Gary Walker . . who wrote ‘Trademark’ and then added his own to a chain of stores.

       We’ve lost yet another good friend, songwriter-businessman Gary Walker, who died July 8, 2020, while hospitalized at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. He was 87. Our condolences go out to his wife Peggy and daughter Karen and son Greg.
Let us share an interview we did with this Missouri-born talent some years back, during which he discussed why he made the move to Music City. It was there Walker wrote hits for some of country’s biggest stars, notably Carl Smith, Kitty Wells, Webb Pierce, George Morgan and Leroy Van Dyke.
Many songs have an interesting story to tell, apart from their musical message, so we took the time to check some of them out. A Missouri boy, Gary Ray Walker, grew up listening to country music, and due to that interest, would soon create the hits “Trademark,” “According to My Heart,” “Repenting,” “One Week Later,” “Look What Followed Me Home Tonight” and “Walk On By.”
“I got the bug for singing and writing in high school,” recalled Walker, who listened to the music emanating from one of the state’s larger stations KWTO-Springfield. “I grew up about 25 miles from West Plains, in Southwest Missouri, and that’s where Porter Wagoner’s from, though I didn’t know him then.”
The two would become intrinsically involved in an association that would play an important part in both their careers.
“As a young fellow I delivered newspapers in the morning and afternoon,” explained Walker. “Ralph Foster was on my route, and I lived for the time when I collected the paper money that he would answer the door. Mr. Foster owned the KWTO radio station, but it was usually his wife who came to the door to pay me. Then one day he did come to the door, dressed in his pajamas and robe, and I blurted out, ‘You’re Mr. Ralph Foster! . . . I’d rather work at KWTO than any other place in the world!’ Apparently he liked hearing that because he told me to come over Monday morning and he’d see what he could do about it. He got me a part-time job there and through that I got to know the artists and people connected to the station.”
At the time, Walker harbored a desire to be an artist: “I thought then I’d be the biggest star since Hank Williams came along. After he broke big with ‘Lovesick Blues,’ which he didn’t write, he became equally famous for his songwriting. At that time, most of the big stars didn’t write their own songs as Hank did. As a teen-ager, I began focusing on being a singer-songwriter.”
Gary remembered vividly the time Porter Wagoner, a regional success who captured the ear of RCA, came to him with a proposal.
“Porter said, ‘I understand you write songs. Well, I got this deal with RCA and they’re looking for material for me, let’s see if we can write together.’ One of the first we co-wrote was a song called ‘That’s It.’ While still in Springfield, I’d take trips to Nashville and stop in at all the publishing houses. I met Dolly Dearman (who wed promoter Jim Denny in 1959), and we kinda bonded.”
The Wagoner-Walker team co-wrote such songs as “Cuddle Bug Rag” (with Lon Hogan), “All Roads Lead To Love” and “Look What Followed Me Home, Tonight (Mama Can’t I Keep It),” later recorded by George Morgan on his 1966 “Room Full of Roses” album.
“Then I did ‘Trademark,’ which Porter showed to Si Siman (producer-music publisher), who worked closely with Ralph Foster (John Mahaffey and Lester Cox). They created a record transcription production company called RadiOzark, which attracted a lot of big names then such as Eddy Arnold and Smiley Burnette (Western movie star). They also started the popular television program Ozark Jubilee with Red Foley.
“Si (Wagoner’s manager) made the pitch to me that if I let Porter put his name on ‘Trademark,’ he could record it for RCA. Porter never wrote a word of it, but he cut it. I didn’t have to take that deal, but the point is I did and that led to some unique circumstances for us both. Porter had been in a situation with RCA where they were thinking of dropping him, but then Si came up with my song and (John Mullins’) ‘Company’s Comin’,’ and offered to pay for the session to record the songs. Fortunately, ‘Company’s Comin’” hit (in 1954) for RCA.       Porter didn’t hit with ‘Trademark,’ but Carl Smith liked the song and saw Porter’s name on it . . . and as a result, helped him get on the Opry. It was a big hit for Carl, however, and the reason it peaked at #2 at a time when he was hitting #1’s was that Frankie Laine was coming out with (a pop version of) ‘Hey, Joe,’ so that forced Columbia to put out Carl’s record sooner than planned. By doing that, it shut down the chart action on ‘Trademark,’ which should’ve been another #1 for him.”
Walker’s “According to My Heart,” was sent to Denny’s music company, marked for Webb Pierce: “Dolly called and said she was sending me contracts to sign for my song, but it was being cut by Jim Reeves. I was terribly disappointed; you had to know how big Webb Pierce was at the time. His records always went to #1, and to me Jim was just another recording artist. Then when we heard the Reeves’ single, it was changed from the beat I’d created for Webb. Neither my wife Peggy nor I cared for it.
“I knew Webb liked my song, so he told me what happened.  It seems Webb and Jim were on a plane together, when Jim told Webb he had to go into the studio, and needed a hit song. Now Webb had every intention of recording it at his next session, and if you knew him, you knew he always rehearsed and memorized his songs before going into the studio. Well, he told Jim about ‘According To My Heart,’ and there 10,000 feet up in the air, he literally demoed my song, singing it acapella, for Jim Reeves . . . and you know, since we’ve gotten all those royalty checks from overseas, we’re not so disappointed that Jim cut my song.”
Thanks to Wesley Rose, Acuff-Rose’s publishing honcho, Gary got an opportunity to be an artist. MGM signed him to a development deal, putting him with producer Jim Vienneau in the studio.
“Jim had two sessions lined up that day (May 7, 1958, at Bradley’s Studio): mine and Conway Twitty’s. That’s when Conway cut ‘It’s Only Make Believe’ with him. I told Jim that session resulted in sales of 2 million and 477 records. Of course, the 477 were my total sales.”
Walker’s memory proved right on, as he ticked off four selections he cut on that memorable occasion: “Pretty Patty,” “Only a Matter of Time,” “Everybody’s Gotta Go Sometime” and “Makin’ Up With You.”
“The releases stirred up some action for me as far as air-play was concerned, but when it boiled down to making personal appearances or doing TV guest spots, I wasn’t cut out for that. I learned that basically I’m not an entertainer or a good speaker. I lacked that charisma that’s so important to an artist, so I couldn’t compete with the others when it came to sparkle and shine. Once I realized that it was too much of a struggle for me, I looked at other ways to make a living.”
Those years devoted to songwriting resulted in Walker titles like “I’ll Always Wonder,” “Winner and Loser,” “Hard Right To My Heart,” “Cause I Miss You,” “New York Girl,” “My Heart Broke” and “Playing the Field.” After setting aside artist goals, Gary partnered in running a recording studio: “And I continued to sing my own demos.”
One of his contacts during his early years in Nashville was pioneer producer Paul Cohen, who despite being based in New York, ran Decca Records’ country division here. Cohen also nurtured the career of local musician-bandleader Owen Bradley, who would succeed him as Decca’s A&R chief.
“I got a cut by Brenda Lee through Paul, and I wrote ‘Repenting’ especially for Kitty Wells. Confidentially it was written off her hit ‘Searching.’ Essentially that song, after hearing her sing it, gave me the overall structure and concept. I was then a free-lance writer, and that might’ve had something to do with my getting that song to her through Cohen (also a music publisher). I told Paul, ‘I wrote this for Kitty,’ and next thing I knew he opened his briefcase and pulled out a contract for me to sign. About a week later, I heard the song on the radio. I didn’t even know she had recorded it yet.”
Actually, Kitty cut it on Sept. 13, 1956 at Bradley Studio, one day after recording yet another Gary Walker song “One Week Later,” as a duet with label mate Webb Pierce. Cohen came to town to produce both sessions.
“Repenting” peaked at #6 for Kitty on Billboard’s Jan. 19, 1957 chart, spending 13 weeks on the country list. The Wells-Pierce duet didn’t fare as well, peaking at #12 one week on Jan. 20, 1958, some 16 months after its recording date.
What was interesting to Walker was that he was unaware  Webb had selected it as a duet with Decca’s top diva: “Not only that, he changed the title! Webb first recorded it as a duet with Teddy Wilburn (in their experimental Rob & Bob duo at Decca), cutting it Sept. 10, 1954) as ‘One Day Later.’ That’s how I wrote it. Webb, as you may know, was a wild man and an incredibly dominant personality. Some say he put his name indiscriminately on other people’s songs as co-writer. But he never did that with me, even after changing the title of my song. If he ever did that, maybe by then he stopped doing it.”
When she cut his songs, Kitty didn’t know Gary. Later, he says, he became friends with both her and husband Johnnie (Wright) of Johnnie & Jack fame.
“Kitty and Johnnie were wonderful people, who never seemed to be affected by their success. They were the kind of folks who in meeting me treated me like family. Whenever I saw Johnnie after she recorded ‘Repenting,’ he would greet me by singing the words to my song.”
Walker points out that Wells’ breakthrough song “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” is truly a milestone record: “It was not only a monster record in sales, but the consequences of its success for female singers cannot be really measured ever in its totality.”
As a song-plugger, Walker represented Hill & Range for a time, then aligned himself with Bill Lowery’s Atlanta-based music publishing firm, as their Nashville agent. One of his first successes was placing Kendall Hayes’ “Walk On By” with Leroy Van Dyke, which hit #1 for 19 weeks as a Mercury Records single in 1961.
“I’m an uncredited writer on that one. Usually I wouldn’t pitch an uncompleted song, but on a Friday I did play the verse and chorus for producer Jerry Kennedy, who liked it and said he would try to get Leroy to cut it at their session on Monday. So over the weekend, Kendall was to write another verse. Well, he got in touch with me and said he couldn’t come up with it by Monday. I said, ‘If you don’t mind, I could write another verse’ and have it ready for Jerry’s session. I declined to put my name on it, but did agree to accept 25 per cent of the mechanical royalties on that song.”
Walker’s connection to Porter Wagoner also proved helpful as he pitched unknown Jerry Reed’s song “Misery Loves Company,” resulted in another #1 record for RCA in 1962.
“Along about 1965, I basically quit writing when I saw how easy it came for guys like Jerry Reed, Joe South, Freddy Weller and Ray Stevens, all Lowery writers. I decided I was better as a song salesman.”
In years to come, Walker expanded that to include music salesman, when in 1977, he opened a store selling Golden Oldies, that is, used recordings, publications, posters and collectibles, all under the umbrella of The Great Escape. At the time of our chat, his chain consisted of  five stores: “Now this includes an Internet operation, mainly selling on eBay and We have about 90 employees, but due to the economic downturn, we may have to cut hours and maybe staff, but we’re determined to keep all our stores open.”
Actually Gary finally retired, selling his majority interest in the stores in 2017. According to son Greg, dad continued to run the Great Escape Music Group, until finally he let Greg take the reins.                   – WT