Rock guitar god Scotty Moore dies . . .

Elvis sideman Scotty Moore, 84, passes  . . .

NASHVILLE — Scotty Moore, the guy some say invented rock ’n’ roll guitar, died June 28, at his home in Nashville at age 84. Rock fans recall it was Moore, who with bassist Bill Black and “the kid with the strange name, Elvis” first performed “That’s Alright, Mama” in Sam Phillips’ historic Sun Records Memphis studio, July 5, 1954. They became known as The Blue Moon Boys, thanks to their hip revival of Bill Monroe’s classic “Blue Moon Of Kentucky,” and later that year were playing KWKH-Shreveport’s Louisiana Hayride.
Moore, a member of both the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, had been suffering from ill health in recent months, including heart and liver disease. He was highly rated among guitarists, among those claiming his playing influenced them were Beatle George Harrison, Stray Cats’ Brian Setzer, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Rolling Stone Keith Richards. For Page, it was the Elvis hit “Baby, Let’s Play House,” and listening to Scotty on guitar, that encouraged him to play. Keith told an interviewer that when most people heard Presley’s “That’s Alright, Mama,” they wanted to be Elvis, “but I wanted to be Scotty!”

Scotty Moore and longtime pal Wanda Jackson-1
Scotty and longtime friend Wanda Jackson.

Winfield Scott Moore III was born Dec. 27, 1931 on a farm half way between Gadsden and Humboldt, Tenn., the youngest in a family of boys, all of whom played an instrument. At 8, “Scotty” began pickin’ on the guitar which an older brother provided. Among his own influences were Merle Travis, B. B. King and later Chet Atkins: “I loved the playing of Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, but I didn’t even know their names back then . . . I’ve always said if you can’t play a little blues in any kind of song, it ain’t worth the paper it’s written on.”
Anxious to see the world, in 1948 he lied about his age (being just under the legal enlisting age of 17) to join the Navy. That service found him sailing aboard the ships USS Kent County and USS Valley Forge, to places like Korea and China, before receiving his January 1952 discharge.
Returning to Memphis, he worked at various jobs and was a hatter when he hooked up with Doug Poindexter & The Starlite Wranglers, playing guitar and handling bookings. In early 1954, he decided they needed a record to give them a more professional appeal, accomplishing that at Sun Records: “My Kind Of Carrying On.” Little came of their single, but Sam liked Scotty and engaged him for other projects. In June, Sam suggested Scotty give a listen to a youngster, who had cut a birthday disc for his mom a year earlier, named Elvis Presley. He did just that at his home, inviting Starlite Wrangler bassist Black to sit in on the lad’s July 4th “audition.”
“So he came over, and he had the pink shirt, pink pants on, with the typical ducktail haircut of that time, white shoes, which, well maybe he was ahead of his time, the way he was dressed, which didn’t bother me one way or the other, because I was interested in what he sounded like singing,” recalled Moore, adding neither he nor Black were terribly impressed with the teen singer-guitarist. Still, they thought with the right song, he might sound a lot better, for he was young “. . . and he sang in key.”
Based on their assumption, Sam set up a session right after the Independence Day holiday, for two songs: “Harbor Lights” and “I Love You Because.” During a session break, a bored Elvis began horsing around, pickin’ and singin’ R&B veteran Arthur (Big Boy) Crudup’s “That’s Alright, Mama,” quickly joined by Bill and then Scotty, caught up in their antics. A bewildered Phillips asked what they were up to, and they explained, but to their surprise, Sam said he liked what he was hearing, something new and fresh, so another number was added to the July 5 line-up. The two records created some interest, especially with local DJ Dewey Phillips (unrelated to Sam), particularly “That’s Alright, Mama,” backed by “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” Based on airplay garnered, they began making personal appearances throughout the area, with Moore managing and booking the act. On Oct. 16, 1954 the Blue Moon Boys were strutting their stuff for KWKH-Shreveport’s Louisiana Hayride audiences, which led to a year’s contract on the weekly program. Earlier, they had bombed at WSM, where an Opry official told Presley he had best go back to driving truck, his former day job.
It was in August ’55 that drummer D. J. Fontana joined the Blue Moon Boys, while on a Louisiana Hayride troupe tour. By then, Memphis booker Bob Neal was managing the act, landing them opening slots with such country stars as Roy Acuff, Martha Carson, Faron Young, Ferlin Husky, Kitty Wells, Johnnie & Jack, and Slim Whitman, none of whom quite knew what to make of this phenomenon in the wild attire, who attracted screaming teen-age girls and proved a tough act to follow. One such star Hank Snow decided to mentor Elvis and assigned his personal manager Tom Parker to promote the budding star, who had his first #1 single “I Forgot To Remember To Forget,” backed by another hit “Mystery Train” in 1955. Little did Snow or the Blue Moon Boys realize how drastically  “The Colonel” would change their star attraction, after signing Elvis to a personal management pact – much to Hank’s chagrin – while securing a lucrative RCA recording contract (Hank’s label) with Steve Sholes in November 1955. The first release “Heartbreak Hotel” stunned the industry, selling in excess of two million singles, hitting #1 on both Billboard’s country and pop charts early in 1956. To the amazement of all, Elvis added three more #1 songs to his country and pop resume that same year: “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You,” “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel.” Amazingly, the latter two also topped the R&B chart, a first for a country artist.
Meanwhile, musicians Moore, Black and Fontana were caught up in the action, performing on those initial hits, but without sharing in the profits (as Elvis had promised, if they made it big). In fact, the Colonel cut them off from their previous camaraderie with their chief Blue Moon Boy, creating diversions that kept Elvis from them, while convincing RCA chief Sholes to consider veteran session players at studio time. Parker put their salaries at $200 weekly when performing with Presley, and $100 weekly, when sitting out shows; however, with major guest shots on Milton Berle, Ed Sullivan and Frank Sinatra telecasts, Elvis was much in demand. Yet, he was calling less and less on his Boys, prompting Moore and Black to tender their resignation in writing (September 1957), since being denied access to the star of the show. Subsequently, they discussed their dilemma with an inquiring reporter, which infuriated the Colonel, enough so that Presley accepted their offer to quit. But fortunately that was short-lived and the boys returned for a time to backing their buddy, both in the studio and in films like “Loving You,” “Jailhouse Rock” (1957), “King Creole” (1958) and later “GI Blues”  (1960). As the world knows, Presley was drafted into the Army in 1958, taking him far from Memphis and Hollywood for two years.
As a result, Bill formed the Bill Black Combo, recording for Hi Records, scoring such pop hits as “White Silver Sands,” “Josephine” and “Blue Tango,” until his death of a brain tumor in 1965 at age 39. Behind the scenes, Scotty invested in and became vice president of Fernwood Records, and personally produced the 1959 Top Five pop hit “Tragedy,” recorded by Thomas Wayne (Perkins), brother to Johnny Cash guitarist Luther Perkins.
Upon Presley’s 1960 discharge, Moore commenced recording sessions with Elvis at RCA, and also served as production manager at Sam Phillips’ Recording Service, which involved supervising all aspects of that operation.
In 1964, Moore recorded his own instrumental LP titled “The Guitar That Changed The World,” with producer Billy Sherrill for Epic, prompting a seemingly jealous Sam to fire him. Scotty relocated to Nashville, starting up Music City Recorders, a studio just off Music Row, and also initiated Belle Meade Records. Finally, in 1968, Moore reunited with Presley for his NBC-TV Elvis: Comeback Special in Hollywood, for what would be Scotty’s last recorded event with The King of Rock & Roll.
In 1970, Scotty engineered Beatle Ringo Starr’s recording “Beaucoup Of Blues,” an Apple release, cut at his Music City Recorders. Finally, in 1973, he sold his interest in the company and began independent engineering, primarily at Monument Studios. In 1975, Moore recorded with longtime friend Carl Perkins on his “EP Express,” a Mercury Records release. Ever the businessman, Scotty bought the building housing Monument Studios and opened his Independent Producers Corporation, a tape duplication firm, though continuing to handle free-lance engineering projects. From the mid-1970s to early 1980s, he engineered numerous TV shows for Opryland Productions, headlining players like Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Minnie Pearl, Bob Hope, Perry Como, Ann-Margret and Carol Burnett. Incidentally, we first chatted with Scotty at We Make Tapes, a retail recording duplication business he launched in 1979, just off Music Row, which good friend Gail Pollock helped run. (At the time, we were wrapping a Dick Curless album.)
In 1992, Scotty did another Carl Perkins session – “706 ReUnion: A Sentimental Journey” – released on his Belle Meade Records. A highlight in August that year, was a live gig with Perkins, part of their “Good Rockin’ Tonight” program, boasting the celebrated Sun Rhythm section, featuring James Burton, D. J. Fontana, Ronnie McDowell and The Jordanaires, a project prompting a tour in England. Not necessarily known for writing, among songs Moore co-penned are “My Kind Of Carrying On,” “Now She Cares No More” and the instrumental “Have Guitar, Will Travel.” In 1997, Moore collaborated with James Dickerson to write his memoirs, “That’s Alright, Elvis,” at the urging of Scotty’s daughter Vicki, for Schermer Books. That year, too, Moore and D.J. Fontana recorded a tribute album “All the King’s Men,” which included such guest artists as Keith Richards, Ron Wood, Jeff Beck, Levon Helm, Jim Weider, Rick Neilson.
Another United Kingdom tour occurred in April 1999 with Fontana, which saw Scotty meeting fellow guitarists George Harrison and Robert Plant. Come July that year, he was honored in a gathering of British guitar greats in Sir George Martins Studio, where Gibson Guitars introduced the limited production guitar Scotty Moore Signature ES-295.
Scotty was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a sideman in 2000. He was invited in 2003 to record with Alvin Lee, “Ten Years After,” sharing studio time with Fontana, Pete Prichard, bass, and Willie Rainsford, keyboards. (That album was mixed at Alvin’s Space Studio in England and released in May 2004.)
In April 2003, Moore, along with Fontana and the late Bill Black, became one of the first recipients of NARAS’ Memphis Music Heroes Awards. That year he also underwent brain surgery to treat a subdural hematoma on Dec. 5, which proved successful for the veteran player.
During December 2004, Moore was honored by top UK artists Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, David Gilmour, Ron Wood, Bill Wyman and Albert Lee collectively, during an Abbey Road Studio celebration in London. That event was recorded and filmed, and released on DVD.
It was in August 2005 that Scotty made a tour in Norway and the UK, performing what he called his “swan song” abroad at the London Jazz Cafe (Aug. 15). Periodically, Scotty would still tour with such acts as The Mike Eldred Trio, Lee Rocker, Ronnie McDowell and The Jordanaires.
The Musicians Hall of Fame in Nashville recognized The Blue Moon Boys, Nov. 26, 2007, with induction, co-sponsored by the Nashville Musicians Association, of which he was a Lifetime Member (AFM Local 257). In 2013, Moore and Dickerson published another bio, “Scotty & Elvis: Aboard the Mystery Train” (Mississippi University Press).
Yet another accolade came Moore’s way in October 2015, induction into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, with Keith Richards accepting on his behalf, being too ill to attend.
Less lucky in love, Moore’s three marriages ended in divorce. His longtime companion, Gail Pollock, died in November 2015.  Survivors include five children and several grandchildren. Moore was buried June 30, beside his parents in Humboldt, following a private ceremony.                                                                     – Walt Trott

Ralph Stanley, pioneer bluegrass legend . . .

Ralph Stanley up close and personal‘O Death’ Bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley dies . . .

NASHVILLE — On June 23, the Grand Ole Opry lost its senior member Ralph Stanley, 89, when the bluegrass icon died, following treatment for skin cancer at his Sandy Ridge, Va. home, says musician-grandson Nathan. Following participation in the 2000 blockbuster film “O Brother Where Art Thou,” Stanley won a 2001 Grammy award for his a cappella soundtrack performance of the song “O Death” and was invited to join WSM’s Opry cast after years of only guest shots. Amusingly, Stanley insisted on using the term “Doctor” with his name for news releases and advertising, having received that 1976 honorary designation from Lincoln Memorial University in East Tennessee, where the average class size is 13.
“Ralph Stanley was elemental. His voice was freshwater, wind, sky, and stone,” stated Kyle Young, CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum. “Dr. Ralph is revered by Bob Dylan, Robert Plant, Elvis Costello, Gillian Welch, Ricky Skaggs, and most anyone else equipped to handle the unfiltered truth.”
Stanley was a featured artist in D. A. Pennebaker’s acclaimed documentary “Down From The Mountain” (2000); and, of course, “The Ralph Stanley Story,” yet another film documentary, directed by Herb Smith, that same year.
Born Ralph Edmund, Feb. 25, 1927 in rural Dickenson County, Va., to Lucy Jane (Rakes) and sawmill operator Lee Stanley, both were musicians, who survived previous mates. “I was borned way back in the hills,” Ralph recalled for a reporter. Of all Lucy and Lee’s children, only Ralph and Carter (two years his senior) showed musical talent, as she taught Ralph to play banjo from age 10, clawhammer style, while Dad guided Carter on guitar. Indeed, the boys once performed together on WNVA-Norton, Va. Following Ralph’s high school graduation in 1945, that same month he enlisted in the military. Upon discharge in 1946, he and Carter began the Stanley Brothers, forming their first Clinch Mountain Boys band.
Despite a slow start, they hosted the WCYB-Bristol, Va., Farm & Fun Time show for free, but promoted show dates on air, and toured briefly with fellow newcomer Mac Wiseman. When Mac and Carter fell out, due to Lee Stanley’s suspect arrangements as manager and booker, the siblings traveled solo. Signing with local label Rich-R-Tone in ’48, they recorded “Molly & Tenbrooks” as their first

Ralph Stanley Jr., senior and Vern Gosdin-1
Vern Gosdin with Ralph II and Ralph Sr. backstage.

track, a year ahead of Bill Monroe’s classic cut. It was at WCYB that Ralph developed his famed rolling three-finger banjo style.  In 1949, the Stanleys signed with Monroe’s label Columbia, causing an irate “Father of Bluegrass to switch to Decca, feeling they stole his songs and bluegrass style. Stanley successes there included “White Dive,” “Pretty Polly” and “Man Of Constant Sorrow,” and they began performing farther afield, thanks to radio stops in Maryland, Louisiana, North Carolina, Florida, West Virginia and Virginia, but believed Bill Monroe was their main barrier at prestigious WSM. At Mercury (from 1953-’57), the brothers recorded such songs as Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” their original “Dickenson County Breakdown,” “Big Tilda” and “Lonesome and Blue.” In the late 1950s, the boys signed with Syd Nathan’s King Records in Cincinnati, Ohio, recording such as “How Mountain Girls Can Love,” “Midnight Ramble” and Ruby Rakes’ “How Far To Little Rock,” charting 12 weeks (#17, 1960), their only Billboard country singles charting. (Ruby Rakes was yet another pen name for Carter Stanley.)
Ralph, admittedly not the prolific writer Carter was, did pen some songs, including “The Fields Have Turned Brown,” “Gonna Paint the Town” and “Clinch Mountain Backstep,” a lively banjo tune. He had a wry sense of humor, and didn’t cotton to the idiom bluegrass, preferring instead mountain music.
As rock and roll came onto the scene in the mid-1950s, the Stanleys started struggling, even down some say to accepting $50 gigs. At one point, Ralph augmented his income toiling as a welder in Detroit; however, by the later ’50s, they rebounded nicely, due to a trend towards folk and old-time music styles, putting them in demand on college campuses and at outdoor folk and bluegrass festivals. Among their more requested songs of the day were “Man Of Constant Sorrow,” “Angel Band,” “Little Maggie” and “The Lonesome River.”
Sadly, Carter’s penchant for hard liquor created friction on tour and caused a downturn in his health, leading to a sudden and early death Dec. 1, 1966, at age 41. It was a devastating loss to Ralph, whose keening tenor provided a distinctive touch to the gritty lead vocals of Carter, who was a charismatic front-man for the duo, and chief songwriter. Nonetheless, Ralph chose that old adage, the show must go on, stepping into the spotlight vacated by Carter. Striving to overcome an innate shyness, he assembled some of the finest young players for the band, including such future notables as Larry Sparks, Roy Lee Centers, Curly Ray Cline, Jack Cooke, Melvin Goins, Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley, Charlie Sizemore and Sammy Adkins, to assure entertainment value. Meanwhile, he was steadily perfecting his own lead vocals.
In 1970, Stanley even began hosting an annual Hills Of Home music festival near Coeburn, Va., close to his old home turf. Unlike many country and bluegrass acts, Ralph didn’t migrate to Nashville, sticking instead to his Blue Ridge Mountain country roots. That may be part of the reason the Stanleys weren’t invited to join the Opry cast, though belatedly Ralph became a member at age 73, following the “O Brother Where Art Thou” flick, and its soundtrack album, which reportedly sold seven million. A runaway hit, it not only topped Billboard’s 200 chart, but also the trade weekly’s country album and soundtrack charts.
In 2004, the Ralph Stanley Museum & Traditional Mountain Music Center opened in Clintwood, Va. A year later, Ralph underwent triple bypass heart surgery at age 78, but following rehab treatment, hit the highway again, taking his music to fans across the country.
Soon Ralph was also collaborating with journalist Eddie Dean for his biography, “Man Of Constant Sorrow: The Life & Times of a Music Legend” (Gotham Books, 2009), which generated one of the biggest monetary advances ever for a bluegrass artist.
James Alan Shelton, then Clinch Mountain Boys’ lead guitarist and road manager, exclaimed, “He’s the man! And it makes me proud that he is getting recognition that is long overdue . . . and the thing is, he still sounds great.”
Besides Shelton, Ralph Stanley has influenced such notables as Skaggs, Whitley, Dwight Yoakum, Jerry Garcia, Patty Loveless and Bob Dylan. Stanley’s son Ralph II, who some say has vocals and guitar chops more reminiscent of Uncle Carter, played with his pop, before going solo, earning Grammy nods of his own. Reportedly, he’ll now assume leadership of the Clinch Mountain Boys to keep the show on the road, much as dad did back in 1966. And then there’s grandson Nathan Stanley, who has been performing with granddad several years.
In retrospect, Ralph could look back on numerous achievements, including the 1984 National Heritage Award given by President Ronald Reagan; a 1992 induction of the Stanley Brothers into the Bluegrass Hall of Honor; multiple Grammys, including one for best country male singer (2001), citing “O Death,” a musical dialogue with the Grim Reaper; another in 2002 for best bluegrass album, “Lost In The Lonesome Pines” (Jim Lauderdale, Ralph and the Clinch Mountain Boys); and also that year, IBMA’s best recorded event for his “Clinch Mountain Sweethearts,” cut with various female stars including Loveless. In 2006, Ralph was honored with a National Folk Medal of the Arts by President George Bush, despite being an avowed Democrat, who previously participated in the inaugurations of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
Survivors include Jimmi, his wife of 47 years; daughters Lisa Joy and Tonya; sons Tim and Ralph II; seven grandchildren; and a great-grandchild. A service, open to the public, was held June 28 at Hills of Home Park, State Route 654, a.k.a. Carter Stanley Highway, between Coeburn and McClure, conducted by Mullins Funeral Home. Pallbearers included Ralph II and Nathan. Honorary Pallbearers: Clinch Mountain Boys bandsmen, plus Jim Lauderdale, Josh Turner, Dewey Brown, Ralph Murphy, Bobby Hammons and Ricky Skaggs. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Shriner’s Hospital and St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Ralph Stanley’s honor.                                                                              – Walt Trott

Iconic music maker Moman . . .

 Versatile ‘Chips’ Moman produced rockabilly, R&B, country hits

     NASHVILLE — A man for all seasons of music, songwriter-producer Chips Moman died June 13 at a hospice in LaGrange, Ga., where he had been battling lung disease. A musical maverick, Moman’s best known for producing hits on Waylon Jennings, Aretha Franklin, B. J. Thomas and, of course, Elvis Presley. Moman copped a 1976 Grammy for his country co-write “Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song” (with Larry Butler), a #1 for B.J. Thomas. Born June 12, 1937 in LaGrange, he began playing guitar as a youngster. At 14, he ran away from home, hitchhiking to Memphis, where he obtained work on his cousin’s paint crew. While strumming his guitar in a drugstore, country singer Warren Smith (“Odds and Ends”) heard and offered him a job with his road show. Soon he was touring with rockabilly acts Gene Vincent & His Blue Caps (“Be-Bop-A-Lula”), and Johnny Burnette (“You’re 16”). In an interview later, Moman pointed out that all three of those artists died at a relatively young age.
While fresh out of his teens, he spent time in Los Angeles, trying to make his way as a studio musician at Gold Star Studio. During the early 1960s, however, Moman returned to Memphis, hitching his star to the indie Satellite Records, primarily a country label as an engineer, but when that didn’t pan out, started concentrating on producing soul singers. The label’s first regional success was Carla Thomas’ “Gee Whiz” in 1960, which Atlantic picked up, turning it into a national Top Five R&B single (and a crossover pop Top 10).
Moman, who liked to gamble, garnered the nickname “Chips.” Less of a gamble was aligning himself with the Stax label, bringing in Carla’s dad Rufus Thomas, who scored with “Walking The Dog.” Chips produced some of the now legendary label’s early soul hits, notably “Last Night” by The Mar-Keys and “You Don’t Miss Your Water” by William Bell. In a huff, Moman departed Stax in 1964, regarding payments for Booker T. & The MGs’ mega hit “Green Onions.”
Chips then organized The Memphis Boys, session bandsmen, who helped define the earthy Memphis Sound of the 1960s, and founded his American Sound Studio (with Don Crews) in ’67. There 120-plus hits were produced for such notables as The Gentrys, B. J. Thomas, Dusty Springfield and Neil Diamond. Chip’s most successful sessions, however, were with Elvis Presley, starting in January 1969, when the king of rock and roll turned to him to resuscitate his flagging recording career, cutting “Suspicious Minds” and “In The Ghetto,” for starters. Their collaboration resulted in the iconic studio album “From Elvis In Memphis” (1969), representing Presley’s first Memphis session since his mid-1950s Sun days. A year later, they reunited for Elvis’ “Back In Memphis.”
The innovative Chips also developed a talent for writing, including pairing with Dan Penn on the soulful “Dark End Of The Street” a hit for James Carr, and “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” for Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin. He left Memphis in 1972, played sessions at Fame Studio in Muscle Shoals, Ala., and then moved north to Nashville. Among artists he worked with tin Music City were Jennings, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, producing such successes as “Luckenbach, Texas,” “The Wurlitzer Prize” (both of which he wrote), “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys,” “Pancho & Lefty” and Nelson’s 1982 cover of “Always On My Mind,” earning Willie a Grammy for best country vocal, plus best single and best song. Speaking of Grammys, Chips encouraged Willie, Waylon, Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash in 1985 to do “The Highwayman,” which earned that prize as best song.
Moman and Memphis merged again, when in September 1985, Chips produced the “Class of ’55” session reuniting former Sun Records artists Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison, prompting a documentary by Dick Clark Productions, tracking their historic get-together from start to finish. Initially it was coupled with the album and marketed as a TV product. Further, John Fogerty contributed the album’s song finale “Big Train (From Memphis),” which blended the vocals of John, Dave Edmunds, Ricky Nelson, The Judds, June Carter Cash and Sam Phillips, Sun’s founder. A sideline to the event was another recording, “Interviews From The Class of ’55 Recording Sessions,” which earned the performers and Moman a shared 1987 Grammy for Best Spoken Word.
Other compositions credited to Chips include “This Time,” recorded by Troy Shondell; “Love Looks Good On You,” cut by David Houston; and “So Much Like My Dad,” recorded by George Strait. Among other country artists cutting his songs were Johnny Lee, Barbara Mandrell, Archie Campbell & Lorene Mann. Moman, a member of the Georgia Music Hall of Fame since 1990, was previously wed to songwriter Toni Wine (who wrote “A Groovy Kind of Love,” “Candida” and “Black Pearl.”
In the early ’90s, Chips relocated to West Point, Ga., not far from LaGrange, where for a time he continued to produce and record until ill health set in. Survivors include his wife Jane, daughter Monique and son Casey. Funeral arrangements were not completed at the time of writing.

Loss of another music legend . . .

  Hall of Famer Guy Clark . . . This One’s For Him

    NASHVILLE — I write stories about people and Guy Clark wrote songs about people, but there the similarities end. My pieces focus on the who, what, where, when and why, while Clark’s strong story-songs sound like sheer poetry when played. Upon learning the legendary artist had died, I was stunned, though not unaware that he had been suffering health issues in recent years, but we’re sure gonna miss his heartfelt originality.
Officially speaking, Texas-born Guy Charles Clark, 74, died in his Nashville home, May 17, according to manager Keith Case. Best known as the writer of  classic songs like “L. A. Freeway,” “Desperados Waiting For a Train,” “The Carpenter,” “She’s Crazy For Leaving,” “Heartbroke,” “Baby, I’m Yours” and “Oklahoma Borderline,” it’s easy to see why Clark was elected to the Nashville Songwriters Association Hall of Fame in 2004.

Guy Clark, no desperado-2
“I would not be the songwriter I am, if I hadn’t sat at your table and learned from a master,” Rosanne Cash, Tweeted the morning of his death, “Travel  safe, old friend.”
While Guy sure didn’t bust any chart records, Clark did land a trio of his own Warner Bros. singles onto Billboard’s country list, all self-penned: “Fools For Each Other,” “The Partner Nobody Chose” and “Homegrown Tomato,” the latter two Top 40s. Nonetheless, cover artists such as Jerry Jeff Walker (“L.A. Freeway”), The Highwaymen (“Desperados Waiting For a Train”), John Conlee (“The Carpenter”), Rodney Crowell (“She’s Crazy For Leaving”), Ricky Skaggs (“Heartbroke”), Steve Wariner (“Baby, I’m Yours”) and Vince Gill (“Oklahoma Borderline”) enjoyed hits from his magical pen. Others including Asleep At the Wheel, Bobby Bare, Jimmy Buffett, Emmylou Harris, John Denver, Alan Jackson, Lyle Lovett, David Allan Coe, Brad Paisley, George Strait, U-2, Hayes Carll and Kenny Chesney covered his songs. Quite an impressive list for any writer.
He married Susanna in 1972, having first met her in Oklahoma. She was an art teacher, who later designed album covers for labels, including Willie Nelson’s acclaimed “Stardust” LP. She co-wrote such successful songs as Kathy Mattea’s #1 “Come From the Heart,” and near Top 10s for Emmylou Harris, “Easy From Now On,” and Dottsy, “I’ll Be Your San Antone Rose.” In 2012, Susanna died from cancer. That was tough for her surviving mate, who was already experiencing poor health himself.
A trio of Guy’s albums – RCA’s “Old No.1,” “Texas Cookin’,” and Warner’s “Better Days” – also scored near the Top 40 on Billboard’s chart – and he won a Grammy Award for Best Folk Album: “My Favorite Picture Of You” (2013). He confided it was inspired by a picture of Susanna, taken when she was angry with him, but his lyrics inform her, “The camera loves you/And so do I.”
Guy joined his writing hero Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle for a “live” album “Together At the Bluebird Cafe” in 1995, and both Clark’s “Old Friends” 1989 and “Workbench Songs” in 2006 were Grammy-nominated. A 2011 double-CD, celebrating his influence on music – “This One’s For Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark” – featured an all-star cast, including Rosanne Cash and Willie Nelson, paying him homage, while earning Americana’s Album of the Year award.
Born Nov. 6, 1941, in Monahans, Texas, Guy was mainly raised by his grandmom in her small hotel, where her World War II roomers consisted mainly of bomber pilots, drifters and oilmen, while Guy’s dad was away at war. One tenant, a wildcatter called Jack Prigg, was referred to in Guy’s “Desperados Waiting For a Train.” In his ballad “Randall Knife,” Guy saluted his father (and as a result the tradition of American craftsmanship), writing: “If you’ve ever held a Randall knife/Then you know my father well/If a better blade was ever made/It was probably forged in hell . . .” 
In high school, Guy proved a skilled athlete,  playing basketball, football and track and field, but also did some acting in school productions, and participated on the debate team. Guy proclaimed,  “I grew up in a family where poetry was read every night.” He didn’t own a record player until he was in his teens, and was 17 before he began playing guitar.

A young Guy Clark-2
Reportedly,  he was a shipbuilder’s apprentice, and also briefly joined the Peace Corps, before launching his professional pickin’ and singin’ career in Houston, where he and pal Minor Wilson also started up a guitar repair shop. He once joined the Houston Folklore Society, which reflects on his thought process in those formative years.  While playing music in Texas, Clark shared the stage with such future luminaries as Van Zandt, Mickey Newbury, and at one time, was part of a trio, with star-to-be Kay Toinette Oslin (K. T. Oslin) and David Jones. (She said they actually recorded an independent album together that was never released.)
With his guitar building experience, he moved to Long Beach, Calif., landing a day job repairing and building Dobros for the Dopyera Brothers’ Original Music firm. He continued to perform in his off hours. Guy also was writing, and regarding “L. A. Freeway,”  recalled he initially titled his song “Long Beach Freeway,” but wisely figured it would be more recognizable outside of California by substituting the nonexistent “L. A. Freeway” name. It was in 1971, that Clark scored a writing contract with a Nashville publisher, triggering a relocation to Music City. Subsequently, his 1975 RCA-produced debut album, “Old No. 1,” boasted both “L. A. Freeway” and “Desperados Waiting For a Train.”
Raspy-voiced Clark once noted how much he liked doing acoustic sets, especially in the United Kingdom, singling out gigs in Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and, of course, on this continent for Canadians: “In England, I think that’s something they’ve always liked, that storytelling troubadour kind of approach. I’m up there singing and it’s like they’re out there taking notes . . . It’s amazing. In Australia and New Zealand, I sold out rooms that hold three or four hundred people.”

Guy with Arlo Guthrie-1
                                     Guy and Arlo Guthrie.

Author and long-time friend Tamara Saviano says her book, “Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life & Music of Guy Clark,” is scheduled for publication in October. Of his passing, Saviano says, “My heart is broken.” Musicians mourning him on social media, include  Zac Brown Band’s Clay Cook:  “I guess we can’t live forever. Gonna miss Mr. Guy Clark. He was a great ol’ feller.” Fellow singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell, who co-wrote the #1 “She’s Crazy For Leaving,” posted a picture of his hero/mentor, writing, “My friend @GuyClarkKCA passed from the world this morning. – Rodney.”
A member of the Nashville Association of Musicians union, guitarist Guy has also earned the Academy of Country Music’s Poet’s Award in recognition of his iconic writing talent. Survivors include his son Travis, sisters Caroline Dugan and Jan Clark, and two grandkids. As funeral arrangements were pending, we couldn’t help but recall the songwriter’s words in “Homegrown Tomatoes”: “When I die don’t bury me/In a box in a cemetery/Out in the garden, would be much better/I could be pushin’ up homegrown tomatoes . . .”           – WT

Reflections on Merle Haggard . . .

Remembering Legendary Merle Haggard

     NASHVILLE — Merle Haggard, a legendary, but complex figure in country music, passed away on his 79th birthday, April 6, 2016, in California. Weeks earlier, the singer-songwriter-musician had postponed touring, due to a respiratory ailment, complicated by double pneumonia.
Known as “the common man’s poet,” The Hag was hailed for hits such as “Branded Man,” “Mama Tried,” “Working Man Blues,” “Okie From Muskogee” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” all self-penned. Between 1967 and 1987, Merle scored 38 #1 Billboard singles, an amazing track record, that also boasts 71 Top 10’s over a quarter century (1965-1989).

The Hag . .     Merle Ronald Haggard’s life reads like a Picaresque novel, our anti-hero being born April 6, 1937, in Bakersfield, Calif., to an emigrant Oklahoma couple, James Francis and Flossie Mae (Harp) Haggard, who a few seasons earlier fled the disastrous Dust Bowl during the Great Depression. Home was a converted railway boxcar in Oildale, a few miles north of Bakersfield. After Dad’s death from a stroke, the 9-year-old began pursuing a precarious existence at best, trying to help Mom feed the family, when not running away. At age 11, Flossie turned him into authorities as “incorrigible,” and he spent some time in reform school.
Putting school behind him, the 14-year-old drop-out hitchhiked, climbing onto trucks and hopping freights, to hang out in hobo jungles and labor camps, things he heard his musical heroes Jimmie Rodgers, Lefty Frizzell and Hank Snow only sing about. Soon, he toiled in the oil fields, picked fruit with migrant Mexicans, pitched hay for farmers, drove a delivery truck, and even toiled as a short-order cook in a greasy-spoon diner.
The teen-ager was already trying to pick and sing some, having been given a guitar by his older brother when he was 12, and later played a local TV program Chuck Wagon in ’56. But a temptation to score easy cash via rolling drunks, stealing cars and burglaries, soon led to San Quentin Prison, with a sentence of one-to-15 years. Ironically, Merle was among those cheering Johnny Cash when on Jan. 1, 1958, he performed there, serenading the cons with hits like “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk the Line.” Six months later, Merle’s wife, the former Leona Hobbs, gave birth to their first boy, Marty, while – as later lyrics revealed – Merle “turned 21 in prison.”
Fortunately, Merle put time served, 33 months, to good use, working in the prison textile mill, obtaining a high school GED diploma, and honing his talents by playing in the warden’s band. He came naturally by it, as both James and granddad had played fiddle, mainly in Oklahoma honky tonks.
Once back on the street, the parolee continued playing music weekends, while working day jobs to keep his kids fed. He even dug ditches, working with his brother, an electrical contractor. Haggard later confided, “Since I was 23 years old, it’s been uphill all the way.” He kept up this routine a few years before hooking up with Bakersfield music veterans Fuzzy Owen and Lewis Tally, who co-wrote the 1953 Jean Shepard chart-topper “A ‘Dear John‘ Letter” (recorded with Ferlin Husky), which helped launch the Bakersfield Sound.
It was on the indie Tally label that Haggard’s first four Billboard chartings set him on the path for further acceptance: “Sing a Sad Song,” written by Wynn Stewart; “Sam Hill,” penned by Tommy Collins (who helped Merle define his writing skill); and two written by Liz Anderson, “Just Between The Two Of Us,” a duet with Bonnie Owens, and Merle’s first Top 10 “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers,” in 1965, and after which he named his bar room band (The Strangers).
Merle and Leona finally called a halt in 1964 to their tumultuous marriage, which produced four children: Dana, Marty, Kelli and Noel. Subsequently, he and duet partner Bonnie Owens, herself divorced from Bakersfield star Buck Owens, were wed (1965). Incidentally, daughter Dana was the first offspring to try her hand as a performer, forming Dana & The Drifting Cowboys, a local band which later recruited Marty (in the early 1970s).
Dad’s first Top 20 singles – “Sing a Sad Song” and the duet with Bonnie – prompted producer Ken Nelson to urge Merle to sign with Capitol. According to Nelson, in turning him down in 1964, Haggard cited loyalty to Tally; however, at the behest of both Fuzzy and Lewis, Merle signed with the major label in 1965. Capitol was also home to Buck Owens, Hank Thompson and Tommy Collins, all of whom were role models to Merle, and several years his senior.
Early 1960s ad for Merle and BonnieThe best advice Collins gave him was to write about what he knew, and almost on cue, Haggard fashioned two back-to-back Top Five singles: “Swinging Doors” and “The Bottle Let Me Down” (1966). Thanks to a Liz Anderson ballad, “Fugitive,” the cocky newcomer landed his first #1 disc (on March 4, 1967).
That proved a banner year for Merle, thanks to “I Threw Away the Rose” (#2); “Branded Man” (#1); and “Sing Me Back Home” (#1), all self-penned. Obviously on a roll, he had a trio of best-sellers in ’68, as well: “The Legend of Bonnie & Clyde” (#1), benefitting from the movie smash of that title, co-starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway; his semi-biographical “Mama Tried” (#1), which became a signature song and eventually voted a Grammy Hall of Fame Song. It was also heard in the film “Killer’s Three,” marking Merle’s movie debut, opposite another new face, Robert Walker and former DJ Dick Clark, who also produced. (Ironically, ex-con Merle was cast as a sheriff.)
“Merle Haggard is living proof that with self-confidence and determination, a person can go from the depths of degradation to the pinnacle of success,” mused Ken Nelson, years later.
Indeed, his “success story” vindicates the American Dream, a semblance that suggests success for those seeking and striving, who never give up the struggle. Yes, Haggard’s bosses were solidly behind him, and even encouraged Calif. Gov. Ronald Reagan to issue Merle a pardon for past offenses (1972). A 1960s Merle in the studio
Instead of hurting him, Haggard’s checkered past propelled him to superstardom, fascinating fans who love the outlaw, the anti-authoritarian figure, though never taking into account chaotic consequences. To be sure, Merle suffered inner devils that threatened to consume him at times, and certainly marred his marital relationships, sometimes extending to his children.
Although Bonnie was married to Merle 13 years, their union was one-sided at best, as he went on his merry way, but kept her close to his side professionally, as backup vocalist . . . and shortly after their divorce, she served as a bridesmaid when he wed younger singer Leona Williams in 1978. Leona, who wrote or co-wrote songs for him – “The Bull & The Beaver,” “Some Day When Things Are Good” – suffered through some tough times with her mate, who once stranded her in a houseboat in the middle of Kern River, while he went partying. Two songs she wrote, “You Take Me For Granted” and “We’re Strangers Again,” signaled their finale in 1983.
As noted above, The Hag’s flirted with films, and in fact even co-wrote a salute of sorts, “It’s All In the Movies” (#1, 1975), co-written with daughter Kelli. His involvement includes more than 80 soundtrack contributions on both the big and small screens, such as “Chisum,” “Six Pack,” “Platoon” and “Bronco Billy,” in which he furnished the ballad “Bar Room Buddies,” a #1 duet with his cinematic hero Clint Eastwood (1980). In the acclaimed 1979 TV series “Centennial,” Haggard was Cisco, while in the 2005 Oscar-winning “Brokeback Mountain,” he sang “I’m Always On a Mountain When I Fall,” one he didn’t write (Chuck Howard did).
Harking back to the controversial Vietnam War, Haggard penned two hawkish tunes that conservatives took to heart, “Okie From Muskogee” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” at a time when protesters were dissing President Nixon and spitting on GIs back from battle. Despite Merle’s insistence that he did not intend to become known as a right-winger, it was those anthems of country patriotism that attacked dissent, garnering him an invitation to the White House in March 1973.
Further, they accounted for management tripling his one-night fee from $3,000 to $9,000, and assured his victories, as both CMA and Academy of Country Music’s Entertainer of the Year, along with best male vocalist, album and single trophies, as well. It wasn’t until 1984, however, that he earned his first Grammy, but for a decidedly more romantic remake of Johnny Rodriguez’s 1974 #1 “That’s the Way Love Goes” (which 15 years later Merle again revised in collaboration with pop icon Jewel). Merle relaxes during interview
It was in 2004, that trucker and sometimes singer Scott Haggard introduced himself to Merle as his son, the product of a brief liaison years back. Armed with DNA proof documentation, the two talked amicably, and Merle didn’t deny the possibility. Though reportedly they remained in touch, they never did pursue a father-son relationship. Haggard once thought he might relocate to Nashville, as well, but after a short stay decided Music Row turned him off, and decided he preferred life in Bakersfield, boating and fishing on Kern River.
In 2006, Merle was honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Other major accolades include induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame (1977); ACM’s Pioneer Award (1995); Country Music Hall of Fame (1994); Broadcast Music Inc.’s BMI Icon Award (2006); and the national Kennedy Center Honors arts recognition (2010) for “Outstanding contribution to American culture.”
Merle was like no other country music artist talent-wise. He was a gifted writer, skillful lead guitarist and fiddler, who possessed one of the most unique baritones in the business. Still, there was no denying his dark personality traits, fostering disagreeable and sometimes even aggressive behavior, like stomping on the foot of a musical partner he felt was taking too much of the spotlight. His eldest son Marty gave Merle low marks as a father, noting in an interview the ugliness he and his siblings witnessed in their early years: “Dad liked to argue and Mama would take it a step farther and go berserk! It took all his strength to keep her from whipping his butt, and half the time she did . . . it was like a damn circus.”
Nonetheless, he went beyond the norm in appreciation to another artist, most notably Tommy Collins, whose once promising career got sidetracked by his own demons within. Merle did so via a song, recalling a helping hand he’d been given in hard times. Titled simply “Leonard” (after Tommy’s real name, Leonard Sipes), Merle wrote: “He was on his way to having what he wanted/Just about as close as one could be/Hey, once he even followed Elvis Presley/And he wrote a lot of country songs for me . . .” including #1’s “Carolyn” and “The Roots Of My Raising.” Merle told of Tommy turning to the ministry, “For years he chose to let his music go/But preaching wasn’t really meant for Leonard/But how in the hell was Leonard supposed to know . . .” Attesting to his finite way with words, Haggard proceeded, “Well, life began to twist its way around him/And I wondered how he carried such a load/He came back again to try his luck in music/And lost his wife and family on the road . . .” Collins was proud of that tribute.
We also remember when Kitty Wells scheduled a farewell performance at the Nightlife Theatre near Opryland, shortly after the start of the Millennium, and a sentimental Merle sent the Queen of Country Music several dozen roses in commemoration.
Haggard had a good heart when it came to the music folk who inspired him, like recording tribute albums to the likes of Jimmie Rodgers, “Same Train, A Different Time,” featuring the Blue Yodeler’s classics (1969); “A Tribute To the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World,” his salute to Texas Playboy Bob Wills (1970); and a contemporary hero, “My Farewell To Elvis,” shortly after his untimely death in 1977.
Songs he wrote have honored his mom, “Mama Tried,” her parent “Grandma Harp,” father “Daddy Frank,” and his poignant remembrance of their hard scrabble existence in “Hungry Eyes,” reading in part, “I remember Daddy praying for a better way of life/But I don’t recall a change of any size/Just a little loss of courage, as their age began to show/And more sadness in my Mama’s hungry eyes . . .” and even more heart-rending is its climaxing chorus, “Mama never had the luxuries she wanted/But it wasn’t cause my Daddy didn’t try/She only wanted things she really needed/One more reason for my Mama’s hungry eyes.”
A career highlight was returning to prison to entertain the San Quentin population, a number of whom were inside the walls when he was serving time. Though admittedly not much of a churchgoer, he occasionally came up with an inspirational triumph, such as “Jesus Take a Hold” (#3, 1970) and the album “Land of Many Churches” with Bonnie and The Carter Family (#15, 1972). In 2001, he and gospel legend Albert Brumley got together to record an album of Christian songs, titled “Two Old Friends.” More recently, “Sweet Jesus,” which he co-wrote and sang with the Oak Ridge Boys, earned a 2015 Dove Award for song of the year. This from the man who wrote and recorded such rousers as “Ramblin’ Fever,” “It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad),” “Misery and Gin,” “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink,” and “C.C. Waterback.”

Mighty Merle in action!
Mighty Merle in action!

Some might argue that his works were variations on a similar theme, but he never forgot what Tommy told him, and wrote about what he knew and understood, no doubt slyly calculating it was what listeners longed to hear, and rightly so from the poet of the working man. Haggard’s albums and CDs also sold well, 16 of which went #1, including the Platinum-selling “Pancho & Lefty” with buddy Willie Nelson in 1983 for Epic, boasting a chart-topping title single, as well as their Top 10 duet “Reasons To Quit.” It also became Merle’s highest-charting crossover album (#39), and his #1 single “If We Make It Through December,” peaked at #28, in 1974, making it his top pop charting.
A few seasons earlier, Merle and pal George Jones hit #1 with their collaboration on “Yesterday’s Wine” (written by Willie), featured on their successful LP “A Taste of Yesterday’s Wine” (#4, 1982). Janie Fricke joined him in the mid-1980s on a pair of #1 singles: “A Place To Fall Apart” and “Natural High.”
Following his split with Leona in 1983, he encountered financial difficulties, but was able to recoup thanks to that terrific talent. Although he once wrote, “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee,” he later confided that he did indeed do so, and even experimented with cocaine. But recognizing what it was doing to him, he quit under his own steam. Haggard in Wisconsin
In 1985, he married Debbie Parret, but that coupling also ended in divorce in 1991. Two years later, he wed Theresa Ann Lane, mother of his children Jenessa and Ben, who as an adult played in pop’s band The Strangers, much as sons Marty and Noel had done years before.
Haggard’s last #1 was “Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star” (Feb. 20, 1988). A year later, he scored his last major success, “A Better Love Next Time” (#4, 1989), but he never stopped recording or taking his music to the fans, until failing health caused him to be hospitalized.
In June 2015, another Willie and Merle album, “Django & Jimmie,” debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart, and at #7 on the pop Top 200 albums list. Nelson described it thusly, “The title track is about (guitarist) Django Reinhardt and Jimmie Rodgers. Both of these guys were very influential in both of our careers.” It received critical acclaim internationally. And according to Merle, “Willie sang like he was a teen-ager.”
Meantime, Merle and Mac Wiseman also had an album collaboration, “Timeless,” released in 2015, in which the two icons shared the mic on songs from the past, such as Carl Smith’s “If Teardrops Were Pennies,” Tommy Collins’ “High On a Hilltop,” Mac’s “Jimmy Brown The Newsboy,” Merle’s “Mama Tried” and another Haggard creation that was never a single, “Learning to Live With Myself,” as a solo featuring backing by The Isaacs. Merle long admired Mac’s vocals and initiated the joint sessions, produced by longtime Haggard producer Ronnie Reno, and included guest vocals by Vince Gill on two tracks. Mac n Merle, 2015
“I think Merle had also done one by himself recently,” muses Mac, 90, commenting on his friend’s studio sessions, shortly after Merle’s passing. “I was half-way prepared because Ronnie (Reno) had kept me pretty much updated on his health problem . . . but of course I was still hoping and praying he might bounce back. One thing’s for certain, he left one helluva legacy.”
Reno adds his reaction to the news, “I am incredibly saddened by the passing of my dear friend Merle Haggard . . . today, of all days, on his 79th birthday. I first met Merle while working with the Osborne Brothers. I worked for Merle about eight years, and we went through so much together. There were good times and there were other times, well, that only he and I could laugh about. He loved to hear me laugh for some reason. He would call me up just to hear me laugh when he needed some cheering . . . I was hoping to see him last month, but he fell ill and I’ve been praying and talking with him often throughout this time. Today, I was contacted by the family and found out that Merle had expressed his desire to have me sing ‘Life’s Railway to Heaven’ at the funeral. What a fitting song for such an amazing man.” Reno, son of Bluegrass Hall of Famer Don Reno, currently hosts Reno’s Old Time Music on RFD-TV.
“Merle was a singer’s singer, a musician’s musician, and a songwriter’s songwriter,” notes singer-songwriter Bill Anderson. “He set the feelings of the everyday common man to music, creating songs that will outlive us all. I feel privileged to have toured with him and known as both a great artist and as a friend. His passing leaves a big hole in country music and in the hearts of the millions who loved him and his artistry.”
“We join the world of the broken-hearted, hearing of the death of Merle Haggard,” says Kenny Alphin, who with John Rich comprise Big & Rich. “One of the first things John and I realized we had in common was our love of Haggard songs. What a blessing to have had a chance to get to know him and work with such a legend in our career. Merle, guess you finally are on the ultimate ‘Natural High.’ We will have your music in our hearts and souls, and honkytonk nights forever.”

Merle backstage with John Rich of Big & Rich.
Merle backstage with John Rich of Big & Rich.

    Jeannie Seely, who sang backup on Haggard hits “Ramblin’ Fever” and “I’m Always On a Mountain When I Fall,” recalls their first meeting: “When I first met Merle, I was a little intimidated because my Mom warned me of anybody who had been in prison. I got over my fears and we became very close through the years. He recorded two of my songs ‘Life Of a Rodeo Cowboy’ and ‘My Love For You.’ His passing is such a loss to not only me personally, but our entire industry. We all loved The Hag.”
Willie Nelson penned this on Facebook the afternoon of Merle’s death: “He was my brother, my friend. I will miss him.” Dolly Parton, who wrote Merle’s #1 song “Kentucky Gambler,” opines, “We’ve lost one of the greatest writers and singers of all time. His heart was as tender as his love ballads . . . Rest easy, Merle.”

Linda Davis and Merle Haggard
Merle with singer Linda Davis.

Remembering Sonny James, country legend

Sonny James voice silenced . . .

NASHVILLE — “True Love’s a Blessing,” which no doubt Sonny James wrote and sang from the heart, sort of sums up his life. First there was the musical family of his childhood, then Doris, the love of his life, and the loyalty and affection of fans, celebrating him as The Southern Gentleman.
Sonny James died Feb. 22, age 87, at Alive Hospice in Nashville. Among the Country Music Hall of Famer’s finest hits were his co-writes “You’re the Only World I Know,” “A Little Bit South of Saskatoon,” plus a 1956 release, “Young Love,” a #1 pop and country crossover disc that helped launch the fabled Nashville Sound.
On a personal note, our family misses the annual holiday card from the James household, a tradition we’ve delighted in for years. Doris and Sonny were indeed caring and thoughtful folk, and unfortunately she suffered a stroke more than a year ago.

Mr. and Mrs. Sonny Claus
                           Mr. & Mrs. ‘Sonny’ Claus!

Sonny’s genuineness was reflected in his sincere and straightforward presentation of songs produced through the years. That he succeeded is evidenced by over 110 Billboard chartings between 1953 and 1983, including #1 albums “The Best of Sonny James” (1966) and “Need You” (1967), boasting such chart-topping singles as “Take Good Care Of Her,” “Behind the Tear,” “You’re the Only World I Know” and “Need You.”
Born May 1, 1928, James Hugh Loden’s parents Della and Archey ran a small country store in Hackleburg, Ala. Already performers, they included their children Thelma and Sonny soon as they were big enough to sing and play as part of The Loden Family, making their way via local radio and in-person appearances promoted on-the-air.    As a youngster, their “Sonny” boy first learned to play mandolin from a rough-hewn instrument father fashioned from a Shaker wooden molasses bucket.
At 4, he took his first public performing bow at an Alabama convention, and the applause hooked him for the next half century. A quick study, Sonny soon mastered fiddle, banjo and guitar, and later reflected on this skill: “Most pickers – I know Ricky Skaggs is that way – can play most anything with strings. I just grew up playing ’em, not realizing I wasn’t supposed to, so I learned to play both fiddle and guitar.” Nonetheless, his fiddlin’ surpassed the competition enough to win several championships as a youth, and later played on sessions for other acts, such as Jim & Jesse, the bluegrass duo.
“Each (instrument) would help you play the other one better, I think, because it has to do with coordination,” James mused. “I find most fiddle players can adapt to most any instrument  . . .  I don’t know why, I guess, unless it’s the action of the wrist and the noting of the fiddle. It has no frets on it. You see a lot of people, they don’t realize in playing fiddle, it’s almost a marriage between your ear and hand. That’s the only gauge you have . . . you don’t have a fret like you do on mandolin . . . but on a fiddle , you sort of have to learn you can be a little sharp or a little flat, see? So that really helps you . . . I’m speaking in country music, for that’s all I can talk about. Once you get your coordination down on the fiddle, you can generally play other instruments. At least that’s the way it was with me.”
The Lodens played show dates throughout the Southeastern U.S. As Sonny’s vocals matured, he stepped up front at their shows, ultimately billed as Sonny Loden & His Southerners, berthed at such radio stations as WAPI-Birmingham, WJDX-Jackson, Miss., and WPTF-Raleigh.

The Loden clan and teen-aged Sonny
The Loden band (from left) Pop, Joe Turner, Mom, Thelma, Sonny and Ruby Palmer, who was raised by the Lodens.

Still there was time for Sonny to partake of his love of sports, and he played ball in school. Following graduation from high school, James joined the Alabama National Guard, and Uncle Sam called them into service to fight the Korean War, which kicked off in June 1950. In his 15 months, Sonny still managed to write songs, filling up a notebook, while entertaining fellow GIs and Korean orphans with his pickin’ and singin’ talents, until his ’52 discharge.
During his stint at WPTF, he’d met musician Chet Atkins, then playing fiddle (before switching to guitar) for Johnnie Wright’s Tennessee Hillbillies. When James came to Nashville, he looked up Atkins, then understudying A&R honcho Steve Sholes at RCA Records. Chet listened to Sonny’s songs and recommended him to Capitol boss Ken Nelson, who liked his vocals better than the compositions, and gave him a contract that summer of 1952.
A year later – having taken Ken’s advice to drop the Loden – as Sonny James he charted his first single “That’s Me Without You” (a cover of Webb Pierce’s hit), notching Top 10 for a single week. Still it was a warm welcome for an unknown.
Ken Nelson told this writer of a song he supposedly put “on hold” for Sonny with its publisher, titled “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know,” which they recorded after Ken prompted Fred Rose (Acuff-Rose) to do a slight rewrite of the Cecil Null creation. Fred Stryker, the local publisher, pulled a fast one on Ken, asking for a dub of Sonny’s track, then gave it to a new duo The Davis Sisters, whose subsequent RCA single beat Capitol’s to the punch complete with changes, giving the gals a #1 disc from the get-go, and sold a million records in ’53.
The next chart single, “She Done Give Her Heart To Me” (#14, 1954), which Sonny wrote, also lasted one week. He fared better via a co-write with Jack Morrow, “For Rent (One Empty Heart),” charting 11 weeks (#7, 1956). Two additional charters were “20 Feet of Muddy Water” (#11) and his self-penned “The Cat Came Back” (#12), preceding the year-end smash “Young Love” (co-written by Carole Joyner & Ric Cartey), which made Sonny a star to be reckoned with.
That gem was “pitched” to Ken by Atlanta publisher Bill Lowery, and despite Sonny’s less-than-enthusiastic reaction, recorded it a week later in October 1956. To James’ surprise, “Young Love” topped both country and pop charts, and also peaked #3 on the R&B chart, placing Sonny in a rarefied list of country stars claiming a hit on Billboard’s three coveted lists.
“I had so much faith in the record, I put it on rush release,” recalled Nelson, who assigned Wade Pepper, an adept Atlanta promoter, to plug the disc nationally. An across-the-board success, it did extremely well with DJs, on jukeboxes and sales-wise totaled three million discs sold. No doubt Dot Records’ screen teen idol Tab Hunter’s quick cover disc cut into James #1 stay atop the pop chart, though both charted pop 17 weeks each. Tab’s tune spent six weeks topping the pop list, five weeks longer than Sonny, who held fast to his #1 country status nine weeks, for a total 24 weeks’ charting.     Additionally, “Young Love’s” flip-side “You’re the Reason I’m in Love” also enjoyed hit status on the country chart (#6, 1957).
(Ken Nelson, irked with Dot, got revenge by covering Dot’s hit “A Fallen Star” by Jimmy C. Newman that same year, with Capitol’s Ferlin Husky release, which kept Newman just shy of scoring #1.)

Sonny James 1950s
During the 1950s, Sonny became a regular on WNOX’s Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round, KWKH’s Louisiana Hayride, and the CBS-TV series Ozark Jubilee. The slender 6’3” star was a popular guest on such broadcasts as KRLD’s Big D Jamboree in Dallas, WSM’s Grand Ole Opry, as well as covering the national scene, via shows of Jimmy Dean, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Pat Boone and Ed Sullivan’s CBS Sunday Toast Of the Town variety series.
In the pop realm, James’ follow-up was “First Date, First Kiss, First Love,” a 1957 teen ditty, scoring Top 20, while charting country’s Top 10, as well. It proved timely, making a great serenade while dating Doris Shrode, whom he’d recently met at a church in Dallas. The couple wed in July 1957, and though childless, theirs became one of the music scene’s most successful marriages.
Come August 1957, Sonny charted “Lovesick Blues” (#15), his smooth revival of Hank Williams’ 1949 breakthrough #1, backed with “Dear Love.” Its novelty number follow-up, “Uh-Huh-mm,” brought him back into the prestigious Top 10 (#8, 1958). For some four years, however, James was noticeably absent from Billboard, with the sole exception of a 1960 Top 20 country cut “Jenny Lou.”

TX ad for Big D Jamboree radio show
In 1962 James became a regular Opry cast member, while touring constantly with his Southern Gentlemen backing group. In 1963, Jimmy Gately’s “The Minute You’re Gone” chalked up another chart Top 10 for James, followed by the melodic Jean Chapel number, “Going Through the Motions of Living” (#17, 1963).
Felice and Boudleaux Bryant’s ballad “Baltimore” proved another winner (#8, 1964), followed by a romantic #1 “You’re the Only World I Know,” which he wrote with Bob Tubert, who also supplied his next release “I’ll Keep Holding On,” a near number one. Next up, Ned Miller’s “Behind a Tear” proved a chart topper, as well, and followed by Sonny’s self-penned “True Love’s a Blessing” (#3, 1965), co-written with Carole Smith, who became a frequent song collaborator with the Southern Gentleman.
James’ pattern of a #1 and a near-#1 reoccurred in 1966, with release of back-to-back singles “Take Good Care of Her” (#1) and his own “Room in Your Heart” (#2). In 1967, he co-hosted the Country Music Association’s premiere awards show with singer Bobbie Gentry, in spite of an innate shyness.
As former label boss and mentor Ken Nelson noted, between 1967’s “Need You” and 1971’s “Here Comes Honey Again” (another Carole collaboration), James hit the musical jackpot: “Sonny was the only artist during my era, pop or county, who had 16 successive number one hits!”
A little explanation is in order. As a boy, Sonny learned his dad’s favorite singer was Nat (King) Cole, a fellow Alabamian. So when signed to Capitol, Sonny got to meet the amiable black artist. Not only did they become fast friends, but it was Cole who suggested James consider R&B classics that lend themselves to country. His King Cole Trio had done just that in reverse, notably the 1944 #1 country click “Straighten Up and Fly Right” and “I Can’t See For Lookin’,” (#2, ’44), as well as “Ramblin’ Rose” later.
Like the 1950s’ Johnnie & Jack (with “Oh Baby Mine, I Get So Lonely” and “Goodnight Sweetheart, Goodnight”), James began arranging R&B songs suitable for the country crowd, among these hitting #1 for him were the Big Bopper’s “Running Bear,” Ivory Joe Hunter’s “Since I Met You Baby” and “Empty Arms,” Brook Benton and Clyde Otis’ “It’s Just a Matter of Time” and “Endlessly,” and Jimmy Reed’s “Bright Lights, Big City.” James also revisited other genre hits, including Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely,” Arlie Duff’s “It’s the Little Things,” Cindy Walker’s “Heaven Says Hello,” and The Chordette’s “Born To Be With You,” his formulaic twist turned them all into #1 country cuts.
Oddly enough, his re-do of Hal David and Burt Bacharach’s “Only Love Can Break a Heart,” ranking 17th (and once a hit for Gene Pitney), stalled at #2, but its two successors “That’s Why I Love You Like I Do” (by Jack Morrow and Kelso Herston) and “When the Snow Is On the Roses” also struck the bell at #1 in ’72. James’ final Billboard #1, his 23rd, was “Is It Wrong,” a 1974 revival of Warner Mack’s 1957 breakthrough ballad.
Nonetheless, on the competitive trade chart Cash Box, Sonny actually scored 21 successive #1 songs from 1966-1972, counting “Take Good Care of Her,” “Room In Your Heart” and “Only Love Can Break a Heart” all deemed chart-toppers, followed by “That’s Why I Love You Like I Do” and “When the Snow Is On the Roses,” totaling 21.

Sonny James a 1970s cover boy
1970s cover boy Sonny James.

In 1971, James became the first artist to record especially for a space flight, Apollo 14, taking his music to the moon, and upon its return, Commander Alan Shepard presented an awed Sonny with an American flag that had been part of the project.
Meanwhile, Sonny’s post-1971 Top 10s also included “White Silver Sands,” “I Love You More and More Every Day,” “A Mi Esposa Con Amor (To My Wife With Love),”  “A Little Band of Gold,” “What In the World’s Come Over You,” “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby,” “Come On In” and “You’re Free To Go,” his last (1977).
“Ken Nelson was the best person to work with for me,” James explained. “I cut two albums on the West Coast, but the rest of them were recorded here. Then the people who worked the Nashville office for Ken, notably Marvin Hughes, we never went into the studio that we didn’t work well together, and he cut I don’t know how many top songs for me; and also Kelso Herston, one of my dear friends, and all through that time, I couldn’t ask for better production men.”
Helping to spread his musical fame farther afield were appearances and soundtrack vocals in various cinematic ventures a la “Las Vegas Hillbillies” (1966) and its (1967) sequel “Hillbillies In a Haunted House,” both with friend Ferlin Husky and Hollywood glamour girls Mamie Van Doren, Jayne Mansfield and Joi Lansing. Rounding out James’ film credits are “Nashville Rebel” (1966), Paul Newman’s “Slap Shot” (1977), “Lipstick On Your Collar” (1993), “A Holiday For Love” (1996), and Jake Paltrow’s “Young Ones” (2014).

Sonny James upclose
Moving to the other side of the mic, James produced the Osmond family’s only daughter Marie for MGM, writing all the arrangements for her debut album “Paper Roses,” which not only scored #1 three weeks, but sold Gold, and crossed into the Billboard pop chart. It also introduced Marie to the singles chart, giving her a #1 chart debut – a feat accomplished by only a handful of female artists, notably Kitty Wells, Goldie Hill, Jean Shepard, Skeeter Davis, Connie Smith and Donna Fargo – and helped her win a Grammy. Sonny also produced her twin follow-up albums, “In My Little Corner Of the World” (#10, 1974) and “Who’s Sorry Now” (#20, 1975), giving the newcomer a good foothold in the genre. Big brother Donnie Osmond decided to revive Sonny’s biggest success “Young Love” (#25, 1973), his falling  far short.
A highlight for Sonny – a concept album pioneer – was the 1976 LP, “200 Years of Country Music,” musically marking the nation’s 200th anniversary, a project taking over a year to research and record. Another he prized, was “In Prison, In Person,” a 1977 release, utilizing musician-inmates credited as his Prison Band, cut inside the walls of Tennessee State Prison. When WestSide Records in England combined these two landmark LPs into a single 2001 CD, this writer had the honor of writing its liner notes (and still treasures James’ thank you copy).
At the time, Sonny confided, “I’m glad that’s coming out, especially the ‘200 Years’ album, which I recorded for the Bicentennial, so that marks its 25th anniversary.”

James double LP revived in the UK
Sonny last charted in August 1983, “A Free Roamin’ Mind” (#58), another co-write with Carole Smith and in 1985, James retired from show business. The single “One Big Family” found Sonny guesting on a Heart Of Nashville collaborative benefit, sharing the mic with fellow artists like Roy Acuff, Lynn Anderson, Eddy Arnold, Bobby Bare, George Jones, Webb Pierce, Jerry Reed, Tanya Tucker, Porter Wagoner and Faron Young, as his swan song (#61, 1985).
James confided he was suffering a mysterious throat ailment that affected his singing, and despite treatment by specialists, never recovered enough to satisfy his own high standards vocally. In retirement, he relished the freedom for fishing, and along with Doris, his wife of 58 years, the opportunity to travel, and serve others through their involvement with the Church of Christ. They were both physical fitness buffs, visiting the gym regularly. At the time, he joshed, “Doris is really keeping me in shape.”
Sonny also acknowledged: “I love sports; I follow them all, according to the season. I really get caught up in it. Some of the most enjoyable times I’ve ever had, have been with Little League teams, watching little kids play ball.”

Sonny and wife at ann'y party 1987
Doris and Sonny at a 1987 reception (photo by D. Trott).

Honors coming his way have included a Star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame; Record World magazine’s citation as 1970s’ Artist of the Decade; induction into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 1987; being named a Lifetime Member of the Nashville Association of Musicians (AFM Local 257); and climaxing his career by being voted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, Class of 2006. He declared then,  “It’s a great honor to join many of my friends in the Country Music Hall of Fame.”
A memorial service conducted Feb. 25 at  Brentwood Hills Church of Christ in Nashville, consisted of prayers, hymns and fond remembrances of those who knew him well. Participants included vocalist Andy Flatt, Jonathan Seamon and Walt Leaver. The Recessional was his own recorded instrumental interpretation of “Eres Tu (Touch The Wind),” while other songs sung included “Love Lifted Me” and “When They Ring Them Golden Bells.” Pallbearers were former bandsmen and friends Kevin Anderson, Barry Estes, Milo Liggett, Reggie McLaughlin, Gary and Greg Robble and Ronnie Williams. A down-home service was held Feb. 27 at Hamilton Funeral Home, with Interment in Cedar Tree Cemetery, Hackleburg, Ala.
Sharing her condolences, Marie Osmond Twittered: “Country Music Hall of Famer, producer & lifelong friend #SonnyJames. U will be missed! #RIP.”  Marie’s former label boss Mike Curb weighed in with his remembrance of his late friend: “Sonny James opened the doors of Nashville to me. He was the first person to invite me into a recording session at the Quonset Hut in 1964, and it started a friendship that lasted our whole lifetime. When I became Billboard Producer of the Year (in the early 1970s), I realized that I needed to find someone better than me to produce Marie Osmond. I called Sonny, who produced ‘Paper Roses,’ which went all the way to #1. I also got to witness Sonny’s first #1 country record ‘You’re The Only World I Know’ (actually his second). More important than all of that was a lifetime of friendship with Sonny and Doris; even seeing him the last two days of his life will have eternal meaning for me.”
Yet another producer, Jerry Crutchfield (Dave Loggins, Brenda Lee, Glen Campbell), added, “Few if any possessed such a combination of talent, character, personality and genuine niceness to others, as did Sonny. Best and warm thoughts to Doris.”
Songwriter Curly Putman (“Green, Green Grass of Home”) texted this message regarding Sonny to Doris, “Bernice and myself, Curly Putman, fellow Alabama songwriter, will miss him. We will be thinking of you. I will think of him with each fish I catch at Center Hill Lake. Love!!!”   (- By Walt Trott)

Sonny James hitmaker
Sonny James: country-pop musician,   vocalist, writer, producer, Hall of Famer.


Jimmy Fortune sans Statlers . . .

Jimmy Fortune at 60 . . . a visit with Walt Trott

NASHVILLE –Thanks to captivating vocals, country’s Jimmy Fortune ranks right up there with the legendary likes of fellow tenors Vince Gill, Mac Wiseman, Hank Locklin and Bobby Osborne. Of course, Jimmy’s already a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, due to his 21-year membership in the now-retired Statler Brothers, for whom he also wrote the #1 songs “Elizabeth,” “My Only Love” and “Too Much On My Heart.”

Jimmy Fortune's new CD.
                          Jimmy Fortune’s latest CD.

Those who dig hearing his soaring tones will be pleased knowing Jimmy’s got a new collection, “Hits & Hymns,” being released Oct. 23 in both CD and DVD formats. The latter will be the basis of a forthcoming PBS special, as well. Although it’s Fortune’s voice showcased throughout, he’s joined by a troupe blending familiar harmonies to the soundtrack, among these are Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, The Whites, The Oak Ridge Boys, Charlotte Ritchie and The Isaacs, Sonya and Ben.

“There are also a couple of other singers – Sydni Perry and Mike Rogers – we feature on three gospel tracks,” notes Fortune. “They also accompany me sometimes on tour. No, I don’t take a band out, we just do a trio thing on the road.”

Fortune’s touring averaged about 80 shows a year, however, his friendship with bluegrass duo Dailey & Vincent (Jamie and Darrin, respectively) and their appearances together on RFD cable TV, resulted in additional shows this year, including bluegrass festivals.

“On those, I do a 90-minute set and then come out later for another 30 minutes guesting with them,” adds Fortune. “You know they did an album of Statler hits – ‘Dailey & Vincent Sing The Statler Brothers’ – that won a couple bluegrass awards, and even got a (2011) Grammy nomination for their recording of ‘Elizabeth.’ Can you imagine that, after all those years! Daily & Vincent are absolute talents and I think they’re trying to expand their musical boundaries, doing other than bluegrass, and I hope the people out there will recognize that.”

            Apart from being an advocate for them, Fortune maintains, “I am still a Statler Brother, and I will die being one. I’m an ambassador for the group. They were about God, family and country, and that’s what I’m all about. You know (acclaimed author-humorist) Kurt Vonnegut called the Statlers, America’s poets.” Statlers Xmas card-1The Statler Brothers in their heyday!

            Their repertoire represents a mix of downhome original songs, performed with an almost gospel feel, though sometimes peppered with humor and satire. Among their greatest hits are “The Class of ’57,” “Bed of Rose’s,” “The Official Historian of Shirley Jean Birrell,” “I’ll Go To My Grave Loving You,” “Ruthless,” “You Can’t Have Your Kate and Edith, Too,” “Do You Know You Are My Sunshine” and “Charlotte’s Web.”

In 1955, the year Jimmy was born, the former Staunton, Va., high school group – Harold Reid, Phil Balsley, Lew DeWitt and lead singer Joe McDorman – were performing professionally as The Four Star Quartet. They became The Kingsmen in the early 1960s, but by the time a Portland, Ore. Rock band emerged under that name with a national 1963 hit “Louie, Louie,” they changed to The Statler Brothers, adopting a name spotted on a box of tissue in a hotel room. By then, McDorman had opted out, being replaced by Harold’s kid brother Don Reid.

So that was the Statler line-up when Johnny Cash engaged them as an opening act on a major tour in ’63. Two years later, Lew DeWitt’s song “Flowers On the Wall,” became their first Billboard chart song (#2) and the rest, as they say, is history.

Obviously, the Statlers did quite well by their tenors, as Lew’s “Flowers On the Wall” was their first chart record, and Jimmy’s “More Than a Name On a Wall,” their last Top 10 charting, a quarter of a century later.

Due to DeWitt’s declining health, suffering Crohn’s disease, he departed the group in 1982, replaced by Fortune (and DeWitt died in 1990). Jimmy says the first song he recorded with the Statlers was their remake of the Johnnie & Jack hit “I Get So Lonely (Oh Baby Mine),” for their Top 10 “Today” album, and which as a single peaked at #2 in 1983. In 1985, the group enjoyed its only #1 album “Pardners in Rhyme,” which boasted the Fortune-penned chart-topper “Too Much On My Heart.”

Their longest-charting album is the Mercury compilation “Best Of The Statler Brothers” (#2, 1975), a triple-platinum seller, hanging in there 168 weeks. Yet another longevity album is “Atlanta Blue” (#8, 1984), charting 136 weeks and featuring the #1 single “My Only Love.”

One of country’s major award winners, The Statlers earned CMA’s best vocal group annually (1972-’77) and again in 1979, 1980 and 1984, and a trio of Grammy statuettes. Their Gospel Hall of Fame induction occurred in 2007, a year prior to their Country Music Hall of Fame honor.

The Gospel Hall of Fame citation would have pleased his mother, who originally hoped Jimmy would become a preacher. He remembers her affectionately as “a prayer warrior,” a no-nonsense person, who was concerned about her son’s marital failures and its effect on his family.

“She didn’t like it,” muses Fortune, looking a decade younger than his 60 years. “My mom and dad were both disappointed those marriages ended in divorce. I wasn’t a perfect person, and there are things I wished I could change, but I take the blame.”

Lester James Fortune, one of nine children born to Odie (Byrd) and Dabney Fortune, arrived March 11, 1955, in Williamsburg, Va. While growing up, the family entertained themselves, harmonizing at home.

Jimmy started out playing in high school groups, and kept nurturing his first love.

“Of course, I was out in the bars a lot in my life and it taught me something. But I never was into alcohol or the drug scene. Unfortunately, my dad was an alcoholic and that’s probably what turned me away from it. I saw what it did to him, but at a late age, he turned his life around and gave himself to God. It was in time enough that he became my hero. I knew anybody could turn his life around, if my dad did, because he had it so bad. That showed me that I could turn my life around, too.”

When he first became involved with the Statlers, he had a day job selling cars in Charlottesville, while playing in local bands six nights a week, singing cover songs. Lew heard Jimmy sing and when he became ill, suggested the unknown 26-year-old as a temporary tenor in the internationally famed quartet (in November 1981).

“Initially, it was temporary, as Lew was supposed to be back in about six months. With that in mind, I could accept it. If they hired me from the start to replace Lew, I think I would’ve said, ‘Fellows, I don’t think I can do this.’ Thinking it was only temporary, I could feel good about helping somebody. I just loved being able to do what I did. I mean it was a dream come true.”

Then upon Lew’s return, they kept Jimmy in the band playing rhythm guitar and as backup singer in case DeWitt took sick on the road. Fortune said his first audition was in Staunton, but for the final verdict he was sent an airline ticket to try-out in Nashville, which marked his first ever flight.

After DeWitt bowed out, Fortune was finally announced as his permanent replacement: “When I went out for the first few shows, people would walk through the line when we’d sign autographs after the show, and some would kinda pull back their pen and paper, and walk around me, to go to the next artist. I could understand that and I’d look at them and grin. I knew it wasn’t easy to accept somebody new like that.

“I wanted to make a place for myself so bad. I finally figured the best way to do that was to write a song they would like. I couldn’t shake the feeling that it belonged to somebody else, not me . . . I mean face it, one week I was in Charlottesville working a day job and playing local bars, and the next week I was in Texas at the Astrodome, playing to 40,000 people. I wondered how did I get here?”

Songwriting was something he longed to do, and Jimmy asked Don and Harold if he wrote a song would they record it? “Harold gave me the most honest answer he could, ‘Yeah, little buddy, if it’s good enough.’ Well, I had a melody that kept sounding in my head, and it really lent itself well to harmony. But I didn’t have any lyrics.”

One day in a store buying supplies to take on their tour bus, Jimmy heard “This little girl in a shopping cart, and it seemed she was into everything, and her mother kept saying ‘Elizabeth’ this . . . and ‘Elizabeth’ that, and I got a kick out of it. Then while playing in Tulsa, Okla., I kept seeing this hand coming up over the front of the stage, from back where I was playing. Towards the end of the night, we’d go up towards the front of the stage, and I looked over to see who belonged to the hand and there was this beautiful young lady, saying, ‘Hey, I’m Elizabeth! I’m Elizabeth!,’ like I should know her, and she was so pretty, with that beaming face. I told her ‘I’m going to write a song about you.’ Some time later, she and her brother came to our 4th of July show and she reminded me of that Tulsa time, ‘You said you would write a song about my name, and you did!’ She’s not the only one who felt ‘Elizabeth’ was inspired by her name.”

In February 1984, the Statlers, who have played for presidents, were invited to perform at Elizabeth Taylor’s 52nd birthday party in old Tucson, Ariz. “Elizabeth” was climbing the charts, so the boys sang it to honor the movie legend. “After we sang it, Harold said we wrote the song especially for her,” grins Fortune. “That was all right. She was very gracious and a nice lady.”

From 1991 to 1998, the group produced its own variety series on TNN, which was the cable network’s top rated show during its run. Fortune also recalls the group’s last gig’s date and site – Oct. 26, 2002 at the Salem (Va.) Civic Center – a heart-wrenching experience: “The last song we sang there was ‘Amazing Grace’ and it was also the very first song I ever sang with them on stage. Just before we did that closing number, we talked about my Mom, who died in 2000, and I about lost it. Later, I saw on the DVD of that final show, I actually made it through the song, but Lord I was torn up.”

Jimmy notes it was only a short time before the Salem show, that his “brothers” broke it to him that would be their finale, saying, “We’ve been knockin’ this around, and we’re retiring this year. We wanted you to hear it from us before the word got out . . . What do you think you’re gonna do?”

At age 47, the Virginia native felt too young to quit, and recorded a secular album for Audium Records, fittingly titled “When One Door Closes,” and made some promotional appearances.

“I’d built a brand new home out there on the side of a mountain, a beautiful place, but I had four kids in college and was having a tough time trying to run a career out of Staunton. Well, I put a price on the house and four days later, it sold. I took that as a confirmation from God, it was right.”

In June 2004, he and wife Nina determined it was best to move to Nashville to conduct a solo career in earnest. “We were married in 1998, after I’d dated her awhile, but being older than she is, I wasn’t sure it would work. But now I know if it wasn’t for Nina, none of this would’ve been possible. After being with the Statlers, I didn’t know anything about booking or publishing. She had been an accountant, and started learning about all this, and now she runs a tight ship, and I need that. She is my left brain.”

Once in Nashville, Jimmy recorded his first solo gospel album, “I Believe” (2004), co-produced with bassist Dave Fowler, who had co-authored the title track with Fortune: “I got to know Dave years ago when he was playing for Helen Cornelius, and they opened for the Statlers. He said then, ‘If you ever do something on your own, I’d like to be part of it.’ I remembered that.”

Other Fortune collections include “Feels Like Christmas” (2006), “Windows” (2009) and “Lessons” (2012). For the new “Hits & Hymns” CD, he had Ben Isaacs produce, and among the selections are three former Statler hits: “Elizabeth,” “Too Much On My Heart” and “More Than a Name On a Wall.” Naturally, Jimmy was concerned how to make them sound fresh.

“What Ben did when he got all the musicians and me together in the studio, he said, ‘Guys, these songs have been done a lot. What I want us to do is approach these songs like it’s the first time anybody’s ever heard them.’ Gordon Mote, the pianist, whom I think is anointed, starts playing and I wonder ‘where’s this going?,’ when all of a sudden Aubrey Haynie, the fiddler, joins in and starts doing his thing in the same vein, and it took me to a place I’d never been before. It’s all more acoustic, and to me the music is simply brilliant. I heard ‘Amazing Grace’ like never before . . . Sonya Isaacs comes in on it and I get chill bumps, and when Vince Gill comes in, I start crying like a baby. It’s so different.”

Fortune fathered sons Chris, Matthew, Grant, Jimmy Jr. and daughters Jessica, Meghann and Courtney: “Yes, I have seven children and eight grandchildren, and they’re all so special to me.”

Are any musically inclined, or interested in a career as an artist?

“My son Matthew writes well and sings. I told him, ‘If you come to Nashville, maybe I could help you.’ He’s got three kids, and he looks at his boys and says, ‘This is the reason I won’t do it.’ I told him if he became an artist and won best song year after year, I couldn’t be any prouder of him than I am when he said that.”

Currently, Jimmy’s prepping his own book, a biography, with the aid of a ghostwriter: “He’s a friend of mine, who went with me to Virginia and we talked about my growing up there. He’s a great guy. I’ve decided on a title for it, ‘Untold Fortune,’ there’s no better way to put it.”



Promoter Charlie Dick dies

Promoter Charlie Dick dies

Promoter Charlie Dick succumbs at age 81 . . .

NASHVILLE – Entrepreneur Charlie Dick, 81, died Nov. 8 at his home here, following a brief illness. Good buddy Mac Wiseman called Charlie “the keeper of the flame,” noting how he kept the career of his late wife Patsy Cline burning brightly more than half a century after her tragic 1963 death.

Today (Nov. 12) we honored him for this and his own country music contributions through the years, at a funeral service in First Baptist Church. Among mourners besides daughter Julie Fudge, sons Randy and Chip Dick, and their families, were friends like former Opry manager Jerry Strobel, singers Jeannie Seely, Jett Williams, Michelle & Jimmy Capps, his former secretary Marsha Basore, and even ex-wife Jamey Ryan.

Keith Bilbrey, announcer on RFD’s Larry’s Country Diner, spoke at the family’s request, saying, “Charlie was a prankster.” He remembered the time that he had to have surgery for a hernia, and Charlie related the tiniest detail about his corrective surgery for the same problem, to prepare Keith ad nauseam;  however, following Keith’s surgery, sent him an invitation to join Charlie and friends on a “trail ride.”

Although understandably emotional, Chip eulogized his father, managing to weave in some humorous anecdotes, agreeing Dad was indeed a jokester. On a more serious note, The Reverend David Royalty officiated, and a three-piece string band offered a mix of gospel and country songs between the talks.

Charles Allen Dick was born May 24, 1934 to Mary (Heflin) and Leland Dick near Whitehall in Frederick County, Va. In 1950, he dropped out of Handley High School – “I didn’t get along with teachers very well” – then worked as a linotype operator for the daily Winchester Star newspaper (which he’d once sold as a kid).

Country Music Hall of Famer Wiseman, 90, said in a telephone chat, “Charlie was special, and you could always rely on him . . . what you saw was what you got. He was the same fun fellow when I talked to him the other day, as he was when I met him close to 60 years ago.”

Charlie and Mac were Lifetime Members of the Reunion Of Professional Entertainers (ROPE), both still heading up the association’s executive board. Mac, five times president, offered to step down one summer while performing in Branson at Willie Nelson Theatre, sharing the bill with Willie and Merle Haggard.

“Well, Charlie and (fellow officer) George Riddle told me to forget about doing that, saying they could keep things running smoothly until my return.”

In an interview for Wiseman’s biography (“All My Memories Fit For Print,” Nova Books), Charlie recalled listening to country music on the radio as a youngster: “I never was a big bluegrass fan myself. When I first heard that type of music, we called it ‘string music.’ I lived in northern Virginia, up close to the West Virginia state line, out in the country. My mother kept the radio on as long as its battery would hold out. That was in the 1940s and actually I didn’t know one style from the next. She could pick up stations clearly like WSVA-Harrisonburg. Mac was on that station back then. I listened to some of it, the things I liked. Mom listened all the time, until the battery wore down.

“Mac was just country to us. The music we heard in Virginia then wasn’t called bluegrass, it was more raw hillbilly country without any amplifying or anything. As I got older, we started going to parks on weekends, where they had about any kind of acoustic music you could think of, some pretty smooth and some wild and crazy. I got so I liked all of it and maybe that’s why I ended up in the music business.”

After moving to Winchester, Charlie got to hanging around with local musicians and got more into it: “One weekend after I met Patsy, she was working a park down in Fredericksburg, and one of the other artists on the bill was Mac Wiseman. I had not yet met Mac. Well, Patsy brought along a box of fried chicken and me, I had a picnic-jug full of grapefruit juice and something else – it might’ve been gin (he chuckles). Now Mac was tickled to death to share Patsy’s chicken, but I think he even liked my beverage better, you know having something to wash it down with.

“Also on that day, they were advertising to ‘give away’ a Mac Wiseman Cadillac car by means of a raffle. I thought, ‘Wow! This is great!’ Back then I didn’t know too many people driving Caddies, especially one who was going to give it away. Then I heard it had a hundred thousand miles or more on it already, and figured Mac had driven it about all it was gonna go. But they did give it away. Meanwhile, backstage, the three of us ate, drank and visited, and we got on very well.”

Patsy, who had split with first husband Gerald Cline, liked Charlie’s take-charge manner and after receiving her divorce decree in March, married Charlie Dick on Sept. 15, 1957.

She was already making a name for herself, having signed with Four-Star Records, became a semi-regular on Jimmy Dean’s WMAL-TV Town & Country Time in Washington, D.C., and won CBS’s national Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts competition, thanks to her performance on her first hit “Walkin’ After Midnight.”

Charlie was summoned by Uncle Sam to serve in the Army (1957-1959). After Charlie wed Patsy, she went with him to Fort Bragg, N.C., temporarily putting her career on hold, while he worked as a motor pool dispatcher. Following discharge, they went back to Winchester with baby daughter Julie. In 1960, they moved to Nashville, where Patsy was signed to Decca Records, and Charlie went to work for Curly Printing.

The year 1961 was especially rewarding for Patsy, who scored her first #1 single “I Fall To Pieces,” and the classic “Crazy” (#2), which eventually became a Grammy Hall of Fame disc; she joined WSM’s Grand Ole Opry cast; and gave birth to son Allen Randolph (Randy).

Charlie frequently accompanied his wife on tour, and the associations he made led to later work within the music industry. One particular gig he missed was a benefit show to aid ailing Kansas City DJ Jack Call, and the returning flight with Cline, Hawkshaw Hawkins and Cowboy Copas in a plane piloted by Copas’ son-in-law Randy Hughes, struck a storm, crashing near Camden, Tenn., where all four occupants died on March 5, 1963.

The death of the three Opry stars reverberated around the world, and Randy’s wife Kathy, herself a former singer and mother of a son, lost both husband and dad. Cowboy’s wife had two teen-aged sons at home; Hawkins’  singer-wife Jean Shepard had a two-year-old and another son due a month later; while Charlie was left to raise Julie, 4, and Randy, 2.

Charlie Dick later worked as a music promoter for various independent labels, covering the Starday, King and Gusto catalogs. He was proud of his role in producing the smash Red Sovine single “Teddy Bear,” in coordination with Tommy Hill, in 1976. Dick explained: “Moe Lytle bought the Dickerson Road studio and Starday masters from Don Pierce. Tommy Hill, who was as good as they come, was part of that deal. One time when Tommy was on the road, Red called me and said, ‘I got something I want you to hear.’ He added, ‘Somebody gave it to me awhile back and I didn’t pay any attention to it, but I’ve just listened and like it. See what you think?’ So he played the tape over the phone, asking ‘What would you do if you had it?’ I told Red, ‘If it were me, I’d record it today.’

“Red already had a smash recitation ‘Giddyup Go,’ which he co-wrote with Tommy, so when Tommy got back, we all listened. But Moe was out of town and Tommy didn’t do too many things without his OK; but, as I recall, we went ahead and recorded it. Well, we put it out right away and ‘Teddy Bear’ sold over a million records and hit number one for us. Moe wasn’t upset about that.” (It also became a Top 40 pop success for Red.)

Harking back to July 4, 1965, Dick married newcomer Jamey Ryan, a talented Texan and younger cousin to Tommy Hill and sister Goldie Hill (Mrs. Carl Smith). In explaining their breakup in 1972, Charlie surmised Jamey didn’t dig standing forever in the shadow of Patsy Cline. Nonetheless, the couple produced a son Charles (Chip) Dick, Jr., in 1968, and he fit snugly into the surviving Dick family, while his parents remained friends.

In the meantime, Charlie devoted himself to promoting Patsy’s music in liaison with Decca/MCA, and her “star” shines even brighter, more than half a century after her untimely passing. In 1973, she was enshrined in the Country Music Hall of Fame, while Charlie’s company, Legacy, Inc., kept him busy overseeing her estate. This includes platinum-selling albums (one electronically with Jim Reeves, since they didn’t record together), technically advising two major motion pictures depicting Patsy – “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “Sweet Dreams” (in which Ed Harris plays Charlie) – and stage shows licensed about her life and songs, notably “Always . . . Patsy Cline,” “A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline,” and “Patsy Cline, The Musical” in the United Kingdom.

Later, in 1980s’ collaboration with Canadian filmmakers Greg and Mark Hall, Charlie helped produce documentaries like “The Real Patsy Cline,” “George Jones: The Same Ole Me,” “Loretta Lynn: Honky Tonk Girl,” “Waylon Jennings: Renegade, Outlaw, Legend,” and “Willie Nelson, My Life” for their Hallway Productions.

Survivors include daughter Julie Fudge, sons Allen (Randy) and Charles (Chip) Dick; five grandchildren; seven great-grandchildren; and brother Melvin Dick. Interment will be next to wife Patsy in the Shenandoah Memorial Park, Winchester, Va., where on her stone it reads: “Death cannot kill what never dies: Love.

Tommy Overstreet passes

Tommy Overstreet passes

Death of 1970s’ balladeer Tommy Overstreet . . . 

NASHVILLE – There was a time when Tommy Overstreet’s winning formula of name songs about gals doing him wrong, made him one of country music’s top stars, thanks to “Gwen (Congratulations),” “Ann (Don’t Go Runnin’)” and “(Jeannie Marie) You Were a Lady.” Sadly, on Nov. 2, time ran out for Tommy, 78, who died at his Hillsboro home, west of Portland, Ore.

First interviewed Tommy when he was in Wiesbaden, Germany, to entertain American forces, backed by his Nashville Express band. This was shortly after scoring introductory back-to-back 1971 Top Five singles “Gwen” and “I Don’t Know You (Anymore),” while celebrating a near #1, “Ann,” in ’72.

The decade would proclaim him a smooth ballad singer, no doubt heavily influenced by ancestral cousin Gene Austin, a 1920s’ pop singer whose 39 Top 10 discs included nine classic chart-toppers, among them “Bye, Bye Blackbird,” “My Blue Heaven” and a pair of “name” songs “Ramona” and “Jeannine (I Dream of Lilac Time).” Their younger cousin is folk singer Susan St. Marie (“All Or Nothing With Me”), who never attained the impressive chartings of her famed relatives.

Although born Sept. 10, 1937 in Oklahoma City, Tommy’s family moved to Abilene, Texas, when he was a youngster. He took up the guitar, and initially enjoyed playing pop tunes, confiding, “My mother said I started singing when I was born. Anyway, I always wanted to be a singer from as long ago as I can remember.”

At 17, Tommy landed a semi-regular gig on Abilene-TV’s The Slim Willet Show, Willet being the writer and first to hit #1 country with his song “Don’t Let The Stars Get In Your Eyes” (also a 1952 #1 pop cover for Perry Como). After moving to Houston, a Lamar High School classmate was Tommy Sands, future singer-actor (“Sing Boy, Sing”), who would later be managed by Colonel Tom Parker, but helpful in bringing about an introduction to then Parker-client Elvis Presley, whom Overstreet greatly admired.

In retrospect, sandy-haired Tommy was as handsome and rugged as the Colonel’s two talents, and might well have made the trek to Hollywood himself, given the right backing. Meanwhile, however, Overstreet’s primary credit was performing on radio in Houston, and having formed his own band, The Shadows. He went on to study broadcasting at the University of Texas there, but was in a stage musical, “Hit The Road,” as well. While playing area clubs, he was announced as “Tommy Dean From Abilene,” sometimes appearing with Gene Austin, whom he called “Uncle,” a fixture at Houston’s elite Shamrock Hotel.

Following service with the Army, Tommy settled briefly in Los Angeles under his real name, honing his talents as a writer, recording and “pitching” his songs to no less than perennial pop favorite Pat Boone. Reportedly, Overstreet’s own first professional recording stint came at Norman Petty’s studio in Clovis, New Mexico, with Jimmy Gilmore & The Fireballs. In 1960, Tommy recorded for Roulette Records in New York City, reportedly with The Ray Charles Singers supplying backing vocals.

In 1967, Dot Records’ Randy Wood engaged Tommy to manage the label’s Nashville branch. He was also signed to record, his first charting being “Rocking a Memory (That Won’t Go To Sleep),” lasting a scant two weeks in ’69. Three years later, Tommy hit paydirt with a strong ballad “Gwen,” co-written by his producer Ricci Mareno and Jerry Gillespie, writers who proved prolific in his career.

Tommy Overstreet casual“Gwen” was also the title of his debut album, charting 12 weeks and hitting Top 40, as the single crossed over into the pop Top 100 list on Billboard. A proud Overstreet pointed out, “The single hit #1 in the other trade weeklies, Cash Box and Record World, but Billboard kept it #3, as they regarded Randy Wood’s (Dot) an indie label.”

A year later, “Heaven Is My Woman’s Name” scored #3 country and also hit the pop Top 100 chart. That song, written by Bonnie Dobbins, was not one his producer sought as a single, so Tommy went to his Dot boss, pleading to release it post-haste – and it became his longest-charting single (18 weeks) and the title track for his most successful LP (#9, 1972). Tommy also enjoyed successes with producer Ron Chancey on ABC-Dot.

Overstreet’s Billboard chartings totaled 11 Top 10s, six of which went Top Five. Included are “Send Me No Roses,” “I’ll Never Break These Chains,” “I’m a Believer” and “Don’t Go ‘City Girl’ On Me.” His run at Dot ended in 1978, with two near-Top 10 singles: “Yes M’am” (#12) and the upbeat “Fadin’ In, Fadin’ Out” (#11). He would record with Elektra, his best showing being the Top 20 “What More Could a Man Need” (1979), and indies such as AMI, Gervas and Silver Dollar, where he had his 34th and final Billboard charting, “Next To You” (1986).

~During the 1980s, he performed several years in the tourist mecca Branson, Mo., before making his move to Oregon. Still, he continued to tour and record CDs, such as “Tommy Overstreet’s Country Gospel” (2006) and “Welcome To My World of Love” (2008). He was also seen guesting on such TV series as Hee Haw, The Midnight Special and In Concert.

Among Tommy’s great regrets were his failed first marriage and the loss of his only son, but he remained proud of his more than 30 overseas tours, and performing across the U.S. and Canada. In 2013, his auto-biography “A Road Less Traveled” was published, and on his Facebook page, this is Overstreet’s final posting, Aug. 26, 2015: “Howdy, howdy everyone! Hope you’re doing well today, and I’ve been worse, but I’m doing good today. Hangin’ in there, as the old saying goes. Working on a new CD that I hope my friends will enjoy. I have a new CD of a fairly old LP, we released quite a few years ago, but I felt it worthy of re-releasing as a CD. The title is ‘Nuggets,’ a 10-song collection my friends in country music had hits with, and they asked me to do an album of these great songs.”

One of his peers, buddy Rex Allen, Jr., wrote on Facebook, Nov. 3: “Tommy Overstreet has passed away at his home. Tommy was a great guy and headlined the first tour I ever worked. So sad.”

Survivors include his widow Diane Overstreet and daughters Amber, Aeriel and Lisa. A memorial service was scheduled on Nov. 22 at Evergreen Christian Center, in Hillsboro.

Billy Joe Royal Dies

Billy Joe Royal

“Billy Joe Royal was well known for his blue-eyed soul sound in pop and country.”

NASHVILLE — Singer Billy Joe Royal, who died Oct. 6, lived his life to its full potential, attaining success in both pop and country music circles. Reportedly, the 73-year-old artist died in his sleep at his home in Morehead City, N.C.

A former resident of Nashville, his passing merited only five paragraphs on page 9 in The Tennessean newspaper, which even cited his home-town of Marietta (Ga.) as his N.C. residence.

Born in Valdosta, Royal grew up in Marietta, just north of Atlanta, learning to play piano and drums. By age 11, he was singing on his uncle’s radio show; after learning to play steel guitar, he performed at 14 on The Georgia Jubilee; and in high school performed with his own group, The Corvettes.

It was in Atlanta that he met music publisher Bill Lowery, working with such promising artists as Ray Stevens, Jerry Reed, Freddy Weller and Joe South. According to Royal, friend South wanted to get his “Down In the Boondocks” to Gene Pitney (known for the hits “Town Without Pity” and “Liberty Valance”) and didn’t know how, but boss-man Lowery had other ideas.

“Because my voice was similar, I was chosen to cut it for a demo,” said Billy Joe, who earlier had cut two obscure singles on Fairlane, a regional label in 1961: “Never In a Hundred Years” and “Dark Glasses.”

Lowery got South’s demo to Columbia Records, which gladly welcomed both song and its singer to the label, launching Royal’s first real shot at stardom. Released in 1965, “Down In the Boondocks” peaked at #9, followed by a trio of Billboard Top 40 chartings: “I Knew You When” (#14); “I’ve Got To Be Somebody” (#38); and “Cherry Hill Park” (#15). Incidentally, the latter 1969 single was deemed too controversial by some DJs to play, since Mary its main character “was such a thrill after dark . . . in Cherry Hill Park.” Otherwise, it might’ve ranked right up there with “Down In the Boondocks.”

Nonetheless, Billy Joe lived the life of every young singer’s dream, guesting on all the top radio and TV programs of the era, being featured on Dick Clark’s Cavalcade of Stars tour as a teen idol, and chalked up additional South successes such as “Yo-Yo,” “Hush” and “Don’t You Be Ashamed (To Call My Name).” He had the distinction of cutting the first recording on “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden” in 1967, prior to its writer South’s version and that of its ultimate hit-maker, Lynn Anderson, in 1970. But Billy didn’t really like the song.

Royal departed Columbia in 1972. In ’73, he revisited The Drifters’ “This Magic Moment” for MGM, but when that didn’t take off, he drifted chartless among various indie labels, though he enjoyed a modest success on “Under the Boardwalk,” in 1978, on the Private Stock label.

During that decade, he said he worked regularly doing engagements in Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe, as well as making TV appearances: “It’s hell to be 25 years old, and you’re a has-been. Thank goodness I stuck by what I believed in.”

It was in a production-partnership with producer-songwriter Nelson Larkin that Royal found further song successes via Atlantic Records’ country imprint, notably thanks to Gary Burr’s poignant “Burned Like a Rocket” (#10, 1985). That, too, should’ve been a bigger record, but just when peaking, NASA’s space shuttle Challenger exploded on Jan. 28, 1986.

Though the song had nothing to do with the problem at hand, strangely enough, DJs quit programming Royal’s record just because of its title.

“I almost had a nervous breakdown over that,” recalled Royal. “Especially after my follow-up single – ‘Boardwalk Angel’ – bombed! . . . Thankfully, ‘I Miss You Already’ and ‘Old Bridges Burn Slow’ succeeded, proving it wasn’t a one-hit wonder sort of thing.”

Although both pop and country purists criticized Royal’s seeming switch in genres, Billy Joe maintained he didn’t really change styles at all, and a listen to his 1960s’ hits and subsequent successes of the 1980s, attest to the fact that he was still a champion of blue-eyed soul, not unlike T. Graham Brown (“I Tell It Like It Used To Be”), who also came of age in that time.

Actually, after too long a dry spell in the 1970s, Royal encountered Nelson Larkin in New Orleans. Later, on a trip to Music City, he dropped in on the producer. “I was about as low-down as you can get. I didn’t even have a car. When I came to Nashville, I was looking for some songs and Nelson played a tape for me. The first song was ‘Burned Like a Rocket.’ I knew instinctively it was a hit. I couldn’t understand why nobody else liked it or why they didn’t hear its potential.”

After recording the number in 1984, Larkin “pitched” it all over Nashville. One label wanted Billy Joe, but not the song. As Royal related, “I believed in that song. They were willing to do an album on me; but, after thinking on it, I knew we’d have to shop for another song anyway, and I knew I already had one. So I walked away from that deal.”

Again entered Bill Lowery, who agreed to put it out on his indie Southern Tracks, offering Billy Joe a second chance at the brass ring. The resulting regional airplay’s strength brought Atlantic to the table offering national distribution and the rest as they say is history.

Royal enjoyed working with Larkin, whom he called a no-nonsense producer: “He was so great and we had great musicians. He brought out the best in me. It helped, too, that Atlantic was really behind us, and radio was very receptive. We had a good run.”

Regarding the raised eyebrows over his change to country, the six-footer smiled, replying, “I’m just singing the way I always did. It’s just that the style I once performed as pop is now considered country. If ‘Down In the Boondocks’ was cut today, it would be classified country.”

Billy Joe’s youthful idols were Clyde McPhatter and Sam Cooke, and he was also a fan of 1950s’ “doo wop”  sounds of groups like The Spaniels, The Drifters and The Platters.

“There was something in that music that just got to me, deep inside,” and with his distinctive, almost falsetto tenor, it was as though Billy was born to sing in that style.

Another Royal friend was Steve Popovich, a producer and Mercury’s chief, who convinced Billy Joe to team up with Donna Fargo for a soulful rendering of Bobby Blue Bland’s “Members Only.”

“I think a lot of those old R&B songs can be revived now and would be hits all over again to a lot of people,” noted Royal, though traditionalists Johnnie & Jack had done so way back in the mid-1950s, with hit versions of “I Get So Lonely (Oh Baby Mine)” and “Goodnight Sweetheart, Goodnight.”

While Larkin was producing Lynn Anderson’s track on “Under the Boardwalk,” which Royal had also sung earlier, label boss Popovich saw him quietly singing along, and urged Billy to join in: “Steve said, ‘Go in there and do that . . .’ Lynn was all for it, so I added a little harmony onto it.”

Had there been more harmony in Billy Joe’s personal life, surely his 10-year marriage to Georgia Moseley would not have hit the skids.

“I don’t ever expect to marry again. Something died in me when the divorce came through,” he lamented at the time. “I doubt I could make another commitment like that again, to let someone else get close enough to hurt me that bad.”

Nonetheless, Billy was divorced three times. He remained on good terms with ex-wife Michelle (Rivenbark), and had a daughter Savannah, today a student at North Carolina State University.

A former classmate of Billy Joe’s in high school was Priscilla Mitchell, who later became Mrs. Jerry Reed. As struggling artists, they had co-starred together on WTJH’s Georgia Jubilee broadcast out of East Point, Ga. (Her only #1 hit was a duet “Yes, Mr. Peters” with Roy Drusky.)

Royal remembered receiving $5 as opening act for Gladys Knight & The Pips in his early days.

“There was also a club I worked at where I had a chance to work with all the big stars of the day when I was just a kid,” noted Royal, two of whom were Johnny Tillotson (“It Keeps Right On A-Hurtin’”) and Faron Young (“I Miss You Already”), never dreaming he would later enjoy hits in reviving their songs. Accepting that extended engagement at the Bamboo Ranch in Savannah, where he played to a 2,500 capacity crowd, gave him a boost, for it was there he met future friend Roy Orbison, who offered encouragement, giving Royal needed confidence.

On Billboard, Royal scored four #1 songs on its Sales Charts: “Old Bridges Burn Slow” (1987); “I’ll Pin A Note On Your Pillow” (1987); “Out Of Sight and On My Mind” (1988); and “It Keeps Right On A-Hurtin’” (1988).

Another major tool in promoting discs then new to Billy Joe was the music video, and he relished making “I’ll Pin a Note On Your Pillow,” and see it top the CMT playlists months on end. Two of his singles hit the #2 spot: “Tell It Like It Is” (1989) and “Till I Can’t Take It Anymore” (1989). That was a milestone year, for sandwiched between those near chart-toppers was a Top Five single “Love Has No Right,” which Royal co-wrote with Larkin and Randy Scruggs.

His final chartings were less impressive: “If the Jukebox Took Tears” (#29, 1991) and “I’m Okay (And Getting’ Better)” (#51, 1992). Still, he could point with pride to his Gold Album “The Royal Treatment,” a Top Five that charted 101 weeks a few years earlier.

In 1988, Royal had been inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, in which his mentor Bill Lowery was the very first inductee. Despite lack of chart success, he kept recording albums for fans, notably “Stay Close To Home” (1998), “Now And Then, Then And Now” (2001) and “Going By Daydreams” (2007). In 2009, he released his final collection, titled “His First Gospel Album.”

In 2013, Royal appeared in “Billy The Kid” playing Robert Ally, a movie that also co-starred Cody McCarvey, a fellow vocalist. Billy’s film credits include narrating Frank Willard’s 1968 documentary “Mondo Daytona” and appearing in actor-director Patrick McGoohan’s 1974 failed flick of the Shakespearean rock opera “Catch My Soul,” based on “Othello.” He was flattered, too, that his iconic “Down In the Boondocks” was featured in the films “Riding In Cars With Boys” (2001) starring Drew Barrymore, and “Glory Road” (2006) with Josh Lucas.

More recently he kept busy doing Golden Oldie shows, sharing the bill with legends like B. J. Thomas and Ronnie McDowell. Just weeks prior to his passing, Billy Joe joined Ronnie as headliners for Elvis Week in Memphis, at the Clarion-King’s Signature Hotel with Mary Beck’s Rockin’ Oldies Show. Reportedly, Billy Joe was still being booked by a Nashville promoter, Charlie Wayne Felts, and his last gig was back in his home state  Georgia for the Gwinnett County Fair, Sept. 24.

“There was never a nicer guy on the planet than Billy,” said childhood friend McDowell. “Now he belongs to the ages.” That other pal, B. J. Thomas (Raindrops & Boondocks Tour), upon learning of Royal’s passing, posted this Tweet: “My best friend, Billy Joe Royal, died this morning. He was a sweet and talented man. Never a bad word. One of a kind.”