Born Thomas Grady Martin, 17 January 1929, Chapel Hill, Tennessee
Grady Martin ranks as one of the most important and prolific guitarists of the pioneering era of the 1950's and '60s. As a member of the legendary Nashville A-Team, his picking was always inventive and versatile. But considering the fact that session musicians have never really been given their dues regarding the making of hit records, many of Grady's greatest achievements have gone uncredited over the years. Or worse, miscredited, as we shall see.
Martin was born on a farm near Chapel Hill in Marshall County, Tennessee, the youngest of four children. He spent many childhood hours listening to music on the family's battery-operated Zenith radio and soon developed a love for country music and the Gran Ole Opry. Encouraged by his piano-playing mother, he learned successively to play the piano, guitar and fiddle. At age fifteen he dropped out of high school to play fiddle in the band of Nashville musician Big Jeff Bess, who had a regular radio spot on WLAC-AM. Grady made his recording debut on February 15, 1946, with Curly Fox and Texas Ruby in Chicago. By the late 1940s he had retired his fiddle and was becoming known as one of Nashville's top guitarists, performing as a session man and also on the Gran Ole Opry. In 1949 Martin was one of the founder members of Little Jimmy Dickens' Country Boys ; he accompanied Dickens both on the road and in the studio, for instance on "Hillbilly Fever", a # 3 country hit. Even bigger hits with Martin on guitar were "Chattanooga Shoe Shine Boy" and "Birmingham Bounce", two number ones from 1950, sung by Red Foley.
In 1951 he signed with Decca Records with his own country-jazz band, Grady Martin and the Slew Foot Five. In addition to backing mainstream acts like Bing Crosby and Burl Ives, they began to record in their own right, with later sessions under the name Grady Martin and his Winging Strings, when he introduced his twin-neck Bigsby guitar. The band, which included Hank Garland, Bob Moore and Tommy Jackson, made regular appearances on ABC-TV's Ozark Jubilee in the mid-1950s. Martin recorded many singles and albums for Decca under his own name, but it was as a session player that he really made his mark. By 1952 he was heavily in demand and regularly did four sessions a day for the cream of the Nashville artists. He played fiddle on one of Hank Williams's last sessions in 1952, but the guitar would always be his main instrument. When rock n roll came along in the mid-1950s, Martin proved particularly adept at the genre. This did not escape the attention of his main employer, Owen Bradley. As Dave Penny writes : "Often, when Paul Cohen sent along a newly-signed rockabilly band for Bradley to record at his Nashville studio, Owen would send the group home apart from the lead singer and substitute Grady on lead electric guitar, Bob Moore on bass and drummer Buddy Harman in their place. He did this with the Johnny Carroll, Johnny Burnette, Don Woody and even Buddy Holly's bands."
For many years, Martin's thunderous guitar work on the July 1956 sessions of the Johnny Burnette Trio was attributed to Paul Burlison, the trio's lead guitarist, who simply accepted the compliments. He even had the nerve to invent a story about the way he arrived at the unique guitar sound. As late as 2002, Colin Escott (the author of the Johnny Burnette biography for Bear Family's 9-CD box-set) still believed Burlison. Strange, because you only have to listen to Grady's version of "When My Dreamboat Comes Home" (by far his most interesting Decca single, also recorded in July 1956) to hear that this is the same guitar player as on "The Train Kept A-Rollin'", "Rock Billy Boogie" and all those Burnette rockabilly classics.
Apart from his numerous Decca dates, Martin also did session work for many other labels, like Columbia, Capitol, RCA, Coral, Hickory, ABC-Paramount and Monument. Among the many artists he accompanied are Brenda Lee, Johnny Horton, Marty Robbins, Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley, Lefty Frizzell, Roy Hall, Wayne Walker, Johnny Cash, Don Gibson and Patsy Cline. His work with Johnny Horton deserves special mention. Not only does Grady play on all of Horton's Columbia recordings, he also arranged all of Johnny's Columbia sessions, except the first one. In the absence of Don Law, Martin produced Horton's biggest hit, "The Battle Of New Orleans" (1959, # 1 pop and country).
The first Grammy ever awarded for a country song was Marty Robbins's western ballad "El Paso", which would have been only half as good without Grady Martin's fluent Tex-Mex picking. It was a high point in both men's illustrious careers. When they worked together on "Don't Worry" a year later (1960), history was again made when Martin's malfunctioning amplifier caused a distorted sound, known from that day forward as fuzztone. Martin also recorded an instrumental called "The Fuzz" (Decca 31211, released January 1961). Notable recordings from the 1960s (as a session man) include "Devil In Disguise" by Elvis Presley (1963), "Oh, Pretty Woman" by Roy Orbison (1964, a # 1 pop hit, but by no means Grady's first) and "Saginaw, Michigan" by Lefty Frizzell (1964).
In the 1970s, Martin worked extensively with Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn and played on Sammi Smith's "Help Me Make It Through the Night" (1971), one of the classic country hits from that period. By 1978, Martin's studio career was over and he returned to the life of a touring musician. First with Jerry Reed and from 1980 until 1994 with Willie Nelson. He appeared in Nelson's film "Honey- suckle Rose" and played on his big hit "On the Road Again" (1980). In 1994, deteriorating health forced him to retire, but he produced Nelson's 1995 honky tonk album "Just One Love".
Grady Martin died at his home in Lewisburg, Tennessee, from a heart attack on December 3, 2001, aged 72.
Obituary : http://www.angelfire.com/tn2/bobloyce/gradyobit1.html
Official website : http://www.nashvillesound.net/gradymartin.htm
CD : Grady Martin, Roughneck Blues 1949-56 (Rev-Ola CR BAND 26). Released in 2007, compiled and annotated by Dave Penny. 32 tracks with emphasis on his rockabilly session work for Decca.
Discography / sessionography (solo work only) :
Paul Burlison / Grady Martin controversy :
Acknowledgements : Dave Penny, Shaun Mather, Wikipedia.
Dik, November 2014
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