An expanded and updated version of an article previously published by The 9513.
“Give me the beat, boys, and free my soul
I want to get lost in your country song
And drift away”
Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios in Memphis had quite a roster of performers during the mid 1950s: Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Harold Lloyd Jenkins (aka Conway Twitty), Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich, Carl Mann, Warren Smith, Billy Lee Riley and Narvel Felts. Unfortunately only Carl Mann, Jerry Lee Lewis and Narvel Felts remain with us, and only Narvel Felts continues to perform on a regular basis and can still be considered at his vocal peak, his soaring tenor and high falsetto undiminished by the ravages of time. Among male artists who have had commercial success in Country Music, only Slim Whitman had a comparable ability to hit the high notes. Expand the discussion to include pop and rock music and you can add Jackie Wilson, Gene Pitney and Roy Orbison to the list. None, however, had quite the range that “Narvel the Marvel” possesses.
Felts was born November 11, 1938 in Keiser, Arkansas, and raised in Bernie, Missouri, where he became interested in music at an early age. During his teens Narvel worked in the cotton fields, saving his money to buy a guitar. While attending Bernie High School, Narvel entered (and won) a talent contest held at his school, singing Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes”. A deejay from Dexter, Missouri, was in the audience, and was so impressed that the next day he announced over the air that his station, KDEX, wanted to get in touch with Narvel Felts. Soon Felts was appearing at the station for his own Saturday afternoon show. This lead to further opportunities, especially with buddy Roy Orbison and noted record producer Jack Clement assisting Felts in getting placed on Sun Records. The first harvest came in the form of a rockabilly number titled “Kiss-a Me Baby.” Felts was only 16 years old at the time.
Unfortunately, rockabilly had a short shelf life as the dominant form of American popular music and artists that stayed with the format were quickly forgotten. Even the “King,” Elvis Presley, had to expand beyond rockabilly to keep his career moving forward. Nothing happened for Felts on Sun Records and he soon signed with Mercury where five singles were released without notable success. He recorded with minor labels for the next few years, achieving a minor pop chart success in 1960 with a cover of the Drifters’ “Honey Love.” This success led him to sign with MGM where he cut a number of singles.
Felts continued to perform and record throughout the 1960s with little commercial success as far as record sales were concerned, although he made many excellent records. Despite the lack of success, Felts was able to keep his career chugging forward as a popular gate attraction due to his dynamic stage presence. Hi Records had recording sessions with Felts at scattered times during the 1959-1973 period.
On April 30, 1962, Felts married Loretta Stanfield, a union that produced two children: a daughter Stacia and a son, Narvel “Bub” Felts, Jr. (Bub was a talented drummer, and a part of Felts’s touring band until his death in an auto accident in September 1995.)
Like former label-mate Charlie Rich, it took Narvel Felts until the 1970s for his career to hit high gear. Also like Rich, Felts’ talents were so diverse that it was difficult to pigeonhole him into any particular genre. While no one would ever describe Narvel Felts as being part of the “outlaw movement,” he unquestionably benefited from it as Nashville in the 1970s became more accepting of artists not cut from the Roy Acuff/Ernest Tubb/Merle Haggard mold. Recording on the small Cinnamon label, Felts started producing hit records.
In 1973, while signed with the Cinnamon label, his second single, the Mentor Williams composition “Drift Away” (#8BB/#5CB/#4 RW), became his first top ten country hit. This was followed by “All In The Name of Love” (#13BB & CB), “When Your Good Love Was Mine” (#14BB/#10CB), “Raindrops (#33BB/#30CB) and “I Want To Stay” (#26BB/#23CB).
In 1975 Cinnamon went out of business and Felts moved to ABC Records, where his first single, “Reconsider Me,” exploded onto the charts reaching #1 on the Cash Box and Record World country charts (inexplicably, it only reached #2 on Billboard’s chart), and received many honors both in the USA and abroad, including Cashbox Country Record of the Year, Billboard DJ’s Country Record of the Year and ASCAP Country Record of the Year.
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