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Ten Questions With Sonny Curtis

September 29 2009

Nashville Songwriter Hall of Fame Member, Sonny Curtis shares how he got started, the history behind two of his songs, and gives his advice to upcoming songwriters, including his personal experience on what not to do when opening a show for someone else.

Q: What does it mean to you to be a member of the Songwriter's Hall of Fame?
Ever since music cast its spell over me at a very early age, I've wanted to listen to music, play and sing, write music, and be a part of this wonderful industry. When I started writing songs, I never dreamed that I would gain the respect and recognition of so many talented and terrific people. Words can't express how much it means to me, and how proud I am, to be a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall Of Fame.

Q: How did you get started writing songs?
When I was a teenager, I would make up songs while I was driving the tractor out on my dad's farm east of Meadow, Texas. Tractor drivin' time goes by real slow.

The first recording of one my songs was "Rock Around With Ollie Vee" by Buddy Holly. The real catalyst, though, was because of a fluke incident. One night in Lubbock, when I was pretty young, I did an incredibly stupid thing. I was called on to open the show for Hank Snow. I went on immediately before him and sang all of his songs. In my adolescent pea brain, I thought that would impress him. It worked. He was mightily impressed, albeit not in a positive way. A very nice gentleman, a Nashville agent named Eddie Crandall, took me aside and said, "Sonny, those are Hank's songs. If you're gonna make it, you need your own songs. Either find someone to write them for you, or write them yourself." Well, not being able to find a songwriter in Lubbock, Texas, I decided to focus my attention on writing. I wrote four songs. Weldon Myrick (the great Nashville steel guitar player), who lived in Lubbock at the time, went with me to Wichita Falls to Nesman Recording Studio, and he and I made demos of them. I sent them to Autry Inman in Nashville, whom I had befriended, and he showed them around. One of those songs, "Someday", was recorded by Webb Pierce.

"Rock Around With Ollie Vee" was recorded first. "Someday" was my first release.

Q: How did you get your first song recorded?
Before The Crickets, Buddy Holly's group was The Three Tunes. I played lead guitar in the group. Eddie Crandall, the Nashville agent I mentioned earlier, was instrumental in securing a recording contract for Buddy with Decca. We needed new songs, of course, so we worked up "Rock Around With Ollie Vee", and on one of our trips to Nashville, we recorded it at the late Owen Bradley's studio, Bradley's Barn.

Q: How do you tell a good song from a great one?
I assume you're referring to my own work, and that, I can't answer. I think some songwriters (and I fall into this category) need input from others who have a keen ear. Those who pitch songs for music publishers, and listen for good songs on a daily basis, are probably the best example. Also, we need input from consumers of music. If a song is a hit, you figure it's pretty good. If it hits and a lot of other artists cover it, you think perhaps it might be great. As for songs of other writers, they are good, or great, depending on ones own instincts and tastes. For instance, I knew "Hey Jude" by The Beatles was great the first time I heard it. To others, though, it might not have been their "cup of tea," so to speak.

Q: What's one lesson you've learned about songwriting that you can pass on to future songwriters?
Get control of your ego and don't let it be so easily damaged. Believe me, there will be some hard knocks and rough bumps along the way, and sometimes you may feel that for every step forward, you're taking two backward. And sometimes you're gonna lose out. But hang in there!

When I started out, I was reluctant, even a little afraid, to play one of my new songs to someone. If they didn't like it, my ego felt like it had been run over by a steamroller. Then, after a little experience and talking to other songwriters, I developed a thicker skin. Just remember, you might be playing your songs to people who don't know a good song from third base. And it could be that your song isn't right for their project, but perfect for someone else's project.

Q: Are there any songs that you wish you had written?
Well, you don't have enough room for all of them here, but I'll try to be brief. A couple would be "Stardust" (Hoagy Carmichael & Mitchell Parish) and "Hey Jude" (Lennon & McCartney). I'll force myself to stop there.

Q: Where were you when you first heard your first song on the radio?
I was west of Little Rock, Arkansas one night on my way to Nashville. It was "Someday" by Webb Pierce.

Q: What is the story behind your songs "Love is All Around" and "I Fought the Law."
As for "Love Is All Around" a good friend of mine, Doug Gilmore, was working for the Williams & Price agency in L. A., who managed Mary Tyler Moore. One morning in early summer of 1970, he called and told me that they were planning to do a show with Mary. He asked if I'd be interested in writing a theme song. "Sure," I said. At lunch, he came by my house and dropped off a format of about four pages that described the show. I wrote the song in a couple of hours and called him to ask where I should go to sing it. He sent me to CBS Television Studios in Studio City to see James L. Brooks, the executive producer of the show. Mr. Brooks took me to a big, empty room (except for a black telephone on the floor), had a couple of iron back chairs sent in, and informed me that they weren't anywhere close to choosing a theme song. I think Doug had allowed me to get the jump on other songwriters. Anyway, I sang him the song. He said, "sing that again." Then he got on the phone and had some other people come in to listen to it. He had a cassette recorder sent in and I recorded it for him. He said he wanted to take it to Minneapolis that weekend to listen to when they filmed the opening segment of the show. At that point, I thought I might have a pretty good chance.

It aired for the first time, September 19, 1970.

I wrote "I Fought The Law" sitting in my living room one afternoon in Slaton, Texas in, I think, the spring of 1958. I know we were having a bad, west Texas sand storm and I was messin' around with my guitar, trying to write a song. I don't remember how it came to me, but I started writing "I Fought The Law". I remember that I wrote it as a country song and it only took about twenty minutes. It's scary, but I don't think I ever wrote it down. I just had it in my head.

About a year later, right after Buddy Holly died and I had rejoined the Crickets, we went to New York to record the album, In Style With The Crickets for Coral. We were going over songs and I sang "I Fought The Law". We turned it into a Rock and Roll song with a straight eighth feel, J. I. put in those quarter note triplet gunshots at the beginning on his snare, and voila! In those days, there wasn't any over-dubbing or shenanigans like that (at least not on our level). We ran through it a couple of times, they turned on the machine, we counted it off and started. Earl sang it and played rhythm guitar and I played the solo all in a take. Since we didn't have the options of fixing anything or over-dubbing, when we got to the end, we were done.

The Crickets at that time were J. I. Allison on drums, Joe B. Mauldin on bass, Earl Sinks on Rhythm guitar and vocals, and me on lead guitar.

Q: Given everything it has taken to be a successful songwriter, would you do it all over again?
There were some hard times to be sure. There were times I had to sleep in my car and times I had to eat my straw hat. But, all in all, I've had a wonderful, rewarding career. Looking back at all the good times I had, the great songwriters I've met and become friends with, and all the famous (and non-famous) artists who have recorded my songs, I think, yeah, it was worth it. And let's not forget the joy of being engaged in work that you love. So absolutely! I would do it all over again.

Q: What advice do you have for up and coming songwriters?
I think we all agree that there's no substitute for study and hard work. I'm reluctant to give advice in a crowd, but since you asked, I will venture these remarks.

I personally think it is important to get familiar with the study of harmony, theory, arranging, composition, etc. You can find pretty cheap workbooks on those subjects on the Internet.

Listen to and try to appreciate different genres, i.e., country, jazz, classical, the blues and so on. If you have the inclination (although it's not necessary), learn to play an instrument, like piano or guitar. Practice and become proficient at it. Be tenacious and don't be discouraged easily. And do not allow somebody to knock you down, no matter how important they may think they are. When I was nineteen and very vulnerable, an eminent figure in the music business pulled that on me. It knocked me for a loop. Fortunately, I came to my senses and didn't listen to him.

I realize that we live the real world. We may have families to support, and sometimes things happen. Sometimes it becomes necessary to throw in the towel. If you do so, though, make sure it's for your own reasons. Not someone else's, someone who doesn't have a clue about what's in your heart.