Jerry Foster – Singer-Songwriter With a Rockabilly Beat
One of Nashville's most successful modern writers, Jerry Foster is also a very exciting stage entertainer and recording artist. In April he put his talents over (for the first time) to British audiences at Wembley: now Alan Cackett fills in the background information.
Jerry Foster, a successful country songwriter, is also a frustrated rock'n'roller. For the past 20 years he has partnered Bill Rice in songwriting and publishing, and the pair have some up with some of Nashville's most notable country hits, accumulating an impressive 61 ASCAP awards and providing hits for such artist as Charley Pride, Jerry Lee Lewis, Mickey Gilley, Bobby Bare and Johnny Cash.
Though he has been based in Nashville since the mid-1960s. Jerry's heart has always been somewhere else. He's been responsible for writing the lyrics to some great country ballads, like The Easy Part's Over, Giving Up Easy and Ain't She Something Else, but his mind has always been on the music of the 1950s. Rock’n’roll is really what Jerry Foster is all about, and now in his early forties he is ready to make his mark as a performer.
Last autumn Jerry was in London for a few days to promote his record, DON'T LET GO, which had just been released on Sonet's A-Side Records, and to kick off Mervyn Conn's Wembley promotion at a special press conference at Stringfellow's Club in the West End. It was a long way from Jerry's childhood, spent in Missouri, in what can only be described as very poor surroundings.
“My father was a farm hand, and from a very early age I was expected to help out with the work,” Jerry said. “I was raised on music and a lot of love. That was probably the only thing the family never lacked. On Sundays we'd have a family get-together and all sing. It was just the natural thing to do.”
His father nurtured Jerry's early interest in music, giving him a guitar for a birthday present and teaching him to pick a few chords. Shortly afterwards Jerry started school, and though he was one of the poorer kids, he soon found a way of becoming both known and well-liked by the other kids.”
“With my guitar I used to sing and play for the other kids. It got me some attention, and a little later I started writing poems, which I sold to the older kids.”
Without realising it, that was the beginning of Jerry Foster the lyric-writer. After high school he joined the U.S. Marines. It was the only way to escape the gruelling life of working on the farm. He continued with his music, and after completing his initial training at Paris Island, he formed his own band within the Marines, and started working weekend shows. Once his stint in the Marines was completed he really got himself started in the music business.
“We were working a few local clubs at weekends, then came an offer to do a radio show. The local garage sponsored us, and we would sing between adverts for cars. The radio show led to more club work, and it was decided that we should have some proper stage outfits. One day we went over to Savannah, the nearest big town to where we were based, to get some.”
“We were walking down the street and passed a TV station. One of the guys joked: 'If you were any kind of a band-leader you'd get us on TV.' I said: 'I'll show you, just follow me.' So we went into the building and landed a job. I didn't know until later that the station, it was WSAV, had only just gone on the air and were looking for a band.”
The music the band was playing was mainly up-tempo country. It was what is now known as rockabilly or rock'n'roll. By the early 1950s country music had become big business and its inherent folksiness found a receptive audience, especially through artists like Hank Williams, George Morgan, Webb Pierce and Eddy Arnold.
The rockabilly music played by bands like those of Jerry Foster's and the Sun artists based in Memphis, offered escape from the drabness. They had returned to the roots of country music, a regenerative process, which led to the rise of rock'n'roll. It was a fusion of country and r&b, and it also offered a flash of rebellion and excitement.
Jerry began turning his poems into songs and he recorded for the small Back Beat label, coming up with records like Your Love and Lonely One. Eventually he landed a spot on a TV station closer to home. This time it was KFVS in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, which also tempted him with better money. He moved back home and formed a new band, and often, whilst working the local clubs, he would run into another young fellow, Bill Rice, who also had a band.
Like Jerry, Bill had also recorded unsuccessfully, for Fernwood Records. Eventually the two got together in a rather unique way. “We'd often end up doing shows together, and I knew that Bill had been writing, so one day I said, 'Look: I have some songs I've written, do you want to hear them?' He wasn't very keen, but in the end he did give me a listen. At the end he said: ‘Jerry, you write some great lyrics, but your melodies are all the same’.”
“Then he played me some of the song he'd written. I told him: ‘Bill, a third-grader could write better lyrics, but you write great melodies.’We did the obvious thing, got together and started writing together. Some of the early efforts included The Day The World Stood Still and The Easy Part's Not Over. Not long afterwards we met up with Bill Hall and Jack Clement. They signed us to their publishing company and soon started getting our songs recorded.”
Initially it was pop artists who recorded the early Foster and Rice song, though Dickey Lee recorded some, like Annie and The Day The Sawmill Closed Down. It was not until the mid-1960s that the Foster-Rice songwriting partnership really made an impression. Up until that time both Jerry and Bill were still involved in their solo performing careers, and Jerry also took work as a part-time DJ.
“I moved to Nashville in 1966,” Jerry recalls. “And Bill moved about a year later, It was tough to start with. I was working on WENO Radio as a DJ, and performing at clubs at weekends, but we were determined at the time to make our mark as songwriters. That was our goal.”
It was Jack Clement's association with Charley Pride, who was just starting in Nashville at the time, that helped to establish the pair as top songwriters, Charley recorded The Day The World Stood Still, The Easy Part's Over and another two dozen Foster-Rice songs; then Jeannie C. Riley cut The Back Side Of Dallas, and Mel Tillis took Heaven Everyday to the top of the charts.
In 1971 an ASCAP record was set with five awards for songwriting. The next year Jerry and Bill broke that record, earning ten. In 1974 the record was broken again with eleven songwriting and four production awards. And they have continued as prolific as ever, coming up with more recent hits, like Thirty-Nine And Holding for Jerry Lee Lewis, Giving Up Easy and Over for P.J Parks. And the hits will doubtless continue, for Jerry Foster and Bill Rice have built up an incredible catalogue of good songs.
Last year the partnership split up, and though Jerry would love to get back with Bill and write again, the possibilities are very slight. “When we split it was rather like a divorce,” Jerry explained. “We'd been together for 19 years, and it's hard to just finish, but that's what happened. Do you know that since the beginning of the year, Bill hasn't spoken to me at all.”
“It was in January, and Bill thought we should have a buy/sell option in our publishing company. I wasn't too worried at the time, but then in May he exercised his option and I bought the company. I hardly see him now, and certainly I have no hard feelings. He's started his own publishing company, and now I'm here on my own.”
The split has given Jerry Foster the opportunity to re-evaluate his life, and he's decided that he wants to achieve a long-standing ambition to establish himself as a singer and performer.
“I've never really given up on performing, but when we were writing together I could only fit in the odd weekend date. About ten years ago I was working with Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana, who had worked with Elvis. Off and on I've worked with them ever since, but as I said, it's only now that I can concentrate on the performing.”
Throughout his 15 years in Nashville. Jerry has recorded regularly, but not consistently. He began with small independent labels in the late 1960s, then signed with Mercury in 1972. Though he released excellent singles like Love Is For Everyone and Don't Take It So Hard, he failed to make an impression on the country charts. The following year he joined the independent Cinnamon Records as both artist and general manager and producer. He made the charts initially with Copperhead, an early Bob McDill song about a snake, and Looking Back, an old Brook Benton hit that became the title song of Jerry's debut album.
“I never really wanted to record Copperhead,” Jerry recalls. “It was a song the producer brought along, and in the end I did record it. At the time Bob McDill was pretty much an unknown writer. It wasn't really a song that suited me.”
To be honest, the album didn't capture Jerry Foster in the right style. The songs are mainly bluesy ballads with a few aimed at a country sound, but sadly there were no rockers. His vocals are pleasant and easy to take, though seldom much more than that. I was surprised to find two Brook Benton songs included, a singer I've always rated highly. Jerry shared my enthusiasm for the under-rated singer.
“I've always liked Brook Benton,” he said. “He's got this easy style with a soulful quality. Sam Cooke is another artist who had that quality. I can't sing like that, but I'd have to say that those two are my favourite singers. I've always like r&b and I suppose it comes through in my singing and the writing.”
Like so many independent labels, Cinnamon suffered a cash-flow problem and went under, but not before it made quite an impression on the country scene. Several promising artists signed with the label, including Sharon Vaughn, Guy Shannon, Susan St. Marie, Jimmy Payne, Narvel Felts, and the underrated Stan Hitchcock.
In 1976 Jerry signed a recording contract with Hitsville Records, the short-lived country label formed by Tamla Motown. He made the country charts with I Knew You When, a song co-written with Bill Rice, but shortly afterwards Motown decided they didn't really want to be involved with country music and closed down the label.
By this time Bill and Jerry had become almost as much involved in production as in songwriting and publishing. Bill had been working regularly with Bobby Bare, Whilst Jerry had been busy trying to establish himself as a performer. He began working more regularly with Scotty Moore and D. J. Fontana and other musicians who were still keen on rock’n’roll. Becoming known as Jerry Foster and Tennessee Tornado, a recording contact was secured with Monument Records towards the end of 1978.
A single, I Want To Love You, was released, then soon afterwards Monument, one of Nashville's longest running independent labels, drastically reduced its operations. Jerry was by this time working regularly with the group, and often would have the Jordanaires providing background vocal harmonies, creating a very authentic 1950s rock’n’roll sound.
“Because I've written lots of country hits, people naturally assume I'm a country singer. But I don't sing like Charley Pride or Bobby Bare. I like ballads, but my style on the slower songs is a little bluesy. I'm a rock’n’roller. I summed it all up in the song Thirty-Nine And Holding, which though written for Jerry Lee, is really more about me.”
“There's a line in the song about a man ‘doing all the fifties' steps in a nineteen-eighties' crowd’. That I guess is the way I feel. I've always been a rockabilly. For me the music never got out of the fifties.”
It would seem that now is the time when Jerry Foster could well move into the spotlight. He tackles everything he does with one thing in mind—it must be good and it must be right. The spirit of rock’n’roll with its original hillbilly overtones left intact, has rarely been brought back to life, but Jerry Foster and Tennessee Tornado show how the music should be performed.
He is still based in Nashville and owns publishing companies, his own record label, and a studio complex. He has recently signed some relatively new writers like Jim McBride, Roger Murrah and Stan Barber. As a producer, he is currently responsible for David Rogers, Butch Baker and Duke Faglier for Kari Records, which he also owns, as well as P.J Parks and Lou Hobbs on his other label, Kik Records.
Alongside these ventures, he has also found time to go in the studio himself and has recorded three albums. One is totally rockabilly and includes his fine revival of the old Jesse Stone hit, Don't Let Go, which was released on single in Britain last autumn on Sonet's A-side label. Another album demonstrates his love for the blues, and is a collection of hurting songs that tell stories. The third project is a mixture of well-known Foster-Rice songs blended with some of his newer works.