Ted Jarrett: Musician, label-owner and producer who brought R&B to Nashville

Nashville might be known as "Music City, USA" but it is primarily seen as the home of country music.

Indeed, I was blissfully unaware of the city's rich rhythm and blues tradition and heritage until I visited the exhibition Night Train to Nashville at the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2004. The African-American musician, singer, songwriter, producer and label-owner Ted Jarrett played a pivotal role in that scene during the Fifties, Sixties and early Seventies.

Jarrett wrote the inspirational "You Can Make It If You Try", a hit for Gene Allison, which crossed over from the r'n'b charts to the US Top 40 in 1958, and was later covered by the Rolling Stones on their eponymous 1964 debut album. It was subsequently recorded by Solomon Burke, Yvonne Fair, Nona Hendryx, Junior Parker, Joe South and Gene Vincent. Written in 1957 after Jarrett was dumped by a girlfriend, "You Can Make It If You Try" anticipated the advent of Southern soul and resonated with African-Americans throughout the next decade. The song became Jarrett's motto and the title of his autobiography, which was published in 2005.

Jarrett ran a succession of record labels – Champion, Calvert, Cherokee, Poncello, Valdot, Spar, Ref-O-Ree – for which he occasionally recorded as lead vocalist, but mostly acted as an all-rounder. He wrote and produced for fine exponents of Nashville R&B and soul, including Larry Birdsong, Earl Gaines, Christine Kittrell, Roscoe Shelton and The Avons. His material also provided rich pickings for Fats Domino, Jerry Butler, Pat Boone and Johnny Ray. Indeed, his realm of influence extended well beyond the R&B genre. Another of his compositions, "Love, Love, Love", topped the country charts for Webb Pierce in 1955, earning Jarrett a songwriting award from the performing rights organisation BMI the following year.

Jarrett often told the story of how he was initially refused entry by a police officer when he arrived to receive his award at a reception held at Nashville's Hermitage Hotel. "When he saw me, a black man, at this "white" affair, he reasoned that I was trying to crash the party," he recalled in his autobiography. "I tried to tell him I was there to accept an award, but he just couldn't conceive that any black man could be the same man to win a national award in country music." Needless to say, the determined Jarrett eventually collected his plaque, one of the many occasions on which he faced up to and overcame prejudice.

He was born Theodore Jarrett in Nashville in 1925 and had a tumultuous childhood. In 1927, his father was shot dead by the boyfriend of his mistress. For the next five years, his mother struggled to raise him and his sister before eventually packing them off to their grandmother in rural Rutherford County. The young Ted showed a great interest in music, yet was discouraged from pursuing music-making as a career by his small-minded and abusive step-grandfather. "He just had a different concept," Jarrett said in 1996. "He told me that black boys didn't write songs."

In 1940, Jarrett came back to Nashville and worked in a succession of odd jobs as a teenager while attending school and college to help out his mother. He even managed to buy a second-hand piano and to pay for a few lessons. In October 1944 he was drafted and served two years in the Navy, before returning to Nashville to study music at Fisk University. However, his budding career as a pianist, songwriter and broadcaster prevented him from graduating. In 1951, he became a disc-jockey on WSOK, one of the first all-African-American radio stations, and began working as a talent scout for various labels before eventually setting up several of his own.

By 1955, he had scored a big R&B hit for the Excello label with "It's Love Baby (24 Hours a Day)", a single by Louis Brooks & His Hi-Toppers. Covers of the song by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters and Ruth Brown duly followed the same year, while Bobby "Blue" Bland and Delbert McClinton also cut the track.

Jarrett had a big impact in Nashville. He mentored performers like the blues singer Johnny Jones, who briefly enjoyed the presence of Jimi Hendrix and bassist Billy Cox in his backing band, as well as Herbert Hunter and Freddie Waters.

Jarrett returned to Fisk in 1973, and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree. For his recital, he played pieces by Bach, Brahms and Mendelssohn on the piano. Over the next thirty years he was more involved in Nashville's gospel scene, but he also began to receive some belated recognition for his work, as European and US companies began licensing and issuing compilations from the many labels he had been associated with.

However, the success of the Night Train exhibition and its attendant 2 CD-collection, Night Train to Nashville: Music City Rhythm & Blues, 1945-1970, which won a Grammy award in 2005 and included six tracks composed and produced by Jarrett, topped all previous acclaim. Jarrett's back catalogue was just as prominent in the excellent second volume which followed.

The publication of his autobiography was marked by a tribute show at the Country Music Hall of Fame, featuring 16 acts he had worked with over the years, including Bobby Hebb of "Sunny" fame and Charles Walker. "It proved to this city that there was – and is – more to "Music City, USA" than country," he said. Jarrett, who used to encourage his session musicians and singers by shouting "Knock my drawers off!", certainly did his best to put Nashville on the R&B map.

Theodore R. Jarrett, singer, songwriter, producer, label owner, pianist: born Nashville 17 October 1925; married (one son); died Nashville 21 March 2009.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
businessUber, Snapchat and Facebook founders among those on the 2015 Forbes Billionaire List
news... and what your reaction to the creatures above says about you
Homer’s equation, in an episode in 1998, comes close to the truth, as revealed 14 years later
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

£45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Lancashire - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Support Engineer / Network ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

£26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

Ashdown Group: PeopleSoft Developer - London - £45k

£45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: PeopleSoft Application Support & Development ...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003