Felice Bryant, Hall of Fame Songwriter, Dies at 77

Country Music Hall of Fame member Felice Bryant , a partner in one of most successful and prolific songwriting teams in music history, died Tuesday morning (April 22) at her home in Gatlinburg, Tenn. Bryant, 77, had been diagnosed with cancer.

She and her late husband, Boudleaux Bryant, are credited with writing more than 800 songs — including “Rocky Top,” “Wake Up Little Susie” and “Bye Bye Love” — that resulted in international sales estimated at more than 500 million copies. The couple’s compositions played a key role in the Everly Brothers’ career, and their songs have been recorded by a wide range of artists including Eddy Arnold , Bob Dylan, Tony Bennett, Simon & Garfunkel, Sarah Vaughan, the Grateful Dead, Dolly Parton , Elvis Presley , the Beach Boys, Roy Orbison, George Harrison, Elvis Costello , Count Basie, Dean Martin, Ruth Brown, Cher, R.E.M. and Ray Charles .

Born Matilda Genevieve Scaduto on Aug. 7, 1925, in Milwaukee, Felice Bryant began her songwriting journey as a child when she began composing lyrics set to traditional Italian melodies. In 1945, she was working as an elevator operator at a Milwaukee hotel where Boudleaux, a classically-trained violinist, was performing. They eloped just two days later and remained married until his death in 1987. She adopted her professional name, Felice, from a pet name her husband called her.

Boudleaux Bryant toured with jazz and country bands before the couple settled in his hometown of Moultrie, Ga., where they began to concentrate on their songwriting. Legendary music publisher Fred Rose pitched one of the Bryant’s songs to Little Jimmy Dickens . In 1949, “Country Boy” became Dickens’ second Top 10 hit.

At Rose’s urging, the Bryants moved to Nashville in 1950. In doing so, they were among the first to relocate in Nashville solely to pursue a songwriting career. The Bryants are also credited as early pioneers of song promotion and self-publishing in Nashville. They formed their own company, Showcase Music, in 1954 before striking a deal with Rose’s company, Acuff-Rose Music Publishing. In an unprecedented move, the Bryants’ contract with Acuff-Rose stipulated that the publishing rights to their songs would eventually revert to their ownership. When their Acuff-Rose contract expired in 1966, they assumed ownership of their song catalog to launch their own music publishing company, House of Bryant Publications.

The Bryants reaped the financial benefits when rock ‘n’ roll was born in the ‘50s. The couple co-wrote most of the Everly Brothers’ early hits, including “Bye Bye Love,” “Wake Up Little Susie,” “Problems” and “Take a Message to Mary.” Additionally, Boudleaux Bryant was the lone songwriter on several of the Everly Brothers’ other hits, including “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” “Devoted to You” and “Love Hurts.” Buddy Holly recorded the Bryants’ “Raining in My Heart” during his final recording session in 1958.

Their other hits include “Baltimore” (Sonny James ), “Got a Hole in My Pocket” (Ricky Van Shelton ), “Out Behind the Barn” (Jimmy Dickens), “Hey Joe” (Carl Smith ), “Blue Boy” (Jim Reeves ), “The Richest Man in the World” (Eddy Arnold ) and Chet Atkins ’ signature instrumental, “Country Gentleman.” Their “Rocky Top” was adopted as Tennessee’s official state song in 1982.

Although Felice Bryant preferred to co-write, one of her solo compositions, “We Could,” was recorded by a variety of artists, including George Jones and Tammy Wynette , Kitty Wells , George Morgan , the Louvin Brothers , Charley Pride , Al Martino, John Prine, Reeves, Dickens and others. She wrote the song as a birthday gift to her husband.

Inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1991, the Bryants are also members of the National Academy of Popular Music Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

The Bryants moved to Gatlinburg in 1978 and operated the Rocky Top Village Inn in the Great Smoky Mountains. In the early ‘50s, the couple recorded four singles for MGM Records, but their only album as performers, A Touch of Bryant, was released in 1979.

Visitation will take place Wednesday (April 23) at Atchley Funeral Home in Sevierville, Tenn., and Thursday (April 24) at Woodlawn Funeral Home in Nashville. A memorial service is set for Friday (April 25) at 2 p.m. at Woodlawn Funeral Home. Survivors include two sons, real estate executive Dane Bryant of Nashville and BMI executive vice president Del Bryant of New York.

Calvin Gilbert has served as CMT.com’s managing editor since 2002. His background includes stints at the Nashville Banner, Radio & Records and Westwood One.