Shelby Singleton died just before 1 p.m. Wednesday in
Alive Hospice Care at St. Thomas Hospital in Nashville, at age 77.
Mr. Singleton was a renegade producer, record executive, song-hunter and promoter who
helped fuse country and R&B music in the 1960s and who perpetuated the Sun
Records label since 1969. He had been battling brain cancer.
“A lot of people in this town owe a lot to Shelby,” said friend and protégé
Jerry Kennedy, himself a famed producer. “He created a place here for a lot
of us. Shelby did things in a different way. He was a maverick.”
Mr. Singleton produced Jeannie C. Riley’s “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” a No. 1
country hit that became one of the biggest independent records in Nashville
history when released on his Plantation Records. He was an essential enabler
in the careers of Ray Stevens, Jerry Reed, Roger Miller, Merle Kilgore and many
others, He may be the only producer to record three No. 1 country records in one day on three different artists: Stevens, Leroy Van Dyke and Joe Dowell.
He was also, as Belmont University music business professor Don Cusic
noted, “A wheeler-dealer.” And, as Kennedy said, “A clique-buster.” Most everyone who
came into contact with him agreed that he was a character. He was also the
owner of a brand new Rolls Royce.
“The Rolls came in on Monday,” Cusic said. “I’d seen him last week and he told
me he’d ordered it. He said he’d always wanted one, and he said, ‘At my age and
in my condition, I figured I’d better get it soon.’”
If Mr. Singleton’s career in music is any indication, it’s likely a very, very nice
car. And he probably got it at a good price. During the early 1960s, he headed
Mercury Records’ Smash imprint, where over and again he found quality recordings
and viable artists, snapped them up for Smash and released hit records.
When Mr. Singleton heard Roger Miller singing witty, up-tempo numbers that were at
odds with the serious-sounding material Miller was recording for RCA, Mr. Singleton
signed Miller and told him he’d been singing the wrong songs. Miller
immediately entered the studio and recorded 16 sides, including “Dang Me,”
and his career turned a corner. And when Mr. Singleton — at the time a southeastern regional promotions man for Mercury — heard Stevens singing in an Atlanta nightclub, he soon offered the young performer a job in Nashville.
“When I left that job, he did the same thing for Jerry Reed,” Stevens said. “Shelby
brought a lot of people to town. And working with him on the music later on, he
had good instincts. Sometimes he did things I didn’t think were right at the time, but
it turned out the decisions he made were right. Like, ‘Ahab’ was a four-minute
song. He sliced it up and made it shorter. That bothered me at the time,
but there’s no way the song would have been a radio hit if it had been
four minutes long.”
In 1967, Mr. Singleton left Mercury and started Shelby Singleton Productions Inc.
with $1,000. Twenty months later, his corporate value was estimated at more than
$2 million. Much of that increase was due to “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” a song
from the pen of Tom T. Hall. On Friday, July 26, 1968, Mr. Singleton produced
Riley’s recording with featured instrumentation on the “pickin’ Dobro” from Kennedy.
That night, he rushed the finished product to influential WSM disc jockey
Ralph Emery. By daybreak, it was a hit: a literal overnight
success. In a country music era dominated by Music Row’s major labels, Mr.
Singleton’s little Plantation label sold millions of copies of “Harper Valley P.T.A.”
On July 1, 1969, Mr. Singleton purchased Sun Records, the label for which Elvis Presley,
Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich and others had recorded.
Mr. Singleton began mining many of those artists’ back catalogs for release on
Sun, and he oversaw licensing of reissues and the marketing of the ever-popular
Sun Records T-shirts and other souvenirs.
Stevens, himself one of the most unique souls to smack boot heels on a Music City
sidewalk, said, “Shelby Singleton was absolutely one of a kind.”
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