Peggy Walker (nee Gaines) (b. 1944) was born and raised in Nashville, in a family of four children. There was no specific professional music talent within the family at that time - her entry into singing was through church, school competitions and a variety of local and regional singing competitions, from around the age of ten years. Peggy attended Cameron High School where she sang in the glee club and school choir, before she met band leader Bob Holmes and embarked on a professional singing career.
Robert L. Holmes (b. unknown d. 2000) was born in Mississippi but raised in Memphis, where he first learned his craft as a pianist through music lessons paid for by his local church. As an older teenager he moved to Nashville to attend Tennessee Agricultural & Industrial University, and then onto other academic settings to study music. He was as comfortable playing and arranging R&B and gospel as he was with classical works. Holmes was also heavily involved with jazz artists, helping to form the first black youth string ensemble in Nashville, and was also the musical director for the Night Train TV show.
Bob picked up on Peggy's talent when she was around seventeen years of age. By 1961 she was performing live with his band in a number of Nashville clubs. Bob introduced her to Ted Jarrett who was a songwriter and producer for Hit at the time, and before long Ted invited Peggy to do some background vocals and session work.
Her first solo record was a cover of Dee Dee Sharp's novelty song "Gravy" (Giant 1012). On the 1962 Giant release she was credited as Mary Sue, but the song was released again in the same year (Hit 19) under her real name. A similar situation occurred with a competent version of The Marvelettes' "Playboy", which Peggy recorded with The Avons on background vocals. On the Hit release she appeared as Peggy Gaines (Hit 17) but as Betty White on another label (Caravelle 2002). Peggy had a further six releases for Hit over the next two years, including a version of "Dancing In The Street" (Hit 145) - once more under the Mary Sue pseudonym. Her other Hit 45s were recorded as June Richards and Peggy Thompson. To add to the confusion, two tracks listed as by Peggy Gaines ("Walk On By" and "Every Little Bit Hurts") were in fact recorded by Alpha Zoe. The use of multiple label releases and artist titles was partly a tactic of the label owner to create an appearance of a range of available artists at any one point in time. Another reason was to provide cover for moonlighting singers, although Peggy herself wasn't signed to another label at that time.
Between the Hit recordings (1962-1964) and the second stage in her recording career with Ref-O-Ree in 1969, she focussed on performing as a resident singer at Club Zanzibar, a popular jazz venue on Jefferson Street, and at another club on Payton's Place.
As a result of her Hit releases and popularity around Nashville as a club singer, Peggy appeared on the Night Train TV show in 1965 to present a version of the ballad "One Step Ahead". The song had just appeared as the flipside to Aretha Franklin's "I Can't Wait Until I See My Baby's Face" which had peaked at #18 on the R&B charts. Peggy performed the televised track with The Hytones providing backing, but it was never released as a 45.
The period after her cover of "Dancing In The Street" marked a temporary lull in Peggy's recording career, as she focused on performing at Club Zanzibar between 1964 and 1966.
Ref-O-Ree was the creation of Ted Jarrett, a year after Poncello folded, whilst he was still working for Spar. Bob Holmes came on board as songwriter, arranger and producer. Holmes by this stage had a history of studio work behind him, as arranger and producer at Excello, working with his own groups such as The Avons and The Hytones, and his position as the musical director on the Night Train show. Spar took on distribution of Ref-O-Ree and as a result sales and productivity progressively increased. The current catalogue owner Bluesland holds well over one hundred songs intended for release on Ref-O-Ree within their masters archive, and there were approximately thirty-five single releases on the label between 1968 and 1973. Peggy Gaines' first appearance on the imprint was in 1969 with the mid-tempo "Just To Satisfy My Baby"/ "Sweet Way of Living" (Ref-O-Ree 711). Two mixes of "Sweet Way Of Living" exist on the same catalogue number; one with the piano instrumentation high in the mix, and another with strings. These versions are visually distinguishable only by dead wax markings (R711A and R711X, respectively). Ref-O-Ree label collector Dave Halsall suggests that as the 711 release was the most common on the label, a second pressing run to meet demand may have occurred but a different master used - whether intentionally or otherwise. One other recording was made in 1969: "More" / "My Funny Valentine". This was assigned a catalogue number (Ref-O-Ree 726) but never released.
In the UK both Kent vinyl release exists of Peggy's previously unreleased "When The Boy That You Love (Is Loving You)", which is the song of most interest to the northern soul scene. Contrary to online reports, the recording is probably dated 1969, around the time of her signing to Ref-O-Ree. Kent's parent company Ace initially came across the recording via Ref-O-Ree masters procured under licence. The title appeared in 1998 on the Kent CD Music City Soul: From Nashville's Black Cats CD (CDKEND 157). The first vinyl release followed as a 100 Club Anniversary 45 (Kent Anniversary 6t14). An alternative unreleased take (likely from the same session) on "When The Boy That You Love" has remained in the can until very recent CD release by Kent. Ace / Kent have also released an earlier up-tempo version by The Avons with a male backing on the Northern Soul's Classiest Rarities Volume 5 CD (CDKEND 432) and on 45 (Kent Select CITY 041). The Avons' take was originally ear-marked for Excello, though never materialised as a vinyl release. An acetate format of the Avons take resides at the time of writing with UK soul collector Steve Green.
Kent have also released an earlier recording by Peggy Gaines called "Everybody Knows" on Lost Without You: The Best Of Kent Ballads 2 (CDKEND 439) which was procured via master-tapes from Bob Holmes. Whilst the origins of the recording are unclear, it is possible that this was recorded around 1965 perhaps as a demo for Bob Holmes' Southern Artists label.
By the early 1970s Peggy moved to Alabama to concentrate on raising a family. She continued to work as a session singer, and returned occasionally to perform at the New Era which had relocated due to federally mandated urban renewal projects (which would ultimately break up the African-American community and associated live music scenes). Peggy stills performs now with the John Bull Band in Montgomery, Alabama where she has resided for the last forty years. The resident riverboat blues and R&B band also compromises ex captain and owner John Bull on harp / vocals; guitarist Pete Terrell who has played alongside Ray Charles; James Strankman on bass, and drummer John "Clam Chop" Etheridge. The band's guitarist (and Peggy's husband) was Sheffield Walker, whose previous credits included work at Woodland Sound Studio for Slim Harpo's 1968 LP "Tip On In" (Excello LP8008). Peggy would occasionally come to sing with the John Bull Band, and has now become their regular singer since Sheffield Walker passed on in early 2015.
From House of Broken Hearts by E. Mark Windle, available in the new book section.