Harold Bradley, one of the most admired and widely recorded guitarists in modern music, passed away early this morning, Jan. 31, 2019. He was 93.
Bradley enjoyed one of the longest careers in the history of Country Music, playing sessions from the 1940s through the early 2000s and performing on thousands of Country’s all-time greatest classics including Patsy Cline’s “Crazy,” Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” Roger Miller’s “King of the Road,” Elvis Presley’s “Devil in Disguise,” and Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man.”
“Harold Bradley’s legacy can be found in much of our Country Music history,” said Sarah Trahern, CMA Chief Executive Officer. “His musicianship throughout the decades can be heard just about everywhere, and his dedication to preserving Music City will live on for generations to come. We’re grateful for all that he’s done for Country Music and our industry.”
Despite being one of the leading guitar players in Nashville’s recorded history, it was actually the banjo that interested Bradley most. However, his older brother, Country producer and architect of the Nashville Sound Owen Bradley, encouraged him to take up the guitar, and the stage was set for one of the most fruitful careers in Country Music history. Before he was 18 years-old, Owen had helped Harold land a summer job playing in The Texas Troubadours, the band of Ernest Tubb.
Bradley served his country in the Navy from 1944 to 1946. Upon his return to the States, he played in his brother’s dance band. In 1946, he played on his first recording session – though it wasn’t in Nashville. Bradley went to Chicago to record with Pee Wee King’s Golden West Cowboys, though the bulk of his work in the future would take place in Nashville, as the city was continually growing for recording sessions. He found himself in the studio more and more often over the next few years, playing on top artists’ sessions of the day. His acoustic rhythm guitar intro on Red Foley’s 1950 chart-topper “Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy” helped set the tone and tempo of the record, which went to No. 1 on both the Country and pop charts.
Though Bradley was a very strong lead guitarist, he became increasingly known for his rhythm work. On many sessions, he was part of a studio-guitar triumvirate with lead specialists Hank Garland and Grady Martin. Garland excelled in jazzy licks, Martin in funkier leads. In the aftermath of Garland’s disabling 1961 car accident, Bradley often took Garland’s place, and Ray Edenton played rhythm guitar. It might not have been the most obvious sound on the records he was playing on, but one of his more memorable rhythm licks came on Roy Orbison’s “Crying.” Still, occasionally, Bradley would take the lead. He played the opening banjo notes on Johnny Horton’s 1959 hit “The Battle of New Orleans.”
Bradley was also very active in the business side of the industry. He operated a pair of small recording studios in the early 1950s and then opened Bradley Film and Recording on 16th Avenue South with his brother in 1955. It was here – along with RCA’s historic Studio B – that the “Nashville Sound” was born. With a lusher sound, the movement helped to make stars out of Jim Reeves, Patsy Cline, Don Gibson and Bill Anderson. One of the top studios in town, many pop and rock musicians also recorded at Bradley’s studio when in town. The Bradley brothers sold the studio to Columbia in 1962, and Owen opened Bradley’s Barn with son Jerry in nearby Mt. Juliet.
Aside from his vast repertoire as a studio musician, Bradley also contributed to the industry in many ways. He was the first president of Nashville’s chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS). He also produced albums from artists such as Eddy Arnold, Sandy Kelly, and Mandy Barnett. In 1991, at the age of 65, Bradley added another phase onto his legendary career, beginning a long run as president of Nashville’s chapter of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) and eventually rose to the title of International Vice President of the organization. In 2006, he earned the Lifetime Achievement Award from the organization, the same year he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.