Poets and Prophets: Salute to Legendary Songwriter Buzz Cason

July 5, 2014
Unlike the hundreds of hopefuls who migrated to Nashville to launch music careers as performers, songwriters, producers, and music publishers, Buzz Cason stayed home. Cason is that rare breed in Music City—a Nashville native. He lived in the Inglewood section of town, with his musical parents. His mother sang in the church choir, and his father listened avidly to big band music.

Cason took full advantage of growing up in a city friendly to the musically adept. He told his story to interviewer Michael Gray in front of a capacity audience gathered July 5, 2014, in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s Ford Theater for an installment of the songwriter series, Poets and Prophets. At the beginning and end of the program, Cason and his son Parker performed several songs, including Cason’s most famous compositions: “Soldier of Love” and “Everlasting Love.”

(The program took place on a red-letter day in rock & roll history. It was July 5, 1954, sixty years to the day, that Elvis Presley—coached by Sun Records owner-producer Sam Phillips, and supported by guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black—recorded “That’s All Right,” his first commercial release. Moore, a longtime friend to Cason, and the only surviving player on that seminal session, attended the program. When Gray introduced Moore, the audience rose as one to offer an enthusiastic ovation for Moore and what he accomplished with Presley that long-ago day.)

Following Cason’s opening performance, Gray asked about “Soldier of Love,” a song popularized in 1962 by soul great Arthur Alexander, and covered famously by the Beatles on a 1963 BBC broadcast. Cason co-wrote the song with Tony Moon, when deejay and TV personality Noel Ball invited them to create something with Alexander in mind. Cason credited Moon with crafting the clever military metaphors that make up the song. Cason didn’t hear about the Beatles’ cover until 1980, and, when he did, he said, “I ’bout fell out of my chair.” Nashville, as it turns out, provided solid grounding for a rhythm & blues tunesmith.

A cousin gave Cason a radio, he recalled, and he eagerly absorbed r&b broadcasts hosted by soon-to-be-legendary deejays John R, Gene Nobles, Herman Grizzard, and Hoss Allen on WLAC-AM (1510). The music played by those men shaped the tastes of listeners across the nation, including Cason’s. With friend Aaron Brown, Cason attended a seminal r&b revue at the Ryman Auditorium in 1955. The audience was separated into white and black, balcony and floor, but together they dug the music made by the likes of Big Joe Turner.

In 1956, Ball invited Cason to appear on a local teen TV show, playing music and pantomiming popular songs. A taste for performing led that same year to Cason’s membership in the Casuals, by all accounts Nashville’s first rock & roll band. The group played schools and talent shows, building a name for themselves as teen favorites. The group snuck into another radio station, WSIX, and cut a record, “My Love Song for You,” that was picked up eventually by Dot Records for national distribution. With the disc as their calling card, Cason said, the Casuals began touring more widely, including sixty fair dates, in 1957.

A big break came in 1958 when Oscar Davis, manager for Jerry Lee Lewis—with whom the Casuals had toured—recommended the Casuals to Dub Allbritten, manager for Nashville-based twelve-year-old pop star Brenda Lee. They got the gig. Gray shared a clip of the high-energy Casuals interacting onstage with Lee.

Cason briefly acquired teen idol status himself. As “Garry Miles,” recording with Nashville’s A-Team session players and producer Snuff Garrett, he sang “Look for a Star,” a #16 pop hit in 1960 for Liberty Records.

With his career gaining momentum, Cason moved to California. There he met and produced the Crickets, Buddy Holly’s band, which at the time included J. I. Allison, Sonny Curtis, and Glen D. Hardin. Buzz toured England with them in 1964, including an appearance on the popular British TV show Ready, Steady, Go!

There’s no place like home, though, and Cason returned in 1964 to the friendly environs of Nashville, where he reconnected with songwriter Bobby Russell. They formed successful publishing and record companies and wrote together, creating minor successes such as “Popsicle” by Jan and Dean (another song performed by Cason during the program). On his own, Russell would pen the classics “Honey” and “Little Green Apples,” and a Cason-Russell company would publish them.

A songwriting liaison with Bucky Wilkin led to a 1966 pop hit, “Sandy,” for Wilkin’s band, Ronny & the Daytonas (Buzz, future producer and songwriter Larry Butler, arranger Bergen White, and drummer Jerry Carrigan were all “Daytonas” at one time or another.) Then came Cason’s crowning achievement, “Everlasting Love,” co-written with Mac Gayden, featuring vocalist Robert Knight. Cason recalled that he and Gayden met at Ernie’s Record Mart, where Gayden held a part-time job. They collaborated on the song, with Gayden connecting two melodies to form a whole. The duo enlisted soul singer Knight and, with a budget from Monument Records owner Fred Foster and help from engineer Brent Maher and some of Nashville’s best musicians—Kenny Buttrey, Pig Robbins, and Charlie McCoy—they created the 1967 hit, which would go on to be recorded by other artists many times over. Gray played a clever “mash-up” combining versions by Knight, Carl Carlton, Gloria Estefan, and U2.

Cason recounted his role as producer of another soul classic, Clifford Curry’s “She Shot a Hole in My Soul,” also from 1967. He told of working on Jimmy Buffett’s early recordings. He recalled opening his studio, Creative Workshop, the first in the Berry Hill neighborhood of Nashville—now home to many such operations. After Gray played a video for “Love’s the Only House,” Cason discussed co-writing, with Tom Douglas, the 1999–2000 Martina McBride hit. A slow version of the song preceded a faster treatment. The latter, Cason said, caught the ear of McBride’s producer, Paul Worley.

To close the program, Cason and son Parker took up guitars again. Buzz performed “Troubadour Heart,” from his new album of the same name, and he finished with a heartfelt version of “Everlasting Love,” dedicating it to his wife, Vickie.

—Jay Orr