Boudleaux & Felice Bryant - Part Two
RIDING SUCCESS – BRYANT STYLE
Felice & Boudleaux Bryant rank among the most successful of all time songwriting talents—with hits covered by artists that include The Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Bob Luman and a whole host of country and pop superstars. Alan Cackett continues his exclusive feature on the husband and wife team.
Boudleaux and Felice Bryant really came to the fore as successful songwriters during the late 1950s. Prior to1957, their songs had mainly only been successful in the country music field, but Don and Phil Everly, a couple of brother from Kentucky, whose talents assimilated the essence of the best of Southern music, hit the charts around the world with a series of Bryant songs like Bye Bye Love, Bird Dog, All I Have To Do Is Dream and Wake Up Little Susie.
Their association with the Everly Brothers gave Felice and Boudleaux licence to experiment and try new things. The fusion between country, blues and rock‘n’roll was beginning to bear fruit for Southern musicians, and for the Bryants it was an exciting and very productive period. “When we first came to Nashville, we were told not to write anything that had more than three chords in it,” Boudleaux said. “And in a way that sounds easy, but in another way it makes it much harder, particularly if you hear things you want to expand on and are not allowed to do it within the format of what you can peddle.”
“As we went along a little bit we started throwing in a few extra little chords here and there, or a chord change, or a series or progression that became a little different,” he continued. “Especially after we got the Everlys doing some of our songs, I really started adding a few chords.”
Like so many teenagers of the period, I had been introduced to the Everly Brothers hearing Bye Bye Love, which bounded up the American charts, then followed suit in Britain back in the summer of 1957. Throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s the Everly Brothers loomed larger than life on the pop/rock scene. They brought a whiff of Kentucky to the charts in songs like Wake Up Little Susie, Problems and Take A Message To Mary. The songs were pure pop, but Don and Phil’s perfect harmonies had an un-mistakable bluegrass twang, and hoisting their big Gibson Jumbos in unison they were real teenage heroes.
It’s unlikely that songwriters like Boudleaux and Felice realised that in their songs they were helping to shape a whole new generation. Almost everyone in the western world aged between 35 and 40 couldn’t help but be touched by the music of the Bryants. As teenagers we matured to their music. They wrote about romances and the problems we came across as we grew up through those difficult adolescent years. And it was the Everly Brothers who put those songs across in the perfect way that a whole teenage generation could identify with.
Yet, like any successful venture, it was not plain sailing, either for the Bryants or the Everlys. The latter had problems securing a recording contract, being turned down by several major companies before signing with Archie Bleyer’s Cadence label in 1957, following a brief but best forgotten period with American Columbia a year earlier.
Boudleaux and Felice, though having enjoyed a string of country hits recorded by artists like Carl Smith, Eddy Arnold, Kitty Wells and Ernsest Tubb, had become accustomed to artists turning down their songs. They also knew when they had written a smash hit song, and with Bye Bye Love, which they had written in 1956, they persisted in publishing it, even though it hads been turned down by almost thirty artists before Don and Phil finally recorded it.
“I wrote Bye Bye Love while travelling home one night”, Boudleaux explained. “Felice was driving down the highway and I got the first verse and chorus right down there. I always make sure I have a pen and paper in the car for these occasions.”
“We really believed in the song and were disappointed when so many people turned it down. They said it was unsuitable, some even asked if we has anything better!” Boudleaux said. “It must have been turned down 30 times before the Everly Brothers took it.”
Gordon Terry heard it the day before Don and Phil accepted it and he rejected it, saying: ‘Can’t you show me something stronger than that?’
It was ace Nashville guitarist Chet Atkins who was mainly instrumental in getting the Everly Brothers to record Bye Bye Love. He had worked closely with the Bryants for many years, being a co-writer on songs like Midnight and How’s The World Treating You, and recording instrumentals writen or co-written with Boudleaux like Country Gentleman and Blue Ocean Echo, the latter being the first recorded effort to use reverb on guitar when recorded in 1955.
Chet has been a great admirer and friend with Don and Phil’s father, Ike Everly, a well respected country guitarist, and did all he could to get the two youngsters started in the music business, He persuaded Archie Bleyer to sign them to Cadence Records, and was for many years their ‘Producer’.
I was the unique blending of the Bryants’ songs, Chet Atkins’ astute musical judgement and the Everlys’ enthusiasm to experiment and progress with music that led to their tremendous success around the world.
“The Everlys were capable of hearing all kinds of chords,” explains Boudleaux. “And they added a little more expansion in harmony than the traditional country sound had. Our roots lie in country music, so we’ve always had that feeling for close harmony singing.”
“Don and Phil had also developed that same feel, which is why we started writing for them in the first place. When the Everlys sing it’s like hearing two sweethearts who have been away for so long. That’s their forte.”
The Bryants were not only writing hits for Don and Phil. During the late 1950s they provided many Nashville artists with big country hits; Jim Reeves took Blue Boy high on the country charts in 1958 and changed the name of his band from the Wagonmasters to The Blue Boys. Kitty Wells scored with A Change Of Heart a year earlier, and Johnnie & Jack, who had turned down Bye Bye Love scored with That’s Why I’m Leaving.
In Britain it was the late Alma Cogan who was the first artist to bring the Bryants’ material to British ears. Throughout their long writing career, Boudleaux and Felice have often come up with novelty songs, and it was the cute Willie Can, which Alma took into the British charts back in 1956. It is quite amazing how this songwriting pair can remember, almost without any prompting, when and how they wrote a song. Felice took up the story of how Willie Can came into being.
“I remember that we were driving through New Orleans one day and I was far away in thought when I say this garbage truck with ‘Willie Cook’ on the side. I don’t really know why, but I kept having these lines running through my mind from that name, and within a little while I had part of the song written down. When we got home we polished it up and were pleased to know that one of your British singers, Alma Cogan, recorded the song.”
Willie Can also became an American pop hit for Sue Thompson in the spring of 1963. It perfectly followed her enormous pop success at the time with the John D. Loudermilk novelty songs Norman, Sad Movies (Make Me Cry) and James (Hold The Ladder Steady). Probably the best known semi-novelty song that the Bryants have penned is Wake Up Little Susie.
“We persevered with Wake Up Little Susie for many hours,” recalled Boudleaux. “I started writing one night, kept trying to get my ideas down, but it just wouldn’t happen. Finally I woke Felice, who took one listen to what I had so far achieved and came up with the final touches that I couldn’t get. The Everlys liked the song, but like me had problems with getting it right in the studio. They worked a whole three-hour session on that one song and had to give up, they just couldn’t get it right. We all trooped back to the studio the next day and got it down first take. That’s the way it happens sometimes.”
Wake Up Little Susie was the Everlys’ follow-up to Bye Bye Love. The duo also scored on the American and British pop charts with other Bryant songs like Problems, Take A Message To Mary, Devoted To You, Like Strangers, Poor Jenny and of course All I Have To Do Is Dream.
Don and Phil’s albums were also full of Boudleaux and Felice’s songs—Some Sweet Day, You Thrill Me, Oh True Love, Nashville Blues, Just In Case and Sleepless Nights were all included on IT’S EVERLY TIME, the brothers first album for Warner Bros. That was in 1960, and by the end of the year Don and Phil didn’t really need the Bryants’ songs any more. They had been at the top for four years and were now accepted songwriters, even if, like me, you thought songs like So Sad (To Watch Love Go Bad), Oh, What A Feeling, Till I kissed You and Maybe Tomorrow owed more than a little to the Bryants’ style of writing,
“There is of course a similarity in Don and Phil’s own songs and those that we wrote specifically for them,” Boudleaux reluctantly agreed. “But I don’t think we were really that big an influence on them. They were doing what they were doing, and we were doing our thing. But because we were writing for harmony voices. then I guess a similarity must creep in.”
It is rumoured that Don and Phil passed another Boudleaux and Felice song, Raining In My Heart, over to their friend Buddy Holly. Whatever, it became another big seller in 1959, and has since been ‘covered’ by such artists as Anne Murray, Peter Skellern, Ray Price, Bobby Vee and Leo Sayer. Wanda Jackson cut the novelty Don’a Wan’a, a semi-rock‘n’roll song written by Boudleaux in 1960, which was the year Roy Orbison, a singer-songwriter heavily influenced by the Bryants, first hit the pop charts with songs like Only The Lonely. It was just a couple of years earlier that Orbison had come into contact with Boudleaux, who offered him some sound advice on singing and wrtiting.
“Roy had been singing and writing mainly rock‘n’roll songs when Wesley Rose introduced me to him,” Boudleaux recalled. “Remember Claudette that the Everlys did? That was one of Roy’s songs. He was a quiet, soft-spoken person, and I suggested that he should try writing and singing ballads. I told him that songs with a pretty melody had a better chance of making a larger impact.”
Orbison took notice of Boudleaux’s advice and changed from the Sun rockabilly style to the smooth and eventually dramatic and successful sound that made him an international star. In 1959 Roy signed a recording contract with RCA in Nashville. It was not a successful venture, in terms of hit records, but he did get to record Seems To Me, a mid-tempo ballad written by Boudleaux, and Jolie, a French-influenced song written by husband and wife.
Shortly after Roy signed with Monument Records, again Boudleaux was involved being a neighbour and great friend of Fred Foster, the man who began the label in 1958. With Foster’s guidance, the Orbison hits started to flow, and there in the background were the Bryants offering advice and encouragement. His first album included a smooth, almost subdued version of Bye Bye Love and some amusing sleeve notes from Boudleaux. The second album had Boudleaux continuing where he left off with the sleeve notes, and also providing Roy with two excellent new songs—Love Hurts and She Wears My Ring, which went on to become hits for other artist years later.
Love Hurts became a major international hit song in 1975/76 when recorded by Nazareth and Jim Capaldi. The other song She Wears My Ring, didn’t take quite so long to make an impression on the charts. An American singer, Solomon King, who settled in Britain in the mid-1960s, took it high into the British pop charts during the early months of 1968, and Ray Price took it into the American country charts a short time later.
Though the Bryants had made their mark on both the American and British music scene as successful songwriters, it is often forgotten that Boudleaux had been responsible for writing many successful instrumental pieces. Some have been written in partnership with Chet Atkins, the most well-known probably being Country Gentleman. There was also Mexico, a million-seller for the Bob Moore Orchestras in 1961. This was released on Monument Records and Bob who had since become on of Nashville’s best known bass players. Was responsible at the time for the orchestrations on Roy Orbison’s big hits.
Another successful instrumental that Boudleaux had a hand in was Last Date, a huge, worldwide hit for Floyd Cramer in 1960, and as My Last Date, a country and pop vocal success for Skeeter Davis the following year. Boudleaux has never felt restricted by country music and has for many years believed in its universal appeal. So it came as no surprise to discover that he also penned tunes for artists outside of country music, like Al Hirt, the jazz trumpet player, who recorded Boudleaux’s Theme From A Dream in 1963.
“Good music is good whether it comes out of the hills of Kentucky or the sidewalks of New York,” Boudleaux points out. “I don’t think that our songs have really changed that much since we started. The format of country songs has enlarged to the extent that they are doing a lot more chords that were permissible in 1950. They’re a little more complicated, a little more sophisticated, but the basics are still the same.”
“What was called pop years ago were the kind of things that Willie Nelson does now,” said Felice. “A lot of our songs that were written some time ago and were pop hits are now being accepted in country music. Now to be country depends on how you pronounce your words, not necessarily how you present the music.”
Boudleaux and Felice have always striven to have their music, with its southern roots intact, accepted internationally. They are both delighted and proud that such diverse artists as Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Tony Bennett, Simon & Garfunkel, The Grateful Dead, Lawrence Welk and Dean Martin have recorded their songs.
Their success as songwriters matched with Boudleaux’s keen business mind, led to them being among the first Nashville songwriters to form their own publishing company, House Of Bryant was formed solely for the purpose of publishing Boudleaux and Felice’s songs, and over the years many of the songs intially published by Acuff-Rose are now administered by House Of Bryant, making it one of the most successful publishing firms in Nashville.
“We decided a long time ago that it would be simpler for us to handle our own songs rather than allow a publishing company to lump our songs together with those from other writers,” said Boudleaux. “We know our material better than anyone, so if an artist or producer comes along for songs, we know just what ones to pitch them.”
A few years ago the Bryants organised a new publishing company, Clairemount House, the latter specialising in tunes by other writers, Dane, the eldest son, used to be general manager of the two publishing firms, but is now involved in OSA Publishing and his own recording studio, Wild Tracks. Younger son Del is director of performing rights for BMI in Nashville.
“Our two publishing operations are kept quite separate,” Boudleaux pointed out. “Felice and I never look at another writer’s material. You never know what might stick in the back of your head. It’s the only way, for us at least.”
The songs that Boudleaux and Felice have written during the last 30 years are recorded again and again by top stars who are on the look-out for quality material. Gram Parson, one of the most influential artists in contemporary country music, recorded songs like Love Hurts, Brand New Heartache and Sleepless Nights and introduced the world to Emmylou Harris, who in turn has raided the Bryants’ treasure trove of song gems.
Gail Davis, a new lady singer in Nashville, who is also a talented songwriter, scored one of her biggest hits with Like Strangers; both Anne Murray and Peter Skellern have recently recorded verisons of Raining In My Heart; and during the late 1960s Ray Price scored on the country charts with a series of Bryant songs, including Love Hurts, She Wears My Ring, and Take Me As I Am (Or Let Me Go). Other hits the pair penned during the 1960s included Baltimore for Sonny James. I Love To Dance With Annie by Ernest Ashworth, Rocky Top for the Osborne Brothers, and the worldwide million seller Let’s Think About Livin’ for Bob Luman.
“Oh yes! I remember that one clearly,” recalled Boudleaux. “It seemed at the time that everyone was singing about death and dying—there was Tom Dooley and Marty Robbins’ El Paso, and a bunch of other songs, and they were all pretty morbid, so just for fun I wrote that song and it turned out really well.”
Boudleaux and Felice are as prolific now as they were all those years ago. During the last ten yeats they have come up with several new hit songs like Come Live With Me and I Have A Dream, I Have A Dream for Roy Clark, (I Need You) All The Time for Eddy Arnold, Sweet Deceiver for Cristy Lane and I Can Hear Kentucky Calling Me for Chet Atkins.
Possibly the most rewarding experience for them was when the Osborne Brothers devoted a double album to the songs of the Bryants. FROM ROCKY TOP TO MUDDY BOTTOMS was recorded in 1977 for the CMH label and featured classic songs like Rocky Top, All I Have To Do Is Dream, We Could and Hey Joe blended with some fine new creations, highlighted for me by Just Another Dream (I’ll Have To Learn To Live Without) and Where Did The Sunshine Go?, all presented in a fresh and exciting bluegrass styling.
Now Boudleaux and Felice have been in the studios themselves and come up an album that is going to win them a lot of fans. In the States the album was titled SURFIN’ ON A WAVE; for the British release it was changed to ALL I HAVE TO DO IS DREAM.
Produced by Steve Singleton and recorded at Dane Bryant’s Wild Tracks studio, the album was initially planned as just a promotional venture to acquaint people with the pair’s songs. But it turned out so well that a commercial release was called for.
“That was something we did just for kicks,” said Boudleaux “We were going to do nothing but new songs, but it was suggested that we should record some of the older things for identification purposes.”
They included four older songs—Raining In My Heart, Bye Bye Love, Rocky Top and of course All I Have To Do Is Dream, but it is the newer songs that make the album so special. When I Stop Loving You, I’ll Never Get Tried (Of Loving You), and Playing In The Sand are three songs destined to become standards over the years.
The whole sound is very simple and relaxed. Musicians include Ray Edenton, David Humphreys, Sam Jacobs, Rick Maness, John Probst and Larry Shell, with special guest appearances from Chet Atkins and Lenny Breau. Though the album has been well received both in America and Britain, the Bryants have no plans to become performers.
“We get too scared when we know that we have a show to do,” said Felice. “We did one at the Tennessee Theatre for the Songwriters Association, but it was just too frightening for words.”
So these budding singing stars are certain to keep to their songwrting routine, which sees new songs tumbling out of the House Of Bryant almost daily. So singers will never lack quality songs, because over the years Boudleaux and Felice have written enough classics to last for ever, and they just seem to go on and on, writing new songs that are set to become tomorrow’s standards.