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.
While never again reaching these heights, the following three years found Felts consistently charting. A listing of the ABC (later MCA) top 30 charting singles follows:
MCA bought out ABC in 1978 and lost interest in many of the ABC artists, giving them little promotion. After 1979, Felts recorded for minor and independent labels. In all, he charted 42 singles from 1973-1987. The songs recorded represent a mix of original material and covers of pop and country hits from the 1950s and 1960s.
Through the years, Felts has made many television appearances in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and New Zealand, and continues to rank among the top country recording artists of all time. Although radio airplay has been scarce on American country radio stations (aside from satellite radio and over-the-air stations using a “classic country” format), he continues to enjoy hit records and radio airplay throughout Europe and had songs chart in the top ten in several European nations during 2008.
I have seen Felts perform during six of the last seven years and continue to be amazed at his vocal prowess. He is one of the nicest individuals you could ever hope to meet, staying hours after the show to greet and speak with his fans. If you have the opportunity to see him perform, please do so. You will see that “Narvel the Marvel” is aptly named.
Narvel Felts is one of the few artists of his generation to be well-served by reissues on compact disc. This stems mainly from the English and German obsession with rockabilly music. The German label Bear Family has issued several nice single-disc collections of Narvel’s music and various other English and European labels have kept Narvel’s music in print.
The essential disc to own is Drift Away: The Best of Narvel Felts (1973-1979), a Bear Family disc containing all of Narvel’s top country hits of the 1970s as recorded for Cinnamon and ABC. This is the only CD available to contain the original versions of Felts’ 1970s hits.
In 1997 Gusto issued The Very Best of Narvel Felts, a CD of hit songs – but please note that these are re-recordings of the Cinnamon and ABC hits. They are worth having, but lack the sparkle of the original hit versions. Gusto also issued a CD titled Me and Bobbie McGee which contains ten tracks of cover versions. I would guess these were recorded in the 1980s – a good but not essential collection.
There are many CDs available of Narvel’s material from before 1970. All of these are good; most of them will feature cover versions of various pop, rockabilly and R&B hits. I have yet to encounter a badly mastered disc of this material so apparently the persons reissuing this material are treating it with TLC. Among these are the following:
Year Title Label Comments
1990 Memphis Days Bear Family material from 1962-1964
1992 This Time Hi 60s recordings
1997 Did You Tell Me Bear Family Sun, Mercury & MGM
2000 Through The Years (1956-1959) Legend
2001 The Hi Records Era (1959-1973) Hi
2006 The Early Years (1957-1973) NFE
There is some overlap with the above-referenced CDs, but each contains some unique material. Narvel has a loyal international fan club which has released some CDs in the past.
Three CDs of more recent material are Tribute To Bub (1998), Super Songs Narvelized (2002), and I Remember You (2011), all on the Cone Records label. The Bub CD is comprised of songs (mostly) recorded by Narvel, featuring Bub on drums or as a vocalist. The other two discs are more recent recordings from Narvel.
Collectors Choice Records has some of Narvel’s CDs available as does the Ernest Tubb Record Shop. Narvel’s official website has many of Narvel’s CDs available:
Both Cinnamon and ABC/MCA issued vinyl albums on Narvel Felts that can be found with some effort. They are all worth the effort to track down. Most of Narvel’s other vinyl-era recordings appear on 45 rpm singles and were not collected onto albums until the CD era, although there may be some vinyl albums out there of which I am not aware. Happy Hunting!