When you hear the phrase “rockabilly music,” what do you think of? Early Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash? Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins? What about HVAC or duct sealing?
The two may seem incongruous, but then you probably don’t know the story of Boyd Bennett and Hardcast. A onetime rockabilly singer and songwriter, Bennett co-founded the Texas-based manufacturer of duct adhesives and sealants whose products are now used throughout the world.
But that came later. Bennett was born Dec. 7, 1924, in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, growing up in Tennessee near Nashville, where he learned to read and play music as a child. In high school, he sang on street corners to earn money. After serving in World War II, he returned to performing, eventually even hosting a local musical variety show on television, “Boyd Bennett and his Space Buddies” in 1952. Instead of singing cowboys like Gene Audrey, it tapped into the public’s fascination with the dawning space age by featuring singing space cadets.
Inspired in part by the success of groups such as Bill Haley and His Comets (best known for “Rock Around the Clock”) in 1955 Bennett created a similar-sounding group, Boyd Bennett and His Rockets. After recording a few straight country songs, he added drums to his band and took part in recording sessions with African-American studio musicians. Their rhythm and blues influence led to the recording of early rock and roll songs such as “Poison Ivy” and “Boogie at Midnight.”
But it was the tune “Seventeen” that propelled Bennett to a national audience. An early example of rockabilly, which merged the R&B influences of rock with the twang of country-and-western singing, it was a Billboard top-five hit on King Records in 1955. It featured prominent saxophones, electric guitars and unlike traditional country music of the time, drums.
A follow-up record, “My Boy Flat Top,” reached the Top 40, and Bennett also released a cover of Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” in 1956. By 1959, Bennett had left King Records, signing with the larger Mercury Records label, home to artists such as Chuck Berry and Jimmy Dean.
But by the early 1960s, Bennett’s hit-making ability and recording work had slowed. He left music, instead funneling his earnings into nightclub ownership and dabbling in other industries, such as medical supplies.
Jay Erickson, a longtime Hardcast employee who now works as a manufacturer’s representative with Williston-Allen Associates, said Bennett was a bright guy with good business sense.
“He had a lot of stuff out there that people didn’t know about,” Erickson said, adding that he once met Bennett. “The guy had a great imagination.”
Hospitals to HVAC
He started a company in Dallas manufacturing gypsum bandages for hospitals to use in making plaster casts for broken arms and legs. The name Hardcast comes from the “hard cast” these wet strips of gauze created.
While sticking to medical supplies might have been enough for some people, Bennett had an idea that was far ahead of its time: Why not use the gypsum strips to seal the ductwork attached to the many furnaces and air conditioners now being installed throughout the South?
Although it was well known even 60 years ago that ducts leaked — a lot — inexpensive energy costs meant that efficiency wasn’t a major concern for most engineers. But Bennett met with some HVAC engineers who were interested in boosting the performance of the systems they created. Bennett demonstrated his idea for them.
“And it worked,” Erickson said. “It worked great.”
The product was marketed as RTA-50 and was sold with a roll of mineral gypsum compound tape and a container of sealant.
“It came in a milk jug,” Erickson recalled of the sealant. The product was used in many notable buildings, he added, including the original World Trade Center in New York City’s Lower Manhattan, which opened in 1973. It is still sold and specified today.
Sealing the deal
The popular product led to the name of the company, Hardcast, and its founding in 1965. The looming energy crises of the 1970s helped boost demand for duct sealing products in general and Bennett’s products in particular.
“Duct sealing became in demand,” Erickson said.
A few years later, Bennett’s work and the efforts of company researchers led to the debut of Iron-Grip, a water-based, brush-on sealant that was even easier to apply and did away with the flammable solvents and harsh chemicals commonly used at the time. That product was followed by a line of commercial-grade tapes designed for high-pressure ducts known as Aluma-Grip.
A joint venture with an Amsterdam-based firm led to sales and the specification of Hardcast products around the world, including Europe and the Middle East. Hardcast’s own Canadian and European operations were eventually started.
In 1987, after moving operations to Wylie, Texas, the company merged with Carlisle Corp., and Bennett took on a consulting role with Hardcast’s Carlisle subsidiary.
After the sale to Carlisle, Bennett had largely retired from HVAC, but he still found time to occasionally perform music, sometimes appearing with country crooner Ray Price, whose song “For the Good Times” was a huge hit on the pop and country charts in 1970. He also recorded three albums of gospel music.
Bennett died in 2002 but not before he was inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.