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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