Black Music Matters Festival

For Jeff Bates, his life is a country song

By Jeffrey B. Remz, June 2003

Page 3...

Looking back, Bates sees irony in being on RCA, the label of Elvis.

"That's what's so cool about being on RCA. The first record I ever saw was an RCA sticker. It was 'Hound Dog.' He had this real gravelly sound in his voice when he did it. That's what I tried to sound like. I think that's where a lot of the gravel in my voice comes from."

Actually, Bates acknowledges a few other reasons as well. "A lot of Marlboro lights. Breathing a lot of welding smoke probably in my early 20s. I kind of got that little gravelly sound in it. I wanted to sing 'Hound Dog' like he did."

"It taught me a lot of growing up and taught me some discipline," says Bates of his National Guard training.

"It taught me what I could do if I put my mind to it. I'm a firm believer in that now - if you put your mind to anything you want to accomplish, it can't be held back if you give it your best."

Bates changed in other ways as well.

"I left home a boy and came back home a young man," he says. "My mamma cried. In their mind, a fat kid is a healthy kid. If you had plenty of meat on your bones, you're a healthy child. I came back pretty thin. I lost about 100 pounds."

"When I was just under 17, I weight 280 pounds. I wore size 44. When I came home, I weighed 170 and wore size 32. I walked in the door and she said 'my baby!" as in "what happened to you?"

Bates returned home to a job in the oil fields of Mississippi, "the hard part of an oil field," he says. He pulled pipes, put them back in, "but it paid better than logging. I didn't want to work for my father any more. A couple of my brothers were working for him."

One night, Bates went with a co-worker to the Colonial Steak House in Columbia. "I'd never been in a nightclub," Bates says.

His friend knew of Bates' interest in music and told him, "'The owner might hire you and come in on a Saturday night and sing a little bit. You might get $25.' To me $25 was $25."

Bates hit the stage and sang Elvis Presley's "Suspicious Minds," George Jones' "He Stopped Loving Her Today" and Conway Twitty's "I'd Love to Lay You Down." In fact, Bates today sounds a lot like Twitty."The crowd went nuts," Bates recalls. "The owner ran up to me coming off stage."

Bates received an offer to sing.

"I quit the oil job the very next day," he says. "I hit the big time. It don't get no better than that."

Bates sang, but h

e also taught himself to play bass on a guitar that the owner had. "Two weeks later, I replaced the bass player."Bates performed covers. "I think I had written one song in my life then, and it was awful."

"When I tried to sing cover songs, I tried to sound whoever I was singing. Elvis, George or Merle. I tried to sing like them. If I'm singing someone's song in a nightclub, I want to sound as close to them I could. There was no telling how awful it sounded."

Bates also picked up his first wife singing. He met a waitress at the club, who was nine years his senior. Because he was only 17, his mother had to sign off on the marriage.

Except it only lasted a grand total of two weeks. "I came in from work two weeks after I got married." He found a note left in a skillet. "It's not your fault. It's mine," the note said.

"It was a huge shock because where I come from, you didn't leave."But Bates had his music to fall back on and got his first band together, Cool Water. One of their first gigs was in McComb, Miss. "I remember walking in, and there were women in there tougher than I was. It was a pretty rowdy place."

When gigs were slim, Bates turned to part-time jobs like welding and building houses.

And he was also married for a second time, this time at 21. After nine years, it was over, with Bates taking the blame because of his music goals.

"It was my fault. I made up my mind that I wanted to be in music, and I wanted to get a record deal. She was kind of scared to leave the town where we lived, Seminary, Miss. She didn't want to leave there. I had someone tell me if I wanted to be Mickey Mouse, I had to go to Disneyland. I had to get as close to Nashville as possible."

He was in a band, Southern Storm, which made a CD to sell from the stage, toured the U.S. and Canada. The fact that he was even married was kept a secret for five years because it was felt the female fans wouldn't go for that."

Bates stayed in Nashville, where the band had moved, long enough to secure a writing deal.

But not everything turned out so well. "My (third) marriage fell apart. I developed a drug habit...I felt like I missed the boat on anything with my music."

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