Music Row Founder and Fabled Guitarist Harold Bradley Dead at 93

Recorded With Legions of Country and Pop Artists

Harold Bradley, a founder of the Nashville recording industry and a much-recorded guitar player, died Thursday (Jan. 31) in Nashville at the age of 93.

In his more than 70 years as a session musician, Bradley played on a galaxy of hits, among them Alan Jackson’s “Here in the Real World,” Patsy Cline’s “Crazy,” “I Fall to Pieces” and “Sweet Dreams,” Lefty Frizzell’s “Long Black Veil,” Eddy Arnold’s “Make the World Go Away,” John Anderson’s “Swingin’,” Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and Roy Orbison’s “Crying,” Burl Ives’ “Holly Jolly Christmas,” Hank Williams’ “Rambling Man,” Elvis Presley’s “Devil in Disguise,” Roger Miller’s “King of the Road,” Jim Ed Brown’s “Pop a Top,” Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man” and Conway Twitty’s “Hello Darlin’.”

From 1991 through 2008, Bradley served as the president of the Nashville chapter of the American Federation of Musicians.

Born Harold Ray Bradley in Nashville on Jan. 2, 1926, he learned to play guitar on his own but got into the professional side of picking through his brother, producer and label chief Owen Bradley, who was 11 years his senior.

“[Guitarist] Billy Byrd starting dating a girl who lived down the street from me when I was about 12,” Bradley recalls. “He was copying [the style of] Charlie Christian, who was the first electric guitar player of note. … Billy would come to date this girl, and he would bring rhythm guitar, an electric guitar and an amplifier. I’d play rhythm for him, and he’d let me play the electric.”

In 1943, just after he’d finished his junior year at Nashville’s Isaac Litton High School, Bradley joined Ernest Tubb’s band. “Owen called me and said, ‘Listen, Tubb’s guitar player just left. So why don’t you go on the road with him this summer?’ I said, ‘What! And play that old corny country music?’”

But that’s exactly what he did. In the process, he became only the second electric guitarist to play on the Grand Ole Opry, which had banned the instrument until Tubb refused to play without it.

“Ernest and I became the greatest of friends until he died,” Bradley said. “[In the early days] he’d come by in the morning and get me, and we’d go play the early morning radio show. And then we’d go to the Pie Wagon, which was just a half a block down Seventh [Avenue] away from [radio station] WSM. We’d be eating breakfast, and this guy, Eddy Arnold, would come in by himself. I had seen Eddy Arnold on the Opry occasionally [when he was with] Pee Wee King & the Golden West Cowboys.”

After breakfast, Bradley continued, “Eddy and I would get on the streetcar, and we’d go to the end of the line, which was the end of North First Street, where it became Dickerson Road. I’d walk two and a half blocks out to where I lived, and he walked almost all the way out to Trinity Lane to the trailer park where he lived. So we just became the greatest of friends. When I came out of the Navy, he used me on the Opry, which I’m really very grateful for. And I was grateful to him for letting me work on his last three albums. It was a great thrill.”

Following Bradley’s two-year stint in the Navy, he enrolled at Nashville’s George Peabody College. “I couldn’t read music,” he said. “I tried to learn to read, but I had to major on bass because they didn’t have a guitar teacher. When I was 35 years old, Chet [Atkins] introduced me to a classical guitar player who was teaching at Blair [Academy] named Bunyan Webb. So I took three classical guitar lessons from Bunyan. But I never had any real formal training.”

Bradley played on his first recording session in 1946, backing Pee Wee King. The session took place in Chicago. “There were no recording studios in Nashville then,” he said. “People don’t realize it, but you can date the recording industry in Nashville back to 1947 [when Castle Recording Studio opened]. Everybody thinks this industry has been here forever, and it really hasn’t.”

In 1947, Owen Bradley hired his younger brother to play on a jingle for a Nashville jeweler. “I think I got $17 for that, and they must have played it for 17 years. I was so happy. I’d drive home in the car in the afternoon, and I’d hear that jingle. And I’d think, ‘Boy, I’ve really made it.’ It really is a great reward to hear something on the air like that that you’ve done.”

After dabbling in film production together in the early 1950s, the Bradley brothers opened their first recording studio in 1955 in a reconverted dwelling on 16th Avenue South. Later, they attached an Army surplus Quonset hut to the building, and this complex became the heart of what is now called Music Row.

“Basically, Owen and I were doing all this for the music,” Bradley recalled. “We weren’t doing it for the money, idiots that we were. The money happened to come along. When we sold the studio — the Quonset hut — we owed money. … We had three studios over a period of 10 years, and we didn’t take any salary or make any money. We just put whatever we had back in, and we’d support ourselves by playing whatever we were doing — television shows, dance bands, record sessions and anything else that would come along.”

In an interview with for CMT.com just before he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2006, Bradley said that he had earned more than $2 million in session wages since 1959. He had by this time lost count of the number of sessions he’d worked in but knew it was “in the thousands.”

One of the first hits to emerge from the Quonset hut was Sonny James’ “Young Love” in 1956. It went No. 1 on both the country and pop charts.
Owen Bradley became the head of Decca Records (later MCA) in 1958 and henceforth concentrated on producing the stars on that roster — such eminences as Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Webb Pierce, Red Foley and Brenda Lee. Harold Bradley, however, played on sessions for all the labels.

He became a recording artist in his own right during the 1960s when he recorded the Columbia Records albums Misty Guitar, Bossa Nova Goes Nashville and Guitar for Lovers Only. Lushly arranged and featuring the Anita Kerr Singers, these were essentially pop albums with country seasoning.

“I know that Columbia probably signed me to be the answer to Chet Atkins,” Bradley said. “But nothing is an answer to Chet Atkins.”

Much in demand, Bradley commonly did four three-hour sessions a day. Occasionally, he would do five — and nap in the drum booth in the off hours. He went on the road to play only rarely. When he was in college, he took off a couple of weeks to tour Texas with Pee Wee King. He didn’t return to the road again until 1984, when he accompanied his old friend, Slim Whitman, to England. He also toured England with Floyd Cramer and Ireland with Sandy Kelly. But, for the most part, he’s worked his musical wonders in Nashville.

Bradley recorded with Elvis Presley from 1962 to 1967. “He was such a nice guy to work with,” he said. “He was a quick study. He’d go over and play the demo acetate and listen to a bunch of them. When he finally found one he liked, by the time he walked from there back over to the mic, it seemed like he knew the song.”

It was always Bradley’s wish that all the members of what was called the “A team” of studio musicians would be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame en masse.

Until recently, Bradley led a band that entertained guests following the BMI country awards banquet.

Funeral arrangements have yet to be announced.

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.