Olene Gaines, the wife of Earl Gaines (b.1935, d. 2009) recalls that he was raised partly by his mother in between Alabama and Nashville. His father was in the picture, though he was never really mentioned as being involved in his upbringing. His first singing experience was with his uncle in Alabama, as part of a gospel quartet. Early life consisted of helping the family pick cotton and raising cattle during the day, and listening to blues singers on WLAC at night. As a teenager Earl moved permanently to Nashville to live with his mother, and became good friends with Ted Jarrett there. Initially, Jarrett didn’t really recognise his vocal talent. In the mid-1950s Ted Jarrett had written “It’s Love Baby (24 hour a day)” to help pay his way through Fisk college. Earl initially performed songs for Ted with the intention for them to be used for other artists, but convinced Ted to allow him to record “It’s Love Baby”. At this point Earl was the vocalist with tenor sax player Louis Brooks and His Hi-Toppers. The Hi-Toppers recorded the song at Ernie’s Record Mart, and the record went to #2 in the US R&B charts. Jarrett was ultimately paid on 500,000 copies.
After five recordings for Ernie Young’s Excello, Earl was looking toward a solo career and to demonstrate his talents outside of Nashville. Jarrett effectively became his manger and signed him to the Shaw Talent Agency. A tour with the 1955 R&B Caravan of Stars including Etta James, Big Joe Turner and The Clovers provided a potential platform for this, allowing them to travel east to New York.
Photo courtesy of Jermaine Betts and Olene Gaines. Earl seated right.
Earl continued to record a handful of singles for local labels Athens, Champion, Poncello and Spar (including a duet with Lucille Johns on “You Are My Sunshine”, later covered by Aretha Franklin) under the guidance of Ted Jarret. By the early to mid-1960s, firmly tucked under Hoss Allen’s wing in the Rogana artists stable, Allen recognised the saleable soulful side of Earl. As was the usual Hoss Allen practice, when he saw particular potential in the market he would use his connections to take his artist’s recordings to labels better set up for national distribution than his on local outfits. Likely hot on the heels of Allen’s popularity on The !!!! Beat, Hannah Barbara Records (HBR) were interested.
HBR was a west coast label which licenced or bought in product from all over the US from a wide range of genres, from children’s cartoon theme songs and seasonal records to jazz and R&B. Hoss Allen’s decision to licence Earl Gaines’ version of an earlier Sam Baker song to HBR paid off well. The August 1966 release of the searing ballad “The Best Of Luck To You” (HBR 481) became Earl’s first hit, reaching #28 in the Billboard R&B Charts. The original version of the song by Sam Baker had appeared the previous year on one of Allen’s own labels (Athens A-45-213). The flip the HBR 45 “It’s Worth Anything” is a powerhouse R&B number finding favour on the northern scene. Writers and session players on these releases, and indeed the LP which was to follow a few months later, included Johnny Jones and his band. Frank Howard and the Commanders also appeared on backing vocals on a few of the LP tracks. The LP, again titled “The Best Of Luck To You” (HBR 9508), contained another up-beat soul track “You Belong To Me”. Whilst this song did not receive an official 45 release on HBR, a rare pressing error of his second single “Don’t Take My Kindness For A Weakness” / “I have Loved And I Have Lived” (HBR 510) meant a small number of copies contain the song on the flipside.
The next stop for Earl Gaines was at Hollywood Records, June 1967. The label’s history lay in a west coast recording enterprise initiated by an individual by the name of John Dolphin, a sell-on to Decca, and then a further partnership with Texan Don Pierce. By the mid-1960s the label was controlled by Starday in Nashville, and was releasing both new material and reissuing its old masters. Like HBR, Hollywood would draw on artists from all over the states. The number of R&B releases with the company’s vast catalogue were in the minority. That said, the rare soul collector is well catered for via excellent releases by Freddie Williams from L.A. with his “Name In Lights” (Hollywood 1114), a cover of Jimmy Holiday’s “I’ve Got To Live While I Can” (Hollywood 1121) and Floridian Robert Moore, with his ‘live’ up-tempo version of “Harlem Shuffle” (Hollywood 1134). As well as Gaines, Nashville artists were represented by Sam Baker, and Hal Hardy (another of Hoss Allen’s artists) who recorded an updated version of The Neptune’s’ “House Of Broken Hearts”. Earl Gaines had three Hollywood 45s under his own name, and a fourth as “A. Friend” which was a tribute record to Otis Redding. Output here was primarily blues and deep soul orientated, with “My Woman” (Hollywood 1117) as a stand-out track, penned by country songwriter Merle Kilgore. The majority of Earl’s sessions for Hollywood took place in June and July 1967 but released the following year and by the following summer he had moved on to yet again.
Starday was an established label running since early 1950, with its origins in Texas. Operations moved to Tennessee by the late 1950s. During its lifespan the company had changed hands a couple of times and for most of its history primarily concentrated on releasing bluegrass, country and rockabilly songs, and had its own notable recording studios. Starday owner Hal Neely was already dabbling in gospel music, when he saw an opportunity to expand their catalogue to R&B, after the death of King label owner Syd Nathan in 1968. Starday-King was created in October 1968, taking on board Nathan’s other labels including De Luxe. Gaines would spend the next two years at De Luxe, delivering five 45s. These sides were mainly blues and soul ballads, penned by Ted Jarrett, Lawrence Lee and other individuals associated with Nashville country, blues and R&B. However the label also featured some more up-tempo, funk recordings. His version of James Brown’s “Good Good Lovin’ ” (De Luxe 45-RPM-111) was partly a sign of the times. Earl also re-recorded his own “You Belong To Me” (De Luxe 45-125), but at a much slower pace than the earlier HBR recording. An LP “Lovin’ Blues” also surfaced in 1970 (De Luxe DLP120002), essentially a collection of Gaines’ De Luxe 45s.
Following a two year hiatus, WLAC DJ John Richbourg took over Earl’s management, presenting him with a further opportunity to resume time in the studio. Richbourg, who previously had had creative control over the Sound Stage 7, was looking for new ventures now that the owner Fred Foster had closed the label to concentrate on country music activities. Earl joined Richbourg’s ranks and continued his recording career with a handful of 45s for Seventy-Seven, the most memorable of these probably being the gospel / blues rendering of “Hymn No.5” (Seventy-Seven 77 110) originally by Mighty Hannibal, and the deep soul of “That’s How Strong My Love Is” (Seventy-Seven 77 110). A couple of odd ball releases ensued, with “Drowning On Dry Land” (Ace 3010) in 1975 marking his final recording for well over a decade.
Earl settled down into a regular day job, and focused on family. Olene had known Earl for some time, but they officially started dating around 1983 and were married two years later. Earl was also devoted to his occupation as a long distance state trucker for Tennessee Pike and State Stove Industries for over thirty years, retiring just before he received his Three Million Mile Accident Free award. He kept up with his musical interests. In his later years, US, UK and European appreciation of his work resulted in a few CD compilations of his earlier songs, and prompted international live tours as part of a blues package. Earl would also record new material in 2005 via his last CD Earl Gaines Is Back – The Different Feelings Of Blues And Soul (Blue-Fye Bfy-3735). Along with a host of other Nashville R&B artists, he was involved in the Grammy award winning CD Night Train To Nashville: Music City Rhythm and Blues, 1945 – 1970. Gaines was preparing to undertake a European tour in 2009, although this had to be cancelled at the last minute due to a short illness. Gaines passed away aged 74 years and was laid to rest at Spring Hill Cemetery, Nashville.
This is a modified chapter excerpt from "House of Broken Hearts" by E. Mark Windle. Available in the new book section.