NASHVILLE — The Jan. 31, 2019 death of Country Music Hall of Famer Harold Bradley, 93, stunned many of us here in Music City, as we weren’t aware the legendary guitarist was suffering ill health. But then time flies, and it had been a few seasons since we last met, and the man looked terrific.
Throughout Harold’s lengthy tenure as American Federation of Musicians (AFM) Nashville Local 257 president (1991-2008), we worked closely on The Nashville Musician newspaper, having been hired as his editor. Attesting to his high energy level, he also served some 10 years as AFM International’s vice president, headquartered in New York City.
Bradley boasts an impressive resume, for in that period during which he carried the banner on behalf of some 3,500 fellow players, Harold was also hailed as the most recorded guitarist globally. As Dean of Guitarists, Bradley was a Nashville trailblazer in every sense of the word, one whose impact spanned generations. He joined the musicians union at age 16.
Since his first session in Chicago for Pee Wee King and his Golden West Cowboys (“Tennessee Central #9”) on Dec. 17, 1946, Harold played on a variety of artists’ classic hits, notably Red Foley’s “Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy,” Ray Anthony’s “Do the Hokey Pokey,” Brenda Lee’s “I’m Sorry,” Roy Orbison’s “Only The Lonely,” Patsy Cline’s “Crazy,” Jimmy Dean’s “Big Bad John,” Jeannie C. Riley’s “Harper Valley PTA,” Eddy Arnold’s “Make the World Go Away,” Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man,” The Everly Brothers’ “Ebony Eyes,” Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” John Anderson’s “Swingin’,” and Alan Jackson’s “Here In the Real World.”
Those twin guitars ringing out on Bobby Helm’s 1957 classic “Jingle Bell Rock” are played by Harold and Hank Garland. That’s Harold playing banjo in the kick-off of Johnny Horton’s #1 song of 1959 “Battle of New Orleans,” utilizing an “8th of January” folk run; as well as that pounding bass-guitar on Orbison’s pop #1 “Oh Pretty Woman” (1964).
Harold was a charter member of the versatile A Team of Nashville session superpickers – immortalized so-to-speak in the 1966 (Lovin’ Spoonful’s) John Sebastian song “Nashville Cats” – including Garland, Grady Martin, Floyd Cramer, Bob Moore, Ernie Newton, Buddy Harman, Ray Edenton, Pig Robbins, Boots Randolph, Charlie McCoy and Tommy Jackson. Of course, Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley were the Godfathers who kept them all busy.
“When I was 10 years old, the Bradleys welcomed me into their family,” recalls Brenda Lee, produced by Owen. “When I married my husband Ronnie (Shacklett), they welcomed him like a son. ‘Lost’ would be a good word to describe how I’m feeling right now, but I’m not lost because I’ll always have my memories. Harold Bradley is a big part of all of my memories. Harold is a big part of who I am today. He molded me from a little girl into one of his girls, along with Kitty, Tammy, Patsy and Loretta. I’ll miss him dearly.”
Harold Ray Bradley was born Jan. 2, 1926 in Nashville, son of Letha Maie (Owen) and Vernie Fustus Bradley, a tobacco salesman. “If Dad smoked or drank, I never saw him do it,” Harold said, adding, “My dad played a little guitar and wrote story-songs, but not professionally. He was also a song leader at church.” Harold attended local schools, graduating from Isaac Litton High School, where he also played baseball and reportedly was good enough to attract attention of a Chicago Cubs talent scout. But an arm injury soon ended that prospect.
His idol was brother Owen, 10 years his senior, who began forging his own legacy on the Nashville scene by initially playing piano for WLAC-Nashville radio in 1937, moving to WSM in 1940, eventually rising to the position of music director. When Harold became enthused about playing banjo, Owen warned it was passé, concentrate instead on guitar, so the youngster set his sights on Charlie Christian’s jazz style, but was primarily self-taught.
The Owen Bradley Orchestra, specializing in society events, appeared on the network show Sunday Down South, while Owen was on call for occasional studio sessions for such as Ernest Tubb, who nicknamed him “Half-Moon” Bradley. Decca chief Paul Cohen engaged Owen as an assistant and his first production job was filling in on a session for unknown Kitty Wells in May 1952, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” Subsequently that #1 song launched country’s first female superstar, later crowned Queen of Country Music.
Prior to all that, young graduate Harold Bradley heeded the siren call of World War II, and was inducted into the U.S. Navy, age 18. There he was assigned to a Top Secret task of cracking Japanese combat codes, but in off-duty hours started a band to entertain fellow sailors.
Discharged in ’46, he enrolled in George Peabody College on the Vanderbilt University campus, majoring in music under the GI Bill. Thanks to Opry stage manager Vito Pelletteiri, a family friend, Harold landed work at WSM pickin’ for programs spotlighting such stars as Bradley Kincaid and Eddy Arnold.
In 1947, following his Pee Wee King Chicago session, Harold was engaged to play on King Records’ Ivory Joe Hunter’s session at Castle, Nashville’s first non-broadcast studio. As he confided in our interview: “I was the only white musician. Fact is, I’ve got that recording at home. Of course, they misidentified me on the record, saying it was Owen Bradley on guitar. I took it to Owen and said, ‘This is why you’re rich and famous and I’m not. They keep getting us mixed up, you know.’ And later, they did that on my first solo album (‘Misty Guitar’), i.d.’ing Owen as my guitar player.”
Harold’s first #1 disc was Red Foley’s “Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy,” playing rhythm guitar on one of the hottest 1950 releases, topping both country and pop charts. He remembered walking with his mother when a radio blared out the song featuring his pickin’: “I told her, ‘Mother, that’s me,’ and matter of factly she said, ‘That’s nice.’ If you started to get carried away with your success, my mother had a way of bringing you back down to Earth, fast.”
Unlike many musicians, Harold didn’t frequent honky tonks, explaining, “Drinking never interested me. A lot of guys drank to socialize. Socializing to me was playing softball or tennis. Even in the Navy, I didn’t drink. I was sort of shy really . . . I still don’t drink. When you work so much playing sessions, that’s enough time to be with your friends. So whatever time I had away from the studio, I wanted to spend with my family.”
In those younger days, Harold also played in Owen’s band, then using the alias Brad Brady’s Orchestra and appears on Owen Bradley Quintet’s 1949 Top 10 country hit “Blues Stay Away From Me” (also #11 pop) and Top 20 pop recording “The Third Man Theme” (1950). With Owen, he co-produced 39 Country Style USA 30-minute TV variety shows for syndication in the ’50s..
In 1950, Harold married blonde beauty Eleanor Allen, and they would have two daughters Beverly and Bari, daddy’s pride and joy. Meantime, jointly the brothers Bradley built the second non-broadcast recording studio downtown, and later relocated to the Hillsboro area with a combination film and recording studio. In 1954, they constructed the first such studio on what is now Music Row, with a refurbished Quonset Hut (bought up by Columbia Records in 1962) that averaged some 700 sessions annually.
In 1958, Owen became Decca-Nashville’s chief honcho, producing such superstars as Foley, Tubb, Wells, Webb Pierce, Brenda Lee, Bill Anderson, Patsy Cline, Jack Greene, Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty. Even after leaving Decca, Owen continued to produce independent artists of note like Marcia Thornton, k.d. lang and Mandy Barnett (but died four songs into her 1998 session, that was completed by Harold). By the mid-1960s the Bradleys had established their Mt. Juliet suburban studio, Bradley’s Barn.
Owen was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1974, and is seen at the piano in a commemorative statue in Owen Bradley Park at the foot of Music Row. Of course, Owen passed away Jan. 7, 1998 at age 82.
Harold worked overtime building up his credits, including backing a diverse roster of musical stars, among them Hank Williams, Burl Ives, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Sonny James, Jim Reeves, Hank Snow, Joan Baez, Perry Como, George Morgan, Connie Francis, Leon Russell, Charley Pride, Marty Robbins, Freddie Hart, Statler Brothers, Martha Carson, Roy Clark and Gene Watson.
“Surely am sad to hear of the passing today of Harold Bradley,” says Watson. “One of the best session players . . . I was fortunate to have Harold as session leader for the ‘Reflections’ LP back in 1978. That’s the album for the first recording we did of ‘Farewell Party’ and ‘Pick the Wildwood Flower.’”
Along with producers Owen, Chet, Ken Nelson, Don Law and Harold and the A Team, they not only built Music Row, but pioneered in developing the Nashville Sound, a sophisticated blending of instruments and arrangements that improved country’s flagging fortunes immensely.
“Who knew we were making history? I kept thinking we’d wake up one morning and all that would be gone. That’s the way I looked at it,” said Harold. It was also in the 1960s that Harold recorded a trio of solo albums, including “Bossa Nova Goes To Nashville” and “Guitars For Lovers.”
Among movie soundtracks boasting Harold’s fleet-fingered touch are Presley’s “Kissin’ Cousins,” “Clambake,” “Stay Away Joe,” Orbison’s “Fastest Gun Alive,” Goldie Hawn’s “Sugarland Express,” Burt Reynolds’ “Smokey & The Bandit II” and Robert Altman’s “Nashville,” in which he also appears in a cameo.
From 1974-1979, he was a recipient of the NARAS Superpicker Award. Another task he’d taken on was producing sessions, including such stellar talents as Slim Whitman, Eddy Arnold and Irish singer Sandy Kelly.
By his own count, Harold has recorded or worked with 83 Country Hall of Famers and 30 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees. He was the first Nashville president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) in 1965, serving many years on its board; is recipient of the prestigious Grammy Trustee Award; AFM’s Lifetime Achievement Award; and is a proud member of the Musicians Hall of Fame.
In 2006, Harold was accorded country music’s highest honor, induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, which makes him and Owen the only two brothers inducted individually (apart from brother acts).
Harold’s widow Eleanor expressed her gratitude for all who came to bid her husband a fond farewell, “Harold would’ve appreciated the thoughtfulness.” Daughter Bari Brooks said her father didn’t suffer too much, “he died peacefully in his sleep.” Daughter Beverly Hill reminded folks that Harold was first and foremost a dedicated family man. Reportedly, however, he had been under dialysis and special treatment prior to his passing.
Preceding him in death were siblings Leon, Owen, Charles, Bobby Bradley, and Ruby Bradley Strange. Both Charles and nephew Bobby Bradley, Jr. were noted sound engineers on the Row, niece Patsy Bradley was an executive with BMI; nephew Jerry Bradley was RCA’s head man; and his wife Connie an ASCAP executive; while Clay Bradley (Jerry’s son) has been at both BMI and the CMA.
Harold’s legacy will continue to create beautiful music out of Nashville, hopefully via a newly-established Harold Bradley Endowed Scholarship in Belmont University’s Music Business department, to be awarded to outstanding students in the program, with an emphasis on guitar.
Besides his wife and daughters, Harold is survived by grandson Jason Reid Brooks; granddaughter Bethany Ellen Hill; and numerous nieces and nephews. Pallbearers were: Bobby Bradley, Jr., Clay Bradley, John Bradley, Kyle Bradley, Reid Brooks and Hilliard “Trey” Hester. Honorary pallbearers: Mark Stephen Strange, Carl Bradley, Michael Bradley, Jerry Bradley, Steve Davis, Costo Davis, Jimmie Capps, Michelle Capps, Andy Reiss, Pete Wade, Billy Linneman, Tom Lee, Hargus (Pig) Robbins, Charley McCoy, Bob Moore, Lloyd Green, Sam Folio, Ray Edenton, Joe Settlemires and Barry Brooks.
Among others spotted at the Madison Church of Christ, Feb. 4, were Patsy Bradley, Bob Moore, John Minick, Bobby Wright, and Billy Linneman, Harold’s former AFM Secretary-Treasurer, who proclaimed “the program, the music, the videos were really good.” WSM drive-time DJ Bill Cody addressed the crowd, as did former AFM International President Tom Lee, who memorably told us, “You couldn’t have a better ambassador for the city of Nashville than Harold Bradley,” and longtime friend Mandy Barnett sang, as we wistfully recalled his band backing her on the national Tonight Show years ago.
“I was saddened to wake up to the news of the great guitarist Harold Bradley having passed away,” lamented Whisperin’ Bill Anderson. “Harold was Owen’s brother and the two of them left quite a mark on my early career. Owen produced my records and Harold played on most of them. He was a talented, kind, gentle soul, and we were blessed to have had him with us for 93 years. Rest in peace my friend, secure in knowing that you made the world a better place.”