It is hard to believe that it has been over 16 years since the Statler Brothers announced their retirement; however when they retired they really meant it. Since 2003 Don Reid has written some books, co-authoring one book with older brother Harold Reid but little else has been heard from Harold and virtually nothing from Phil Balsley. The fourth Statler, Jimmy Fortune was ten years younger than Don Reid and fifteen years younger than Harold Reid and Phil Balsley, so he chose to pursue a solo career. Fortune still performs today, sometimes in conjunction with Dailey & Vincent or other bluegrass acts.
We take country music groups for granted as there have been many successful such acts over the years, with the Oak Ridge Boys, Exile, Restless Heart, Shenandoah, Alabama, Sawyer Brown, Old Dominion and other acts following in the Statler Brothers’ footsteps. While there had been vocal groups before the Statler Brothers, those groups had either been cowboy groups such as The Sons of The Pioneers, The Oklahoma Wranglers (a/k/a The Willis Brothers) and Foy Willing and the Riders of the Purple Sage, or else gospel groups such as the Chuck Wagon Gang, The Blackwood Brothers or The Oak Ridge Quartet (from which sprang the Oak Ridge Boys).
Indeed, even the Statler Brothers started out as a gospel group using the name the Kingsmen, changing their name when a west coast group had a hit with a song titled “Louie, Louie”. During this period the group consisted of the Don Reid(lead vocals), Harold Reid (bass vocals), Phil Balsley (harmony vocals) and Lew DeWitt (high tenor vocals). Although the Don usually sang lead vocals, on many songs each member would sing lead on a verse. Because of his unique soaring high tenor, sometimes Lew DeWitt would be the lead on a song.
By that time, the Statler Brothers had already become associated with Johnny Cash and were no longer performing strictly as a gospel group, experimenting with secular music, often novelties. They would remain on the road with Cash from 1963 to 1971 and were signed to Cash’s label Columbia Records from 1964-1969. In 1965 the group scored its biggest ever hit with DeWitt’s “Flowers on the Wall,” which went #2 country / #4 pop was a huge seller internationally and won a Grammy. Subsequent singles for Columbia did not reach that level of success although novelties “Ruthless” and “You Can’t Have Your Kate and Edith, Too” both reached the top ten.
The Statlers signed to Mercury in 1970, find their sound and milieu almost immediately, aided by expert production by Jerry Kennedy, who had helped resurrect the career of Jerry Lee Lewis. Tapping into America’s longing for more peaceable times, the Statler Brothers embarked on a series of albums, dealing with nostalgia in its many forms, while also embracing more modern themes and occasionally some gospel music. Although the group wrote much of its own material, they also used outside material, both new and old, both country and pop in their quest for quality material. From 1970 through 1982 the group charted 36 singles, 17 of which made the top ten (8 into the top five) and another 10 of which reached the top twenty.
In 1983 Lew DeWitt dropped out of the group after battling Crohn’s disease for many years. DeWitt had been missed a number of dates in 1982 and had spotted Jimmy Fortune as a worthy replacement. When DeWitt dropped out, Fortune slid easily into the group. DeWitt had a brief remission from Crohn’s and pursued a solo career but the remission was brief and by 1990 DeWitt had passed away from complications of the disease.
The substitution of Fortune into the lineup added an additional quality songwriter and provided a brief upsurge in the group’s fortunes. While the group had consistently been near the top of the charts only “Do You Know You Are My Sunshine” had reached #1 for the Statlers while DeWitt was in the group. The group would have three more #1 singles, all on songs penned by Fortune (“Elizabeth”, “My Only Love”, and “Too Much On My Heart” but after 1985, radio increasingly turned to younger acts – the last top ten record would be “More Than A Name On The Wall” (about a mother visiting the Vietnam War Memorial to see her son’s name).
Although radio lost interest, The Nashville Network (TNN) did not, and the group hosted a television series for 1991-1998. Although the show’s ratings remained high throughout, new ownership really had no interest in country music and discarded most of TNN’s programming.
The Statler Brothers were the first vocal group to have sustained success in country music (I should note that the Oak Ridge Boys pre-date the Statler Brothers, but they remained a gospel group until 1977). While modern-day country acts seem unaware of the Statler Brothers, their influence on bluegrass has been strong, with Dailey & Vincent being strong proponents of their music and always including several Statler songs in live performance. The Statler Brothers were probably the first country music act to transfer the genre’s tendency toward nostalgia from a rural to a suburban setting. Kurt Vonnegut referred to them as “America’s Poets”. Moreover, the group stayed together unlike many groups which seemed to have a revolving door of group members.
Vinyl records were the format in which recordings for the Lew Dewitt years were issue. The material on Columbia is pleasant, but the group was still finding its way. I have all of the Mercury albums featuring Lew DeWitt and I regard all of them as priceless treasures. Unfortunately, most of the CDs featuring DeWitt are anthologies that also include the Jimmy Fortune years. The Statler Brothers website does have a four-CD set featuring the group’s first eight albums on Mercury – it sells for $49.95. It is a little pricey but if all you have heard is the radio hits, this is a great place to examine the depth and breadth of the group’s talent.
Actually, I could make the same comment about the Jimmy Fortune years – mostly it is anthologies that are available, but because Jimmy’s entire tenure with the group falls into the digital era, used CDs can be found with a little effort. I will say that the albums of the Jimmy Fortune period tend to be less interesting as albums, although the singles remained strong. I would stay away from the Farewell Concert album which sounds very rushed as if the boys couldn’t wait for the show to be over.
The Statlers continued to issue some recordings after their tenure with Mercury (later Polygram) was over. Some of these recordings can be found on their website.