The Elvis Connection: Country Music Hall of Fame Announces Three New Inductees
It seems there is always an Elvis connection when it comes to Nashville, and the latest inductees into the Country Music Hall of Fame share one. The Browns – Jim Ed, Maxine and Bonnie; The Oak Ridge Boys – Duane Allen, Joe Bonsall, William Lee Golden and Richard Sterban; and musician Grady Martin all have direct connections to the Memphis legend.
The Browns, who were crossover artists themselves with hits including “The Three Bells,” “Scarlet Ribbons” and “The Old Lamplighter,” added Elvis as their opening act in 1954, thanks to local concert promoter Tom Perryman. Elvis continued to work with them over a two-year period, including gigs at the Louisiana Hayride, a popular show in Shreveport, Louisiana.
“Tom started booking him with us in Texas off the Hayride,” Maxine explained. Jim interjected, “But that didn’t last for long!”
“Jim Ed got drafted in the Army and then Elvis got drafted, and that was the end of it,” Maxine continued. “Elvis stayed at our house a lot … he loved our mama’s cooking and he was in love with Bonnie. But that opens another whole can of worms that we’re not gonna talk about.”
The Browns and Elvis stayed in touch even after he became the headliner, visiting Graceland several times and becoming friends with Elvis’ parents. But once Elvis went to Hollywood, Maxine says they never saw him again because it just seemed things got too busy and Elvis got so big it was hard to keep in touch.
The Browns went on to more success before Maxine and Bonnie decided to leave the road and stay home with their families in 1967. “It was a hard decision but I think it was the right one,” Maxine said during the announcement ceremonies at the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum.
After his sisters retired, Jim Ed went on to have hits as a solo artist, including “Pop A Top,” “Morning” and “Southern Loving.” In the 1980’s he and Helen Cornelius had duet hits “I Don’t Want to Have to Marry You” and “Don’t Bother To Knock.” After going through a year of treatment for cancer in 2014, Jim Ed is now in remission and has just released a new album, “In Style Again,” and has returned to performing on the Grand Ole Opry.
The Oak Ridge Boys have gone through numerous changes in personnel since their start as a gospel group in Knoxville, Tennessee. That group began performing in Oak Ridge, just east of Knoxville, thus the name. In 1945 they were performing at the Grand Ole Opry and went on to be one of the top draws in the country in the gospel music field. By the late 1960’s, Duane and William Lee were members of the group. Both knew Joe and Richard, so when the Oaks bass and tenor singers quit in 1972 and 1973, they were the obvious choices to ask to join the group.
Here’s where the Elvis connection comes in. At the time, Richard was a member of J.D. Sumner and The Stamps, who were backing Elvis in what seemed to everyone else to be an awesome job. But Richard was well aware of the Oak Ridge Boys and when he was approached, he said yes to joining them.
“We had been touring with Elvis for a year-and-a-half and it was the biggest tour in the music business. It was a major decision to leave Elvis, the King of Rock ‘n Roll, and join the Oaks. But when William Lee called me, there was little hesitation on my part. Now a lot of people questioned me — how could you leave Elvis and join the Oak Ridge Boys? I felt the Oak had a great deal of potential, but even I didn’t know how much potential. I didn’t know someday this would happen, being in the Country Music Hall of Fame. I think that history proves I made a pretty good decision.”
After bringing Joe and Richard into the group, they made the decision to take aim at the country market. There were hard times for a while, and Duane says they went to a friend they had met and asked to if he could take them out on tour with him.
“We had met Johnny Cash and we asked him if he could help us out by putting us on some of his shows,” Duane explained. “He said yes and he took us to Lake Tahoe, Las Vegas, and on several dates around the country. He paid us a lot more than we asked. Then he tipped us ten percent, which was about what we had asked! I think he was an angel for us here on earth, because he came into our life when we really needed someone. We went on shows, we recorded with him and we were on his television show.”
“It wasn’t just the financial help,” Richard added. “It was his words of encouragement meant as much as anything. One day in Las Vegas he called us up to his room and he said, ‘Boys, your heads are hanging a little bit, I can tell you are discouraged. You might even be thinking of hanging it up. But there’s something special about you guys, you have a magic here. I know it, you know it. If you give up you will never realize your dream. You have to find a way to stick it out and stay together. I promise you if you do that good things are gonna start happening to you. We walked out of that room with our heads held up high. We said to each other, if Johnny Cash thinks we’re gonna make it, we are gonna make it.”
A few years later, the Oaks won the Country Music Association’s Group of the Year award. Instead of going immediately to the podium to make their acceptance speech, they ran to Johnny and hugged him. Johnny said to them, ‘See I told you so.”
The country market paid off big time for the Oaks, with crossover hits “Elvira” and “Bobbie Sue,” as well as “American Made,” “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight,” “Thank God For Kids” and “I’m Settin’ Fancy Free.” The Oaks continue to record, having just released a record with both the Cracker Barrel stores and mainstream retail markets, “Rock Of Ages: Hymns and Gospel Favorites.”
Grady was a top notch guitar player and member of the A-Team in Nashville, which meant he was among the most popular session musicians in Music City during the 1960s and 1970s. His work is instantly recognizable on Willie Nelson’s “On The Road Again,” Roy Orbison’s “Oh Pretty Woman” and Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” and “Don’t Worry (‘Bout Me).” In fact, it was on the latter tune that Grady accidentally discovered what became known as the electric guitar fuzz effect when he ran the guitar he was playing on that session through a faulty channel in a mixing console. He worked with so many artists during his 30 years as one of Nashville’s most-called on guitarists that it’s hard for a music fan not to have heard him on recordings, because everyone from Brenda Lee, Buddy Holly, Joan Baez and Kris Kristofferson.
Grady also was a touring musician, most notably with Jerry Reed and Willie Nelson. He also released a few albums of his own and had his own band, the Slew Foot Five.
And of course he recorded with Elvis, who recorded many of his albums in Nashville’s RCA Studio A throughout his career. Of those Grady played on several, including “Harum Scarum” and “Collector’s Gold.”
Inductees will be officially inducted into the Hall of Fame at a ceremony that will be held later this year.