Felice Bryant: 1925 to 2003
Anyone who’s ever tried to write a country lyric has, knowingly or not, stared down the precipice separating elegant simplicity and trite banality. The former characterizes the genre’s greatest and most enduring songs; the latter, unfortunately, constitutes 99 percent of what the industry produces. Songwriter Felice Bryant — who died of cancer on April 22, 2003, at the age of 77 — knew exactly where that precipice was located. No wonder: Through the string of hits she co-wrote with her husband Boudleaux Bryant, Felice (who was the primary lyricist of the team) practically drew the map.
Rock ‘n’ roll fans should know the Bryants for the pile of signature songs they provided the Everly Brothers, including “Bye Bye Love”, “Wake Up Little Susie”, “Poor Jenny”, “Take A Message To Mary”, “Love Hurts”, and “Sleepless Nights”. The songwriting team and singing duet made a perfect match; the clean-cut, sweet-voiced kids put up just the right front of innocence for Felice’s tales of teen love, while the soaring harmonies and driving melodies broadly hinted at the libidos buried just beneath the surface. In the annals of early rock, only the pairing of Leiber-Stoller with the Coasters was as productive and satisfying.
Bluegrass fans know, and mostly forgive, the Bryants for writing “Rocky Top”, a song that probably would be more beloved if it hadn’t become the “Jole Blon” of bluegrass festivals — not to mention the Tennessee Volunteers marching band anthem, as well as the state song of Tennessee. (Admit it, the first time you heard it, you didn’t think it was bad at all; the ten-thousandth time, well, that’s another story…)
Less celebrated, but equally impressive, are the Bryants’ pre-Everlys achievements as Nashville tunesmiths. The team started pitching in the late 1940s and hadn’t been at it long when one of their songs, “Country Boy”, caught the ear of legendary publisher Fred Rose. He steered the song to Little Jimmy Dickens, who took it to #7 on the country charts. Rose was so impressed with the couple’s talents that he urged them to move to Nashville and set up shop; while this is common in modern-day Music City, the move was quite unusual at the time. Back then, performers moved to Nashville to become stars; songwriters sat at home by the mailbox and waited for rejection letters.
By the time they teamed with the Everlys, the Bryants had written more hits for Dickens (“I’m Little But I’m Loud”, “Out Behind The Barn”), as well as for Carl Smith (“Hey Joe”), Jim Reeves (“Blue Boy”), and many others. Also during this period, in a rare occasion of writing on her own, Felice composed “We Could”, one of country’s most beautiful and often-recorded love songs. The Bryants were also breaking ground as businesspeople, insisting on a right of reversion in their Acuff-Rose publishing deal. When the deal expired in 1966, they regained complete control of their work and established their own publishing company, House of Bryant.
Felice’s background hardly portended Nashville mega-success. She was born Matilda Genvieve Scaduto in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, not exactly a hotbed of country music. Felice (a nickname given her by Boudleaux) grew up listening to traditional Italian music, not Bob Wills and Roy Acuff. She composed songs for the local USO as a teenager, but when she met Boudleaux, she was working as an elevator attendant in her hometown. Chick Power had hardly reached Nashville at the time Felice ascended its ladder of success; yet she overcame an “inauthentic” background and penetrated a glass ceiling miles thick to become one of the most successful songwriters in 1950s country and rock.
Most important, she left an enduring body of work that sounds as fresh and engaging today as it did 50 years ago. Her accomplishment stemmed from the simple realization that the best path between two points is a straight line: While there are a lot of ways to say “You broke my heart” in song, few are as direct or as poignant as “Bye-bye love/Bye-bye sweet caress/Hello emptiness/I feel like I could die/Bye-bye my love, goodbye.”