Country singer Freddie Hart, a World War II veteran who had a run of No. 1 hits in the early 1970s and won CMA, ACM and Grammy awards for his smash “Easy Loving,” died Saturday in Burbank at age 91.
Hart’s career encompassed several eras of country music, as he began his recording career as a California honky-tonker in the early 1950s but didn’t break through until 1971, when he had adopted the slicker “Nashville sound” of “Easy Loving,” which made him a star in his mid-40s. As the liner notes for one of the Bear Family label’s reissues of Hart material noted, “Freddie had one of the longest and most arduous climbs to the top of any country music star in history, having begun his recording career almost twenty years earlier. Dozens of fine and deserving hillbilly, rockabilly and stone country singles and albums were issued before Freddie would have a major hit.”
Hart was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2004, not just for his own hits but for the songs he had recorded by Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Buck Owens, George Jones, Waylon Jennings, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Porter Wagoner, Eddy Arnold, Carl Smith, Charlie Rich, Billy Walker, the Louvin Brothers and dozens of others. When it comes to his own career, though, he remains associated primarily with “Easy Loving,” which was so much Hart’s signature song that his latter-day promotional materials referred to him as “Mr. Easy Lovin’.”
“Easy Loving” was popular enough that it achieved the rare honor of winning the Country Music Association Award for best song two years in a row, in 1971 and 1972. (The only other songs ever to accomplish that were “Always on My Mind” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”) Those were part of a slew of awards that Hart won or was nominated for during his early ‘70s commercial peak, including a total of six CMA nominations over the course of two years and a win at the Grammys for best country male vocal Grammy in 1972.
The Academy of Country Music Awards were where he really got his due. In 1972, he managed a sweep of all five categories he was nominated for, including the top one, Entertainer of the Year, along with wins for single and song for “Easy Loving,” best album for the LP of the same name, and best male vocalist. In all these categories, he beat out competitors who remain better known today, like Merle Haggard, Conway Twitty, Marty Robbins and Charley Pride.
Hart had five more No. 1 hits after his breakthrough with “Easy Loving” (which also made the top 20 on the pop chart) — all of them in the years 1971-73. His last top 10 hit was in 1977, and his last song in country’s top 40 came in 1981. But he continued to record and tour around the world into his 90s.
This year, Hart recorded a gospel album, “God Bless You,” produced by David Frizzell, brother of Lefty Frizzell, the country legend often credited with discovering Hart in the early 1950s. Hart had reportedly been set to go in and work on overdubs for the project before falling ill a few months ago. The producer says this final album of Hart’s will come out in 2019, although a Christmas single culled from the project, “This Time of Year,” is set for release in November.
“I have known Freddie Hart most of my life thanks to my brother, Lefty,” David Frizzell said in a statement. When Lefty helped Hart get his start, “I was just about 12 or 13 years old at the time. When I got my first record deal with Columbia at 18, my first single was a Freddie Hart song (“Love Baby”),” Frizzell added. “Freddie and I worked with the great Buck Owens in the early 70’s… One of my great honors was having Freddie ask me to produce an album, which will now become his final recording. He heard the mix just the other night on the first single and he called it ‘beautiful,’ and just like Freddie himself, it is. The song (“This Time Of Year”) is a Christmas song to be released in November… I am honored to have been a part of this project, but more honored to have called Freddie a lifelong friend. ‘Say Hello to Heaven’ for me, Freddie,” Frizzell said, referencing another famous country song.
Hart was born Frederick Segrest on December 21, 1926 in Lochopoka, Alabama, and became the self-described “black sheep” of 15 children in a sharecropper’s family. He first ran away from home at 7, was sent off by his parents to a Civilian Conservation Corps camp at 12 and, like many of his generation, lied about his age to get into the military — at 14. After joining the Marine Corps, he served in Iwo Jima, Okinawa and Guam, also singing in a number of servicemen’s clubs.
He moved to Nashville in 1949 and soon after got his first cut as a songwriter, with “Every Little Thing Rolled Into One” by George Morgan. But his real break came when he met Lefty Frizzell in 1950 and was enlisted as his opening act until 1953, at which point he left to join the cast of the L.A. country music TV show “Town Hall Party” for the next three years. “I was more a part of the Bakersfield sound than the Nashville sound, although I dearly love both,” he told Cashbox Canada. “You know, we had the Opry in Nashville but not everyone knows that the Town Hall Party in California was the west coast sister of that show.”
He signed with Capitol Records during his time touring with Frizzell and found little initial success as a recording artist — but had considerably more as a writer in ’54 when Carl Smith heard his single “Loose Talk” and covered it, turning it into a No. 1 hit. More than a decade later, “Skid Row Joe” became a No. 3 hit for Wagoner, even as Hart spent the late ‘50s and 1960s failing to chart any singles of his own in the top 20, with the exception of “Chain Gang,” which made it to No. 17 in 1959.
But his fortunes changed dramatically at the beginning of the ‘70s, as he returned to his first label home, Capitol, after dead-end stints with Columbia and Kapp. It was at this time that he also signed to the publishing and management companies of Buck Owens (who had a hit with Hart’s “Togetherness” as a duet with Susan Raye in 1970). The massive success of “Easy Loving” in 1971 was followed by five more No. 1 singles in quick succession — “My Hang-Up is You,” “Bless Your Heart,” “Got the All Overs for You (All Over Me,” “Super Kind of Woman” and “Trip to Heaven.” His next six singles after that all made country’s top 5.
Hart had started out with a rootsier sound and then, as the smoother Nashville sound came to the fore, rode that to the top, but fell out of favor as styles changed again in the late ‘70s and 1980s. He remained popular on the nostalgia circuit both abroad and at home, while also diversifying his business interests. Among his other pursuits, he opened a chain of martial arts studios, reflecting his passion as a black belt who reportedly taught karate to budding LAPD cadets.
Although Hart is often associated with west coast country, he had moved back to his native Alabama before receiving treatment at the end of his life back in California. Hart is survived by his wife of 61 years, Ginger and sons Freddie Jr., Andy, Joe and Victor. Funeral arrangements are pending.