The recording of “The Auctioneer” became a decisive moment in Marshall Flippo’s square dance calling career. How it unfolded supports his often-repeated motto: “I was at the right place, at the right time.”
LEROY VAN DYKE RELEASED “THE AUCTIONEER”
First, Leroy Van Dyke released “The Auctioneer” in 1956.
Van Dyke was inspired to write the song from his own experiences as an auctioneer and those of his second cousin, Ray Sims.
He wrote it while stationed in Korea during the Korean War, and first performed it to troops on the same bill as Marilyn Monroe. After finishing his service, Van Dyke entered the song in a Chicago talent contest. It gained him a record contract with Dot Records. “The Auctioneer” subsequently topped the pop music chart, selling 2.5 million copies.
Then because of its popularity, Flippo must have heard this hit repeatedly on his favorite country and western radio station, wondering to himself if it would make a good singing call. All the words in the song made this unlikely—lots of words because of the auctioneer’s chant, but its popularity outweighed that difficulty to Flip. Can’t you see him memorizing all the words then experimenting with the choreography.
HOW FLIPPO CHOREOGRAPHED “THE AUCTIONEER”
When asked how Flippo choreographed “The Auctioneer,” he chuckled. One person, all eight parts! He did it in the living room at 1918 Marshall in Abilene.
That shocked me, so I asked him, “So you danced all the parts?”
Flippo walked through the whole thing. “It’s a terrible figer [figure], the first one [in] the first Auctioneer. Of course, we didn’t have a lot of Basics they got now, so I had six Basics. It’s not too good of a figer [figure]. Nowadays, you have to walk people through it two or three times before they get it, but back then, people, I don’t know .”
His laughter continued as I commented about the feat of him walking through it, one person doing all eight parts.
People tended to memorize singing calls because there weren’t that many basic calls. Now, if Flippo went into their town and called “The Auctioneer,” and changed the figures, “they flat-ass knew it. They knew it. They memorized that— they did better than you did!”
I asked Flip if it was unusual to take a pop song like Leroy Van Dyke’s “The Auctioneer,” and it became popular then in the square dance world. Was that going on or did he kind of pioneer that?
“No, I don’t know what happened thar. I know I went to Houston after he had recorded it, about six months. I don’t know how come it to hit. Callers bought it big.”
Norman [Merrbach from Blue Star Records] didn’t think it would go. Flippo was surprised, and Norman was surprised, too, that it took off like it did, but the reason for that big sale back then was the dancers were buying records, too, and callers. So, callers were buying, and dancers were buying them. “I’s putting ’em in the garage! Breaking ’em!”
Flippo chuckled. “No, I wouldn’t [break ’em].”
Later, “The Auctioneer” was re-released, and Flippo put different figures (calls) to it, and it never did sell like the first one.
Larada Horner-Miller, Just Another Square Dance Caller: Authorized Biography of Marshall Flippo (2020): 95-96
FLIPPO RELEASED THE SINGING CALL, “THE AUCTIONEER”
So, Flippo started calling in 1952 and released his first singing call, “The Auctioneer” in 1958, just two years after Van Dyke’s release, so the song’s mystique still held over. Several serendipitous events made this monumental event happen.
The turning point in his career happened in the Hayloft in Abilene. It was 1957, and Flippo was calling “The Auctioneer.”
One night Flippo was at the Hayloft in Abilene, and he was calling “The Auctioneer” before it was recorded. Two callers from Baytown near Houston had been to Colorado at some square dance and were going through town. They decided to come to Flippo’s dance. One of them had a French name that Flippo couldn’t remember, and the other one was Andy Lyons.
They came up after Flippo called “The Auctioneer” and congratulated him. “That’s pretty damn good.” They encouraged Flip to call Norman Merrbach in Houston, who was the producer of Blue Star records.
They repeated, “Call him.”
Flippo responded, “I’ve never thought anythang about recording it.”
“That’s pretty good. You ought to do it.”
After that, Flip forgot about it. Then he got a phone call from Norman. Norman asked Flippo to send him the words to that song.
So, Flip sent him the words. “Thar’s a lot of words.”
Norman called Flippo up, “I believe I’m going to pass on that ’cause callers want one with not too many words, and they don’t have to learn all the words.”
So, Flippo understood that, and he continued calling for a couple months. Then Norman called him up again and asked him to come to Houston “and do that thang.’”
Flippo answered, “Well, I’ve got to work Monday. I’ve got a dance Saturday night in Abilene, here. How far is it?”
“It’s three hundred and sixty-five miles.”
He stalled a little, “I don’t know.”
Norman persisted, “Well, I’ll tell you how you can do it. After that dance, start driving down here.”
“What you mean—at night?”
“Yeah, drive down here and get here early morning and we’ll do the thang. You can drive back and be ready to go to work Monday.”
Flip’s humor prevailed, “Wait a minute. You must be talking about my brother, and I don’t have a brother.”
Norman encouraged Flip to think about it.
So, Flippo asked Neeca, “You thank we could cut this? Go down?”
“Oooh,” she exclaimed, “I bet Momma and Daddy would go with us, and they can both drive. I can drive. We’ll take turns about sleeping.”
There were three sitting up in the front seat, one in the back seat trying to sleep. They drove down to Houston and got there about nine in the morning, just in time for Flippo’s appointment. “We had breakfast at a Sambo’s, which they don’t have anymore. I remember Fred trying to pay for it. Fred was Neeca’s dad.”
Flippo told his father-in-law, “No, you drove down here. Let me get it.”
Fred answered, “You don’t have any money. I have your billfold right here. You left it up on the table last night at the dance. Bless your heart!”
They went to Norman’s place, Norman and Nadine Merrbach, the owners and producers of Blue Star Records. “He was really a good guy and a good engineer.”
They did the recording in the studio, and “the studio acoustical stuff was egg crates.”
“I can see the studio from my mind right now. We went in and when they played it, I called it at the same time. Well, I remember one time we had trouble. I’d make a mistake and we’d have to start over, and then somebody else would make a mistake. It wasn’t one of those days that everythang went well.”
But now “The Auctioneer” went really well. Flippo hit it the first time, and of course he had been calling it with a band for a long time, so he was lucky to get out of there, and they headed back to Abilene. They got back in time to get a little sleep and go to work the next day.
“Anyway, ‘The Auctioneer’ hit pretty good. Well, I’d say, you know, all of my career I just lucked out, being in the right place at the right time. I don’t know what it was, and ‘The Auctioneer’ hit really good.”
Flippo was pleased with the way it sounded, but he didn’t realize it was anything big. He would think about it from time to time. Then the square dance magazine started praising it. “The only thang I can thank of is a lot of dancers bought records at that time, and learned the singing call that was on the record.”
The records were only sixty-five or seventy cents apiece, and they were 78 records. You could take a pile of them into a dance and they’d just be gone in a minute. People were just hungry for some kind of records to play at home or listen to. And some callers started from listening to tape recorders and to records. “They picked up ideas, started calling, and some of them turned into really good.”
Flippo remembered calling with a band in Houston one time. He turned around and asked them if they knew “The Auctioneer.”
Their response, “Oh, yeah, yeah. We done that. We can play it for you if you want to call it. Ohhhh, that’s Norman’s big one!”
They repeated, “Oh, that’s Norman’s big one, big one.” Flip repeated their response and chuckled.
“Well, I thank I’ll call it next the tip.”
So they did a good job on it, and they said this is “going to make ole Norman.”
Larada Horner-Miller, Just Another Square Dance Caller: Authorized Biography of Marshall Flippo (2020): 93-95
What an amazing story! Little did that band know that this song launched Flippo’s career, skyrocketing him to become a legend in the square dance world. In 1967, Flippo received a Gold Record award for “The Auctioneer” selling 500,000 records, an outrageous number for the day.
Thinking back over Flippo’s story, have you ever had a series of events unfold in your life to create something unthinkable? Let me know. (Scroll down below to make a comment)
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