In 1971, when I was a police beat reporter for the Savannah (Ga.) Morning News and Savannah Evening Press, I received an envelope from a Savannah law firm. My initial reaction was, “Lord, who in the world is suing me?”
But it turned out to be a wonderful letter from a lawyer named H. Sol Clark who also turned out to be a wonderful guy.
Clark wrote that he was enjoying my Ramblin’ Rhodes columns in the Saturday edition of the Evening Press. He also wanted to let me know about Savannah’s connections with successful records producer Arthur Edward “Uncle Art” Satherley (a client of his), who just had been inducted into the Country Music Association’s Hall of Fame.
I subsequently wrote two columns about Satherley and, after the first, I also would hear from Satherley’s niece, Mrs. William Knorr, whose father, Herbert Leslie, in 1937 built the Plantation Inn and Motor Court for Satherley on Ogeechee Road south of Savannah.
So why am I writing about Satherley and lawyer Clark in my last column before Christmas? Because Satherley produced one of the most beloved Christmas songs of all time and because Clark became one of the most distinguished lawyers in Georgia.
Born in Bristol, England, in October 1889, Satherley became the only British native to be inducted into the CMA’s Hall of Fame.
By 1913, he had made his way to America and settled in New Jersey, where he became employed by none other than Thomas Edison, inventor of the phonograph.
Satherley evolved into being the chief talent scout for Columbia Records and helped make famous such talents as Bill Monroe, Roy Acuff, Marty Robbins, Lefty Frizzell and Bob Wills. It was western swing king Wills who nicknamed Satherley “Uncle Art.”
Satherley particularly loved recording sacred music and is said to have produced more than 30,000 recordings of black Americans including blues legend Bessie Smith and gospel legend Mahalia Jackson.
In 1930, Satherley produced the first big hit of Gene Autry’s called That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine, and it was Satherley who convinced Herbert Yates, the president of Republic Studios, that Autry would be great as a singing cowboy in motion pictures.
Satherley wanted Autry to record a Christmas song called An Old Fashioned Tree that would be the “A” side of the vinyl record. The remaining question was: What song would be used for the far-less-promoted “B” side?
Autry, according to Don Cusic’s book The Cowboy in Country Music, had been the grand marshal of a Christmas parade in Hollywood, Calif., and was riding in the parade just before Santa Claus. He remembered that children were shouting “Here comes Santa Claus,” and he suggested to Oakley Haldeman, who headed Autry’s music publishing company, that a song be written around that title.
Haldeman, Satherley and others went to a house in Hollywood on an August night in 1947 and came up with the lyrics and melody.
The next night Satherley and Haldeman went over to singer-songwriter Johnny Bond’s house to record a demo version on a small disc cutting machine.
A few days later, on Aug. 28, Autry recorded the professional version of Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane) produced by Satherley that would become a Christmas classic.
Autry and Haldeman officially are listed as the song’s co-writers. The success of that song led Autry to record more Christmas classics including Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman.
By the time Autry recorded Here Comes Santa Claus, Satherley had moved to Savannah in 1937 and made his Plantation Inn & Motor Court his home base.
He hosted many of his famous friends there, including Autry. The restaurant displayed a framed gold record of That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine.
Satherley sold his restaurant in April of 1963. He died in Fountain Valley, Calif., on Feb. 12, 1986, at the age of 96.
As for lawyer H. Sol Clark, he established the Savannah Legal Aid Society and became a board of directors member of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association. He also became the first Hebrew to serve on an appellate court in Georgia and the first Savannahian to serve on the Court of Appeals of Georgia, from 1972 to 1976.
The State Bar of Georgia created and presented him with its first “H. Sol Clark Award” to be given annually for efforts on behalf of poor people.
Clark died in January 2003, coincidentally, also at 96; having practiced law for more than 73 years.
OTHER CHRISTMAS SONG CONNECTIONS: Every year, I hear Brenda Lee’s classic Christmas songs Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree and Jingle Bell Rock being playing in stores.
So, it is particularly cool and humble that almost every year for decades that I have exchanged Christmas cards with Lee and her husband, Ronnie Shacklett.
And almost every year, the front of their card has had a drawing or photo linked to Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree.
Who would have guessed that Lee, who lived in Augusta and North Augusta as a child, would record two of the most famous Christmas songs of all time?
• This Christmas, you can find on Youtube the animated video of Ain’t No Chimneys in the Project recorded by Augusta native and area resident Sharon Jones.
That’s the song Jones and her band, the Dap Kings, sang on the Delta Airlines float during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
If you go to see The Wolf of Wall Street movie being released on Christmas Day, listen for Jones’ version of Goldfinger, originally made famous by Shirley Bassey in the James Bond movie.
Merry Christmas, everyone, and God bless us all.