Alpha Zoe (“First Life”) Hall is an only child, originally from Gallatin in Sumner County, Tennessee, but moved to Nashville when she was five years of age. Both parents were teachers who also had a common interest in music. Her mother was an accomplished pianist and her father was the tenor in a gospel quartet.
“I started to sing as soon as I could talk. My mother was a trained pianist and had a beautiful voice. We became popular in the churches as I was a curiosity, singing at such a young age”, says Alpha Zoe. “As I grew older, I became a soloist in the Mount Gilead Missionary Baptist Church choir. One Sunday one of the members mentioned that my name had been submitted to try out for the Hadley Park Concert series. Now this was a really big deal. If I was selected, I would be asked to sing in all the coloured parks. My mother suggested that I perform a classical song in a high soprano voice. I sang “The Lord’s Prayer”. Everybody snickered at me. But I won the spot. The Hadley Park concerts in 1962 began my singing career outside of church. The gentleman overseeing these events would arrange a recording contract to the singer who received the best audience reception. This time I sang a blues song, and got a standing ovation. From that day on I became the singer with Don Q. Combo.” Don Q. Pullen (b. 1912 d. 1990), not to be confused with the Blue Note jazz pianist of the same name, was born in Starksville, Mississippi but moved to Nashville with his parents as a small child. Pullen learned piano and saxophone, and was trained in musical arrangement. After graduating from Tennessee Agriculture and Industrial University (now Tennessee State University), he taught music in a youth band program at Washington Junior High and led various swing and brass bands, and small combos.
Courtesy of Alpha Zoe Hall.
Alpha Zoe’s ‘recording contract’ was to be for the Hit label. Hit was a work for hire, no royalties outfit. It was a highly successful 1960s budget label formed by Alan Bubis and Bill Beasley whose unique selling point was to employ local artists to perform covers of flavour-of-the-month hits, which kept production costs down and enabled a high manufacturing turnover. These sold primarily via Woolworth outlets, at three 45s for a dollar compared to the regular 45 retail price of 89 cents to a dollar. The label released a significant amount of pop, although covers of Motown, Okeh and Chess songs also featured. Ted Jarett who had originally worked for Bubis and Beasley’s Tennessee Records back in the 1950s, produced most of the records for Hit (whether pop or R&B), and his own compositions often appeared on the flip. A peculiarity of the Hit label was the confusing use of real and fictitious singer’s names, sometimes with several different singers using one made up name, or a singer being credited with multiple names. The Avons, Sam Moore, Earl Gaines, Mark Dinning and Christine Kittrell moonlighted for Hit. They recorded sound-alike songs under another name to pick up a quick buck. However as Hit 45 collector Paul Urbahns also explains:
“Bill Beasley used only a small group of singers. He didn’t want every record in the rack to be the same four or five names, so the names were made up in many cases. For example, a young lady named Connie Landers recorded hits by Connie Francis, Brenda Lee, Lesley Gore and many others. So if she did three songs in one session a different name would be assigned to each one. One maybe Connie Landers, another Connie Dee, another Kathy Richards etc. Alpha Zoe and Peggy Gaines did the majority of black female leads for Hit. Bill Beasley put Peggy Gaines’ name on a couple of songs Alpha Zoe recorded, even though she did an excellent job. But it was probably done as Peggy Gaines would have no songs in the rack that month. Alpha Zoe is listed as Alpha Zoe, Clara Wilson and a bunch of other names. Many of the songs for Hit were recorded in forty minutes or less, with no rehearsal by the musicians. Often only the singers had a rehearsal, and that was usually following a lyric sheet and singing along with the actual record copied.”
Alpha Zoe as the fictitious Clara Wilson on a cover of "My Guy".
Alpha Zoe met Ted Jarrett to set up the recording sessions. “Ted Jarrett hired coloured singers for Hit, and was the go-between for the white folks at Hit” says Alpha Zoe. “He told me that the singers were hired to make a record that sounded as close to the original as possible to sell in the dime stores. I was told I would be paid around thirty dollars per record and my real name wouldn’t be used. I was fifteen years old and still in high school, and I needed money to support my child. I loved to sing, so I agreed.”
“When we recorded at the Columbia studios, you wouldn’t believe the talent that played in there. Floyd Cramer, Boots Randolph and others. All union players. It was like music heaven. The musicians were very particular about getting the right sound. On one occasion the drummer went around the studio hitting the trash can and other objects so that he could get the sound needed for the record. We had some fun at those sessions. I never got to meet any of the white singers as we always recorded on different days. We didn’t even use the same doors; I came through the back along with the ladies that did back-up for me.” Hit collector Paul Urbahns comments that Sam Philips’ Nashville Studio was used for Hit recordings from 1961 to 1963, then in late 1963 the label switched to Columbia studios; initially in the smaller facility then moving to the larger (new) studio. Singer and arranger Bergen White came to the label in 1964: “We usually recorded in Studio B, until Beasley started recording in the basement of his home on West End Avenue, then the Baker Building”. It was likely, then, that both Philips’ and Columbia studios were used during Alpha Zoe’s time with Hit.
Seven titles were released on Hit as Alpha Zoe, and a dozen more by her under fictitious or other artists’ names. Bill Justis was the primary arranger. The songs were a mix of girl group tracks originally sung by The Crystals, The Angels and others, plus some soul covers. A very competent version of Barbara Lewis’ “Hello Stranger” is presented as well as takes on the Motown classics “You Beat Me To The Punch” and “My Guy”. Some of Alpha Zoe’s recordings were solo efforts, others featured The Avons on backing. A number of her releases were also duplicated on Caravelle, Giant, and Spar.
“My experience with Hit ended when I recorded two songs but didn’t receive any money for them. I was unable to find Ted Jarrett, so I called the studio. At the time seventy dollars was a lot of money to me. I made a number of calls and was finally paid, but I was never asked to do any more songs. I didn’t hear any more about Hit until thirty years later my daughter Esther Googled my name and came across a website which asked “Whatever happened to Alpha Zoe?” Things just snowballed from there and started a whole lot of emails and correspondence with a collector of the Hit label. Who would have thought after all these years Alpha Zoe would be remembered. This really healed a lot of wounds that I carried for a long time as I was black balled by my manager when I refused to sing with him anymore. He told me that if I stopped singing for him, he would fix it so I would never sing in Nashville again. I never did get another job there. When I turned eighteen years of age, I stopped singing altogether, except of course in church.”
In later years, Alpha Zoe moved back to Gallatin and is now active in her local church there.
Copyright E. Mark Windle (2017, 2018). Modified chapter excerpt from House of Broken Hearts. Available to order from the new book section.