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Who Ferlin Husky; Terry Preston; Simon Crum
When March 17, 2011
Where Westmoreland, TN
What Country Music Hall of Famer Ferlin Husky dies at 85
 

Country Music Hall of Famer Ferlin Husky, the innovative recording artist whose 1957 smash “Gone” helped usher in the pop-leaning Nashville Sound era, died today at his daughter’s home in Westmoreland. He was 85 and suffered from congestive heart failure.

Mr. Husky’s classic singles “Gone” and “Wings of a Dove” each topped country charts for 10 straight weeks, and each became Top 20 pop records. A well-rounded performer, Mr. Husky also starred in motion pictures and entertained with his comedic alter ego, “Simon Crum,” but he is best known for his contributions in sweetening the sound of Music Row in a way that allowed the music to appeal to twang-phobic audiences.

“By reaching #4 on the pop charts, ‘Gone’ demonstrated what became the ultimate goal for Nashville producers: A country hit that could ‘cross over’ to pop success,” wrote Rich Kienzle in the liner notes to Mr. Husky’s Vintage collection of Capitol Records material.

In addition to scoring hit records, Mr. Husky was a master of stagecraft, a dashing and energetic performer who impressed audiences and fellow artists.

“There were a lot of years when nobody in the business could follow Ferlin Husky,” Merle Haggard told The Tennessean last year. “He was the big live act of the day. A great entertainer.”

Born Dec. 3, 1925, on a farm in Cantwell, Mo., Mr. Husky dreamed of a music career from childhood. He spent five years in the U.S. Merchant Marines during World War II, then worked at a Missouri radio station in the late 1940s before moving to California to chase his fondest aspirations. In Bakersfield, Calif., he worked as a disc jockey and sang in area clubs, and in 1950 he began his recording career, releasing songs on the Four Star label under the name “Terry Preston.”

Those early singles were heard by Southern California country impresario Cliffie Stone, who helped Mr. Husky garner a recording contract with Capitol. After five singles, “Terry Preston” decided to once again be billed as Ferlin Husky, and in 1953 he and Jean Shepard scored a No. 1 country duet with “A Dear John Letter.” As Shepard was not yet 21, her parents had to assign guardianship to Mr. Husky so Shepard could tour with him across state lines.

As Mr. Husky experienced some success, he worked to encourage and aid others in the Bakersfield area. Tommy Collins, who went on to write hit songs for Merle Haggard, credited Mr. Husky with giving him a show business start. And Mr. Husky treated young songwriter Dallas Frazier as an adopted son. Frazier went on to write enduring compositions including “There Goes My Everything” and “Beneath Still Waters.”

“When I seen anybody who had talent, I tried to help them,” Mr. Husky said in 2006, speaking with interviewer Walt Trott for a Country Music People interview. “Buck Owens? I dressed him up, putting some decent clothes on him, and got him with Capitol.”

Mr. Husky’s aggressive electric guitar tone on early Collins recordings was also a template for Owens, who followed Mr. Husky as Collins’ lead guitar player. That tone became a central element in the trebly, forceful “Bakersfield Sound” that led Owens and his Buckaroos band to numerous hits and that inspired later artists including The Beatles and Dwight Yoakam. The Bakersfield Sound and the Nashville Sound were often portrayed as country music’s dust-bitten yin and smooth-polished yang, yet Husky was at the forefront of each of these styles.

Owens and Haggard each followed Mr. Husky as Bakersfield-based success stories who recorded with Capitol.

Mr. Husky’s first Top Five solo country hit was “Cuzz You’re So Sweet,” a novelty number he recorded as Simon Crum. Throughout Mr. Husky’s career, the odd-talking “Simon” with his drawling, high-pitched voice, was featured during stage performances. A typical Ferlin Husky concert found Mr. Husky performing as Crum, offering spot-on impersonations of other singers, singing ballads and up-tempo numbers, playing guitar, kicking his foot high into the air and doing anything else he could think of to entertain the crowd. His performing acumen assured that he remained a popular draw on the road, even at times when he didn’t have a record in the charts.

In 1955, Mr. Husky joined the Grand Ole Opry and moved to Nashville, setting the stage for “Gone.”

“We had the Jordanaires on there as the (backing) vocal group, and Grady Martin on vibes, and a ton of people in the studio,” Mr. Husky told The Tennessean in 2009. “The producer, Ken Nelson, got upset. He said, ‘If one more person comes through those doors, the session is off.’ And then here comes Miss Millie Kirkham to sing the soprano vocal part.”

Kirkham added nearly operatic vocals to a lush (detractors would say “slick”) soundscape that featured little in the way of traditional country instrumentation. Rather than a steel guitar, there was a piano. A clean-toned electric guitar, not a down-home fiddle, took the solo. And rather than the honky-tonk inflections of Webb Pierce or Ernest Tubb, there was Husky’s emotional, resonant, nearly trembling croon. Mr. Husky had previously recorded a less remarkable version of “Gone” in California, as Terry Preston. The new everything-but-the-kitchen-sink arrangement was something entirely different, though. To hear Mr. Husky tell the story, producer Nelson wasn’t positive of a happy outcome.

“He said, ‘You’re going to cost me my job,’ ” Mr. Husky recalled. “In the middle of the song, I stopped the band and sung this, ‘Ohhhh’ part, and Ken said, ‘What in the world are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m making a hit record.’ And that’s what we did.”

Recorded in late 1956, “Gone” became a groundbreaking single in early 1957. Country stations played it repeatedly, and it crossed quickly into the pop realm, landing at No. 4 on the all-genre Billboard Top 100.

“The unique voice of Ferlin Husky just blew me away,” said producer Billy Sherrill, who entered the Hall of Fame with Husky in 2010, recalling the first time he heard “Gone.” “He didn’t sound like anything or anybody else.”

With the success of “Gone,” Mr. Husky became a national presence. He starred in movies such as Forty Acre Feud and Hillbillies in a Haunted House, and served as a guest-host for two weeks CBS’s The Arthur Godfrey Show.

“For a while there, I was all the way across that radio dial,” Husky said. “Elvis Presley opened shows that I headlined, and I got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.”

The song’s success also spawned plenty of imitators and helped bring country music into the pop mainstream. It was something of a blueprint for Nashville producers seeking to reach listeners who were interested neither in the twangy honky-tonk country of the early 1950s nor the swaggering rock ’n’ roll sounds of Presley and others. Some country purists railed against the new “Nashville Sound,” but it provided a commercially viable alternative to the rock surge and it served as a precursor to the cross-genre successes of new century hitmakers such as Lady Antebellum and Taylor Swift.

In 1960, Mr. Husky scored another massive hit with country-gospel-pop hybrid “Wings of a Dove.” Later efforts were not as commercially potent, but Mr. Husky had nine Top 20 hits in the 1960s, including “Once” and “Just For You.”

Mr. Husky left Capitol in 1972, moving to ABC Records. He never recaptured the success of his Capitol years, though he remained a strong live draw. In 1977, he had open-heart surgery, and heart problems dogged him the rest of his life.

“I’ve had seven bypasses,” he said in 2009. “But I don’t want to quit, and I just pray and keep going.”

Part of Mr. Husky’s drive to keep going was fueled by a wish to see himself included with the heroes of country music in the Hall of Fame. He got his wish in February 2010, when he was elected to the Hall along with Sherrill and Jimmy Dean.

“Some of the people that vote (for the Hall members) are so young, I thought they’d never heard of me,” he said. “I figured they thought Ferlin Husky was some kind of disease.”

But in May 2010, at 84, Mr. Husky was formally inducted during a Medallion Ceremony at the Hall. He was wheeled into the building and took joy in telling well-wishers, “I’ve got my own airline,” pointing to the tube that brought him oxygen.

Mr. Husky stayed in his wheelchair until the end of the ceremony, when a friend helped him out of the chair and into a group of fellow Hall of Famers who sang an event-closing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” He appeared too frail to add much to the group-sing, but by song’s end he was standing on his own power and singing in a voice that could be heard above all others, “ There’s a better home a’waiting/ In the sky, Lord, in the sky.”

Mr. Husky is survived by daughters Donna Denson of Gallatin; Dana Stone of Westmoreland; Julie Smith of Gallatin; Jennifer Lane of Murfreesboro; Alana Jackson of Hendersonville and Kelly Wiles of Canada; by sons David Husky of Post Falls, Idaho, and Terry Husky of Amarillo, Tex., and by many grandchildren. Memorial details are not yet available.

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The Tennessean