Ted Jarrett, Legendary Nashville Music Figure Dies

Longtime songwriter, impresario passes

Funeral services for Ted Jarrett, a genuine legend in Nashville music circles, are being held Thursday at Greater St. John Missionary Baptist Church, 2200 26th Ave. North, in Nashville. Jarrett died Saturday March 21 at 83 of liver failure in Alive Hospice Care.

His exploits covered almost every phase of the music industry, and he was a pivotal figure in Nashville’s emergence as a center of activity for R&B and soul recording during the ‘50s and ‘60s.

“You can’t have any type of substantive conversation about Nashville as a music center or a recording base without Ted Jarrett’s name being mentioned as a key figure,” Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum representative Michael Gray said. “He was intimately involved in so many areas and influenced so many people that his impact and influence was extraordinary.”

Gray compiled the selections and wrote track-by-track commentary for a pair of two-disc sets Night Train To Nashville: Rhythm & Blues in Music City, 1945-1970. The first volume won a Grammy for Best Historical Recording in 2004, and the volumes served as a companion to the 2004/05 exhibit in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum that visually documented the birth and expansion of soul, blues, R&B and jazz performances and labels in the city during that time frame. Jarrett had six songs that he wrote and produced featured in each volume.

But Ted Jarrett’s accomplishments date back to the early ‘50s. He became a familiar voice to R&B listeners in 1951 as a disc jockey on WSOK, one of Music City’s first fulltime black formatted radio stations. Soon he was also serving as a talent scout and producer for Tennessee/Republic Records, among the earliest companies offering black acts a shot at recording. Eventually Ted Jarrett had a prolific role as a producer and also was a part owner in such labels as Calvert, Champion and Poncello. Plus he was also the owner of his own record establishment in the downtown Nashville Arcade.

Jarrett’s first big hit as a writer/producer came with “It’s Love Baby (24 Hours A Day).” The tune blended jump blues and jazz-tinged swing, with Earl Gaines delivering a powerful, buoyant lead vocal, though it was released under the name of Louis Brooks & His Hi-Toppers. It reached the number two spot on Billboard’s R&B charts and subsequent covers by Ruth Brown and Hank Ballard also made the R&B Top 10. Bobby “Blue” Bland and Delbert McClinton later added their versions of that tune.

However, perhaps his most notable early achievement came when country vocalist Webb Pierce made a fiery version of his tune “Love, Love, Love.” It stayed on top of the country charts for 13 weeks, but few people in Nashville knew that Pierce was singing a number penned by a black man.

When Jarrett arrived at the Hermitage Hotel a year later to get an award from BMI for the song’s success, he was stopped in his tracks at the door by a police officer who openly wondered what a black man was doing trying to get into a gala affair hosted by whites. Like many other Southern cities, segregation was then the norm in Nashville, but that didn’t stop Jarrett from getting on stage or accepting his award.

When Jarrett’s autobiography, You Can Make It If You Try co-written with Ruth White, was released in 2005, he described that incident and many others in his life without a degree of rancor or bitterness, something Gray says was characteristic of how he lived his entire career.

“He was a warm, gentle spirit, a really wonderful man,” Gray said. “He was a great storyteller, and he was never bitter or angry about any of the things that happened to him in the past.”

Gene Allison cut what became Jarrett’s signature song, “You Can Make It If You Try,” in 1957 at Owen Bradley’s studio on Sixteenth Avenue. Jarrett licensed the tune to Vee-Jay Records and it not only cracked the R&B Top Five, but also broke into the pop Top 40, hardly a common occurrence for that type of tune at the time.

“You Can Make It If You Try,” with its inspirational lyrical bent and impassioned, earnest approach, was also a precursor to the soul era, when the raw, urgent sound of the church would become the reference point for many secular vocalists. The Rolling Stones later did their own version of “You Can Make It If You Try.”

Jarrett did his share of artist management, promotion and booking as well. Herbert Hunter, Johnny Jones, Christine Kittrell, Freddie Waters, Larry Birdsong, The Dynamic Travelers, Allison and Gaines were just a few of the soul, R&B and gospel performers whose careers he helped build, and he often used the grind of the road to seek out unsung talent and fresh faces in obscure cities on the "chitlin' circuit."

His day in the mainstream sun came late, but the 2004/05 massive exhibit Night Train to Nashville: Rhythm & Blues in Music City 1945 -1970 at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum (plus the companion CD sets) alerted many around the globe unfamiliar with his accomplishments of Ted Jarrett’s key role in the city’s musical legacy.

Bobby Hebb, Tracy Nelson, Marion James, The Dynamic Dixie Travelers, James “Nick” Nixon, The Valentines, Charles “Wigg” Walker and many others honored Jarrett with a tribute concert in 2005. Nashville mayor at the time Bill Purcell issued a formal proclamation recognizing Jarrett’s long and distinguished career. Though 80 at the time, Jarrett was very involved in every phase of the concert, particularly when it came to hearing his songs once again being performed in public.

“He will be sorely missed,” Gray said. “He was unquestionably a giant as a songwriter and major personality in R&B and soul.”

Jarrett’s memorial service begins at 11 a.m., with visitation at 10. Interment will be at 2 p.m. at Middle Tennessee Veterans Cemetery, 7931 McCrory Lane, in Pegram, Tennessee. Arrangements are being handled by Henry Louis Smith Funeral Directors, 1503 Buchanan St., Nashville. Their number is 615-244-5044

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