The Nashville Musician
American music legends profiled
By WALT TROTT
Former official 32-year WSM Grand Ole Opry photographer Les Leverett's vintage portraits and candid snapshots have been compiled and published in “American Music Legends,” an impressive new book from Cumberland Records.
Some 80 artists, many of whom are members of Local 257, are spotlighted, ranging from Eddy Arnold to Patsy Cline to Hank Snow to Kitty Wells.
Leverett’s “ . . . Legends” features text by noted Nashville personalities, among them Bill Anderson, Keith Bilbrey, Carlene Carter, Jack Clement, Charlie Dick, Doug Green, Ramona Jones, Buddy Killen, Kathy Mattea, Gordon Stoker, Sonny Throckmorton, Bob Tubert, Porter Wagoner, Billy Yates and Les himself.
Shades of Garth Brooks - in a special marketing pact, the Cracker Barrel chain restaurant has sponsored publication of the 160-page hardcover book, which will be sold ($17.99) at its numerous outlets. The Cracker Barrel Old Country Store also exclusively sells a popular American Music Legends CD series (currently there are individual albums by such stars as Alison Krauss, Charlie Daniels, Sara Evans, Hank Williams, among others, at $11.99 each).
From 1960 thru 1992, Leverett, now 78, served as the show’s shutterbug, snapping stars on the stages of both the Ryman Auditorium downtown and suburban Opryland’s Grand Ole Opry House, as well as in other situations.
The cover’s 14 sepia-tone shots boast such all-time greats - both Opry members and guests - as Cline, Glen Campbell, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Flatt & Scruggs, Roy Orbison, Dolly Parton, the Everly Brothers, plus country king Roy Acuff and comedy queen Minnie Pearl.
Praise for the book’s creative appearance goes in part to McClearen Designs of Nashville, and kudos, too, to journalist Rob Simbeck, who handled both editing and writing chores.
Alabama native Leverett, who earned special Grammy for his telling 1966 portrait for Porter Wagoner’s LP “Confessions of a Broken Man,” and received recognition in 1972 from Billboard trade magazine for his illustration gracing Dolly Parton’s “Bubbling Over” album.
As a reviewer, it is necessary to point out any errors, such as the misspelling of Jimmie Davis’ first name; Roy Acuff’s birthdate, which is 1903, and year of death, 1992. On the other hand, the editor eschewed the p.r. flack listing of Loretta Lynn’s birth and puts it at 1934.
Some non-Opry members written up include Louis Armstrong, who came to town to record an album of country tunes with Cowboy Jack Clement; Gene Autry, the movie’s first singing cowboy; Tony Bennett, headlining an Opryland Hotel convention; George Burns, who recorded Sonny Throckmorton’s “I Wish I Was 18 Again,” published by Tree’s Buddy Killen; Tennessee Ernie Ford, a fan of Minnie Pearl; Bob Hope, a friend to Roy Acuff; Mahalia Jackson, playing a Ryman gig; Brenda Lee, a member of both the Rock and Country Halls of Fame; Patsy Montana, first female Western vocalist to score a pop hit with her 1935 cowboy song “I Want To Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart”; and King of the Cowboys’ Roy Rogers, the only artist thus far to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame twice (with Sons Of the Pioneers and later solo).
Some covered who left the Opry, but continued strong as artists were Webb Pierce, Kitty Wells, Ray Price, The Jordanaires, Sonny James, Ferlin Husky and The Everly Brothers. (One wonders whether Stonewall Jackson has left, as it’s been a long time since we’ve seen this talented artist in the Opry line-up; and are the Riders in the Sky still an Opry act?) Leverett's shots have great visual impact, notably in capturing the energetic 19-year-old Marty Stuart on fiddle; Chet Atkins doing what he did best, pickin’; 82-year-old George Burns and his near trademark cigar smokin’ at the Opry; a contented Tom T. Hall; distinguished actor-balladeer Burl Ives, who scored five Top 10 country clicks; cowboy great Tex Ritter, shortly after being inducted as a Country Hall of Famer; and dreamy Dottie West, relaxing at home.
We especially enjoyed the reminiscence of George (“Candy Kisses”) Morgan’s widow Anna Morgan Trainor, who wrote: “In the days when they toured in two or three cars, everybody always wanted to ride with George because he was so much fun. Part of that was being a practical joker. Once he and Jimmy Dickens decided to stage a fight backstage at the Opry. George was six-one-and-a-half and Jimmy is a little bitty guy, but they went out into the alley behind the Ryman Auditorium and made it look so real that they actually called the police on them . . . ”
Les himself eloquently recalled a visit to Nashville by celebrated jazz bandleader Count Basie (famed for his 1937 signature song “One O’Clock Jump”), which he was assigned to cover photographically: “It is sad to think that less than 50 years ago, Count Basie was not allowed to stay in a motel close to the TV station, simply because of the color of his skin. Count did have one of the most beautiful,
resonant voices I’ve ever heard, I’ve always admired Count Basie, and was very proud to be in his presence that day.”
Former Performance magazine scribe Bill Littleton focused on Bluegrass Hall of Honor member Mac Wiseman: “Mac had polio as a youngster, but it had a positive effect: ‘It took me a little longer,’ he laughs in retrospect, ‘but I could throw as much hay as any of the others, and I learned to stay with the job ’til it was done.’ He came through polio with a limp, but there was obviously no damage to his hands or his vocal chords (sic).”
Craig Campbell, now Sony’s chief publicist, remembered when the label’s late superstar Tammy Wynette called on another singer to see if she would record a duet with her: “Wynonna danced around her hotel bed in excitement . . . I traveled with Tammy to New York, and whether she was with diehard fans or other artists, she was gracious in every situation, wanting to make sure everybody felt comfortable and at ease.”
Ramona Jones related a humorous anecdote about her friend David (Stringbean) Akeman (who sadly was slain by robbers, along with his wife in 1973): “Stringbean’s wife Estelle told me they met at a little restaurant called Peaches, right across the street from the front of the Grand Ole Opry. She was the waitress there. They both liked to fish, but when they started courting, neither one had a car - Stringbean never drove in his life - so they would get on a city bus with their fishing poles, tackle and a sandwich for lunch. They’d go out to Radnor Lake, out west of Nashville and fish all day. And they they’d get back on the bus with their fishing poles and a string of fish and come back into Nashville.”
Radio announcer Bill Cody reflected on a serious illness suffered three years ago, when it was touch-and-go as to whether he would survive, pointing out the value singer Sonny James places on friendship: “I was in and out of consciousness in that hospital bed because of the medication, and I looked up one morning and there were Sonny and Doris (the star’s wife) standing at the foot of the bed. It
was like two little angels had arrived, and I just sensed that everything was going to be alright. At that moment, as at so many other moments in my life, it was really wonderful to have his friendship.”
John Riggs, a songwriter with cuts by such as Hank Snow, Webb Pierce and Conway Twitty, recalls being a GI in 1964, anxious to get started as a professional writer “and I had the idea of sending letters to four or five country singers in care of the Grand Ole Opry to ask for some advice.
“I don’t remember the names of all those I wrote to, but I do remember that only one of them (Bill Anderson) took the time to answer with a typewritten letter, giving me personal tips on how I might get started. I was thrilled to get that letter. . .This encouraging letter is one of the reasons I had the nerve to come to Nashville with less than $30 and no job in sight. I didn’t worry too much because I knew Bill Anderson.”
It’s more than just a handsome coffee table edition, “American Music Legends” is a book guaranteed to give you some entertainment on a cold winter night.