Bio - Tommy McLain

Tommy McLain was born on 15 March, 1940 in Jonesville, Louisiana, in the east central portion of the state. Roughly 15 miles east of Jonesville, hard by the Mississippi River, lies the famous town of Ferriday, which of course produced musical cousins Mickey Gilley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and their disgraced kinsman, the televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, in his own right a first-rate singer.
McLain is not a Cajun, and Jonesville lies some 30 miles to the north of the most generous boundary accorded to Acadiana, in a section of Louisiana that is much more akin culturally to Mississippi than the Cajun country. Nevertheless he went on to fame in a primarily Cajun style of music, as have many other non-cajun musicians from the region.
At the age of 19, McLain landed his first gig as a member of Jack Arnold’s Flames. Moving on from the Flames, McLain and Clint West both joined Red Smiley’s Vel-Tones. Soon thereafter, he and West joined the legendary Boogie Kings, the still-extant, ever-changing aggregation that seems bound to give the Hackberry Ramblers a run for their money as the longest-running band in the Bayou land. The Boogie Kings were Louisiana’s first white band with a black repertoire, and in the early 60’s they were one of south Louisiana’s hottest tickets, especially among the young. High school proms and fraternity gigs were the band’s bread and butter.
As related above, it was as a bassist that McLain reigned as a Boogie King, but a voice such as his is impossible to contain. Possessed of both a honeyed sweetness and a sandpapery scratch, comparisons to a Louisiana Rod Stewart are not far off the mark. Why he has not after “Sweet Dreams” had more chart success is simply one of life’s imponderables.
"Sweet Dreams" was written by Don Gibson and is one of the most recorded and successful songs in the country canon. First released by "The Singing Sheriff", Louisiana's Faron Young, "Sweet Dreams" raced to # 2 in the summer of 1956, sparking a version by the song's creator, Don Gibson, which reached # 9 two months later. Gibson took it to # 6 five years later, setting the stage for perhaps the best-known version of the song, Patsy Cline'sTop 5 rendition in 1963. Emmylou Harris revived Gibson's durable copyright in 1976 and reached # 1 with her superb interpretation. Three years later rising star Reba McEntire had her biggest hit to date with the song, reaching # 19. Despite all this country activity, McLain has had the only major pop hit on "Sweet Dreams" to date, besting earlier charted releases by both Gibson and Cline*.
“Sweet Dreams” unfortunately proved to be McLain’s biggest hit, though he has continued to record, compose, and perform excellent material ever since. In the late 60’s he often toured with some strange co-headliners, as he related to music historian Shane Bernard. “I was on a two-week tour with (the Yardbirds) when I met (Jimmy Page). He would play his guitar, he would get that thing a feedback going through that amp, and he would play that thing with a violin bow. And I didn’t know what the hell they were doing, I was doing “Sweet Dreams”. I was doing south Louisiana music.” He did score a regional hit with Bobby Charles’ “Before I Grow Too Old” in 1968, and in the early 70’s one of his compositions, “If You Don’t Love Me”, was taken to the top of the Billboard country chart by Freddy Fender. He recorded several more albums for Jin before moving on to Huey Meaux’s Crazy Cajun label, and has fronted the Mule Train Band for the last thirty years.

~John Nova Lomax, January 1999

*(Editor’s note: In the UK however, where McLain’s version reached # 49 in the pop charts, US guitarist Roy Buchanan attained the # 40 position in 1973 with his languid version. The song’s most recent visit to the UK chart came in 1981 when, as the second single from his album of country covers, “Almost Blue”, Elvis Costello took the song to # 42).