Thirty years ago this month, listeners to country radio heard a striking new voice — and a song to match it. Emphatic, melodic and intimate, the voice sounded something like George Jones , but without the verbal grinds and grimaces. As for the song, well, it made the act of cheating seem almost sacramental.
The singer was Mel Street , and the song, which he wrote himself, was “Borrowed Angel.” It was a brilliant start to a tragically short career. Six years and five months later, on the morning of his 43rd birthday, Street would take his own life.
King Malachi Street (his mother favored Biblical and political names for her sons) was born in the countryside near Grundy, Va., on Oct. 21, 1935. His first significant foray into show business came at 16, when he sang on a live radio show in Welch, W.Va., just across the border from his home.
Over the next several years, Street married, had children and earned his living as an electrician, construction worker and “body man” in car-repair shops. On the side, he continued to sing and write songs. In 1963, he began performing and playing in the house band on Country Jamboree, a television show originating from WHIS-TV in Bluefield, W.Va. By 1968, Street had his own weekly program — Country Showcase — on the same station.
As pleasing to look at as listen to, the ruggedly handsome singer caught the attention of Jim and Jean Prater, owners of an electronics store and a television cable company, and Joe Deaton, a disc jockey. These three had already established a small label — Tandem Records — primarily as a showcase for Deaton. When Deaton’s first effort failed to gain much attention, the principals decided to sign Street. He brought with him “Borrowed Angel.”
Street recorded “Borrowed Angel” at RCA’s Studio A in Nashville in October 1970 with Deaton producing. Backing Street on the record were “A-Team” musicians Buddy Harman, Lloyd Green, Kelso Herston, Tommy Jackson, Buddy Spicher, Bob Moore, Hargus “Pig” Robbins, Billy Sanford and Pete Wade. Because none of Street’s support team knew much about the music business, it took two years and three different packagings of the single before it became a hit. “Borrowed Angel” entered the Billboard charts on May 27, 1972, on the Tandem label. By the time it had worked its way up to the No. 7 spot — its peak position — it had been transferred over to the small Nashville-based label, Royal American.
Recognizing a good thing when he saw it, Street specialized in cheating and angel motifs. His second single, “Lovin’ on Back Streets,” went to No. 5, the highest charting Billboard record of his career. Others of the type were “Lovin’ on Borrowed Time,” “You Make Me Feel More Like a Man,” “Forbidden Angel,” “(This Ain’t Just Another) Lust Affair,” “I Met a Friend of Yours Today” and “Barbara, Don’t Let Me Be the Last to Know.”
With Jim Prater acting as his manager and Jean Prater as his publisher, Street soon moved into stardom. He performed on the 1972 “New Faces Show” at Country Radio Seminar, appeared on the Grand Ole Opry and was a frequent guest on Ralph Emery’s popular late-night interview show on radio station WSM-AM (650). His concert dates multiplied even as his fees for them escalated.
Some of Nashville’s best songwriters were eager to provide material for the dazzling newcomer. Dallas Frazier and A. L. “Doodle” Owens contributed “Walk Softly on the Bridges.” Eddie Rabbitt and Dick Heard wrote “Lovin’ on Borrowed Time” specifically for him. Later, writing under the name “Richmond Deveraux,” Heard paired with Earl Thomas Conley to compose the haunting “Smokey Mountain Memories.” At one point, the rising new group Alabama served as Street’s opening act.
Many who knew Street believe fame rolled in too fast. A devoted family man (and no longer such a young one), he hated being on the road for the increasingly long stretches of time his popularity demanded. He also had to contend with incessant record label changes. When Heard, who also headed Royal American, moved to Metromedia Country, Street followed him. Metromedia then sold out to GRT Records, with Street as part of the deal. His next switch was to Polydor, and when that label closed its Nashville branch, Street signed to Mercury Records, his final recording home. To cope with all these burdens, he drank heavily, remaining on that downward psychological spiral until the end.
Although Street’s music has been repackaged and reissued from time to time, it has never had the promotional push it deserves. Still, he has affected many of the generation of country performers that succeeded him. Marty Raybon, lead singer of the group Shenandoah , recalled first hearing Street when he was 15: “I was out in the front yard raking leaves, and I was listening to the radio in my sister’s car. All of a sudden, this song came on called ‘Looking Out My Window Through the Pain.’ I stopped raking, and I went over there and sat down by the car and listened to it. When the song was over, the disc jockey said, ‘That’s Mel Street with his new song.’ I thought, ‘Man, what a tremendous song. That is what I want to do. I want to make people feel that way.’ I sat there in awe.” Ricky Van Shelton , one of the finest interpreters of traditional country music in recent years, included a cover of “Borrowed Angel” in his 1998 album, Making Plans.
In 1991, Dennis Schuler and Larry Delp, admirers from Street’s native Virginia, began collecting information and photos for a book on the singer’s life. They tracked down and interviewed family members and old acquaintances, combed through material at the Country Music Foundation and spoke to Grand Ole Opry stars and musicians who had worked closely with Street. One of their prime sources was Prater, who now owns a management company in Nashville and who continues to help oversee Street’s estate. Another was Emery. Besides putting out the word that he approved of the project, Emery also gave the authors permission to transcribe and use his on-air conversations with Street. The result is the lovingly compiled and largely anecdotal Mel Street: A Country Legend Gone but Not Forgotten. Schuler and Delp are looking for a publisher.
Winnowing through the biographical data, the writers discovered Street’s handwritten lyrics for a gospel song, “God Reached Out for Me.” They wrote a melody, and Steve Warren recently recorded the song for Sims Records. Prater says there has been a resurgence of interest in Street’s music in Europe.
On his way up, Street had idolized Jones. Eventually the two men became friends. Jones even wrote liner notes for one of Street’s albums, in which he declared, “He is one of three male singers that puts soul into a song.” (Jones diplomatically declined to name the other two.) Jones’ final act of friendship was singing “Amazing Grace” at Street’s funeral.