||Editor’s Note: My love for music had its origins in the mid-’50s. I grew up in Nashville, and not only was country music all around, so was the fledgling rock-a-billy. One of my first memories was listening to the 45 RPM records that had been given to me by Lester Sweatt, a family friend and local DJ. One record that stood out was “Wake Up, Little Susie,” by the Everly Brothers. I nearly drove my parents crazy playing that record over and over. The song was written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant. In the late summer of 1995, writer Sylvia A. Nash interviewed Felice Bryant for Smoky Mountain Memories. The article was first published as: “Felice BryantWas It Destiny or Chance?” and ran in the magazine’s September 1995 issue. Boudleaux Bryant died in 1987; Felice died April 22, 2003.
Paths cross. Two people meet. Destiny or chance? The “chance” meeting of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, co-authors of “Rocky Top,” weighs heavily in favor of destiny. At the time the two met, both were working at the Shrader Hotel in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Due to a booking mix-up, Boudleaux’s band was working in the cocktail lounge. Nineteen-year-old Felice was running the elevator, just one of the three jobs she held because, according to her, she “had too much spare time.”
Felice saw Boudleaux head toward a nearby water fountain on a break and ran to it first. She asked Boudleaux “Can I buy you a drink?” In spite of the fact that she drenched him when she turned on the spigot, they were married three days later.
That sounds like a short romance unless you heard Felice’s explanation of this “chance” encounter. She was convinced that she would have met Boudleaux sometime somewhere. She had dreamed of him when she was only eight years old and had “looked for him forever.” After they started writing songs together, Felice said, the dreams just kept coming true.
Both Felice and Boudleaux began writing songs when they were kids. Felice continued to write during the long hours Boudleaux was away working dances and radio stationsout of boredom! It was a year, though, before either knew that the other was writing! Soon, they were writing together, working off of each other’s energy and inspiration.
What they initially wrote, Felice said, was very eclectic. They wrote pop ballads, country ballads, polka, songs for Broadway musicals, etc. Part of the reason they were able to cover such a range was their musical heritage. According to Felice, “If you know anything about Italian families, [you know] they’re like these mountain folk. Everybody sings.” In addition, she grew up in a diverse neighborhood and as a result had a culturally rich musical experience.
Though Felice played no musical instruments, she was able to record her melodies. She said God put her on earth at the same time as the tape recorder so she could capture her melodies on tape as she captured her lyrics on paper.
Boudleaux could write the melodies he composed. Felice said he was the technician of the pair as well as an accomplished musician, playing the violin, guitar, bass, and piano. Both were creative and inventive, and together they were a wonderful mix. Initially, they wrote and sang together (as Bud and Betty Bryant) but then settled down to what they did so wellwriting the songs heard and loved over nearly half a century.
In addition to being able to write just about anything, Felice and Boudleaux were quite prolific, producing over 4000 songs during their lifetime together. Felice attributed this to something of a snowball effect. “It seemed the more ideas we had and the more we did, the more we could do and the more ideas we got...there’s a stream that happens and it just flows into you.”
That stream flowed outward, too, contributing to the careers of many singers. Felice and Boudleaux tailored a number of songs (both collectively and individually) for the Everly Brothers, including “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” “Wake Up, Little Susie,” “Bye Bye Love,” and “Bird Dog.”
The rest of their music, Felice said, was such that most anyone could have taken it. And most anyone did; their music has been recorded by artists as diverse as Little Jimmy Dickens, Bobby Moore, Herb Alpert, The Beach Boys, Tony Bennett, Bill Carlisle, Cher, Arthur Fiedler & The Boston Pops, Red Foley, The Grateful Dead, Burl Ives, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Elvis Presley, Charlie Pride, Jim Reeves, Ricky Van Shelton, Dinah Shore, and Simon and Garfunkle.
Felice and Boudleaux’s songs have received numerous awards over the years. They themselves were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1986 and into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1991.
But, one of their songs stands out as an East Tennessee favorite. “Rocky Top,” state song of Tennessee and official fight song of The University of Tennessee, was first recorded in 1968 by the Osborne Brothers. Ironically, “Rocky Top” was the result of a diversion. Felice and Boudleaux were working on an album for Archie Campbell. The album was to be called “The Golden Years.” Felice got worn-out writing about the golden years and needed a break. She wanted to write something upbeat. So, on a break, and in less than 15 minutes, she and Boudleaux wrote “Rocky Top.” Then went back to “work.” Somehow it seems rather appropriate that they named their Gatlinburg inn the Rocky Top Inn. It was, after all, a place where lots of folks came when they needed a diversion.
It took a while for Felice to begin writing again after Boudleaux died in 1987, but she did. She even spent a couple of days working with another songwriter. But, she said, in two whole days, they wrote only five songs. She and Boudleaux could “knock out” as many as ten good songs a day! “It was fun (writing with Boudleaux),” she reflected, “It stopped being fun.”
Still, it is fitting that Felice continued the writing career that she startedin boredomall those years ago. Perhaps her boredom was no more chance than her meeting Boudleaux.
Sylvia A. Nash is a freelance writer and former English teacher living in West Tennessee. Her workwhich includes poetry, short stories, and articleshas appeared in a previous issue of SouthernReader as well as Long Story Short, GeoParent, Smoky Mountain Memories, Blue Ridge Country, Christian Singles, E2K, Living with Teenagers, and Your Peacemaking Heart. She is currently working on her first novel, a cozy mystery, and shopping for an agent.
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