Harold Bradley, Country Hall of Famer and Key Music Row Figure, Dies at 93

Harold Bradley, a co-founder of Nashville’s famed Music Row, and one of the most recorded studio session guitar players in history, died in his sleep Thursday morning at age 93.

Bradley was a part of Nashville’s recording scene for more than seven decades. A member of Nashville’s famed “A-team” group of studio musicians, Bradley played on many of Nashville’s greatest hits. His staggering list of credits includes Patsy Cline’s “I Fall To Pieces,” “Crazy,” She’s Got You” and “Sweet Dreams,” along with Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man,” Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” Elvis Presley’s “Devil in Disguise,” Roy Orbison’s “Crying” and “Only the Lonely,” Brenda Lee’s “I’m Sorry,” Bobby Helms’ “Jingle Bell Rock,” Roger Miller’s “King of the Road,” Eddy Arnold’s “Make the World Go Away,” Alan Jackson’s “Here in The Real World,” Jeannie C. Riley’s “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” Red Foley’s “Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy,” Johnny Horton’s “Battle of New Orleans,” Jimmy Dean’s “Big Bad John,” John Anderson’s “Swingin’,”  Hank Williams’ “Ramblin’ Man,” Conway Twitty’s “Hello Darlin’,” the Everly Brothers’ “Ebony Eyes” — and so many more that a complete discography would turn this piece from an obituary into a book.

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Although he was expert in lead and acoustic guitar, as well as banjo and other stringed instruments, he was best known for his work on an instrument called a “bass guitar” — not to be confused with the everyday bass as we know it, and something that is not often used today. It was played rhythmically, but the sound was damped so it added an edgy “tic-tac” sound to the sound, and for many years was considered a must for Nashville country and pop sessions.

Bradley was little brother to Owen Bradley, one of Nashville’s great record producers. It was Harold and Owen who were responsible for locating Nashville’s world renowned Music Row on 16th and 17th Avenues South, less than a mile uptown from Nashville’s business center. In an interview with Harold back in 2006, he explained to this writer that Music Row happened because in 1955 Paul Cohen, head of Decca Records’ country music division, told Owen that he was thinking of moving his country recording business to Dallas; it seemed he liked a studio down there a lot better than he liked any of Nashville’s studios. Owen was doing a lot of studio work for Decca, Harold recalled, and he did not relish the thought of having to commute to Dallas in order to work on Cohen’s sessions.

“Owen told Paul that he and I already had two studios,” Harold remembered, adding that he said, “What if we build you a studio that we like, (that) you won’t have to move. What if I put in $15,000, and you put in $15,000, and Harold continues working for nothing, giving his time?”

They found an old house on 16th Avenue South, tore out the first floor, and built a studio in the basement. Soon they added a metal prefabricated Quonset hut to the back of the house, intending for it to be a video studio. But the house studio was too small to meet the demands of their clients, so Owen and Harold converted the Quonset hut into a sound studio — and over the years Music Row grew up around it. The house is long gone, but the Quonset hut still exists, refurbished, as a studio for Belmont University.

In their younger days, while Owen was mastering piano, Harold took to guitar, eventually coming under the guidance of Ernest Tubb’s lead guitar player, Billy Byrd. Byrd was more than just a chicken-picker; he was into the music of Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt, and Harold shared his love of jazz. They spent many hours jamming together, Harold’s advanced education in the world of six-string virtuosity.

By the summer of 1943, it was Harold who was touring with Ernest Tubb. In 1946, after a stint in the Navy and time at Nashville’s Peabody College, he worked his first recording sessions in Chicago’s RCA studios with Pee Wee King. A year later he worked his first Nashville session, a jingle for a jeweler at the newly created Castle Studio downtown in the Tulane Hotel.

Session work for Harold was spotty for a while, so when he and Owen opened Bradley Studios, Recording and Film in 1955, Harold had only his labor to contribute. The studios were successful, but he later said that in the ten years they owned them, they never made any money from the studios themselves. Owen did well producing hits, and both of them made a living off their session fees. For years, Harold often did four or even five three-hour sessions a day, with artists that included Perry Como, Joan Baez, Buddy Holly, Henry Mancini, Connie Francis, George Beverly Shea, Ivory Joe Hunter and Burl Ives.

As the years went by he took an active part in the organization side of Music Row. He was the first president of NARAS’ Nashville chapter, and in 1990 he was elected president of the Nashville Association of Musicians Local 257, a position he held for many years. Harold is a member of the Studio Musicians Hall of Fame, and in 2006, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Beyond that, a credit that’s just as easily certified: Bradley was one of the most universally liked, loved and respected individuals in the Nashville music business.