Country Music

Lonesome Onry and Mean: Between Darius Rucker and Charley Pride, There Was Otis Williams

Darius Rucker's award as the Academy of Country Music's New Artist of the Year recently made him the first black artist to take a significant country award since Charley Pride ruled Nashville in the early '80s.

Rucker's "Don't Think I Don't Think About It" marked the first time a black artist had entered the Billboard Top 20 country charts since Pride last appeared there in 1988. The song later reached No. 1 and made Rucker the first to achieve such commercial heights since Pride's 1983 hit "Night Games."

But Pride and Rucker aside, there's never been much color in the country music side of Nashville. Of course, Ray Charles flipped the country and pop worlds upside down with his crossover concept album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music in 1962, but Brother Ray never set foot in Nashville, recording the album in New York City and Los Angeles.

The miracle was that four singles from the lush, string-laden pop album crossed over into the country charts at a time when racial tension was through the roof in America. Charles certainly paved the way for Pride's entry into the country music business, which happened with 1966 single "Snakes Crawl At Night" (no photo was featured on the jacket). And Charles went on to record with outlaw country star Willie Nelson.

But Lonesome, Onry and Mean remembers one other black act that took a shot in Nashville. During our hitch in radio, we came across an album titled Otis Williams and the Midnight Cowboys, and it was as country as anything Pride ever cut. Of course, it went nowhere, but LOM still has it and still plays it.

Otis Williams had a string of doo-wop hits in Cincinnati under various subsidiary labels of Sid Nathan's legendary King Records in the late '50s and '60s. He also co-produced and arranged the original cut of Hank Ballard's "The Twist" as well as arranging and singing on Little Willie John's huge hit, "Fever."

Eventually Williams gave up on music and became a barber. He moved to Nashville in 1970 to work as a talent agent and A&R man. In 1971, Nashville steel guitar whiz Pete Drake, who owned the Stop label, bet a friend that he could cut a country album with Otis Williams and make it sell.

There were ironies all over the project, like the name "Midnight Cowboys," which was used as a band name because the movie Midnight Cowboy had just come out and been wildly popular. The album began with the ironic "I Wanna Go Country," and also featured a monster version of Jimmie Rodgers' "Muleskinner Blues."

Williams intended to take the album on the road, but only played one live gig in support of the record. While the album didn't have much success, it stands the test of time better than most. That's why LOM is still playing it today. It's a lot more "country" than anything Darius Rucker will ever cut.

LOM saw a copy for sale on eBay recently for $4. There were no bidders.

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William Michael Smith