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VOL. 40 | NO. 39 | Friday, September 23, 2016

Harold Bradley: Just telling it ‘like it was’

By Tim Ghianni

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Harold Bradley has played guitar on many of the industry’s most famous recordings, including Patsy Cline’s rendetion of ‘Crazy,’ written by Willie Nelson.

-- Photograph Courtesy Of Harold Bradley

Harold Bradley’s blood pressure was up a bit on this late-summer morning, but he’s not too troubled by it as the day progresses. At least he’s got his dialysis done and a little guitar-picking fills his near horizon.

“I feel a lot better now than I did before,” says Harold, 90, who is among the few remaining from the time when real country music and Bob Dylan and Elvis crossed paths down on Music Row.

Well, honestly, Harold didn’t play for Dylan during his stint in the “old” studio, the one that preceded the famous Quonset Hut, whose remnants still can be seen from the alley behind the now-Mike Curb-owned building at 804 16th Avenue South (aka “34 Music Square East”). Offices fill the space where legendary music reigned for decades, quite often with Harold on lead guitar and his brother, Owen, doing the producing.

“When Columbia bought it (before it was absorbed by Sony and then bought by Curb), they did their best to recreate the Quonset Hut studio,” says Harold in our late-afternoon discussion about Nashville now and then and his ongoing – though of course less-passionate because of health and age – love affair with Music Row, where he continues to play some session work almost seven decades after he worked with Red Foley to record “Chattanoogie Shoeshine Boy.”

“Red changed it from ‘Chattanooga,’ so now the song title is ‘Chattanoogie.’ My first million-seller,’” says Harold, with a heart-lifting bright laugh that wasn’t present before we cut short an earlier-in-the-day visit, agreeing to get back together sometime “around 3 or 4.”

“I was having some fluctuation in my blood pressure this morning,” explains Harold, one of Nashville’s truly nice guys and a pioneer of the recording business with his late brother Owen, the acclaimed producer who teamed up with Chet Atkins – and Harold – to create the pop-country “Nashville Sound” of the late-1950s and the 1960s.

That was before the so-called “Outlaws” briefly seduced Music Row. (You may remember that Waylon once sang – to use the polite version – that the Outlaw ‘bit’ had done got out of hand.)

“My blood pressure was down to 81 or something like that,” Harold adds. “It was supposed to be 120. Didn’t feel so good.”

The fact Harold has the ability and the courage, really, to laugh at himself and his foibles … and still enjoy his center-stage spot among the survivors of that pretty-much forgotten era, brings me great personal joy.

I’ve known Harold for a long time. Knew his brother, too.

Harold is among that group of people I have checked in on once in a while just to see how he’s doing. Others in that group included Chet Atkins, Eddy Arnold, Bobby Thompson, Vassar Clements, Earl and Louise Scruggs, Uncle Josh Graves and Scotty Moore. R.I.P., old friends.

I’m fortunate in that I still have Harold and a few more to check on. While kidney disease, cancer and age have given Harold a licking, he just keeps on picking.

Back when Harold was head of the local musicians’ union, he often helped me track down musicians and musical history for an obituary or for some sort of melancholy farewell column (among my specialties).

“As far as I know, I’m the most recorded guitar player in the world,” he says, humility and pride mixed in his voice.

Starting when he was 20 back in 1946 and, I hope continuing long into the future, Harold has had a constant presence in Nashville music.

“I was reading (a magazine), and Brent Mason was on the cover. The story said he was the most-recorded guitar player ever. Well, he’s only 57 years old and I’m 90. I have plenty of years on him.”

He laughs, but there’s plenty of “no brag, just fact” truth there.

Harold admits to having a pretty good memory for things he’s done in the studio and as a top union rep over the decades, but allows he has a bit of murkiness as to the earliest days.

“I know I played a lot and I remember a lot since 1946. But there is a gap of sessions back in that time. I have a pretty good (grasp of) history from then on.”

The stacked-up pages of a musicians’ union chronicle of his sessions “is 46 inches thick. I’ve got a list of songs that’s unbelievable.”

And, as an illustration that he’s not done yet, Harold will play guitar when Mandy Barnett – Owen Bradley’s last big discovery – sings a pile of country classics during a three-night-long “The Nashville Songbook” celebration with The Nashville Symphony Nov. 10-12.

“She’s going to do ‘Devil in Disguise,’ ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You,’ ‘Harper Valley PTA,’ ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter,’ ‘Bye Bye Love,’ ‘Crying,’ ‘Rocky Top,’ ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’…” and, of course, the playful boogie that is “Chattanoogie Shoeshine Boy.”

“I don’t know of any other singer who could do this. (Mandy) is technically perfect. She can sing these really high songs,” Harold explains. “The regular country music girls couldn’t do that, but she’s really taken it on as a challenge. I don’t know of any other singer – or band – who could do that.”

Bradley performs at the Country Music Hall of Fame Medallion Ceremony in 2007. Bradley was honored along with Sonny James and George Strait.

-- Ap Photo/Mark Humphrey

As a member of the A-Team – a collection of Music Row’s ace musicians who would do four three-hour sessions in a day during Music Row’s boom years – Harold played on many of those recordings.

That’s barely touching the surface of his career. This gentle fellow has played with about any big name, and some not-so-big, standing before a Music Row microphone.

“I have two favorites,” he says, in a surprisingly quick answer to my question. “‘Crazy’ with Patsy Cline, and ‘Crying’ with Roy Orbison.”

“Crazy” while among his favorite sessions, also was among his toughest, he notes, “Patsy had broken ribs in an automobile wreck and she couldn’t work that session.”

Harold and the other A-Teamers, under the direction of Owen Bradley, did their parts and waited for her to heal.

“First of all, a normal recording session is three hours long, but we had gone on to four hours on ‘Crazy.’”

Background singers and A-Team pickers filled their tracks that night.

“We had the middle left for her vocal. Patsy came in and did it in one take. When she got through, none of us wanted to do it again.”

Owen, the players and Patsy knew that on this recording of ‘Crazy,’ they’d captured what remains the perfect country song (and perhaps the best-ever written by Willie Nelson.)

“Back then we had no music, no headphones and Owen kept coming out (of the production booth) and reworking the arrangement.

“What Owen did with ‘Crazy’ was a formula he used the rest of his life,” Harold says. He notes that even in his last session (with Barnett, before his 1998 death) “he stuck with it. He really knew how to get that sound.”

Owen died four songs into recording Mandy’s “I Got A Right to Cry” album. After the mourning was done, his nephew (engineer) Bobby Bradley and Harold went into the studio to finish it.

“Rolling Stone gave it a great review,” Harold says, as if that occurred yesterday. “It just seems like when you hear one (Owen) did, and then one that we did, it sounds the same. We think we did it the way he would have done it.”

Since he played on so many of the songs assembled for The Nashville Songbook concerts, I ask Harold how much practice he’s going to have to put in to get himself ready for those Mandy shows with the Symphony.

“I know that I’m able to depend on past experience, but Chet (Atkins) said it best: ‘If I miss practicing one day, I know it. If I miss two days, you know it. I miss three days, and the world knows it.

“Your body needs to be in good shape and you have to practice, practice, practice… But it is good to have the (studio) experience to back you up.”

The other of his favorite recording sessions, “Crying” with Roy Orbison, was notable in that the singer himself barked out the tempo and the tone to get the song, produced by Fred Foster, down right.

“We had worked on it for a while, and he said ‘Harold play this: Bah, bump bump, bump.’”

After singing that little passage to show how Orbison directed the A-Team, he adds Roy knew what he was singing about.

“That was it,” he says, smiling at the recollection of playing that song for Orbison, the eventual Traveling Wilbury, who may have had the most flexible voice to ever grace a Nashville studio.

“Both of those artists have to be among my favorites,” Harold points out. “But somewhere you’d have to include Elvis. I was at an interview and I was asked ‘Who would you like to hear do a duet?’” from all of those he’d worked with in the studios.

“I thought for a moment and said ‘Patsy and Elvis’ …. ‘Patsy Meets Elvis,’” he says, mixing mirth with melancholy in his voice. The thought of that duet cheers him. The fact it can’t happen – without studio wizardry – brings regret at the passage of time and how many deaths he’s seen.

“Elvis was a wonderful guy,” he says. “When I knew him, he wasn’t on drugs. He never raised his voice in the studio. He was always really calm and he loved to record more than anything.

“When he walked into the studio, you could tell he was in heaven.” The King also was a quick study. “Seems he learned it by playing it, and then getting it for the recording.”

For a few minutes we talk about Bob Dylan. No, Harold didn’t play on the storied Music Row Columbia sessions that led to Nashville Skyline, Blonde On Blonde and John Wesley Harding, but he appreciates the fact the bard from the North Country did break down walls and brought many artists of various stripes to Nashville to record. “We had Simon & Garfunkel,” he offers by way of illustration.

Harold travels from a fond recollection of how Kris Kristofferson went against the grain “because he wasn’t cutting regular country songs” to a shrugging dismay at what is being produced in Nashville these days.

“The music has changed so much, that I don’t like all the country music they are making now. I guess I’m one of those old fogies.”

What he does like is what all of the commercial success has done for Nashville. “I was born and raised in Nashville. I could have gone to work in Chicago, in L.A. or in New York, but I wanted to stay here in my hometown.”

He gets satisfaction noting that other recording capitals – Philly, Muscle Shoals, Detroit, Memphis, etc. – have come into prominence only to fade away …. while his hometown adapts and keeps on making music, even if today’s “bro-country” flavor leaves him cold.

“I feel good that Nashville is doing so good,” says this last remaining child of Vernie and Letha Maie Bradley, who moved from the farm in Westmoreland into Nashville where Vernie supported his family by selling tobacco. (“He’d take the back seat out of his car and fill it up with tobacco,” he says. “But he didn’t smoke it, though.”)

Even if he doesn’t like the music so much, Harold is proud of his city and its growth. “We are so blessed that it’s happening. It’s incredible.”

Oh, there is one thing he doesn’t like.

“I think they are putting up too many condos,” he says. “I worry that there’s going to be a bust.”

He notes that he was a party in one of the most publicized battles over Music Row real estate, as he was one of the owners of RCA studio A, which pianist Ben Folds and other activists fought to save from developers.

“People gave me flak about that, rightfully, because they didn’t want to change the Nashville skyline and lose that wonderful studio, one of three in the world like that.

“But it had been for sale for 25 years, and I couldn’t wait another 24 to get some income out of it.”

That the studio was saved by historic enthusiasts pleases him, though.

“My career went from Bill Monroe to Henry Mancini to Elvis to Patsy Cline to Roy Orbison,” he says, adding he remembers a particular session when Al Hirt, the great trumpet master, wanted to record the “Mission Impossible” theme in 5/4 time.

Hirt’s mission was not only possible, it was a sure thing. Harold was able to comply as were all of the A-Teamers, so many of whom have vanished in the last few years.

Outside artists “came to Nashville because the guys here can and will do it. We’ll come up with something,” he says in the active present tense of a survivor.

And Harold’s glad they are here – even if the music doesn’t much resemble that which he recorded with Patsy, Orbison, Elvis, etc.

“I’m the last person going back to before it happened. I played the first session here.” And more sessions await.

“It’s been unbelievable. I try to be very accurate with what I say,” he says, noting that he is called upon by those who wish to learn about the birth of Music Row.

“I’ve literally seen it all; and my part in it turned out to be huge.”

Harold’s far from ready to retire to his Goodlettsville home with his wife of more than six decades, Eleanor.

But he has had his health woes, and he attributes his survival to his own athleticism, which included nearly signing with the Chicago Cubs before World War II naval service got in the way and he spent days and nights breaking Japanese and Russian codes.

He and his wife, in their prime, both were expert water ski jumpers and slalom skiers, but he’s not planning on being pulled behind a motor boat any time soon.

He had his day. And he’s worked hard so that he has as many more of them as possible.

“I never smoked, never drank, never used drugs,” he says, noting that health consciousness may well be the reason he’s survived some major health woes, starting with a heart procedure in 1998.

“I had a 10 percent blockage in my heart. And they had to insert dye.

“They said that sometimes if they leave the dye in there a long time, the kidneys don’t start up at all. Mine were damaged somewhat but I got by for 17 years without dialysis.”

And, a cancerous tumor was removed from his right kidneys five years ago.

For the last year, he’s been undergoing dialysis for 10 hours while he sleeps at night. “That way I can do what I want to during the day,” he says.

That, of course, includes his regular guitar workouts and preparation for another session and, of course, the three-night Nashville Symphony stand with Mandy.

“Most people want to embellish their careers and gild the lily,” Harold says. “I just want to tell it like it was.”

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