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

Pierre Perrone
Friday 18 April 2014 04:32

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.

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