Poets and Prophets: Salute to Legendary Country Songwriter Sonny Curtis

February 25, 2012
Pressure apparently inspires songwriter Sonny Curtis. The seventy-four-year-old native of Meadow, Texas, created two of his best-loved songs-the rocking “I Fought the Law” and the melodic “Love Is All Around” (the classic theme song for the hit television series The Mary Tyler Moore Show)-in a flash because of looming deadlines.

Curtis wrote “I Fought the Law” in fifteen minutes in Texas before heading to New York for a 1959 recording session with the Crickets, the band Curtis joined after the death of his friend, Buddy Holly. The band recorded the song in Manhattan’s Bell Studios and included it on the 1960 album In Style with the Crickets, the first by the group following Holly’s death. Fellow Texas rockers the Bobby Fuller Four later recorded the song, creating the often-recorded tune’s most famous version, which went to #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in March 1966.

Similarly, Curtis wrote “Love Is All Around” in two hours after reading a synopsis of the Moore series prior to its debut on the CBS-TV network in 1970. It now ranks among the best known TV theme songs of all time.

Curtis talked of writing these songs and many more during the first 2012 installment of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum quarterly series Poets and Prophets, which honors songwriters who have made a significant contribution to country music. A member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame since 1991, and a 2012 inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Crickets, Curtis traced his history as a songwriter, performer, and guitarist, before a packed, enthusiastic crowd in the museum’s Ford Theater.

“I Fought the Law” and “Love Is All Around” illustrate Curtis’s songwriting range, which also sweeps from the Holly hit “Rock Around with Ollie Vee” to Keith Whitley’s poignant country hit, “I’m No Stranger to the Rain,” and from the Everly Brothers’ bopper “Walk Right Back” to Bobby Goldsboro’s philosophical “The Straight Life.”

Curtis is also a recording artist, has enjoyed several country chart hits, and has played guitar on recordings and on concert tours with such artists as the Everly Brothers, Nanci Griffith, Waylon Jennings, Liza Minnelli, and Nancy Sinatra. But Poets and Prophets host Michael Gray concentrated on questions concerning Curtis’s songwriting career of more than fifty years.

Growing up on a cotton farm in Meadow, Texas-not far from Lubbock-Curtis recounted the hardscrabble existence his family eked out working the land during the Dust Bowl era. Through an aunt’s marriage, Curtis became related to the Mayfield Brothers, a bluegrass band from West Texas, with Ed Mayfield going on to play with Bill Monroe & His Blue Grass Boys. Inspired by the Mayfields and by hearing someone play “Listen to the Mocking Bird,” Curtis learned the fiddle at a tender age. While still a kid, he also learned to play guitar.

By his teen years, Curtis was performing around the Lubbock area, meeting country star Red Foley, opening for Carl Smith and Hank Snow, and going on stage with legendary figures Buddy Holly and Waylon Jennings, both of whom were friends from the Lubbock area.

Curtis began writing songs as a teenager, too. (He treated the Ford Theater audience to a portion of the first song he ever wrote, the sweetly melodic “Moon, Moon, Silvery Moon.”) At age fourteen or fifteen, around 1953, he met Holly through a friend who had moved to Lubbock. “We said hello, shook hands, and picked up our guitars, and started picking immediately,” Curtis said of this fateful first meeting. “There was no kind of small talk.”

Curtis formed a band with Holly, playing radio stations, grocery store parking lots, and high-school assemblies. Later, Holly recorded Curtis’s song “Rock Around with Ollie Vee” during his first Decca Records sessions in Nashville. The recording featured Curtis on an electric Fender Stratocaster guitar-one of the earliest examples of a Stratocaster on a recording.

Ollie Vee, Curtis explained, was the name of the wife of Willie Robinson, one of the field hands who worked with the Curtis family. “We got to be pretty good friends because we both drove tractors,” Curtis said. “We’d cross paths going back and forth on those fields all day.”

For the Nashville recording session, Holly and Curtis were joined in the studio by producer Owen Bradley and legendary studio musicians Grady Martin, who played acoustic guitar that day, and Buddy Harman on drums. “One thing I remember about that session was I couldn’t wait to get in the studio and show Grady Martin what I had,” Curtis said with a laugh. “That’s teen-age ego for ya.”

As Gray pointed out, “We’re talking about you being at the ground-level at the creation of rock & roll, when it’s transitioning from country music, right there.”

While on the topic of recording with Bradley, Curtis discussed the hit film The Buddy Holly Story, starring actor Gary Busey. Curtis criticized the film’s factual discrepancies, such as depicting Holly as sloppily dressed with his shirt-tail hanging out (“Buddy was always real neat, he always was aware of his appearance and tried to look good,” Curtis said), showing Lubbock with mountains instead of a flat West Texas prairie town, and wrongly implying that Holly’s parents weren’t supportive of their son’s musical ambitions.

“We didn’t think [the film] had much to do with what really happened,” Curtis said. “A lot of things irritated me about it.”

The songwriter especially disliked a scene depicting an angry Holly punching Bradley during a studio argument. “If you knew Owen Bradley, that makes this really ludicrous,” Curtis said. “That’s so far from the truth. We were on our best manners: ‘Yes sir, Mr. Bradley,’ and ‘No sir, Mr. Bradley,’ and ‘Whatever you say, Mr. Bradley.’”

Curtis then performed the song “The Real Buddy Holly Story.” The lyrics counteract mistakes in the film and, as the song puts it, relate “a few of the high spots” of Holly’s short, vitally important career.

When Holly’s first recordings didn’t make them immediate stars, Curtis accepted an offer to play guitar with country singer Slim Whitman, then six months later he toured with a Philip Morris-sponsored country music tour with headliners Carl Smith and Goldie Hill.

Playing with Nashville stars in Texas led to Curtis getting his first cut, when Webb Pierce recorded his song “Someday,” a #12 country hit in 1957. Wayne Walker, a successful singer-songwriter, heard Curtis perform the song and took it with him back to Nashville to play for others. Pierce eventually recorded it and took a co-writing credit.

To introduce “I Fought the Law,” Gray played a video from the Hullabaloo TV series featuring the Bobby Fuller Four performing the song in a set decorated as a prison cell. The song has been recorded repeatedly over the years, by everyone from the Clash and Bruce Springsteen to Alvin & the Chipmunks and Chumbawumba. Curtis cited Hank Williams Jr.‘s version, from the classic 1979 album Family Tradition, as his favorite.

On the same 1959 trip to New York to record In Style with the Crickets, Curtis and Crickets drummer J. I. Allison wrote another of Curtis’s famous songs, “More Than I Can Say.” After it was included on the Crickets album, singer Bobby Vee recorded it in 1961, releasing it as a single. Nearly two decades later, British singer-songwriter Leo Sayer cut it; his version spent five weeks at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

Curtis was serving in the U.S. Army in 1961 when he wrote “Walk Right Back,” a #7 pop hit for the Everly Brothers. Curtis first played the song for the Everlys in Los Angeles during a three-day leave from his Texas army base. The song only featured one verse and a chorus at the time, but Curtis promised to write a second verse and send it to Don and Phil Everly. The day after he sent the verse, Curtis heard from Allison that the Everlys had cut it-but they did so before receiving the second verse. Both the Everlys’ version, and Anne Murray’s later country hit of the song, repeat the first verse twice.

While Curtis continued to garner cuts in the 1960s, including “The Straight Life” by Bobby Goldsboro, he hit another career peak when writing and recording “Love Is All Around,” the theme song for The Mary Tyler Moore Show. “It’s been called a feminist touchstone,” Gray said. “Mary Tyler Moore herself says a good part of who she is comes from your poetry.”

Explaining the background of the song, Curtis recalled getting a tip that Moore would star in her own sitcom and that the producers were auditioning theme songs. The songwriter received a four-page synopsis of the show’s main storyline at lunchtime, and by 2 p.m. he’d written “Love Is All Around.”

Curtis met with James L. Brooks, one of the show’s producers and writers, who told Curtis they weren’t ready to choose a theme song quite yet, “but I’ll listen to what you’ve got.” Curtis performed it, and Brooks perked up, asking to hear it again, then again. Before long, Brooks began calling in others to hear Curtis sing. “After a while, the room had people lining all the walls listening, and [Brooks] said, ‘Get me a cassette recorder, I want to take that song to Minneapolis with me.’ By that time, I felt pretty confident about it.”

The producers wanted the song, but at first wanted someone else to sing it. “This is how dumb I was at the time,” Curtis said. “I told them, ‘If you don’t let me sing it, you can’t have the song.’ I wouldn’t do that these days.”

Also, after the first season, Curtis had to change the lyrics to reflect how Moore had been successful as a young woman moving to a bigger city, instead of lyrics about hoping she could make it. The new version premiered with the beginning of the show’s second season. The song also has been recorded by Sammy Davis Jr., Minneapolis rock band Hüsker Dü, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, and others.

Curtis was living in Los Angeles at the time, but he and many of his peers became interested in what he called “the back-to-the-land movement,” buying Whole Earth catalogs and yearning for a simpler way of life. Allison, Curtis’s colleague in the Crickets, was the first to move to Tennessee. Curtis came next, moving to a farm near Nashville with his wife, Louise, and young daughter, Sara. Crickets longtime bassist Joe B. Mauldin soon followed.

“We thought it would be a better place to raise kids,” Curtis said. “That’s one of the main reasons we did it.”

Curtis enjoyed success with another TV song, writing the theme for a hit 1990s sitcom, Evening Shade, starring Burt Reynolds. Los Angeles entertainment industry executive Snuff Garrett called Curtis, asking him to submit a song for the show’s theme. Curtis was rehearsing for a solo concert tour of Britain, so he told Garrett he didn’t have time. Garrett insisted, saying he needed it the next day.

“I sat down and got my recorder out, and I wrote him a song,” Curtis said. “I was in Liverpool, of all places, when my wife Louise called and said they were going to use my song.”

Curtis also started getting more country music cuts, including Keith Whitley’s “I’m No Stranger to the Rain,” a #1 hit co-written with Ron Hellard (who was in the audience). The song was a radio hit when Whitley died of alcohol poisoning on May 9, 1989, and that year was named CMA Single of the Year.

“To get Keith to record one of your songs, that was over the top,” Curtis said. “He was so great, of course.”

Curtis ended the program singing “Gypsy Man,” which was recorded by J.J. Cale, and standing to perform “More Than I Can Say” and “I Fought the Law.”

-Michael McCall