Veteran label exec cut hits for country artists

Veteran Nashville label exec and producer Shelby Singleton died Wednesday from brain cancer. He was 77.

Singleton cut hits like Jeannie C. Riley’s 1968 No. 1 country-to-pop crossover “Harper Valley P.T.A.” before settling in as owner of the lucrative Sun Records catalog, purchased from founder Sam Phillips in 1969.

After a stint as a regional salesman for Chicago-based Mercury Records in the late ’50s, Texas-born Singleton’s record biz career lifted off when he was promoted in January 1961 to head of the company’s Nashville subsidiary Smash Records.

After licensing independent hits like Bruce Channel’s “Hey! Baby,” Matt Lucas’ “I’m Movin’ On,” and Paul and Paula’s “Hey Paula” for the label, Singleton struck gold by signing singer-songwriter Roger Miller, then languishing at RCA. Miller recorded a series of sly down-home hits for Smash.

He also nurtured the careers of comedic singer Ray Stevens and guitarist-vocalist Jerry Reed.

In 1967, Singleton ankled Mercury and started his own indie label, Plantation. He scored almost immediately with Riley’s tart number about small-town hypocrisy, written by Tom T. Hall.

He soon parlayed that massive success into a small indie-label empire and the purchase of Sun’s masters. The Memphis label recorded timeless rock ‘n’ roll and country material by his onetime Smash charges Jerry Lee Lewis and Charlie Rich, plus classics by Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Carl Perkins, among others.

Transaction proved a goldmine, as Singleton cashed in on a bonanza of LP and CD repackagings and ancillary marketing and licensing of Sun’s masters and logo. He even managed to propel four old Sun tracks by Lewis onto the country charts in 1969-70.

While Elvis Presley’s Sun masters had been bought by RCA in the 1956 deal that took him to the label, Singleton still capitalized on Presley’s Sun tenure by marketing the masked vocalist Orion – real name Jimmy Ellis – as a kind of alternate-universe Elvis.

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