February 16, 2008

When the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum honored Jerry Kennedy in its most recent installment of its Nashville Cats series, on Feb. 16, program host Bill Lloyd mentioned the long list of accomplishments that have made Kennedy such an important figure in country music history.

As Lloyd explained, Kennedy’s talents earned him a top reputation as a session guitarist, producer, and record label executive. However, over the ninety-minute program, another trait became evident: Kennedy’s soft-spoken humility. In front of a packed and attentive crowd in the museum’s Ford Theater, he constantly credited others for giving him an opportunity or “for making my job so easy,” as he put it more than once.

When Lloyd mentioned Kennedy’s early success as a young guitarist on the Louisiana Hayrideand as a Nashville session player, Kennedy quickly credited such mentors as Shreveport music figure Tillman Franks and Nashville record executive Shelby Singleton for seeing potential in him.

When Lloyd heralded Kennedy’s famous contributions on guitar, such as the indelible intro to Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man” or the famous riff running through Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman,” the guitarist quickly credited the great session players surrounding him on the tracks.

When Lloyd listed the legendary artists Kennedy produced—including Tom T. Hall, Jerry Lee Lewis, Reba McEntire, Roger Miller, and the Statler Brothers—the producer quickly credited the artists themselves. He cited their talents as vocalists and, in many cases, as songwriters when discussing the hits they created together.

But, as Lloyd repeatedly emphasized, the sheer bulk of Kennedy’s achievements puts him in a rare league with a few of the most influential and important figures in Music Row history. “If you look back at the music business, there has been only a handful of players with the business acumen and work ethic to become record producers and heads of record labels,” Lloyd said. “Along with Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley, and more current examples like Tony Brown, Jerry Kennedy was in that unique position to sign, record, play with and oversee the musical careers of many of the acts he worked with.”

The program began with Kennedy answering questions about his early recordings, when he made rockabilly and country records as Jerry Glenn. He’d earned a record contract with RCA through a talent contest, recording in Dallas and in Nashville. He cited Nashville guitarists as his primary influences, including Grady Martin, Hank Garland, and Harold Bradley, as well as rockers Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Scotty Moore.

He recalled how he and a friend, future producer Roy Dea, went to the Hayride to see Elvis Presley because they wanted to hear Scotty Moore play live. “We were really upset because the girls were all screaming while Scotty was playing,” he said. “They were so loud you really couldn’t hear him.”

His first session came at age twelve, when he backed DJ T. Tommy Cutrer in the studio on a gospel song in Shreveport. Kennedy had to stand on a chair so his guitar could be heard along with Cutrer’s voice. “It wasn’t a bad way to do it,” Kennedy quipped.

He soon found himself recording in Shreveport, Lake Charles, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans, performing on records by Jimmy McCracklin, Guitar Shorty, and others. “It was unusual to work with all the different kinds of music I worked with,” Kennedy said, citing the variety as an influence on his individual style.

Kennedy met Shelby Singleton because Margie Singleton, Shelby’s wife, made an appearance on the Hayride. Then a promotion man with Mercury Records, Singleton saw the talent in the young man and, as Kennedy put it, “demanded” he move to Nashville. “I had some reservations about it,” Kennedy said. “I was real tight with my family—that was the biggest one. But I’m real glad I did it.”

Kennedy recorded some albums with guitarist Tommy Tomlinson as a duo, Tom and Jerry. Lloyd played a cut from one of those albums, an instrumental cover of Elvis Presley’s “Little Sister,” and pointed out that the late Boots Randolph contributed the saxophone part. Kennedy credited the other players as well, citing guitarists Harold Bradley and Ray Edenton, drummer Buddy Harman, and bassist Bob Moore.

(Bradley, Edenton, and Moore attended the program, as did pianist Pig Robbins, record producers Jim Foglesong and Fred Foster, and Kennedy’s mentor, Shelby Singleton, among other colleagues.)

In the meantime, Singleton gave Kennedy work as a producer and, not long after he moved here, appointed him as a talent executive at Mercury Records. Eventually, Kennedy would become Mercury’s top Nashville executive. He told of working with Roger Miller, a songwriter whom Kennedy met when Mercury shared an office building with Tree Publishing, where Miller had a songwriting contract.

Because Miller needed $1,600 to move to Los Angeles, the label agreed to give him the money if he cut sixteen songs—at $100 a side—for the label. The singer and band, with Kennedy producing, cut the songs in three sessions over two days. The work included such Miller classics as “Dang Me,” “Chug-a-Lug,” and “Do-Wacka-Do.”

Asked if he sensed something extraordinary was going on, Kennedy replied, “I thought we were getting some really goofy stuff we might get in trouble with. So, no, I didn’t have any dream we’d end up doing what those records did.”

Miller and Kennedy went on to win eleven Grammys in two years for the songs they cut together in 1964 and 1965 “for doing something outside the norm,” as Lloyd described it.

At one point, Kennedy and Singleton were responsible for sixty acts on Mercury Records. “That’s too much,” Kennedy said. Among his regrets, he said, was that they recorded the first songs on a young Dolly Parton, but the Mercury executives in Chicago decided to drop her after her first cuts didn’t get airplay.

At the same time he was producing and playing guitar on country recordings, Kennedy also performed on R&B recordings for a long list of artists, including Brook Benton, Ruth Brown, Fats Domino, Ivory Joe Hunter, Clyde McPhatter, and Dusty Springfield. “We didn’t think about the color lines,” Kennedy said of those recordings in the 1960s amid all the racial strife and Civil Rights struggles of the era. “We were just picking.”

Kennedy also discussed working with Tom T. Hall, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Statler Brothers, and others.  In each case, Kennedy offered a recording contract to artists other executives might have considered too far outside of the country mainstream. But Kennedy saw them as distinctive country stylists who didn’t sound like anyone else.

“Tom T. Hall, what a find he was,” Kennedy said. “He was such a good writer and wrote all his own stuff. That makes it easy on a producer. The same with the Reid brothers, Harold and Don, with the Statlers. And Jerry Lee was just sitting there waiting to have country hits.”

These days, Kennedy enjoys his retirement, he said. He misses the camaraderie of the studio. His only regret “was all the time I spent away from my family—but that’s the only thing. There obviously were a lot of good things that came from all those albums.”

The next Nashville Cats program will honor guitarist Reggie Young on May 3.

---Michael McCall