Teddy Wilburn

Country singer and champion of new talent

Brother duet teams have been a mainstay of country music from its earliest days. Names like the Monroes, the Louvins and the Bellamys litter its history, their success a tribute to the often unique power and beauty of sibling harmonies.

Thurman Theodore Wilburn (Teddy Wilburn), singer, songwriter and businessman: born Hardy, Arkansas 30 November 1931; married; died Nashville, Tennessee 24 November 2003.

Brother duet teams have been a mainstay of country music from its earliest days. Names like the Monroes, the Louvins and the Bellamys litter its history, their success a tribute to the often unique power and beauty of sibling harmonies.

Doyle and Teddy Wilburn, the Wilburn Brothers, were popular performers with a string of hit records to their credit. Prominent Nashville businessmen, they also possessed a keen ear for new talent, and championed both the young Loretta Lynn and later, her 15-year-old cousin Patricia Ramey, the future Patty Loveless.

The youngest two of five children born to a disabled First World War veteran, Doyle and Teddy (born Thurman Theodore) Wilburn began performing professionally as youngsters. Their father reasoned that a musical career offered greater prospects than life on a north Arkansas dirt farm and purchased instruments for his children from a Sears catalogue. The quintet of four boys (Lester, Leslie, Virgil Doyle and Thurman Theodore) and a girl (Geraldine, known as Jerry) began playing locally and developed quite a following, although constantly bedevilled by child-labour legislation that meant that more than once they had to turn down radio sponsorship.

In 1940, whilst working in Decatur, Alabama, they learnt that the Grand Ole Opry star Roy Acuff was hosting a talent contest in Birmingham. A series of flat tyres on the way meant that they were too late to take part but their impromptu performance of "Farther Along" at the backstage entrance sufficiently impressed Acuff for him to invite them to Nashville for an Opry audition. They remained on the show for about six months before child-labour laws again intervened.

By 1948 the family, minus Jerry, who had married, was based at Shreveport, Louisiana, and performing regularly on the radio show Louisiana Hayride. They cut five singles for the Four Star label and worked on sessions alongside stars like Webb Pierce. (It was Pierce, in fact, who first started calling Teddy by that name.) Following military service in Korea, Doyle and Teddy returned to the States and joined Pierce's package show. Their version of Billy Cox's "Sparkling Brown Eyes" quickly became a popular part of their segment of the show and in February 1954 Pierce and Teddy cut it as a single for Decca. A Top Five country hit, it led to a full contract with the label and kick-started a run of chart entries.

"I'm So In Love With You" (1956) barely scraped into the Top Ten, but a pair of numbers recorded with the great Ernest Tubb, "Mister Love" (1957) and a fine version of Cindy Walker's "Hey, Mr Bluebird" (1958), fared better. "Which One is to Blame" reached No 4 in 1959 whilst "Trouble's Back In Town" was named Country Song of the Year by Cash Box magazine in 1962. Their 1962 album City Limits proved a not wholly successful attempt to reach a broader audience with its covers of songs made popular by acts like Nat King Cole and Connie Francis but by that stage the brothers were already looking beyond mere performance.

By 1956 they had set up their own publishing company Sure-Fire Music which, with affiliate companies like Bronze Music and Maple Music, was highly successful, with Loretta Lynn, Cindy Walker and Johnny Russell among the songwriters whose work they published. In 1962 they joined forces with Hank Williams's former steel guitarist Don Helms to form the Will-Helm Talent Agency, handling a roster which, at different times, featured stars like Jean Shepard, Slim Whitman, Connie Smith and Lynn, whose early career was largely shaped by the brothers. They also had their own television show.

In the mid-Sixties the hits started to dry up and "Hurt Her Once for Me" (1966), written by Johnny Russell and Vince Finneran, proved to be their last Top Ten success. The Wilburns continued to pursue their business interests and in 1971 made industry headlines when Loretta Lynn sued them for outstanding royalties. They continued to tour, appearing at the Wembley Festival in London in 1970 and 1978 and, having rejoined the Opry in 1956, were a popular weekly fixture. In 1982 Doyle Wilburn died of cancer and, Teddy later recalled, "It was like a 45-year marriage ended." Teddy Wilburn continued to work as a solo act and was still a member of the Opry cast at the time of his death.

Paul Wadey

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