Nashville based Stop Records Inc. was perhaps an unlikely source of rare soul. The label was founded around 1967 by session guitarist and producer Pete Drake. An Augusta, Georgia born and raised son of a Pentecostal minister, he moved to Nashville in the late 1950s to pursue his dreams as a musician. Several country, folk, pop and religious hits featured Drake on guitar including Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man”, Bob Dylan’s “Lay, Lady, Lay” and Elvis’ take on “How Great Thou Art”. By 1970, Drake was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Walkway of Stars. Drake may have been a country boy at heart, but his diversity of taste was reflected in the Stop Records Inc. output, which also included a number of soul and pop records.
The Berkshire Seven’s “Stop And Start Over” (Stop Records Inc. ST255) was a Jim Wensiora spin on the UK soul scene in the late 1980s, and played around the same time by Colin Law at a variety of Scottish venues. The track was initially covered up as Mel Wynn “Stop” – and indeed was structurally similar to Mel Wynn and the Rhythm Aces’ “Stop Sign” on Wand, with its frantic pace and stop-start phrasing.
Phil Shields collection.
Berkshire Seven lead singer Dennis Lee (a.k.a. Denolee) Pressnell (b. 1948) and writer of “Stop And Start Over” was born in Loyall, Kentucky:
“I was raised in a middle class environment. I didn't want for much. Life was difficult only because I had a father who really didn't love me, but it was balanced by some great ladies, my mom, and two grandmothers. As far as musical influences go, it was the entire beginning of rock ‘n’ roll. My favourites of the times were Bill Haley and the Comets, Little Richard, Elvis, Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson. I soaked in every musical note.
I had polio when I was two years old. When I was brought home, I was bed-ridden for a year or so. My mother was a telephone operator, at that time. The women at the telephone company bought me a 45 rpm record player which small enough to sit between my legs in bed, and a stack of current records. I listened and sang with those records all day long. I had very little else to do.
I was a voice major at the University of Kentucky when Betty Fried came up to me and asked me if I would be interested in singing for a band. Her group, The Warlocks were losing their lead singer. I visited their rehearsal that night, and was immediately named their lead singer. The Warlocks were not terribly talented, nothing like the Berkshire Seven were to become. We continued to work on a nightly basis at Betty’s home in the Idle Wilde section of Lexington. We had huge crowds in the front yard and street on any given night. It was a great time.”
The band wanted to take things further and to record. Bass guitarist Danny Williams informed Denolee and the rest of a friend he had who worked at Foushee’s Flower Shop in Lexington. Apparently Henry G. Foushee was interested in something new to do, and managing a group fitted that bill. One afternoon, the whole band drove down to the flower shop and put their proposal to Foushee. They connected immediately.
“Henry took over the management of The Warlocks with the stipulation we must come up with a new name. He wasn't going to manage a bunch of male witches! Henry Foushee was one of the finest human beings I've ever known in my life. He was a dad, if needed...a mentor at all times, and always our closest friend. He was a God send, not only to us, but to Lexington, Kentucky in general. Wonderful, wonderful man. With the British influence going on at the time, and wanting to fit in with a respectable name, I came up with the word ‘Berkshire’. Henry decided that we should record a song before we ever played our first gig as The Berkshire Seven. It was a huge plan to record, get the it on local radio, chart, and appear not to be from Lexington, Kentucky...then blow everyone's mind at the Gardenside Swim Club Battle of the Bands. Bill Behymer (lead guitar) had written a nice sing-a-long called "Bring Your Love To Me" and I had a song called "I'm Alone". Those two songs became our first 45, recorded at Sambo Studios in Louisville and released on Trump Records.”
Within three weeks “Bring Your Love To Me” reached #1 on WVLK. “I'm Alone” was #1 on WLAP, separately. The two songs were both #1 in Lexington the night of the Gardenside Swim Club Battle of the Bands. The Berkshire Seven beat The Magnificent Seven, as well as the top local band at the time, The Torques.
The move to Nashville to record was suggested by Foushee’s friend Esco Hankins, a record shop owner across the street from the flower shop. Hankins knew Pete Drake well, and suggested that Drake may be able to help the boys. Foushee called Drake’s office, and mailed him a copy of the Trump 45 and some promotional pictures.
“Next thing we knew, we were invited to record in Nashville, with Pete Drake as a producer” says Denolee. “The recording took place at Music City Recorders on 19th Avenue South. Our engineer was world famous guitarist and legendary Elvis buddie, Scotty Moore. I believe it was recorded in the spring of 1968, though don’t hold me to that date. Pete introduced us to Porter Wagoner, Jerry Reed and Dolly Parton. Porter had an office in the building beside Pete's Window Music. Before we left Nashville, we recorded “Stop And Start Over”, “Battle Of Chicago”, “I've Tried” and “Crazy Kind Of Feeling”. The band line-up at that time was yours truly (lead singer), Sonny Bayes (lead guitar), Betty Fried (keyboards), Danny Williams (bass guitar), John Calkins (saxophone) and John Joseph (trumpet). Billy Armstrong replaced the previous drummer, who was drinking too much and not showing up for practices.
Denolee Presnell at a Stop session.
You have to understand that nothing happened quickly with Pete Drake. At that time, he was very busy. He had all those CBS artists he sessioned for in Nashville. Then he began projects for Bob Dylan on the “Nashville” Skyline LP, and spent quite a bit of time in England working on the George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass”. After “Stop And Start Over” was recorded, it was probably nine months to a year before it was actually released. In that particular period, most of the group members were about to be drafted for the Vietnam War. I received my draft notice the day the record became #1 in Lexington. It was a nightmare. A dream coming to fruition, then the hard facts of reality, such as going to war, pulling at you.
The Berkshire Seven actually went back to Nashville in the summer of 1969 to record an album. We recorded three songs that were never released. Only one of those three songs were good enough to work with. But one thing led to another and nothing was ever done with it. We were supposed to go back to Nashville for more studio work, but the group was full of strife and the trip was never made. By the time The Berkshire Seven contract had ended, most of the band members were sick of each other.
Regarding the whereabouts of the individual members, I just don't know the answer for most. By 1973 we had disbanded. Betty Fried got married just after “Stop And Start Over” and moved to Michigan with her husband. John Calkins committed suicide in San Francisco. Larry Sallee was my best friend in the group. I visited him a week before reading of his passing. He had liver disease. Big time. Pat Schneider disappeared into life. Billy Armstrong currently lives in Lexington as does Sonny Bayes. Sonny still works in his sister’s printing company. I have no idea about Danny Williams. John Joseph lives in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. He contacted me several years ago when the Berkshire Seven myspace.com page went up. I'm sure he's doing well. Bill Behymer married his childhood girlfriend. At last report, they were living somewhere in California. Bill and I were never close. He was the original spaceman, and was difficult to know.”
After leaving the group, Denolee became a record salesman for Transcontinent Record Sales for nearly two years. He then returned to Nashville, where he continued to work with Pete Drake and Window Music Inc. on promotion for around six months, before a longer period with Acuff-Rose as Pop Music Promotion Director. There he worked with artists from a diverse range of genres and to a high level of commercial success, however Denolee has mixed feelings:
“For all my success at Acuff-Rose, I was rewarded with a $10.00 a week raise. Needless to say, I wasn't impressed. In hindsight, I should have walked out the door for being insulted. But that wasn't playing the game in the music business, especially when working for a power structure as large as those guys. Wesley Rose was the personal manager for Roy Orbison, The Everly Brothers, Sue Thompson and several other famous recording artists. It didn't end well for me working there, but even though I still feel I was black balled, I have absolutely no regrets.”
Denolee went on to record through the next two decades, in association with country song-writing duo Foster and Rice, and with friend and session bass player Tommy Cogbill.
“Mid 1982, Tommy called me wanting to record me as a producer” says Denolee. “We re-worked ‘I Can't Help Myself’ and a new song given us by Fred Foster who owned Monument Records and had Combine Music, Inc., one of the finest music publishing companies in Nashville. Tommy played Fred one of my demos and received permission for us to record ‘Our Love Goes On.’ There is a second version of my singing ‘I Can't Help Myself’, produced by Tommy. However, before the session could be mastered and worked, Tommy died of cancer in the December of that year. If it wasn't for bad luck, I'd have no luck at all, as the saying goes. Following Tommy’s passing, I wasn't worth a nickel. It was devastating to lose him, especially when he was the one person in the business I believed in, and was placing my hopes and dreams in. I am most proud of the work we did, however, and will always wonder what if?”
Denolee continued to record until 2010. He now lives between Englewood and Venice, Florida, and still sings.
Copyright E. Mark Windle (2013, 2018). Chapter excerpt from House of Broken Hearts. Available to order in the new book section.