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Ted Jarrett, the legendary songwriter, producer and record-label owner who helped make Nashville a soul-music hub to rival Memphis, Chicago and Detroit in the 1950s and '60s, died Saturday night while in hospice care. He was 83. With him passes an entire alternate history of Nashville music--a saga in which, among other chapters, a Fisk graduate's music crosses the ocean, influences a generation of British kids, and changes rock 'n' roll history.
For more than half a century, Jarrett was a constant in Nashville soul and gospel music. In 1951, he became a dee-jay for Nashville's WSOK, one of the country's first full-time African American radio stations, and throughout the early 1950s he worked in A&R for the pioneering local label Tennessee Records.
But it was as a songwriter, producer and label owner that Jarrett made his lasting mark. He created an instant standard in 1955 with "It's Love Baby (24 Hours a Day)," a single for Louis Brooks & His Hi-Toppers with a dynamic vocal by Nashville R&B powerhouse Earl Gaines, then only 19 years old. Not only did their version hit No. 2 on the Billboard
R&B chart, covers by Hank Ballard & the Midnighters and Ruth Brown the same year also stormed the Top 10.
His epitaph, though, may be "You Can Make It If You Try," a stunning single by Nashville soul vocalist Gene Allison that Jarrett wrote and produced in 1957. It's a majestic and unsettling song--indefatigably optimistic in its soaring chorus, yet bitterly truthful in a way that no doubt connected with its audience in the Jim Crow-era South. "Sometimes you'll have to cry," Allison sang over a funereal organ and the stately backing of trumpeter Joe Morris' band. "Sometimes you'll have to lie."
The song became a smash, crossing over to the Billboard
pop chart alongside a stay in the R&B Top Five. Among its fans were members of a fledgling British rock band who revered the R&B records they ordered from Nashville retailers such as Ernie's Record Mart. And so Jarrett ended up with a cut on England's Newest Hitmakers
, the first U.S. release by the Rolling Stones.
Unlike so many of Nashville's R&B greats--including, tragically, Gene Allison
--Jarrett lived to see his music embraced by a wide new audience. Starting in the mid-1990s, several sterling soul compilations (some British
, some domestic
) collected the singles Jarrett released on labels such as Excello, Champion, Calvert, Cherokee, Poncello, Ref-O-Ree and Valdot, bringing new attention to artists like Gaines and vocalist Roscoe Shelton.
The capstone of Jarrett's career proved to be the Country Music Hall of Fame's Grammy-winning 2004 Night Train to Nashville
CD compilation and the year-long exhibit that accompanied it--an overdue celebration of Nashville soul
that focused the city's attention on its overlooked R&B history. Represented by six tracks on the first volume alone, Jarrett emerged from the Night Train
project as a key figure in Nashville music: a direct link between country (he penned Webb Pierce's 1955 honky-tonk hit "Love, Love, Love," one of the few No. 1 singles in country history written by an African American) and soul.
He basked in its glow at a 2005 gala where "Sunny" singer Bobby Hebb, Gene Allison's brother Leevert, country-soul great Tracy Nelson and others gathered at the Hall of Fame to sing his songs. The occasion was the release of Jarrett's autobiography; its title, fittingly enough, was You Can Make It If You Try
. Ted Jarrett could, and he did.