Welcome to a new feature series where we take a look at some of the great songwriters who have made their names in Americana music. The focus of this series is on those that, at least initially, made their reputations writing songs for others to sing; so, there’ll be no Dylan, or Neil Young, or Steve Earle, or Taylor Swift or any number of others who, fine writers though they may be, have always written for themselves first and foremost and see themselves at least as much as a performer as a writer. We want to look at the writers who may well have established a presence as a performer at some point in their career but who are, principally, known as songwriters who started out providing songs for others to sing.
We’re starting off with a husband and wife team that I’ve always considered to be one of the finest songwriting duos in the history of popular music; Felice and Boudleaux Bryant. The Bryants wrote some of the most enduring music in pop, country and rockabilly music, as it was then, and are particularly well known for their songs written for the Everly Brothers, including, ‘Bye, Bye Love’, ‘Wake Up Little Suzie’, ‘Love Hurts’ and ‘All I Have to Do is Dream’ (the latter two credited solely to Boudleaux Bryant).
Diadorius Boudleaux Bryant was born in Shellman, Georgia in February 1920. He grew up in this Randolph County city, where he attended school and trained as a classical violinist, going on to perform as part of the Atlanta Philharmonic Orchestra; but his heart was in country fiddle playing and he moved from the Orchestra to an Atlanta Western Swing band, Hank Penny & his Radio Cowboys!
Born in 1925, Matilda Genevieve Scaduto grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Her parents had moved from Italy to the U.S and Matilda would grow up writing lyrics to traditional Italian tunes. She was working as an elevator operator, at the Schroeder Hotel in Milwaukee, when Boudleaux Bryant showed up there to play a gig in 1945. It was a classic case of love at first sight, with Scaduto saying that she had seen his face in a dream when she was eight years old and had been waiting for him since then. The song ‘All I Have to Do is Dream’ is based on this story. They eloped together five days after meeting and it was Boudleaux who started calling her ‘Felice’, the name that Matilda Scaduto would be known by from that point on.
Initially, the married couple found it difficult to make ends meet, living out of a mobile home in Moultrie, Georgia, and trying to sell their songs to a number of country artists but being constantly rejected, while Boudleaux continued to work as a musician and a mechanic. They would write and submit over 80 songs before, in 1948, three years after they first met, Little Jimmy Dickens would take one of their songs, ‘Country Boy’, into the top 10 of the Country charts, attracting the attention of Nashville publishers, Acuff-Rose Music.
Following the success of ‘Country Boy’, in 1950, the Bryants moved to Nashville to devote themselves full-time to songwriting and early successes included more songs for Dickens as well as hits for Moon Mullican (‘Sugar Beet’), and Red Foley (‘Midnight’). They idled along for a few years, gaining small successes with a range of artists but it was writing for the Everlys that really made them a success. The Bryants and the Everlys were a match made in heaven. Right from the start, the songwriters seemed to know, instinctively, what to write for the two brothers and how to bring out the best of their natural ability to harmonise. One of their most successful songs for the Everlys was ‘Bye, Bye Love’, but it had been turned down by almost every singer in Nashville before the Everlys recorded it. The song had been rejected over thirty times, the last time on the morning of the day the Everlys recorded it in the afternoon! Don Everly said of their collaboration, “Their stuff fit us like a glove because it was designed to fit. Boudleaux would sit down and talk with us. A lot of his songs were written because he was getting inside our heads—trying to find out where we were going, what we wanted, what words were right.” In all, they would write over twenty songs for the brothers, many of which would score well on the Billboard Hot 100 as well as the Country and R&B charts. Two of these, ‘Wake Up Little Suzie’ and ‘All I Have to Do is Dream’ would go to the number one spot in all three charts and, in the case of ‘Dream’, would occupy all three top spots at the same time; an unprecedented feat at the time. Following on from their success with the Everly Brothers they would go on to write for artists like Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison.
What I’ve always particularly liked about the Bryants is the stories of how competitive they were with each other. Boudleaux was both a lyricist and a composer, as evidenced by the songs credited solely to him. Felice was a lyricist who didn’t play an instrument herself so had to rely on her husband to put the melody to her songs. Stories abound of how he would start on a song by himself and often be quite secretive about it but would then turn to Felice when he got stuck on a lyric. Felice told a story of how she would wake up in the early hours to find herself alone in bed – so she would get up and search the house for her husband because she knew he’d be working on a song somewhere and she wanted to be in on the fun! The act of songwriting would seem to have been all-encompassing for both of them and they clearly had a passion for their craft that marks them out as extraordinary. In the course of their career together they would write more than 6,000 songs with over 1,500 of them being recorded! Those songs were recorded by many major artists over a range of genres and would include Tony Bennett, Frankie Laine, Sonny James, Charley Pride, Nazareth, Jim Reeves, Leo Sayer, Jerry Lee Lewis, Simon & Garfunkel, Sarah Vaughan, The Grateful Dead, Elvis Costello, Count Basie, Dean Martin, Ray Charles, Gram Parsons, Joan Jett, and Bob Dylan and many more.
One of their most famous songs is ‘Rocky Top’, a big hit for The Osborne Brothers but also recorded by other artists such as Dolly Parton, Conway Twitty and Lynn Anderson. The song was written at The Gatlinburg Inn, in Gatlinburg, Tennessee and, in 1978 they moved to the town, purchasing the Rocky Top Village Inn next to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In 1979 they finally released their own album, ‘A Touch of Bryant’. In 1982 the state of Tennessee adopted ‘Rocky Top’ as the song for the University of Tennessee sports teams. This was just one of the many honours their writing would receive. During their career, the Bryants earned 59 BMI country, pop, and R&B music awards. In 1972, they were inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, in 1986 into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and in 1991 into both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. Boudleaux Bryant is categorised as the third most successful songwriter of the 1950s on the UK Singles Chart, and Felice Bryant is the 21st.
Boudleaux Bryant died in 1987, from cancer, at the Baptist Hospital in Knoxville, Tennessee. Felice continued to write songs, working with other writers on Nashville’s Music Row; in 1991, the Nashville Arts Foundation honored her with its Living Legend Award. Felice finally died in 2003, also from cancer, and she and Boudleaux are interred together in the Woodlawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Nashville.
Their work lives on in the House of Bryant museum, located in Gatlinburg, and from September 2019 to August 2020, their artifacts were on exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.
Along with Carole King and Gerry Goffin and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, the Bryants were one of the top married couple songwriting teams of all time. Their marriage was one of those successful love stories that often seem to happen only in fairy stories, but they remained devoted to each other throughout their lives together. It has been said that their strength lay in writing believable love songs and that those songs were so believable because they were songs written to each other. The other significant thing about their songs is that they stand the test of time, with newer artists regularly re-recording them and/or including them in their live sets. The Bryants wrote timeless songs that will stay with us forever.