Bonnie Owens, a singer whose distinctive background vocals played a major role in Merle Haggard’s career, died Monday (April 24) in Bakersfield, Calif., following a lengthy illness at age 76.
While many are likely to remember Owens for her marriages to two Country Music Hall of Fame members — Haggard and Buck Owens — her work with Haggard was a key factor in the sound he developed during in the ’60s. Touring with him as a background vocalist, her harmony vocals are prominently featured on most of his classic recordings.
She died 30 days after the death of her first husband, Buck Owens. They married in 1948 and separated in the early ’50s but formalized their divorce years later. They had two sons together, Buddy and Michael. Buddy used the name Buddy Alan during his career as a Capitol recording artist in the ’70s.
Born Bonnie Maureen Campbell in Blanchard, Okla., her family moved to Mesa, Ariz., when she was a child. She was just 15 when she joined Buck Owens as a member of Mac & the Skillet Lickers, a band that performed on radio station KTYL in Mesa. In 1951, the couple moved to Bakersfield, where she began singing on Herb Henson’s local TV show, Cousin Herb’s Trading Post Gang, in 1953. The show’s band included Fuzzy Owen and Lewis Tally, who would later establish Tally Records, the label that released Haggard’s first singles.
Bonnie Owens’ first recording was a duet with Fuzzy Owen, “A Dear John Letter,” for Mar-Vel Records. Their collaboration did not hit the charts, but Jean Shepard and Ferlin Husky’s version of the song spent six weeks at No. 1 in 1953. Another single for Delphi Records also failed to chart, but her first single for Tally Records — “Why Don’t Daddy Live Here Anymore” — reached No. 25 in 1963.
Although Bonnie Owens and Haggard had first met while working on Henson’s TV show, it was Fuzzy Owen who suggested the two team up to record a duet for the Tally label. Released in 1964, their collaboration on “Just Between the Two of Us” spent six months on the country chart, peaking at No. 28. After Capitol Records acquired their recording contracts, she had minor success as a solo artist. Three of her Capitol singles charted from 1965 until 1969, and her career included six solo albums and two albums of duets with Haggard. She’s listed as Haggard’s co-writer on “Today I Started Loving You Again,” although she later claimed her only contribution to the song involved urging him to delete an extra verse he’d written.
She and Haggard married in 1965 and divorced in 1978. The same year their divorce became final, she served as a bridesmaid when Haggard married another singer, Leona Williams.
Bonnie Owens married Fred McMillen in the early ’80s and moved to Missouri but continued touring with Haggard and his band, the Strangers, until 1991. She resumed touring with him in 1994 and continued her roadwork with him until the late ’90s. She moved back to Bakersfield several years ago after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
A memorial service will held at Thursday (April 27) at Greenlawn Mortuary Southwest in Bakersfield.