robert was just making the transition from stand-up bass to the electric, and he didn’t know his way around the instrument,” Mann said.

Bush and Holland were another matter altogether: Both were spectacular musicians who shone on almost everything they recorded with Mann. W.S. Holland enjoyed widespread recognition, playing regularly with Carl Perkins and later becoming a staple of the Johnny Cash troupe. Eddie Bush never enjoyed that kind of popularity, although his work is revered by fans of rockabilly guitar. 

“Eddie first came to Jackson to play with Ramsey Kearney. They had been in a band together in the Army. Once Eddie was here, he and I started playing together,” Mann said.

In any case, Carl’s recording of “Mona Lisa” sat unissued in the Sun vaults, nixed by label-owner Sam Phillips for reasons of quality. Promo man Cecil Scaife recalls Conway Twitty coming by the Sun studio in February 1959 seeking original material for an upcoming session. Scaife played Twitty the unissued Carl Mann track, which so impressed the singer that he took Mann’s arrangement to Nashville. The Twitty version soon appeared on an MGM EP. When the recording started to generate sales, Phillips was finally persuaded to release his original version by Carl Mann. The rest, as they say, is history.

In 2007, with nearly half a century’s perspective, Carl Mann observed, “We did some pretty primitive music back then.”
Maybe, but much of it is also very enjoyable. On “Mona Lisa,” Carl’s vocal is youthful and energetic. His piano work is rudimentary. In fact, the whole rhythm section simply plods along waiting for something to punctuate it and break free. That something is Eddie Bush’s guitar solo. Like the man himself, Bush’s guitar work was wildly erratic, unpredictable and lived on the edge. When it took off, you simply stood back in fascination and awe, waiting to see where it would land or how it would turn out.

Happily, the landing on Mona Lisa was solid and the results impressive. The sound was restrained enough not to alienate the increasingly image-conscious teen record market, yet wild enough (when Bush cut loose) to keep rebellious adolescents happy. “Mona Lisa” stayed on the Billboard charts for 16 weeks in the summer of 1959, peaking at #25.
Often overlooked in the excitement over “Mona Lisa” was the power and originality of the flip side, “Foolish One.” A fair bit of tension is set up as the song shuttles back and forth between the 1 and 6-minor chords, until some hell breaks loose in the release. Holland’s drumming is a standout on this one, and the ending is an unexpected gem.

Both “Too Young” and “Pretend” were considered as Mann’s followup single. But was he to build a career based on rocked-up versions of Nat Cole ballads? “Pretend” ultimately won the battle, and “Too Young” remained unissued. Mann continued to revisit pop standards throughout his career for Sun, hoping to catch lightning in a bottle. He cut “South of the Border,” “Some Enchanted Evening” and Gogi Grant’s 1956 hit “The Wayward Wind.” Arguably, these songs sounded better when Carl Mann left the studio than after they had been overdubbed with extraneous clutter for release. As Carl told me back in 1987, “In those days we didn’t have any say about it. After we left, they could add whatever they wanted.”

Perhaps the strongest title from Mann’s days in Memphis was his fourth single for the Phillips International label, “I’m Coming Home.” This time around, Carl Mann relinquished the piano stool to rising Sun star Charlie Rich. In addition to playing the piano, Rich also contributed this outstanding song to the session. It was a stroke of genius, freeing Mann from yet another Nat Cole ballad or rehashed standard. Rich’s song was based on the melody Mann had originally improvised to “Mona Lisa.” This allowed Sam Phillips to do an end run around copyright protection and still stir memories of the original hit. “I’m Coming Home” was, in essence, the real followup to Carl Mann’s “Mona Lisa.”

Carl, himself, was thrilled with the record.

“I was real happy with the cut we got on that. I was proud to begin with that Charlie Rich had written the song especially for me. Then he played piano on it, and we got a beautiful groove going. Everything just worked perfectly. I was also very flattered when Elvis recorded a version of the song based on our arrangement. He had obviously been listening to our record and that made me feel real good.”

Carl Mann had other “feel-good” moments during his days recording for Sam Phillips’ label. Admittedly, his later work for
Monument or ABC might have revealed a higher standard of technical perfection, but these early sides by a still very young, optimistic and relatively innocent musician are surely the work for which he will be remembered.

In the past 30-plus years, Carl Mann has retired from the music business several times, only to be lured back into it by overtures from fans and collectors and the pleasure of performing. Within the past five years Mann has appeared in England, Spain and Holland, and he continues to perform closer to home in the U.S.

“Even when I play in church, people ask me for ‘Mona Lisa,’” he said. Carl has become his own lead guitarist. “Eddie’s not around any more [Bush died in 1990], so I’ve had to try to fill in for him. I’ll never be as good as he was; in fact, I’m not sure anybody could be. But I’ve been working on that ‘Mona Lisa’ solo.”

Carl is like a man caught between two worlds. “I keep quitting the business, but I keep coming back. I just don’t seem to be able to stay away from it.” To Sun, rockabilly and ’50s fans and collectors, he never has been far away. As we go to press, Bear Family Records has issued a single-disc retrospective called Carl Mann Rocks! (BCD 16684).

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