Earl Gaines' commanding voice, extensive range and emphatic sound made him one of the greatest stylists and performers in the history of Nashville R&B and soul.
The 74-year-old Gaines, who died New Year's Eve at Saint Thomas Hospital, helped elevate Music City's black music community to the national spotlight with his majestic lead vocal on the classic "It's Love Baby (24 Hours a Day)" in 1955 when he was the lead singer for Louis Brooks & His Hi-Toppers. In some ways, though, that tune was such a triumph that many people came to define his career mainly on the basis of that song, something that hardly puts his greatness in full perspective.
"For me he's right up there with the greatest in R&B, blues and soul music, period," says Michael Gray, an editor at the Country Music Hall of Fame and longtime scholar of Nashville soul. "There's no doubt that he helped get everything started nationally, but he was a fantastic technical vocalist his entire career. I think the fact he didn't land a lot of songs on the national charts may have hurt in terms of people understanding just how awesome he was really was."
Gray and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum triggered an international resurgence of interest in Gaines and Nashville's black music heritage with the 2004-05 exhibit and pair of companion CDs titled Night Train to Nashville: Music City Rhythm & Blues, 1945-1970. Gray co-curated the exhibit and co-produced the discs. The first CD won a 2005 Grammy for Best Historical CD, and both received rave reviews in several domestic and foreign music publications. Of all the revelations in those sets, none shone more brightly than Gaines, who remained a vital artist and performer well into his 70s.
"When we were getting things together for the Night Train exhibit, I had the chance to go through his full body of work up to that time," Gray says. "The versatility, the consistent brilliance, just really hits you when you listen to them at one time. Then over the period that we did some events for the Night Train exhibit, whenever he performed you could still hear the power and depth in his voice. Right up to the end he had that marvelous tone and range."
Despite his longtime identification with Music City, Gaines actually grew up on a farm in Decatur, Ala., and the first songs he performed were spiritual rather than secular. But while singing in church helped establish his talent and sharpen his skills, the lure of soul and R&B proved too strong to resist. A Christmas visit to Nashville in 1951 led to a permanent relocation and the beginning of a career that was launched as a demo singer for Ted Jarrett, even then a powerful figure in Nashville R&B/soul circles.
It was Jarrett's intercession that led to the job with Brooks, plus steady work for Gaines with the Excello label. After "It's Love Baby (24 Hours a Day)" exploded on the national charts and eventually spawned cover versions by Ruth Brown and Hank Ballard, Gaines got his first taste of national touring, becoming part of the 1955 R&B Caravan of Stars, which included Carnegie Hall among its stops.
Even though Gaines never duplicated the chart impact of that monster hit, he stayed busy throughout the '50s and '60s, working again with Jarrett in 1957, teaming for a time with keyboardist-arranger Bill Doggett, and finally securing the services of legendary WLAC DJ and also manager Bill "Hoss" Allen in 1963. That not only led to another big single with "Best of Luck To You" but also frequent appearances on the groundbreaking TV show The !!!! Beat, which Allen hosted.
"The !!!! Beat was the perfect vehicle for Earl Gaines," Gray says. "He was on there quite a bit due to his relationship with Hoss Allen, and he had a good personality and lots of charisma. "
Between his Beat appearances, Gaines cut singles for Deluxe/King and Sound Stage 7, getting another regional smash with a solid cover of The Mighty Hannibal's "Hymn Number 5." But as with many other notable soul, R&B and blues veterans, the funk and disco revolution played havoc with Gaines' career in the mid-'70s. He took a 14-year break from the music business and spent most of his time as a truck driver, making only periodic appearances as a performer.
He resurfaced with fury in 1989, first with the LP House Party (Meltone) and then on two superb '90s albums produced by Nashville instrumentalist/songwriter/producer Fred James: 1995's I Believe In Your Love and a 1997 collaboration with fellow Nashville stalwarts Clifford Curry and Roscoe Shelton. They showed that Gaines could still deliver riveting, spectacular efforts on ballads, jump tunes and rollicking blues.
Propelled by the momentum from the Night Train CDs and exhibit, Earl Gaines remained active until almost the very end. His final release Nothin' But The Blues was issued in 2008 on the Ecko label, and the company has said another Gaines album was in the works. The label has said it intends to make sure the record gets completed and released.
But Gaines' epitaph will be the Night Train volumes and exhibit, which did much to correct the short shrift given to Nashville soul for too many years. His death, just months after the passing of Nashville R&B giants Ted Jarrett and yeoman guitarist Johnny Jones, only reinforces the significance of the Night Train project — one of those all-too-rare examples of a neglected musician getting his due while he is alive to see it.
"One of the things that I was just thinking about last Friday at his funeral was the fact that right before we decided to do the Night Train exhibit, there was something else that we considered doing as well," Gray recalls. "Then another prominent figure in Nashville R&B — I don't remember who it was right now — died, and we all said, we better do this now before it's too late.
"I'm so glad that he lived to see the exhibit and that it helped him during the last stages of his career. We've really lost a lot of giants these past few months. At least we got the opportunity to enjoy their work and were able to give them the type of wide-ranging platform they deserved."
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