Harold Bradley, who passed away on Thursday (Jan. 31) at the age of 93, may have been the most recorded musician in history.
The younger brother of producer Owen Bradley, Harold Bradley's in-studio career began in the 1940s and lasted through his working relationships with Alan Jackson, Mandy Barnett and others. Although his musical output wasn't limited to one genre, much less to one segment of country music history, plenty of his best-known work came as part of the “A Team," the group of studio musicians who were behind the rise of the pop-friendly Nashville Sound.
Any list of songs featuring Bradley will be lacking, considering he likely played on well over 1,000 tracks. Still, these 10 selections sum up his versatile talents at a time when he contributed to some of the most important songs during the city-fication of country and the countrification of pop.
Few songs of the rock ‘n’ roll era suited the traditional Christmas songbook quite like Lee’s best-known single. Producer Owen Bradley brought on board a who’s-who of session musicians, including his brother and Hank Garland as guitarists. The only rock-themed Christmas song to gain similar fame remains Bobby Helms’ 1957 hit “Jingle Bell Rock.” Harold Bradley played on that one as well.
“Blue Velvet”Bobby Vinton (1963)
Like most session players, Bradley bounced between genres. The rhythm guitar specialist appeared on a handful of seminal pop recordings, including this Baby Boomer-friendly revision of a Tony Bennett hit. His moonlighting as a lush pop instrumentalist might’ve made him a hotter commodity for artists chasing the Nashville Sound.
In the Country Music Hall of Fame’s exhaustive Encyclopedia of Country Music, Rich Kienzle cites this lesser-known song, not “Devil in Disguise” or another more obvious Bradley/Presley collaboration. That’s probably because it’s a gorgeous example of a country and bossa nova picker getting a chance to play lead guitar for the biggest celebrity in the world.
“Make the World Go Away”Eddy Arnold (1966)
Bradley was the perfect pop chameleon for artists looking to slightly re-tool a standard in their own image. Vinton and other rockers knew this, and so did the Tennessee Plowboy when it came time to add a further touch of class to this Hank Cochran-penned classic.
“Only the Lonely (Know the Way I Feel)”Roy Orbison (1960)
With all due respect to Arnold, Jim Reeves, Ray Price and other seminal vocalists, Roy Orbison may have had the ideal voice to accentuate the greatest generation of Nashville session players’ studio magic. Bradley played on this country-inspired pop classic that’s so close to perfect that it makes the producers of ABBA’s near-flawless records green with envy.
“Battle of New Orleans”Johnny Horton (1959)
As most obituaries and bios point out, Bradley wanted to play banjo and only picked up the guitar at his brother Owen’s behest. Bradley didn’t fully abandon his first musical love, however, and he scored the occasional session as a banjo picker or bassist. In fact, he plays the opening banjo licks on one of the best history-based narrative songs from back when Horton and Marty Robbins placed such stories on the Billboard charts.
A benchmark in country music’s legacy of high, lonesome weepers backs one of the greatest and most emotive vocal performances ever. Both Bradley brothers were on hand to mold a song that, despite varied opinions on Wynette’s lyrical intentions, blended hard country grit with Music Row shine.
The gold standard for country music biopics got its name from one of Lynn’s boldest autobiographical statements. The song’s polished re-imagining of Appalachian lore came from a normally cosmopolitan group of players, including Bradley.
“Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy”Red Foley (1950)
This former pop standard seems like a less obvious pick decades later than other selections. However, as Nashville’s first million-seller and an early example of a crossover pop hit, it helped launch more than the careers of the Bradley brothers. Furthermore, it reminds us that Harold Bradley and other legendary session musicians helped build Music City from the ground up.
This all-time great country hit fast-tracked multiple legends while further legitimizing Nashville’s sleek, pop-friendly sound of the 1960s. It boosted the career of not just Cline but also the producer/session musician tandem of Owen and Harold Bradley as well as some starving young songwriter named Willie Nelson.