RIP Jack Greene-Opry Star, Master Balladeer: 1930-2013

Saturday, 16 March 2013 07:01 AM Written by 

Jack Greene was one of the great honky-tonk singers you probably never heard of.   He had only a few big hit singles, the first ones 47 years ago. A veteran of the Grand Ole Opry, the tall, rangy Greene eventually fell into relative obscurity beyond the Opry, a far cry from his days when dubbed the "Jolly Green Giant" (a play on the Green Giant ads) he was a true Nashville luminary. 

What set him apart from the start was a masterful, emotional approach to ballads, earning him a too-brief period of fame and in 1967, the CMA's first-ever Male Vocalist of the Year award.  Sadly, he never achieved a massive breakthrough beyond the core country audience, though it never seemed to bother him much.  He died Thursday in Nashville at 83, having been diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 2011.

The Maryville, Tennessee native began as a local disc jockey before moving to the much larger WNOX in Knoxville as a singer and guitarist.  One of his earliest musical heroes was obscure Atlanta singer Pete Cassell,  whose vocal style was smooth before the term was applied to country singers. Drafted into the Army during the Korean War, Greene was trained as a combat engineer and received supplemental training in mechanics. In the 50's he moved to the Atlanta area, working in various bands before joining the Dixie Jubilee, a stage show where stars like Bill Anderson, Jerry Reed and even Joe South paid early dues. 

Opry superstar Ernest Tubb was performing at the Jubilee with his band the Texas Troubadours when he first saw Greene. But music didn't bring him to Tubb's attention. Tubb's bus, affectionately dubbed the Green Hornet (owned today by Marty Stuart),  pulled into Atlanta with the engine in rough shape.  Greene immediately sensed the mechanical issue. Tubb's bass player, Atlanta native Jack Drake, asked Greene if he'd consider joining the band.  He agreed and in 1962 the job offer came.  The band needed...a drummer.

Greene, who never played drums, had to learn--fast.  Soon he was singing, drumming and, when necessary, seeing to the bus's engine. The Troubadours usually opened Tubb's shows, with Greene and guitarist Cal Smith singing and playiing, guitarists Leon Rhodes and Buddy Charleton playing dazzling country-jazz instrumentals (another challenge to Greene's drumming).  The band was good enough to make their own records for Decca, Tubb's label. 

On the Troubadours' first album, Greene's cathartic performance of Rex Griffin's standard "The Last Letter," a song Pete Cassell had also recorded, was so impressive that Decca issued it on a single. It didn't score, but it earned Greene enough attention to get him his own Decca contract. In 1966, his fiery take on the Dallas Frazier ballad "There Goes My Everything" stayed at # 1 for seven weeks.

This shows Greene singing "Everything" as a Texas Troubadour, on the syndicated Ernest Tubb Show. Soon afterward Tubb, a father to his "boys," proudly told Greene that with Everything's" success, it was time to go it alone.  Greene, like many fellow Troubadours, remained grateful to Tubb and intensely  proud of his days in the band for the rest of his life.  "Everything" earned him the CMA award in 1967. 

A TV performance of his 1967 # 1 "All The Time," around the time it charted. That same year Greene joined the Grand Ole Opry cast and never left. 

1969's "Statue Of A Fool," a ballad by Jan Crutchfield, was another # 1 for Greene.  It too had longevity. New Traditionalist star Ricky Van Shelton revived it in 1990. David Ruffin had recorded an R&B version in 1975.

The clip below is Greene's hit version, which became the title of a 1969 LP, its cover drawing inexplicably paring back the size of Greene's large ears to the point he's barely recognizable. There's probably a story there, and we'll probably never know it.

Greene's peak years had passed by the 1970s, though he could still deliver a ballad flawlessly, like this 1974 performance of his # 11 single from a year earlier, "I Need Somebody Bad."

For years, he headlined his own stage show with fellow Opry member and Titusville native Jeannie Seely.  His voice retained much of its power until the 2011 Alzheimer's diagnosis. Clearly failing, his final public appearances were poignant and painful as he struggled to through songs once a part of his DNA.

Jack Henry Greene may have only briefly hit the pinnacle, but despite that, he did some damn good work and merits at least a shout-out for that.

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