Thursday, 8 October 2009

RIP Shelby Singleton

Another figure from the great Sun label was passed away. Although he wasn't there during the heyday, he bought out Sam Phillips and started an extensive reissue program that gave the world many never previously heard gems. Who knows, if he hadn't bought Sun when he did, a lot of those tapes may have ended got lost before we had a chance to hear them. Peter Cooper of the Tennessean has written an excellent obituary, a copy of which follows.

"Shelby Singleton died just before 1 p.m. Wednesday in Alive Hospice Care at St. Thomas Hospital in Nashville, at age 77.

Mr. Singleton was a renegade producer, record executive, song-hunter and promoter who helped fuse country and R&B music in the 1960s and who perpetuated the Sun Records label since 1969. He had been battling brain cancer.

“A lot of people in this town owe a lot to Shelby,” said friend and protégé Jerry Kennedy, himself a famed producer. “He created a place here for a lot of us. Shelby did things in a different way. He was a maverick.”

Mr. Singleton produced Jeannie C. Riley’s “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” a No. 1 country hit that became one of the biggest independent records in Nashville history when released on his Plantation Records. He was an essential enabler in the careers of Ray Stevens, Jerry Reed, Roger Miller, Merle Kilgore and many others, He may be the only producer to record three No. 1 country records in one day on three different artists: Stevens, Leroy Van Dyke and Joe Dowell.

He was also, as Belmont University music business professor Don Cusic noted, “A wheeler-dealer.” And, as Kennedy said, “A clique-buster.” Most everyone who came into contact with him agreed that he was a character. He was also the owner of a brand new Rolls Royce.

“The Rolls came in on Monday,” Cusic said. “I’d seen him last week and he told me he’d ordered it. He said he’d always wanted one, and he said, ‘At my age and in my condition, I figured I’d better get it soon.’”

If Mr. Singleton’s career in music is any indication, it’s likely a very, very nice car. And he probably got it at a good price. During the early 1960s, he headed Mercury Records’ Smash imprint, where over and again he found quality recordings and viable artists, snapped them up for Smash and released hit records.

He heard a Texas pop duo named Jill and Ray on a recording of a song called “Hey Paula.” The recording was soon reissued on Smash, but not before Mr. Singleton changed the duo’s name to Paul and Paula. Jill and Ray didn’t like the idea at first, but they grew used to it by February 1963, when the song topped American pop charts.

A year earlier, he heard Bruce Channel’s “Hey! Baby,” a song that featured distinctive harmonica from a young Delbert McClinton. That one became a No. 1 hit for Smash after Mr. Singleton bought the master recording. With Smash, Mr. Singleton also presided over a roster that grew to include Roger Miller, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bobby Hebb, Ivory Joe Hunter, Pete Drake, Patti Page and James Brown. That roster included artists of varying styles, and it was not uncommon for Mr. Singleton to preside over sessions that featured African-American artists and white musicians.

“He brought (African-American) artists to town and put them up at his house,” said Kennedy, who often engineered sessions that Mr. Singleton produced, and who also produced hundreds of records for Kennedy-owned labels. “He brought people like Clyde McPhatter, Brook Benton and Ruth Brown here, and the only hotel where they were allowed to stay was the old Eldorado, in North Nashville. So most of the time, the artists stayed with Shelby.”

When Mr. Singleton heard Roger Miller singing witty, up-tempo numbers that were at odds with the serious-sounding material Miller was recording for RCA, Mr. Singleton signed Miller and told him he’d been singing the wrong songs. Miller immediately entered the studio and recorded 16 sides, including “Dang Me,” and his career turned a corner. And when Mr. Singleton — at the time a southeastern regional promotions man for Mercury — heard Stevens singing in an Atlanta nightclub, he soon offered the young performer a job in Nashville.

“When I left that job, he did the same thing for Jerry Reed,” Stevens said. “Shelby brought a lot of people to town. And working with him on the music later on, he had good instincts. Sometimes he did things I didn’t think were right at the time, but it turned out the decisions he made were right. Like, ‘Ahab’ was a four-minute song. He sliced it up and made it shorter. That bothered me at the time, but there’s no way the song would have been a radio hit if it had been four minutes long.”

In 1967, Mr. Singleton left Mercury and started Shelby Singleton Productions Inc. with $1,000. Twenty months later, his corporate value was estimated at more than $2 million. Much of that increase was due to “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” a song from the pen of Tom T. Hall. On Friday, July 26, 1968, Mr. Singleton produced Riley’s recording with featured instrumentation on the “pickin’ Dobro” from Kennedy. That night, he rushed the finished product to influential WSM disc jockey Ralph Emery. By daybreak, it was a hit: a literal overnight success. In a country music era dominated by Music Row’s major labels, Mr. Singleton’s little Plantation label sold millions of copies of “Harper Valley P.T.A.”

On July 1, 1969, Mr. Singleton purchased Sun Records, the label for which Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich and others had recorded. Mr. Singleton began mining many of those artists’ back catalogs for release on Sun, and he oversaw licensing of reissues and the marketing of the ever-popular Sun Records T-shirts and other souvenirs.

“He was the all-around record guy,” Kennedy said. “Just a great merchandising guy, promoter and producer. He did it all, and he seemed to get along with everybody. Shelby was one of the biggest-hearted people around.”

Stevens, himself one of the most unique souls to smack boot heels on a Music City sidewalk, said, “Shelby Singleton was absolutely one of a kind.”"

The photo below shows Shelby with Sam Phillips and Kittra Moore, wife of Nashvilly bass legend Bob Moore.

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