A message in a bottle, washed up on shore. An old war-time love letter, found in the bottom of a dusty trunk in an attic. A faded photograph, discovered between the pages of a book hidden on a bookshelf. These are the things that start the greatest love stories in movies. But, this is Memphis, and music is in our blood–so it’s only natural that a truly Memphis love story has to start with a song.
The time was 1956, a time of pink Cadillacs and poodle skirts, of Make Room for Daddy and “We Like Ike!” But a new sound of rock ’n’ roll was taking hold in the land, especially in Memphis. In December, just four days after Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis met at the Memphis Recording Service — what we now know as Sun Studio — for their famed impromptu “Million Dollar Quartet” session, a group of five teenagers from East High School gathered in the same room and recorded a song written by 17-year old senior Colin Heath and his then-girlfriend, Kaye Garren. The song, “Steady Girl”– which would lay dormant for over sixty years until discovered by a Memphis music collector — is both a perfect expression of young love and a time capsule of the raw energy and spirit of the age when rock ’n’ roll was still new.
The group was called “The Heathens,” which might conjure up images of troublemaking kids from the wrong side of the tracks, but it was simply a play on the lead singer’s last name. At only 5’5”, Colin Heath was described by classmates as “small in stature, great in mind,” with a kind of natural charisma and a light in his eyes. He was a senior at East High School when he met and began dating Kaye Garren.
Kaye herself was a shy and sheltered sophomore when she met Colin for the first time. In an autobiographical essay, she writes that their first date was to an Italian restaurant downtown; it was the very first time she ever even heard of pizza, let alone tried it! She also pinpoints the first time they performed together as being a talent show at East High School. They had already been playing together in the comfort of their own spaces, but Colin convinced her to perform for a live audience. Kaye wrote “We did not win the talent show but everyone in our school knew who we were. And I was the only girl who had an electric guitar and played rock ’n’ roll.” After that success, they started performing together more often and more publicly around Memphis as a folk duet, Colin and Kathleen.
This introduction into the Memphis musician scene is ultimately what landed them and three other musicians–Roger Fakes on lead guitar, Joe Bauer on drums, and David Gibson on piano–at the Memphis Recording Service that day in December 1956 to record “Steady Girl”. The original recording has something of the authentic grit Memphis is so famous for. Alex Green of The Memphis Flyer describes the recording as “garagey, pre-figuring unhinged sounds that that would not gain currency and fans until decades later,” sounds that one can almost feel in the ambient background noise and what can only be assumed to be the frenetic, anxious fidgeting of five teenagers in the same room together. The song harkens to the unique sound of what would become known widely as “rockabilly”, something between the hip-swinging rock ’n’ roll that was still so new and the twang of the older, more established country-western/bluegrass music (or hillbilly music as it was sometimes called).
The song was never released under the Sun Records label, and was all but forgotten, even by some of the kids in the band. But sixty years later it was discovered by Frank Bruno, self-proclaimed Memphis music enthusiast, out in California. He bought the record, with the unmistakable “Memphis Recording Service” label on the front, unheard and not knowing if it would even play. And of course it did, because that’s how these stories go.
After hearing the song that Bruno called “too raw even by Sun Records standards” he decided to track down the artists credited to try and piece together the story behind this lost recording. He was met with what could only be disappointment. Colin Heath has passed away just a few years before in 2013, as had Joe Bauer (drummer) much earlier in 1982; Roger Fakes and David Gibson were still around, Fakes even still living in Memphis, but both claimed to have no memory of recording the song (although they remembered both Colin and Kaye as well as performing with them on occasion). That left Kaye, the “Steady Girl” herself. Bruno was delighted to find her living in New Orleans at age 77, but dismayed to find her not doing well, suffering from pulmonary disease while being cared for by her daughters in and out of the hospital.
Bruno took a chance and reached out to Connie, one of Kaye and Colin’s daughters, and included a recording of the original song from 1956 in an email. Once this line of communication was open, the stories began pouring out. Kaye told Bruno about her life with Colin after the song, having three daughters and traveling the country in a VW van playing coffee shops as a folk duo. They were married for over 9 years, and though they divorced and both remarried later, they always shared a bond that can only be forged by young love.
Kaye passed away shortly after meeting Bruno, but not before he convinced her to write her story down, an excerpt of which was included in a seven-inch vinyl record released by Black and Wyatt Records in a 500-copy limited edition in 2019. If you’re lucky you still might be able to find it at either Shangri-La or Goner record shops in Memphis; digital versions are available on Amazon music and the Bandcamp app.
The full story of Colin and Kaye may have been lost, even to their own children, if not for Frank Bruno and his singular desire to preserve Memphis music. For so many of us, music has a way of getting into our brain, into our blood, into our very being–we make up stories to go along with that song based on our own experiences and what might be happening to us, but it’s not our song. Very rarely do we ever get to truly learn the story behind a song, and even then it’s more often than not kind of disappointing. This is not one of those songs; this is not one of those stories.
“You know I love you, yes I do / You know I’ll be forever true / You know you got my poor heart in a whirl / So come on over here and be my — steady girl.”