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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
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

Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

£37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

£25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

£16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones