Culture
9:02 am
Wed December 25, 2013

Harold Bradley: The Guitarist Of Nashville Past

Originally published on Wed December 25, 2013 6:04 pm

Some of Nashville's most classic songs — Roy Orbison's "Only the Lonely," Loretta Lynn's "Coal Miner's Daughter," Tammy Wynette's "Stand by Your Man" and Elvis Presley's "Devil in Disguise," to name a few — have one thing, or person, in common: guitarist Harold Bradley. In his decadeslong career, Bradley, now 86, has played on literally thousands of songs. Some say he's the most widely recorded guitarist in history.

Bradley is the brother of one of Nashville's legendary record producers, Owen Bradley. In the early '50s, the brothers opened one of the first recording studios in the city. They formed the A-Team: a dozen session musicians who, while you may never have heard their names, helped build Nashville. These musicians thrived in the background, ready to play behind any star who came in with a new album to create. In a discussion with Morning Edition's David Greene, Bradley described the session-recording process.

"We had a setup," he says. "We would work from 10 to 1, 2 to 5, 6 to 9 and 10 to 1 at night. To me, it was like going to a party. A Brenda Lee party in the morning, then a Ray Stevens party in the afternoon. A Bill Monroe party and then end up with Henry Mancini and Patsy Cline and Elvis and just other people. I realized, after a while, that it wasn't my talent: It was the talent of the stars. Then, I was just glad to be on board."

While Bradley was happy to be along for the ride, he remembers moments working with some of music's rising stars that were not so sweet.

"My first session with Elvis, I tune up and I'm standing around," Bradley says. "I hear all this commotion out in the alley. Well, I had finally gotten to where I could afford a new car and I had a Nash station wagon parked right behind the studio. I went out and opened the door, and there was a sea of kids out there. They wanted to see Elvis, and they were standing on my station wagon. I just closed the door, shook my head and I thought, 'I don't know how much money I'm going to make with this guy, but it's not going to be enough to pay for my car.' "

Bradley also had to deal with his brother, who kept him and the other session musicians on a tight leash. They were not allowed to "color outside the lines," as the prolific guitarist puts it. The rules were meant to keep the spotlight firmly on the singers. While Bradley admits that the guidelines his brother imposed were strict at times, he says he and his session-mates learned how to deal with them.

"As soon as you come into the studio and you walk in the door, you leave your ego outside," Bradley says. "Whatever you think you are, you're not. You're going to go in there and you're a piece of clay, and you're going to mold yourself into whatever is musically happening on that session."

While Bradley was observing history firsthand in these recording sessions, he says he didn't realize it at first. In fact, he wasn't even keeping records.

"Everything that was happening in the studio, that was my world," Bradley says. "That was as big as it got. And then one day, my brother came up and he said, 'Well, we're doing pretty good. We've got 25 out of the top 50 songs.' All of a sudden I'm thinking, 'That stuff we did in the studio, people are listening to that all over the world? Maybe I better pay some attention to what's happening a little bit more because, goodnight! Whatever I'm playing, these people are listening to it. And I better be good.' "

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

OK. We have a little music quiz here. We're going to play some tracks, guess what they all have in common?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC MONTAGE)

ROY ORBISON: (Singing) Only the lonely...

LORETTA LYNN: (Singing) Well, I was born a coal miner's daughter...

TAMMY WYNETTE: (Singing) Stand by your man...

ELVIS PRESLEY: (Singing) You're the devil in disguise, oh yes you are...

GREENE: These songs from Roy Orbison, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette and Elvis all feature one of Nashville's most prolific guitarists, a man named Harold Bradley. In his decades-long career, Bradley played on literally thousands of songs. He's now 86 and some believe he's the most recorded guitarist in history. I know you brought some instruments with you, as we're told you said you were going to bring the works. What does that mean?

(LAUGHTER)

HAROLD BRADLEY: I had a trunk full of guitars but I only brought three kind of historic guitars today.

GREENE: Only three historic guitars.

BRADLEY: Yeah.

GREENE: These are guitars that deserve to be in a museum.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: Sitting in a studio in Nashville, Harold Bradley played little bits for us - his parts in what became masterpieces, like Roy Orbison's "Running Scared."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RUNNING SCARED")

ORBISON: (Singing) Just running scared, each place we go...

GREENE: Harold Bradley is the brother of one of Nashville's record producers, Owen Bradley. In the early '50s, the brothers opened one of the first recording studios in Nashville. They formed the A-Team, a dozen session musicians who, while you may have never heard their names, helped build Nashville. These musicians thrived in the background, ready to play behind any star who came to town with a new album to create.

BRADLEY: We had a set-up and we would work from 10 to 1, 2 till 5, 6 to 9 and 10 to 1 at night.

GREENE: With different musicians coming in and playing with them.

BRADLEY: And different artists.

GREENE: That must have been a really interesting life. I picture this almost, you know, you're invited to one party and you get in a certain rhythm and style and then all of the sudden you leave that party and go to a different party - four a day.

BRADLEY: You've hit it on the head, because to me it was like going to a party - a Brenda Lee party in the morning and then a Ray Stevens in the afternoon, a Bill Monroe party and end up with Henry Mancini and Patsy Cline. I realized after a while that it wasn't my talent; it was the talent of the stars and I just was glad to be onboard.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GUITAR MAN")

PRESLEY: (Singing) Well, I quit my job down at the car wash, I left my mama a goodbye note. By sundown, I left Kingston with my guitar under my coat. I hitchhiked...

GREENE: Tell me about working with Elvis Presley.

BRADLEY: On first session with Elvis, I tune up and I'm standing around. I hear all this commotion out in the alley. Well, I had finally gotten to where I could afford a new car and I had a nice station wagon parked right behind the studio. So, I went out and opened the door and there was a sea of kids out there. They wanted to see Elvis and they were standing on my station wagon.

GREENE: Standing on your car.

BRADLEY: Standing on the hood of my station wagon, yeah. And I just closed the door and shook my head and I thought I don't know how much money I'm going to make with this guy but it's not going to be enough to pay for my car, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GUITAR MAN")

PRESLEY: (Singing) I showed 'em what a band would sound like, I'm a swinging little guitar man. Show 'em, son...

GREENE: And then there were Elvis' handlers. They could be a little bit prickly, including the time this happened in the studio to the harmonica player.

BRADLEY: There was a jar of pickles in there and Charlie McCoy reached for a pickle and somebody slapped his hand, said those are for Elvis.

GREENE: Don't mess with Elvis' pickles.

BRADLEY: Yeah, don't mess with his pickles, yeah. So, we had to deal with his entourage.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: They also had to deal with producer Owen Bradley. He kept the musicians on a tight leash. They were not allowed to color outside the lines, as Harold Bradley puts it.

BRADLEY: You didn't play over the top of the singer.

GREENE: This is your brother's rule.

BRADLEY: Yeah, that's right. And his other rule was that you couldn't play in the same register they were singing in.

GREENE: It's so interesting that your brother sensed the importance of trying to keep you guys in the background, in a way. Can you take me into what that feels like? I mean, it must be a different musical existence compared to being in the spotlight on a stage.

BRADLEY: Well, the guys here talk about that particular thing. The way they express it is that as soon as you come to the studio and you walk in the door, you leave your ego outside. Whatever you think you are, you're not. You're a piece of clay and you're going to mold yourself into whatever's musically happening on that session.

GREENE: Was that tough?

BRADLEY: It took a little while for me, yeah, because for a while I thought I was going to be Les Paul. We all wanted to be soloists and do all that stuff, but that's not what's required when you go in to play a record session.

GREENE: Still, Bradley did make a name for himself. The tic-tac is a bass sound that you were sort of known for. What exactly is that?

BRADLEY: Well, it's a six-string bass guitar. The bottom four strings are just like the bass but it has two additional strings on top. And I really made a lot of money with it. I'm not going to give any money back.

(LAUGHTER)

BRADLEY: But it is an ugly sound.

GREENE: Can you do it for us?

BRADLEY: Yeah, I actually brought the original bass guitar that I played on Patsy Cline's record here.

GREENE: Oh, wow.

BRADLEY: Try to imagine in your mind that I'm playing "Crazy," OK?

GREENE: I'm imagining it as we speak.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: Bradley says "Crazy" was an especially memorable session but it wasn't an easy berth. Patsy Cline had injured her ribs in a car accident and was unable to sustain some of the high notes. So, Harold's brother had the group record without a vocalist, working hours to get it just right.

BRADLEY: We recorded that arrangement and all he got at the end of four hours was a track. Two weeks later, she came back in and he said she sang it in one take. He said when she got through, neither one of us wanted to do it again.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRAZY")

PATSY CLINE: (Singing) Crazy, I'm crazy for feeling so lonely...

BRADLEY: It's a wonderful track, considering the fact (unintelligible) consider anything. It's a wonderful track, period.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRAZY")

CLINE: (Singing) Crazy for feeling so blue...

GREENE: "Crazy" would go on to become the number one jukebox hit of all time. Bradley really was observing history but he says he didn't realize that at first. In fact, he wasn't even keeping records.

BRADLEY: You know, there were things happening in the studio - that was my world. That was as big as it got. And then one day my brother came up and he said, well, we're doing pretty good. You know, we got 25 out of the top 50 songs, you know, on this list. So, all of the sudden, I'm thinking, well, that stuff we do in the studio, people listen to that all over the world? Maybe I better pay some attention to what's happening a little bit more because, good night, whatever I'm playing, these people are listening to it. I better be good, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRAZY")

GREENE: Harold Bradley, this has been a true pleasure. Thanks so much for coming on the program. And have a great holiday.

BRADLEY: Thank you so much for having me.

GREENE: Now, Harold Bradley did play us his part in one other song that seems appropriate for today.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JINGLE BELL ROCK")

GREENE: Bud-dum-pum-pum - I feel like I want to just dive right into the rest of the song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JINGLE BELL ROCK")

BOBBY HELMS: (Singing) Jingle bell, jingle bell, jingle bell rock. Jingle bell swing and jingle bell spring. Snowing and glowing and...

GREENE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.