Buck Owens, a principal architect of country music’s famed Bakersfield Sound, died Saturday (March 25) at his home in Bakersfield, Calif., at age 76. The cause of death was not immediately known. He underwent surgery for throat cancer in 1993 but maintained a busy schedule in recent years at his Crystal Palace restaurant and nightclub in Bakersfield. He was scheduled to perform there this weekend, according to his official Web site.
A man of boundless talents, Owens distinguished himself as a singer, guitarist, songwriter, bandleader, music publisher, talent booker, television personality and broadcaster. Although he regularly topped the country charts during the 1960s and early ’70s, his greatest recognition came from his role as the grinning co-host of the country music television series, Hee Haw.
Alvis Edgar Owens was born Aug. 12, 1929 in Sherman, Texas. His parents were sharecroppers who moved to Mesa, Ariz., in 1937. It was in that city that Owens got his start in radio when he was 17, performing on the Buck & Britt show on radio station KTYL. In 1948, he married singer Bonnie Campbell, who would later carve out her own career as Bonnie Owens and marry Merle Haggard.
In 1951, the young couple migrated to Bakersfield, where Owens formed a band, the Schoolhouse Playboys, in which he played saxophone and trumpet. He had also developed his skills as a guitarist. During most of the ’50s, he played in the house band at the Blackboard nightclub near Bakersfield. At times, he would venture into Los Angeles to play guitar on sessions for such artists as Tommy Collins, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Sonny James and Gene Vincent. He even got a deal himself with Pep Records in 1955. For that label, he cut several singles, including the rockabilly tune “Hot Dog,” which he recorded under the name Corky Jones. (Owens returned to that song in 1988 for his short-lived comeback effort as a recording artist.)
Having become acquainted with Owens via his work for other artists, Capitol Records producer Ken Nelson signed him to that label in 1957. Two years afterward, he had his first chart hit, “Second Fiddle” He followed it with three Top 10 singles, including the self-penned “Under Your Spell Again.” Between 1963, when he first reached the top of the charts with “Act Naturally,” and 1972, when he last topped them on his own, Owens scored 21 No. 1 singles and placed another 13 songs in the Top 10. Many that reached the No. 1 spot tended to stay there: “Love’s Gonna Live Here” (1963) for 16 weeks; “I Don’t Care (Just As Long As You Love Me)” (1964), “Before You Go” (1965) and “Think of Me” (1966) for eight weeks each; and “My Heart Skips a Beat” 1964) and “Waitin’ in Your Welfare Line” (1966) for seven weeks each. In all, Owens racked up 28 BMI awards for his radio-friendly singles.
During the late 1950s, Owens moved to the Tacoma, Wash., area. It was here that he met Don Rich (real name Donald Eugene Ulrich), the singing partner who would give Owens’ songs the distinctive high, nasalized, heart-in-the-throat pitch that became his vocal trademark. (Rich remained with Owens until he was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1974.)
Under the tutelage of his manager, the late Jack McFadden, Owens took a serious turn toward capitalism. In 1964, they formed the OMAC booking agency which eventually handled such clients as Haggard, Joe and Rose Maphis, Wynn Stewart, Freddie Hart and Rose Maddox. In 1967, Owens launched his own music publishing company, Blue Book Publishing. (He sold the company to Tree Music Publishing in the 1980s, and his catalog is now a part of the giant Sony/ATV firm.) Moreover, Owens began to acquire and develop radio stations. (In 1999, Clear Channel bought his KNIX-FM in Phoenix for $84 million and his jointly owned KESZ, also in Phoenix, for $58 million.)
Yet another feature of the Owens empire came through Buck Owens Productions, which produced his syndicated television series, The Buck Owens Ranch Show. Starting in 1966, the show was shot in “batches” in Oklahoma City, much as Hee Haw would later be done in Nashville. In all, 78 half-hour color shows were taped, and the show at its peak aired in around 100 markets. Several of these shows are now available on home video, and excerpts from them were used as country music videos in the late 1980s. Owen’s top-notch band, the Buckaroos, won CMA’s instrumental group of the year awards in 1967 and ’68.
Owens teamed with Roy Clark in 1969 to host Hee Haw, originally a show for CBS-TV. CBS dropped it in 1971, but the show continued and became even more successful as a syndicated effort. Besides introducing acts, telling jokes and appearing in skits, Owens and Clark had a “pickin’ and grinnin'” spot in each show, and both sang and recorded in the popular Hee Haw Gospel Quartet.
His recording career sagging, Owens was essentially reduced to being a face of Hee Haw until Dwight Yoakam came along in the mid-1980s. Like Owens, Yoakam was passionate about West Coast country music, and he was loud in his praise of the old master. In fact, Yoakam made so much noise — including making a personal plea to his idol — that Owens recorded (and made a music video of) “The Streets of Bakersfield” with him. It went No. 1 in 1988, the last time Owens would view the chart from that vantage point.
Also in 1988, Owens re-signed to his old label, Capitol Records. That union resulted in two albums — Hot Dog in 1988 and Act Naturally in 1989 — and five charted singles, none of which reached the Top 20. However, his “Act Naturally” duet with Ringo Starr did make it to No. 27 in 1989. (Starr also sang the lead vocal on the Beatles’ 1965 cover version of Owens’ hit.) It was accompanied by an amusing “Old West” music video in which Owens’ manager, McFadden, played the sheriff and actor Vic Tayback the bartender.
Owens withdrew from his Hee Haw hosting duties in 1986 and was never replaced, although the show continued into 1994. In 1996, he was elected to both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. Earlier that same year, he had opened his opulent Crystal Palace in Bakersfield, where he performed virtually every Friday and Saturday night.
Funeral arrangements are pending.