Billy Sherrill . . . Bye, Bye Blues

Producer Starmaker Bill Sherrill
Producer Starmaker Bill Sherrill with Janie Fricke

NASHVILLE — Hear the name Billy Sherrill and images of music legends like David Houston, Tammy Wynette, Charlie Rich and George Jones spring to mind, along with sounds of “Almost Persuaded,” “My Elusive Dreams,” “Stand By Your Man,” “The Most Beautiful Girl in the Word,” “A Very Special Love Song” and “The Door.”

Sad to say, songwriter-producer-musician Sherrill, 78, died Aug. 4, at home here, leaving behind an enviable legacy as both songwriter and producer, including the afore-mentioned hits he wrote, as well as classics produced – George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors” and Johnny Paycheck’s “Take This Job And Shove It” – cuts that propelled the artists’ careers to new heights.

This phenomenon was born Billy Norris Sherrill in Phil Campbell, Ala., Nov. 5, 1936, son of an itinerant Baptist preacher. Growing up, the boy learned to play piano, often backing his evangelical parent in tent show revivals. Influenced by the “race” records he heard, a bored Billy shocked dad and churchgoers a couple times by breaking briefly into “Bye, Bye Blues” at a funeral, and “That’s Where My Money Goes,” as pop passed the collection plate, which “Got my butt whipped!”

Soon he was playing saxophone, teaming with musician Rick Hall and pals in a jazzy R&B group The Fairlanes. The pair co-wrote “Sweet and Innocent,” which Roy Orbison recorded, and formed Florence Alabama Music Enterprises, a publishing and recording entity historically known best by its FAME acronym. Among others they turned out tunes for were Brenda Lee and Homer & Jethro, and a really generous royalty check enabled Sherrill to make his move on Nashville.

  Billy had made some “best-forgotten” records on indie labels, which gave him a keen insight into studio work, but did nothing for his artist status. Being a big fan of Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” recording style, he fashioned a demo studio worthy of generating further royalty checks. Instead, Sun Records’ mogul Sam Phillips decided it could be a Nashville branch of his famed Memphis studio, with Billy at the helm. That’s how Billy met Charlie Rich, whose 1960 Top 20 “Lonely Weekends” he especially admired. 

Then Columbia’s Don Law gave him an offer he couldn’t refuse, producing label artists for their Epic subsidiary, established a decade earlier for less mainstream acts. His task was to produce a variety of acts, notably bluegrass duo Jim & Jesse, rockers Barry & The Remains, and The Staple Singers, who would find 1970s’ success on the Stax R&B label.

While producing struggling tenor David Houston, he envisioned one track, “Mountain of Love,” as an opportunity to bring a lusher sound to the country format, which indeed proved appealing to DJs. Its positive reception gave both newcomers their first national hit, a near chart-topper in late 1963. Billy busied himself making contacts and connections that would serve him well in the near future. He polished his skills by co-writing with writers such as Curly Putman, Glenn Sutton, Carmol Taylor, Norro Wilson and Steve Davis, while nurturing promising writers like Danny Walls and his cousin Mark Sherrill.

“I’ve worked with a whole bunch of great songwriters,” said Billy Sherrill, adding, “I’m a better co-writer than I am a writer. If I don’t hear a melody with it, it’s harder for me to put the words to it.”

The Houston-Sherrill production partnership proved not only lucrative for the artist and producer, but boosted Epic Records up on a scale equal to Columbia, its parent label. Seven of their amazing string of 24 Top 10 records hit #1, and Sherrill had a hand in writing six: “Almost Persuaded,” “With One Exception,” “My Elusive Dreams,” “You Mean the World To Me,” “Have a Little Faith” and “Already It’s Heaven.” 

Incidentally, Glenn Sutton was co-writer on five, and the exception was “My Elusive Dreams,” which Billy co-wrote with Curly Putman, a tune that earned a trio of Grammy Awards: best song, best single and best vocal performance of 1966.

While recording Houston, Sherrill was able to bring two promising female singers to the forefront, as well. “My Elusive Dreams” featured Tammy Wynette as David’s duet partner, and marked her first #1; while 1970’s Top 10 “After Closing Time” a duet with Barbara Mandrell, another Sherrill co-write, became her breakthrough record.

      Sherrill also wrote Barbara’s 1971 Top 10 “Tonight My Baby’s Coming Home,” and has produced and/or wrote songs for additional distaff artists such as Tanya Tucker, Lynn Anderson, Jody Miller, Janie Fricke, Emmylou Harris, Lacy J. Dalton and Shelby Lynne. But his greatest female success was Tammy Wynette, with whom he co-wrote her 1968 signature song “Stand By Your Man,” a three-week #1 million seller, heard to great effect in the 1970 Jack Nicholson cult film “Five Easy Pieces.” A Grammy winner, it has since been voted into the Grammy Records Hall of Fame. (A notable remake was by Lyle Lovett.)

The Sherrill-Wynette collaboration produced an awesome run on their #1 discs, including “I Don’t Wanna Play House,” “Take Me To Your World,” “Singing My Song,” “The Ways To Love a Man,” “He Loves Me All the Way,” “Good Lovin’,” “Bedtime Story,” “My Man,” “Kids Say the Darndest Things,” “Another Love Song,” “Till I Can Make It On My Own” and “You and Me.”

That doesn’t cover the fact he wrote and produced her first 1967 solo single “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad” (with Sutton); her first Grammy Award winner (“I Don’t Wanna Play House”); her first hit with George Jones “Take Me” (#9, 1971); and an impressive string of Top 10 singles, as well.

Another match that proved Epic-making (pardon the pun) was Billy and Charlie Rich, whom he produced on the 1973 smash “Behind Closed Doors” (that one penned by Kenny O’Dell), which sold Platinum, earning two Grammy Awards, and eventually voted into the Grammy Records’ Hall of Fame.  That was followed  by another #1 “The Most Beautiful Girl,” a million-seller that also charted #1 pop, a first for both Rich and Sherrill, who co-wrote the ballad (with Rory Bourke and Norro Wilson).

In 1974, the combination of Rich and Sherrill attained back-to-back #1 singles: “A Very Special Love Song” and “I Love My Friend,” both bearing Billy’s name as co-writer. They, like “Behind Closed Doors,” also crossed over as Top 20 pop singles. That was true of Rich’s “Every Time You Touch Me (I Get High),” a #3 country cut he wrote with Sherrill. Some say Rich cut short his career when  announcing John Denver as CMA Entertainer of the Year on TV, he burned the card bearing the winner’s name, which most interpreted as a protest against Denver being called country. The CMA banned Charlie from future shows.

In retrospect, Rich’s stance seems odd, considering a lot of traditionalists criticized his hits, feeling Sherrill was making them too uptown with strings and choral backing, and as a result their songs enjoyed crossover status, much like Denver’s, only his were in reverse crossing from pop to country.

Joe Stampley was another benefitting from Sherrill’s production and writing skills, scoring a #1 with “Soul Song,” released in 1972. He also enjoyed Top 10s via Sherrill’s “Red Wine and Blue Memories” (1978) and “Put Your Clothes Back On” (1979). Veteran artist Marty Robbins co-wrote “Don’t Let Me Touch You” with Billy, scoring one of his last Top 10 discs (1977); Johnny Duncan hit Top Five with Sherrill’s “Hello Mexico, Adios Baby To You” (1978); while down and out Johnny Paycheck, whom Sherrill literally rescued from the streets, hit #7 with his and Billy’s co-write, “Friend, Lover, Wife” (1978).

Artists recording Sherrill songs are too numerous to mention, but they do include such luminaries as Eddy Arnold, Johnny Cash, Bob Luman, Merle Haggard, Rusty Draper, Tommy Cash, David Allan Coe, Dottie West and Kenny Rogers. He worked independently with Elvis Costello on his “Almost Blue” set in 1981; and Ray Charles, producing his “Friends” duets album (1984). The 1976 Ronnie Milsap #1 “I’m a ‘Stand By My Woman’ Man,” gave both Tammy and Billy equal writer credits by default, as her signature song inspired writer Kent Robbins.

In 1967, Billy produced his own instrumental LP, “Classical Country,” crediting The Billy Sherrill Quintet, which initially suffered sales-wise, but is now considered a collectible. According to Nashville journalist Arnold Rogers’ research, at least four of Sherrill’s songs enjoy Million-Aire Performance broadcast status for airing a million times: “Almost Persuaded,” “My Elusive Dreams,” “The Most Beautiful Girl” and “Stand By Your Man.” He has also earned some 65 BMI trophies for his songs over the years, and between 1966 and 1976, Sherrill launched 25 #1 songs on the Billboard charts.

Sherrill awards include induction into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame; Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame; Academy of Country Music’s Pioneer Award; Country Music Hall of Fame; and the National Musicians Hall of Fame. In 1999, he was named BMI Country Songwriter of the 20th Century; and in 2010 became the recipient of the prestigious BMI Icon Award.

Bobby Braddock, who co-wrote “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” which Billy produced, told Daily Variety, “Genius is the most over-used word in the music business, but with Billy Sherrill, you can’t use it enough!”

Sherrill’s survivors include Charlene, his wife of 54 years; daughter Catherine Lale; grandchildren Samantha and Matthew; and cousins Dianne and Mark Sherrill. Services were held Aug. 7 at Woodlawn-Roesch-Patton Funeral Home, Nashville, followed by a graveside service in The Garden of the Grand Tour at Woodlawn Memorial Park for family and friends.

 

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