Harold Reid of The Statler Bros. – The Cool Bass Voice We All Wanted (RIP)

The Statler Bros. (Harold Reid 3rd from left)

In some ways, bass singers are like the superheroes of music. The rarest of all the vocal ranges, they can doing things the rest of us just can’t do. But when nobody’s looking, when we’re behind the wheel or home alone, we try and pretend we can. Because singing bass is super cool. It’s the air guitar of vocal ranges.

In the history of country music, there have been only a few true bass singers. You have a handful of performers that can flirt with it and dip down far enough to snag a few notes in the register if need be, including guys like Johnny Cash, Trace Adkins, Scotty McCreery, maybe Randy Travis and Hank Jr. to name a few. But the true bass singers reside in a very select crowd, reserved for names like Josh Turner, Adam Lee, Richard Sturban of The Oak Ridge Boys, or founding member of The Statler Brothers, Harold Reid, who passed away on Friday, April 24th at the age of 80 due to kidney failure.

Harold Reid had a voice you could build a band around, and that what he did with Joe McDorman, Phil Balsley and Lew DeWitt in the mid 50’s, later adding his brother Don Reid into the mix, first calling themselves The Four Star Quartet, and later The Kingsman until the song “Louie Louie” by another group called The Kingsman became a hit. Then the foursome decided to name themselves after a brand of facial tissue they found in a hotel room—not exactly inspirational, but it stuck. When Johnny Cash recognized the talent the group contained, he scooped them up to tour behind him and open for him in 1964. They would remain in that position with The Man in Black for nearly a decade while conducting a solo career on the side.

A year after saddling up with Cash, The Statler Brothers had their first hit with the quirky “Flowers on the Wall.” When film director Quentin Tarantino needed a quintessential song for a pivotal scene in his 1994 breakout film Pulp Fiction as the character played by Bruce Willis was sitting behind the wheel, “Flowers on the Wall” was the song deemed to make the cut. The film’s music supervisor Karyn Rachtman put the song on a mixtape for Tarantino, and when he heard it, he knew it was a perfect fit. “Oh God, I love it,” was the response from Bruce Willis. His character did what we all do when a Statler Brothers song comes on. He was singing along with the bass parts perfected by Harold Reid.

“Flowers On The Wall” also landed The Statler Brothers two Grammy Awards in 1965. It was an auspicious start to a Hall of Fame career.

It was sort of that “right place, right time” magic that made The Statler Brothers such a big success, and an influential band in country music and beyond. With Harold Reid, they could do things other bands just couldn’t. And as the big brother, Harold Reid was the leader, and in one circumstance, the fall guy.

In the autobiography of the band called Random Memories, Harold Reid recalls a time early on in the band’s touring life when they were opening for Johnny Cash in Canada. Crossing over the border, they were asked if they had anything to declare. Not really understanding the question, the quartet politely answered, “no,” only to be greeted later by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who showed up to arrest the band for carrying contraband merchandise across the border without paying proper duty.

But instead of the whole band having to spend the night in jail, Harold Reid said all of the merchandise was his, so he was the only one who had to spend the night sleeping on a concrete slab—a strange circumstance for a band known for their wholesome songs and roots in Gospel. The next day, his fellow Statler Brothers were sitting in the front row of the court with Marshall Grant of the Tennessee Two there to help bail Harold out.

The Statler Brothers would go on to become the most decorated band in country music history. They won the CMA for Vocal Group of the Year every year from 1972 to 1977, then again in 1979, 1980, and 1984. They also won a 3rd Grammy Award in 1972 for their song “The Class of ’57,” one of thirty Top 10 hits the band had, including four #1 singles, many of which that were written by the band themselves. Their first big hit was in 1965, and almost a quarter century later, in 1989, they had a Top 10 hit with “More Than A Name on a Wall.” In that time, they dominated country music as the vocal group of record, with Jimmy Fortune joining the band in 1982 to take them into a 3rd decade of success.

What was the key to the Statler Brothers success? “We took gospel harmonies and put them over in country music,” Harold Reid explained succinctly. But that wouldn’t have been possible without the bass range Harold brought to the group. Like so many country singing groups, The Statler Brothers were also wildly successful the Gospel realm, and reside in the Gospel Hall of Fame, along with the Country Music Hall of Fame. Many attribute the success of The Oak Ridge Boys and other Gospel acts dabbling in secular country to inspiration from The Statler Brothers.

The other unique wrinkle to the Statler Brothers career is they also worked in the tried and true tradition in country music of bringing comedy into the mix. Once again with Harold Reid in the lead, the group launched an alter ego called Lester “Roadhog” Moran and the Cadillac Cowboys that made fun of bad country music and lame Saturday morning country radio shows. Along with showing their versatility, this gave The Statler Brothers yet another cool factor rarely awarded to Gospel quartets. It also set the table for them to be able to host their own variety show for eight years on TNN starting in 1991. When the widely-popular game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was programming the country music radio station for the game, multiple selections from The Statler Brothers made the cut. Because they were cool.

And even when they began to hit it big, they never permanently relocated to Nashville. They remained located in their hometown of Stauton, Virginia, where at the height of their popularity, they converted an old school into their offices and a small museum. Even after retiring officially in 2002, The Statler Brothers remained the pride of Virginia.

Harold Reid is gone, but his voice remains a fixture of American music, and will for many years to come. Because nobody could do what he could do behind that walrus mustache, and mischievous smile. But we all tried.

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