One bracing afternoon in the fall of 1964, my Aunt Nelda was bustling about her house in Albany, Georgia, preparing for a visit from relatives. They were her older brother’s oldest sons, Aldine and Marcus Mathis, nephews to her and cousins to me. She had already shinnied up to the porch roof to adjust the family’s erratic TV antenna, praying that it would be in a receptive mood that day. This was important because my cousins would not be coming by in person. They would be visiting by way of television from “up North,” all the way from the great city of Philadelphia. My cousins had recently altered their names to Dean and Marc, and were two-thirds of a fledgling rock-and-roll group.
Along with a man named Larry Henley, they were The Newbeats. Their latest record, an infectiously catchy number called “Bread and Butter,” had just been released and was burning up the charts. That afternoon they were to make their television debut on Dick Clark’s popular American Bandstand program, and my aunt didn’t want to miss a second. She was excited for her big brother, whose sons were about to make it big—excited, in fact, for the whole family. We were all quickly learning that Dean and Marc were part of rock-and-roll’s newest overnight sensations.
Fifty-one years later, I’m sitting with Marc in Logan’s Roadhouse restaurant in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, just east of Nashville. We’re enjoying grilled tilapia and a few ice-cold Heinekens, and getting to know each other. Marc is seventy-five now, a compact and fit man dressed in Nashville casual—Levi’s and a well-worn ball cap. He’s full of memories, deeply grateful for the dream he knows he’s been privileged to live. In the late 1950’s, Dean and Marc had gone chasing their show business stars, Dean first and then Marc. The notion that they were an overnight success makes Marc chuckle. Like most acts in show business, the success they achieved was earned by means of a long and demanding apprenticeship, and a lucky break or three.
I’d personally known about The Newbeats only from a distance, from their records and from family members closer to them than I was. When the show business fever got into their bloodstreams, Dean and Marc chased it and were sometimes chased by it. Their connection to the family during that time, Marc admits, fell to the way side. They had to run hard to keep up with their lives in those days, and they wanted that brass ring that they knew could be theirs if they worked hard enough. It was all a bit dream-like, Marc told me, and I asked him to fill me in on the story as he had lived it. He was happy to oblige.
Dean and Marc were preacher’s kids. During their early life, they were dragged from one small town to the next in South Georgia and North Florida by their father, my Uncle Hunter, who served as the pastor of non-denominational local churches. It wasn’t a life Marc much enjoyed. After years of unsettled living, the Mathises put down stakes in Bremen, a tiny town in Northwest Georgia near the Alabama line. But life in their new home was not happy. Their father had given up the ministry and later gave up his long-troubled marriage. Home was a turbulent place for the brothers, and they yearned to find a way out. Dean, the older brother, was filled with ambition for the musical world (all the Mathises could play some kind of instrument, seemingly from birth). After high school he headed to Shreveport, Louisiana, attracted to a thriving local music scene, the byproduct of a regional radio show there called The Louisiana Hayride. When Marc finished high school himself, he followed Dean, joining him in New Orleans where the two of them, as Dean and Marc, played for six weeks in local musical venues. Later the two of them did session work in Texas—Dean on piano and Marc on guitar—with big-name artists like Bob Wills.
Before long the act known as Dean and Marc was a fixture in the regional musical scene, specializing in close harmony duets, singing country-and-Western-inflected rock-and-roll á la the Everly Brothers. They wangled a contract with Chess Records and began to build a following. They had a hit in 1959 with their cover of “Tell Him No” and later with their Hickory label song, “When I Stop Dreaming.” They were also beginning to make connections that would be important in their later careers, especially with Wesley Rose, the legendary producer. Their breakthrough onto the national stage, however, was hampered by the absence of original material and by not having a truly distinctive sound, a sound that listeners would recognize and respond to and want to hear over and over.
All that changed in 1963 when they met Larry Henley. Like Dean and Marc, Larry had been trying to establish himself as an individual artist and was hitting a brick wall. One night at a venue in Shreveport the three of them met and experimented with a sound they immediately liked—Larry singing the main lyrics in a perfect falsetto and Dean and Marc singing backup. Later at a meeting with producers in Nashville they were dubbed The Newbeats, the “new” suggesting that they were taking rock-a-billy music in a new direction, further into the heart of rock-and-roll.
Before long Dean heard a song being tried out in a studio at Hickory Records, with whom they were now under contract. It had a strong beat, lyrics full of racy double-entendres, and was open for the grabbing. Marc and Larry were called in to listen, and both loved it. The composition was called “Bread and Butter,” a song destined to be their signature, not to mention their literal bread and butter for years to come.
The song was recorded in one take, in about thirty minutes. It began its meteoric rise immediately, first hitting the charts at number fifty-six. In a week it had shot to number sixteen. A week later it was number two, where it got stalled by their friend Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman.” For their public debut, Marc went out and had suits tailored, tight, sharkskin numbers, the kind that both black and white rock and rollers were wearing at the time, and ankle boots, hair fastidiously groomed.
Ironically, none of The Newbeats played musical instruments in their early performances, so Marc choreographed dance steps to accompany their singing, tight little minuets that allowed them to move around the stage, creating a physical accompaniment to the music that was invariably picked up by the audiences they were playing to. Later, they’d deploy themselves around a piano or a guitar, depending on what was available at a given venue.
When Dick Clark called, The Newbeats were ready. The afternoon of their appearance on American Bandstand they performed two numbers from their new album—first came “Everything’s All Right,” a warm-up for the song everybody was waiting for and couldn’t get enough of, “Bread and Butter.” When the camera pans the audience during the song, the delighted fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds are clapping and bobbing in time with the beat, caught up in its encompassing energy (whether my Aunt Nelda was joining them back in Albany isn’t documented). The performance went off perfectly, and The Newbeats stepped out into a new world that, for the next five years or so, would be a vortex of touring, recording, and working the star-maker machinery.
I asked Marc where the energy came from to plunge onward into that storm every day. He said he didn’t really know but that as the ’70’s arrived, and with it new sounds, new looks, and new groups, he was ready to throw in the towel. Over the previous five or six years, The Newbeats had had a song in the Top 50 Billboard charts every year. Their music had moved from the instrumental primitivism of “Bread and Butter” to the lush strings-and-horns arrangement of “Run Baby Run,” which had a robust revival in Europe in 1975. They’d had the red MG convertibles, the screaming females in the audience, the friendships with people like Roy Orbison, Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones, and Glenn Campbell.
At one point Marc and Larry went on vacation in Spain and talked it over. As the years had gone by, Marc and Larry had become closer to each other than Marc and Dean, Dean having turned out to be the more ambitious of the two brothers. In Spain, Marc told Larry he didn’t want to still be touring and singing “Bread and Butter” when he was fifty years old. What was more, the touring had become an unendurable grind, and they both wanted more sanity and structure in their lives. Wives and children were involved now as well. So they delivered that news to Dean in Nashville, and he pushed back.
But it was too late. Without Marc and Larry, there could be no Newbeats. Marc says now, with typical modesty, that it was Larry who infused The Newbeats with their originality. His falsetto solos always created pandemonium at concerts. Many fans, who’d only heard The Newbeats’ music on records, believed he was a black female, so convincing was the blues element in his voice. But it was Dean and Marc who’d created The Newbeats, as much through their backstage smarts and connections as with their natural musical abilities. So The Newbeats folded their communal tent and put away their instruments. They were now part of the mythology and lore of American popular music, significant players during one of its richest periods.
Meanwhile, Dean and Marc had become a literal myth to their extended family back in Georgia. At reunions and holiday get-togethers, the topic of conversation would inevitably turn to them, and speculation would fly about where they were and what had become of them. Nobody seemed to know. It was my Aunt Nelda’s oldest daughter, Sandra Helms, who had appointed herself the family’s unofficial tracer of lost relatives, who scoured the Internet and located Marc in Nashville and Dean in Shreveport. She called each of them, and they were delighted to have been discovered and anxious to reestablish family ties.
Sandra passed along Marc’s telephone number to me, knowing that I was often in Nashville on business. Marc had been close to my older brother, the two of them having been born on the same day, but I hardly knew him myself. When I met with him in Nashville, he was surprised when I told him about the degree to which The Newbeats are a presence on the World Wide Web, mainly through sites dedicated to the appreciation of rock-a-billy music, a connection Marc downplays, believing the group’s music was all about rock-and-roll. He did know that a number of videos of their performances, including the one on American Bandstand, are to be found on YouTube, grainy black and white reminders of that long-ago period when time stopped and let him and his brother travel for awhile on its fast-moving track. Larry Henley went on to become a successful songwriter, best known for “The Wind Beneath My Wings.” He died in Nashville December 2014, the upper registers of his voice in tatters at the end, after years of the falsetto strain.
Marc told me he still takes part in Nashville’s music scene, doing session work for artists he knows. I asked him how he was able to play so easily music he’d just been introduced to. He said, “I let the song tell me how to play it,” which was his way of saying he’s still music’s servant, a man who’s ready for whatever the next job might be.
See The Newbeats Perform “Bread and Butter” Here: