Culture  /  Biography

The Black Songwriter Who Took Nashville by Storm

Before Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” won song of the year at the CMAs, hit maker Ted Jarrett’s music topped the country charts.

Jarrett wrote his first No. 1 Country hit, “Love, Love, Love,” that same year. The song, an exuberant pledge of eternal affection, caught the attention of Webb Pierce, a white singer, guitarist, songwriter, and Opry star known for wearing elaborately decorated “Nudie Suits.” Pierce’s version of “Love, Love, Love,” which gave Jarrett’s song a pedal-steel-drenched reading that sounded like a long-lost Hank Williams piece, spent 32 weeks on the U.S. country chart, eight at number No. 1. In November 1955, Billboard presented the song with a Triple Crown Award for being the most played country record on radio and jukeboxes, and the best-selling country record in stores. The December 10, 1955 issue of the trade magazine the Cash Box featured a smiling Jarrett holding 78 rpm singles of three versions of the song: one by Pierce, one by pop crooner Johnny Ray on Columbia, and his own recording for Nashville imprint Excello.

From there, Jarrett grabbed the music industry with both hands. Music, regardless of genre or marketing category, was his passion. He championed Black artists who crossed over from R&B to pop, managed acts, and founded record labels such as Calvert, Champion, Ref-O-Ree, and T-Jaye. In total, Jarrett wrote approximately 300 songs, several of them portending the rise of southern soul music. The Rolling Stones covered “You Can Make It If You Try,” arguably Jarrett’s best known composition, on their eponymous 1964 debut album. All the while, Jarrett never gave up on his dream of a college degree, receiving a bachelor’s in music from Fisk University in 1974, when he was in his late 40s.

But all of Jarrett’s success didn’t shield him from the racism embedded in the music industry. Take an incident in 1956, when the Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI), an organization that represents songwriters and music composers and publishers, saluted Jarrett and “Love, Love, Love” at Nashville’s Hermitage Hotel. Arriving in black tie at the hotel where his mother once worked, Jarrett was stopped at the door by a white police officer who thought he was trying to crash the party. The mishap was quickly rectified, but Jarrett reflected in his 2005 memoir that initially “all the people inside [the event] stared at me, wondering what a black man was doing at the country awards.”

Jarrett only had one big country hit. But he maintained a relationship with the country music community by helping the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum curate “Night Train to Nashville,” a 2004-2005 exhibit that chronicled Nashville’s significant but often overlooked contributions to R&B. A two-album compilation inspired by the exhibit earned a Grammy in 2005 for Best Historical Recording. (Today, thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, you can view the “Night Train to Nashville” exhibit online.)