Music historians will argue over the exact origins of the music industry in Nashville, although any stance depends on the genre under discussion, and how far back one is willing to go. The predominance of country music is undeniable, with its roots planted in Celtic and European folk songs and associated instrumentation brought to the US by early immigrants. In the 1920s, Nashville’s first radio station WSM cemented the city’s country music status with Grand Ole Opry broadcasts of mountain songs and hillbilly music. These styles would later contribute to what is now known as the ‘third’ generation of country music in the 1950s and 1960s, characterised by the popularity of bluegrass showcased by Roy Acuff and associated artists on the Grand Ole Opry stage. Since then, country music has never really looked back.
Country has made Nashville what it is today, but African-American influence on the musical growth of the city cannot be ignored. Fisk University was a missionary initiative formed to provide education for emancipated slaves following the Civil War. In 1871, the Fisk Jubilee Singers took their spiritual songs on a fund raising tour in the name of the university, touring the US and Europe, gaining recognition from royalty and helping kick start Nashville’s reputation as a centre for the musical arts. Over the last hundred years Nashville has remained an entertainment centre and a rich source of talented musicians and songwriters, recording studios, music publishing houses and shrewd businessmen wanting to get in on the act and exploit all this.
Country music and R&B were both at their peak as a national phenomenon around the late 1950s and 1960s, and so should have been in direct competition with each other within Nashville itself. As things turned out, country overshadowed soul in terms of local commercial success. Demographics and racial suppression were likely contributing factors. In the early 1960s the black community was still in the shackles of Jim Crow laws. African-American business and entertainment communities confined themselves to a couple of specific (though vibrant), areas within the city. Music Row became largely the white man’s domain. RCA and other majors saw the opportunity to exploit country music and established offices, staff writers and recording studios in Nashville. Other than a couple of notable exceptions such as Excello and Sound Stage 7, independent soul music label operations were often dwarfed by the activities of country orientated labels.
That said, talent within the black community was no less abundant, whether for live performances, recorded song, musicianship or industry-related entrepreneurship. Nashville was a central location and an ideal stopping point for R&B and soul artists from southern rural areas and the major cities of the north working the chitlin’ circuit. Many of these performers were more than mere passing trade – national names such James Brown, Etta James, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, major gospel groups and blues guitarists frequently graced the show and dance venues.
The thriving, if segregated, African-American community in Nashville also provided its own home-grown talent. The Bijou Theater along Fourth Avenue North was opened in 1916 by its white owners to showcase blues, jazz and entertainment by black performers. Four decades later R&B took hold along Fourth Avenue North, and on Jefferson Street in the bars, diners and nightclubs where local musicians and visiting artists would earn their keep. Certain musicians formed the backbone of music there, several of whom are given appropriate focus in the coming chapters. These individuals and combos performed at club venues, worked on recording sessions for other artists as well as bands in their own right, and frequently appeared on R&B related music and dance TV shows. As well as local artists, Nashville labels featuring R&B would include artists from other areas of Tennessee, Louisiana, Florida and later the cities of the north. Even blue eyed soul was represented via the activities of singers, songwriters and producers who ventured more than occasionally from their country music roots.
In order to place the specific artists under discussion within these pages within the context of the wider music industry, key organisations and individuals should first be acknowledged as driving forces for the evolution of soul music in Nashville. The pioneering WSOK radio station serving the local black community; the huge broadcasting capability of WLAC reaching a nationwide audience, and the DJs, promoters, label owners and producers with their fingers on the pulse, all provided Nashville with what was a very viable alternative music scene.
WSOK / WVOL (‘W-Volunteer’)
WSOK launched on 14th December 1951, became the first full time station to feature an all-black staff who catered for the local African-American residents. It was a short range daytime radio station, specifically targeting the Berry Hill area. Morgan ‘Happy Jack’ Babb was the DJ responsible for airing early R&B in among the local news, commercials and emergency aid calls. Other DJs included Ted Jarrett, who presented the WSOK Talent Show on Saturday mornings, broadcast live from the Bijou Theater. Performers were selected from local auditions to sing in front of a house band. Six years later station founder Cal Young sold WSOK on. The call-letters changed to WVOL, but the station continued on course with its original service focus. Young later moved on to form WENO, which became a powerful country music channel.
WLAC (‘W-Life and Casualty’)
WLAC was without a doubt one of the major radio stations in the US to broadcast R&B. It has a long history, stretching back to 1926 when the studio was based in the office building of Life and Casualty Insurance Company of Tennessee, in downtown Nashville. WLAC was initially community news orientated, but expanded its activities when the primary competitor WSM was observed to be gaining popularity in country music. By the 1940s WLAC had a 50,000 wattage broadcasting capability, enabling twenty-eight states to receive a signal; even reaching parts of Canada and the tip of Southern Florida.
The intention of WLAC by the 1950s was to serve the relatively untapped market across the major cities and the deep south. Gene Nobles (b. 1913, d.1989) was the first WLAC DJ to cater musically for this market by introducing blues and jazz artists. The purpose of this was to target a black audience; attracting companies to advertise products such as hair products and small animal stock to this particular community.
As “race music” became labelled R&B, WLAC DJs John Richbourg and Bill Allen would run their respective night-time shows, when the broadcasting signal was strongest. Fast talking ‘hip’ voice-over techniques were employed to promote the advertisers products and to introduce the records, in an attempt to appeal to their market. The coverage by WLAC had, in a literal sense, far-reaching effects. The station played a major part in allowing white teenagers, particularly in the south, to access R&B. In this way, WLAC was a key element in the development of the beach music scene in the Carolinas and Virginia. Guitarist Ken Adkins, from North Carolina’s The Tropics, who gave the beach music and northern soul scene “Hey You Little Girl”, remembers:
“This is how I got my music education. A great signal, and music accessible nowhere else. From the age of ten until college, WLAC came on at 10pm and stayed on until 3pm. I had a big Zenith floor model radio with a twelve inch speaker in my room, away from other family members. I stayed up and listened …and listened ...and listened....”
John Richbourg and Bill Allen were responsible not only for promoting local Nashville R&B talent, but also recording acts from elsewhere in the southern states, as well as Chicago and Detroit. Numerous globally recognised soul artists owe at least part of their initial success to the exposure obtained via the immense broadcasting capabilities of WLAC.(END OF PART 1).
Copyright E. Mark Windle 2017, 2018. Chapter excerpt from "House of Broken Hearts", available to order in the new book section.