Shelby Singleton: Record producer who unearthed undiscovered treasures in the vaults of the Sun label

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The Independent Online

The record producer and label owner Shelby Singleton is associated with several American hits of the 1960s but he will be best remembered for his re-marketing of the Sun Records catalogue in Memphis. He admitted that he had no great musical talent, but he knew what record buyers wanted to hear.

Shelby Singleton was born in Waskom, Texas in 1931 and after graduation he served in the US Marine Corps in Korea. He was wounded and spent the rest of his life with a metal plate in his head. He worked in a munitions company in Shreveport, Louisiana for five years and was then hired to promote the country music catalogue of Starday Records. At the time, they had a marketing arrangement with Mercury Records and when that was terminated, Singleton worked for Mercury.

When Singleton was 17 and his bride only 13, he married Margaret Ebey, who became a country singer under her new name of Margie Singleton. She was featured on the radio show Louisiana Hayride. She recorded, under her husband's guidance, for both Starday and Mercury and had duet hits with George Jones ("Waltz of the Angels", 1962) and Faron Young ("Keeping Up with the Joneses", 1964). When they divorced in 1965, she found a regular partner in her new husband, Leon Ashley.

While Singleton was promoting Mercury's product, he was listening for potential hits on small labels. He then persuaded Mercury to release them nationally and he had success with "Chantilly Lace" (The Big Bopper, 1958), "Running Bear" (Johnny Preston, 1959), "Hey! Baby" (Bruce Channel, 1962) and "Hey Paula" (Paul and Paula, 1963). He was known to give a $50 handshake to some key disc-jockeys to play his records.

Singleton was allowed to produce some records himself. Among his early successes were "The Boll Weevil Song" (Brook Benton, 1961), "Wooden Heart" (Joe Dowell, 1961), "Walk on By" (Leroy Van Dyke, 1961), "Lover Please" (Clyde McPhatter, 1962) and "Ahab the Arab" (Ray Stevens, 1962), a record that would be deemed politically incorrect today.

In 1961, the Dutch electronics giant, Philips, bought Mercury and set up a subsidiary label, Smash. Singleton knew that Jerry Lee Lewis's career on Sun Records had been destroyed because of his marriage to a 13-year-old girl, and was determined to make Lewis a star again; he secured his contract from Sun and after a few false starts he aimed his recordings at the country market. He had a US Top 20 hit with "Mohair Sam", performed by another former Sun artist, Charlie Rich, and he oversaw the success of Roger Miller, who, produced by Jerry Kennedy, recorded "Dang Me", "King of the Road" and "England Swings".

By 1966, Singleton was vice-president of Mercury Records, but he resigned as he wanted to establish his own companies – the Plantation label for country and SSS International for soul music. In 1968, he scored a US No 1 with Tom T. Hall's song about small town hypocrisy, "Harper Valley P.T.A." which was recorded by Jeannie C. Riley. In the same year, he produced soul hits for the duo Peggy Scott and Jo Jo Benson.

In 1969, Singleton bought the Sun catalogue from its owner, Sam Phillips, and a huge quantity of tape boxes was delivered to his basement. Because Sun's paperwork was poor, he had not known exactly what he would be buying, but he soon found that he had many unreleased recordings as well as alternative takes of familiar material. He even had Sam Phillips arguing about religion with Jerry Lee Lewis.

With a mammoth reissue programme, Singleton released albums by all the key artists as well as compilations, and he commissioned new work from Billy Lee Riley and Sleepy LaBeef. Ironically, Lewis was becoming a big-time country artist on Smash, and Singleton released Sun outtakes in opposition, scoring several country hits including "Invitation to Your Party" (1969).

Singleton did not have the rights to Elvis Presley's Sun material, which had been sold to RCA in 1955, but he did have the so-called "Million Dollar Quartet", which covered a jam session with Presley, Carl Perkins, Lewis and Johnny Cash in December 1956. He released this, as well as some dubious duets on which it was suggested that Elvis Presley was singing with Lewis and Charlie Rich. Sadly, this ruined the authenticity of what Singleton was doing.

The packaging and repackaging of Sun material became Singleton's preoccupation for the rest of his career, although he did occasionally produce new artists such as Jason D. Williams. He was also arrested for growing a 14ft marijuana plant, the biggest the narcotics officers had ever seen. He was found innocent of distributing drugs as his attorney said that being Singleton, he would have grown acres of it and not just one plant if that had been his intention.

After being diagnosed with terminal cancer earlier this year, he bought a Rolls-Royce, saying, "I've always wanted one, and at my age and condition I'd better get it now."

Spencer Leigh

Shelby Sumpter Singleton Jr, record producer and label owner: born Waskom, Texas 16 December 1931; married four times (three sons, one daughter); died Nashville, Tennessee 7 October 2009.