Charlie Louvin, half of the famed ’50s country vocal duo the Louvin Brothers and later a successful solo performer in his own right, died of pancreatic cancer on Wednesday, Jan. 26, in Wartrace, Tenn. He was age 83.
One of the last in a long line of country brother acts that included the Monroe Brothers, the Blue Sky Boys (Earl and Bill Bolick) and the Delmore Brothers, the Louvins had a run of close-harmony hits on Capitol Records. They also issued some celebrated concept albums on the label, including the set of dark ballads “Tragic Songs of Life” (1956) and the gospel collection “Satan Is Real” (1959).
The duo was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001.
After they split in the mid-’60s, Charlie Louvin rang up 30 solo chart singles, most of them on Capitol. His career was renewed by a recent series of albums on New York independent Tompkins Square Records.
Born Charles Elzer Loudermilk, he was three years younger than sibling Ira.
With Charlie on guitar and Ira on mandolin, the brothers got their professional start on the air in Chattanooga, billed as the Radio Twins. The pair took a name that was easier to spell than Loudermilk and regrouped in the late ’40s as the Louvin Brothers.
Honing their act behind DJ-performer Smilin’ Eddie Hill in Memphis, the Louvins were signed to a publishing contract by Nashville power Fred Rose. His clout secured them short-lived deals with Apollo and MGM, but Rose finally interested Ken Nelson of Capitol Records in the brothers, who were signed by the Hollywood label in 1952.
While the Louvins’ repertoire leaned heavily on gospel, they rang up a dozen secular country hits on Capitol, beginning with “When I Stop Dreaming” in 1955. The following year, “I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby” reached No. 1. Their later top 10 entries included the standards “Cash on the Barrel Head” and “My Baby’s Gone.”
Tension between soft-spoken Charlie and hard-drinking, hot-tempered Ira reached the breaking point in 1963. Charlie had notched his first solo hits — “I Don’t Love You Anymore” (No. 4, 1964) and “See the Big Man Cry” (No. 5, 1965) — by the time his brother died in 1965 in a head-on car collision.
After leaving Capitol in 1973, Charlie Louvin recorded for a number of smaller country labels and appeared regularly at the Grand Ole Opry.
He witnessed the transformation of the Louvin Brothers’ repertoire into a cornerstone of the country songbook. Acts ranging from Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris to the Whitstein Brothers brought the songs to a new generation of listeners. A 2003 tribute album, “Livin’, Lovin’, Losin’: Songs of the Louvin Brothers,” won a Grammy Award for country album.
In 2007, Louvin reignited his career with his self-titled Tompkins Square debut, which paired him with duet partners like George Jones, Elvis Costello and Jeff Tweedy of Wilco. Ballad and gospel sets for the label followed.