Harold Reid, the bass singer in the long-running country vocal quartet the Statler Brothers, died Friday night at age 80. A post on the group’s website said that Reid “had bravely endured a long battle with kidney failure.”
The group had retired in 2002 after being together in various configurations since 1955. They were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2008. Although their run of country top 10 hits extended from the mid-’60s into the late ’80s, the Statler Brothers remain perhaps best-remembered for their country-pop crossover hit “Flowers on the Wall,” and for a years-long association with Johnny Cash that included a stint on his network television show in the late ’60s.
Country music superstar Reba McEntire was among those mourning Reid’s death. “The one, the only Harold Reid,” she tweeted Sunday. “We will never forget you. So many great memories, and I’ll never forget you giving me my very first Country Music award. Love always, Reba.”
The Statler Brothers triumphed in their day by bringing a gospel quartet singing style into the realm of country. Although their roots were in the church and they continued to sing gospel material, clearly they had branched out by the time they had their first and most memorable hit in 1965 with an upbeat but lovelorn song written by group member Lew DeWitt, “Flowers on the Wall,” which included an unforgettable line about “smoking cigarettes and watching Captain Kangaroo.”
That line was recited by Bruce Willis in the film “Die Hard With a Vengeance,” and the song itself was re-popularized when Quentin Tarantino used it in the soundtrack for “Pulp Fiction.” Art Bell also used it as frequent theme music on his late-night radio show. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. lauded it as “a poem about the end of a man’s usefulness.” In 1965, he single reached No. 2 on the country chart and No. 4 on the pop chart, and was soon covered by Nancy Sinatra. A remake by Eric Heatherly reached the country top 10 35 years later, in 2000.
The group cracked the top 10 a couple more times in the 1960s — as with the uniquely titled “You Can’t Have Your Kate and Edith, Too” (written by Bobby Braddock and Curly Putnam) — but found their next greatest impact in 1970 with a song written by Reid, “Bed of Rose’s.” The punctuation was deliberate, as the song deals with the young narrator’s dalliance with a prostitute named Rose. In an unlikely usage similar to the renewed interest in “Flowers on the Wall” via “Pulp Fiction,” “Bed of Rose’s” reached a new generation decades later by being included in the popular PlayStation game “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.”
The Statler Brothers went on to have several No. 1 country hits, finally reaching the top with “Do You Know You Are My Sunshine” in 1978, followed by “Elizabeth” in 1984 and “My Only Love” and “Too Much on My Heart” in 1985. Their final charting single was in 1990.
“Harold Reid was a driving force in one of country music’s greatest quartets, ” said Kyle Young, CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. “He was also a tremendous entertainer, and one of the world’s funniest people. For decades, he made us laugh and made us cry. As his alter ego, Lester ‘Roadhog’ Moran, would say, his contributions were ‘mighty fine.’ We mourn his loss while we celebrate a life well-lived.”
Contrary to impressions, there was no one named Statler in the group, which was originally named the Kingsmen and, facing confusion with other acts sharing that name, adopted a new one after seeing the Statler brand on a box of tissues. Thee were brothers, however: Don Reid was their lead singer, with older brother Harold taking the bass parts. Baritone Phil Balsley and tenor Lew DeWitt completed the quartet. Jimmy Fortune (pictured above with Reid in 2016) took DeWitt’s place after he fell ill in the early ’80s.
Johnny Cash gave them their big break when he came upon them in their native Staunton, Virginia in 1964 and invited them to open for him on an upcoming tour — without actually hearing them sing, the story goes. They remained with him as a backing quarter and/or opening act for eight years and were featured on ABC’s “The Johnny Cash Show” from 1969-71.
Little known was the fact that Harold designed Cash’s original long black coat, which came to be a trademark. “It just tickled him,” he said. “Up to that time, he just wore shirt and pants that were black. This sort of added to his image and looked good for television.”
The Statler Brothers traveled with Cash to Folsom Prison for his famous performances there. Although they did not appear on the original hit “At Folsom Prison” LP, when Cash’s album was reissued as a deluxe CD set in 2008, the group’s nearly 40-year-old renditions of “Flowers on the Wall,” “How Great Thou Art” and “You Can’t Have Your Kate and Edith, Too” for a prison audience were finally released to the public.
In 2008, when they were announced as Country Hall of Fame members, Reid reacted with humor. “I was alerted that I would get a call from the CMA,” he told CMT. “I really thought that my dues were in arrears. It was hard to believe in the beginning. I started to tell the operator to check this call. It was a pretty special moment.”
He told CMT that the group had been able to retire because they invested wisely. “We’d heard all those stories over the years about two country music stars getting together and flushing money down the toilet to prove that one had more than the other. We decided that probably wasn’t a good idea,” he joked.
After their 2002 retirement, Harold Reid lived quietly on an 85-acre farm in his native Virginia with his wife, Brenda.