Born Harlan Perry Howard, 8 September 1927, Detroit, Michigan
Songwriter Harlan Howard, nicknamed the “Dean of Nashville Songwriters”, was the most celebrated of the tunesmiths in Nashville, thanks to a phenomenal career that saw him write over 4,000 songs. More than 100 of these hit the Top Ten (country). Among his most famous compositions are “Heartaches By the Number”, “I Fall To Pieces”, “I’ve Got A Tiger By the Tail” and “Busted”. A list of artists who have recorded his songs would read like a Who's Who of Country Music over several generations. But his songs have also enjoyed R&B and pop success by a variety of artists such as Ray Charles, Brenda Lee, Joe Simon, The Kingston Trio, Kay Starr and Burl Ives.
Though Howard’s family roots were in Kentucky, he was a native of Detroit. His first musical idol was Ernest Tubb, whose songwriting inspired Howard as much as his singing did. After high school graduation, Howard spent four years in the service, during which time he learned to play the guitar. He then worked a variety of mostly factory jobs, and moved to Los Angeles in 1955, determined to make it as a country songwriter. He even scribbled songs during his work hours. “I’d come home from work sometimes with six songs. During that period I never knew there was that much money in songwriting. I was just writing because I loved it. I never thought I’d be able to quit the factory and make a full-time living as a writer”.
Howard’s fledgling compositional skills were recognized and soon artists like Tex Ritter and Johnny Bond agreed to publish his songs. The first artists to record his material were Skeets McDonald (“You Oughta See Grandma Rock”, May 1956) and Wynn Stewart, both Capitol artists. Soon his work was in hot demand. In May 1957 Howard married singer Lula Grace Smith, who recorded his demos and who would attain country stardom in the 1960s as Jan Howard. The first hit came in the autumn of 1958, when Charlie Walker took “Pick Me Up On Your Way Down” to # 2 on the country charts. Another # 2 hit was the original version of “Heartaches By the Number” by Ray Price (mid-1959). When Guy Mitchell covered the song for the pop market later that year, it went all the way to number one on the Billboard Hot 100. After this success, Howard felt confident enough to pull up stakes and move to Nashville, where he would become a mainstay for the next forty years.
In 1961 alone he had fifteen of his compositions on the country Top 40, earning him ten BMI awards. Among his biggest hits was “I Fall To Pieces”, co-written with Hank Cochran and recorded by Patsy Cline. Especially Buck Owens recorded many Howard compositions, including the album “Buck Owens Sings Harlan Howard” (Capitol, 1961). Howard himself also recorded an LP of his own songs for Capitol in 1961, “Harlan Howard Sings Harlan Howard”. Even better was “All-Time Favorite Country Songwriter” for Monument (1965). Though Howard recorded regularly between 1959 and 1981, a serious recording career as a singer was never his intention. His only (modest) chart entries were “We’re Proud To Call Him Son” (Capitol, 1961) and “Sunday Morning Christian” (Nugget, 1971).
Instead, he remained Nashville’s most prolific composer. Major hits in 1962-63 included Ray Price’s “You Took Her Off My Hands”, George Jones’ “You Comb Her Hair”, Johnny and Jonie Mosby’s “Don’t Call Me From A Honky Tonk” and Roy Drusky’s “Second Hand Rose”. Besides succeeding in the country field, Howard’s songs proved readily adaptable to R&B. Ray Charles had a # 4 pop hit in 1963 with “Busted” (previously a # 13 country hit for Johnny Cash) and in 1969 soul singer Joe Simon scored a # 1 R&B hit with “The Chokin’ Kind” (first recorded by Waylon Jennings in 1967).
In the mid-1960s Howard founded his first publishing company, Wilderness Music. He was still successful in the 1970s, but starting 1974 he took a seven-year hiatus from songwriting, due to an extreme case of writer’s block. Returning to the field in the early 80s, he continued to add to his incomparable record with such number ones as Conway Twitty’s “I Don’t Know A Thing About Love” and the Judds’ “Why Not Me?” (both 1984). Health problems slowed him down in the 1990s and he started to work with younger co-writers, but he still remained a major force in Music City.
In 1997 he was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame (after an earlier induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame). Harlan Howard died at his home in March of 2002, aged 74, and was buried in Nashville City Cemetery. His succes is down to the simplicity and honesty of his work. He described country music as “three chords and the truth”. He believed that finding the perfect home for his songs was the key, matching the right song with the right singer.
Discography (as a singer) :
CD : All-Time Favorite Country Songwriter (12 tracks, including many of his best known songs). Original LP release in 1965, reissued on CD in 1996 (Koch Records).
Acknowledgements : Daniel Cooper, Tony Russell, Jason Ankeny.
Dik, August 2016
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