Graham Reid | | 4 min read
The more you try to find out about Tex Withers, the more confusing it can become.
One thing everyone agrees on however is that this country music singer in London – who insisted he had been born in the States – was a very recognisable character: He was a hunchback who stood no higher than 4'6” (137cm) and always wore classic Western attire.
In later life he married and his “squaw” White Fawn smoked a clay pipe.
As you might guess, Tex – who sometimes rode a horse to shows, and sometimes onto the stage – was a highly distinctive sight around West London in the Fifties and Sixties where he was frequently the singing compere at the Nashville Room on the North End Road, a place which later became a pub rock and punk venue.
Tex sang classic country – Five Feet High and Rising (he might have wished!), Folson Prison, Big John, Crying Time – and had a fine deep voice.
Of course, there was more to Tex Withers than met the eye, as Brian Walker says at his excellent website Tales of the Old East End.
Despite Withers' claim to having been born in Texas and abandoned as a child because of his deformities, Walker says he knew him when they grew up together on a council estate in Clapton. Back then the belligerent little troublemaker who became affable Tex was simply Alan Withers.
According to Walker, Withers' life changed when – out on a boozy day trip to the seaside by coach – the young Withers picked up a cowboy hat and started to wear it regularly.
Then one night in a pub when the MC invited anyone who wanted to sing to get on stage.
Let's allow Walker to tell what happened next.
“Alan, who had never sung in public before, made confident by an unknown amount of beer, decided to mount the stage and ruin some golden oldie. The thought of this novice singing in the drunken state that he was in, filled everyone with a mixture of embarrassment and ridicule. The Band struck up and suddenly a rich deep country and western voice came from the throat of this pathetic little drunkard.
“He sang an old favourite cowboy song There’s a Gold Mine in the Sky, the punters in the pub stopped talking and listened to Little Alan finish the song and gave him a standing ovation. No-one knows who was most surprised, Alan or the audience, but Alan just stood there with his seaside cowboy hat on and grinned like he had never grinned before.
“He was no longer Little Alan Withers, now he was the one and only Tex Withers. He bought a proper stetson and a buckskin suit and was soon earning money in pubs, clubs and halls.
“Not content with dressing as a cowboy, he went the whole hog and adopted an American accent, a ‘Pappy’ in Texas and... a horse!”
Reinvented as Tex Withers, he won a number of UK country music awards, sang The Ballad of Ira Hayes with great sympathy and to considerable acclaim, went to Nashville and sang at the Grand Ole Opry, joined a huge bill of country singers for a concert at Wembley and counted among his many admirers the likes of Hank Snow.
His '73 album The Grand Ole Opry's Newest Star (he wasn't modest about his talent) was recorded in Nashville.
He appeared in a documentary about unusual entertainment (Time Gentlemen Please by Daniel Farson) and there was also a doco made just about him.
As Walker notes, “showing him cooking his food over an outdoor fire in a part of the ‘US’ that looked a lot like Epping Forest to me”.
But tragedy struck: Withers became ill with a throat infection which cost him his singing voice, he went bankrupt, became depressed and was homeless for a while. In the latter days of his life – he died in '86 at perhaps 53 – he was a baggage handler at Heathrow, although he lost that job through ill health also.
On his death there were obituaries in many British newspapers, including The Times.
And so little Alan Withers – aka Tex – faded away . . .
But not quite.
In a typical “print the legend” twist, Walker says after he wrote about the Alan Withers he knew as a kid, he was taken to task by one of Tex's longtime friends, Michael Wise, who was most insistent that Tex Withers was actually who he claimed to be, a genuine Texan.
“I know what I remember of Tex as a teenager,” says Walker, “but now even I have doubts of my once distinct recollections and Michael knows what he knows of Tex. It really doesn’t matter who is right or wrong because we are all enhancing the legend of one of Hackney’s more notable characters. This legend is worthy of greater acclaim than I can give it, perhaps a Blue Plaque is called for!”
Or maybe a golden horseshoe for the little man who invented himself and sat tall in the saddle.
In the preparation of this piece, Elsewhere is indebted to the fascinating site www.tales-of-the-old-east-end.co.uk hosted by Brian Walker which has numerous stories of London characters and eccentrics, funny reminiscences and family stories.