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Harold Bradley refuses to slow down

By Jeffrey B. Remz, December 2006

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Bradley did his first session in December 1946 with Pee Wee King.

"There were no studios in Nashville at the time. None. In 1947, my brother called me for a session at Castle Recording Studio. We went down and played a jingle for a jeweler...They played the jingle for years and years and years, and I made $17. I thought I was rich."

"There wasn't any volume of recording at the time," he says of the Nashville music scene. "It all started in 1947."

Bradley soon recorded with Red Sovine. The first million seller Bradley was on was Foley's "Chattannoogie Shoe Shine Boy," recorded at Castle.

"I did one session with Hank Williams Sr. down there. It was unusual. I would see him at WSM at the radio station. It was a lounge area there, and I'd go up to play the early morning shows, and he'd be there with his band, sitting around. Jack Shook, the rhythm guitar player, was sick and I was kind of subbing for him on that session. Hank came over to me and said, 'I'm really glad to have you here for the session'. He said, 'I know this is going to be a hit. I said, 'How do you know that?' He said, 'Because it came out of a mean bottle'. I didn't understand that at the time, but I understood it later. He sat in his living room with a guitar in one hand and a bottle of whiskey in another."

"I recorded a lot with Hank Jr., but that was it for him."

"The town started doing more and more sessions. We did Bobby Helms. We did 'Jingle Bell Rock' and 'Fraulein'. We did Brenda Lee 'I'm Sorry' and 'Rock Around the Christmas Tree.' All of Patsy Cline - 'Crazy,' 'Sweet Dreams,' 'Walkin' After Midnight'. Everything Patsy Cline did except two sessions - one of them was a real quick session, and Owen used only two guitars, and he did a session of gospel songs."

Recording "Crazy" with Cline proved to be a different experience.

"We had no headphones. We had no music. We didn't have any of the number system (used by musicians to record). We had to make it all up from scratch. Of course, my brother (Owen, who produced Cline) came up with the arrangement. Some people say they remember hearing Willie Nelson's demo (Nelson wrote the song). I don't remember hearing his demo. I don't know whether they played it or not. I've got a copy of his demo, but it was changed considerably by my brother."

"We took four hours, normally a session is three hours. All he got was a track because she had an automobile wreck and had her ribs broken a month before. She couldn't hold the notes out. So, she came back a week or two later and sang it in one take...He said when she got through with it, neither one of us wanted to do it again, but it was a magic session to be able to work on a song like that."

Bradley remembers Cline as being "very very intense about the music. Owen and she would argue about the music. She got too involved in the music to where they would argue about it, and he would always win. Some people thought a lot of that feeling on the record was because she was so mad at him. We didn't have that problem after the first hit."

"She was fun because she was always cutting up. She was very salty with her language."

"She had a great sense of humor, but she didn't show it much on the record sessions."

Bradley worked with Elvis from 1962-67, a period during which he had 10 number 1 songs. Presley was 1 of 25 musicians in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame with whom Bradley worked. Twelve are in the Country Music Hall of Fame.

"When he first walked in the studio, he had that magic about him...He had a positive air. He was easy to work with. He never blamed the band if the song wouldn't come off. He'd just go to another song. The only bad thing about him was he liked to work at night and work all night long. Some of the guys couldn't stand that."

"The first session I did with him started at eight Sunday night and end eight Monday morning. He'd go eat breakfast and go to bed, and we'd go eat breakfast and go back and do more sessions and meet him the next night."

"It was exciting to work with him. He was so nice during those times."

As a sidemen, of course, Bradley was not in the limelight. He never had big designs on being the frontman though he did release three albums on Columbia - "Misty Guitar," "The Bossa Nova Goes to Nashville" and "Guitar For Lovers Only."

"I never wanted to go out on my own and do my own thing because I came out of the Big Band era...I knew that the Big Band era and the pop songs were over. Don Law, the A&R man for Columbia, hired me and signed me and actually wanted me to be the answer to Chet (Atkins), and we both know there is no answer to Chet because his style is completely different. I did some old pop standards with Anita Kerr Singers and some strings."

"It's so hard to establish a career. I was really really enjoying what I was doing."

"It was like going from one party to another party," he says, giving a long list of songs on which he played. He sometimes played with Owen producing. "I was always on edge," says Harold, adding his brother was country-based, while he was pop-centered.

The session work continued though Bradley soon found himself spending time on union activities, a union now with 3,000 members. He couldn't continue doing three or four recording sessions a day.

"I never felt like I was going to give up the playing...I was doing something that's turned out to be very rewarding because I've gotten better at the job. Before that, I was in a cocoon in the music world."

"I'm in a position to help musicians, and maybe they won't have to starve the first 10 years like I did. Of course, that's not a very good feeling."

But Bradley has not stopped playing. "I did three sessions last week. I'm going to do two next week. That's all I want to do."

"If I'm going to play during the day, usually I'm going to take a vacation day. But sometimes I'll work all day here, and then I'll go work a six p.m. session. I'm not trying to play a whole lot of sessions."

Looking ahead, Bradley says, "I'm just going to relax and enjoy what's happening. I'm spending most of my time at the union. I'm only going to work stuff I think I can play really good on. At the end of a couple of years, my career may be over as far as the union. I'll play for my own amusement, or I'll play for whoever wants me. When I get to the point when I can't play up to my standards, it'll be time to move on. I'll do something else."

"With everybody in life, whether they realize it or not, they have to keeping reinventing themselves, so at some point, I'll have to reinvent myself whether it's going to be an ultimate retirement or whatever. Right now, I'm in extremely good health, and I'm pleased with my playing. So, it's just a lot of fun."

"But I don't have any future as a recording musician because I've already done that," he jokes. "My future is in the past...I don't have any problem with that at all."

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