THE BLACK SONGWRITER WHO TOOK NASHVILLE BY STORM (Robert M. Marovich, 1/30/24, Zocalo Public Square)

Theodore Roosevelt “Ted” Jarrett Jr. was born in Nashville, Tennessee, on October 17, 1925, just more than a month before Nashville station WSM launched the “Grand Ole Opry,” the radio broadcast that turned Nashville into the country music capital. Jarrett’s upbringing was a riches-to-rags story. His father, Theodore Roosevelt Jarrett Sr., earned enough money working for a bootlegging enterprise to enable his family to employ a housekeeper, a cook, and a nurse. But after Ted Sr. was shot and killed, Jarrett’s mother, unable to maintain the family’s standard of living, sent 7-year-old Ted Jr. and his sister, Dorothy, to live with their grandmother and step-grandfather on their Antioch, Tennessee farm. When they were old enough, Ted and Dorothy joined their grandparents in picking cotton and doing other farm work.

Ted always had an imaginative mind, and from knee pants, he spent what little free time he had writing poems. In his pre-teen years, Jarrett was intrigued by newspaper ads that shouted about the “thousands of dollars” to be made by submitting song poems, or lyrics, for publication. Ignoring his step-grandfather’s dismissive retort that “Black boys don’t write songs,” and with surreptitious support from his grandmother, Ted eagerly sent samples of his song-poems to the advertisers. To his dismay, the so-called publishers turned out to be nothing more than “song sharks” who preyed on the hopes of amateur lyricists, only to defraud them in the end.

Disappointed but not daunted, Jarrett made music throughout high school, and enrolled in the music program at Fisk University after graduation. He had to delay his studies when he was drafted during World War II, and again later, when his GI Bill money ran out. To pay the bills, he dove full-time into Nashville’s postwar music scene, fitting in a class or two at Fisk whenever he had extra money.

Jarrett wrote songs and pitched them to Music City publishers. He also worked as a disc jockey on pioneering African American radio station WSOK, as a pianist in the city’s then-booming R&B club circuit, as a talent scout for the R&B and country label Tennessee Records and, briefly, as tour manager for Nashville’s Radio Four gospel quartet. In 1955, his song “It’s Love Baby (24 Hours a Day)” became an R&B hit for local unit Louis Brooks and His Hi-Toppers, and for bigger stars like Ruth Brown, and the vocal group the Midnighters.

Jarrett wrote his first No. 1 Country hit, “Love, Love, Love,” that same year. The song, an exuberant pledge of eternal affection, caught the attention of Webb Pierce, a white singer, guitarist, songwriter, and Opry star known for wearing elaborately decorated “Nudie Suits.” Pierce’s version of “Love, Love, Love,” which gave Jarrett’s song a pedal-steel-drenched reading that sounded like a long-lost Hank Williams piece, spent 32 weeks on the U.S. country chart, eight at number No. 1. In November 1955, Billboard presented the song with a Triple Crown Award for being the most played country record on radio and jukeboxes, and the best-selling country record in stores. The December 10, 1955 issue of the trade magazine the Cash Box featured a smiling Jarrett holding 78 rpm singles of three versions of the song: one by Pierce, one by pop crooner Johnny Ray on Columbia, and his own recording for Nashville imprint Excello.

From there, Jarrett grabbed the music industry with both hands. Music, regardless of genre or marketing category, was his passion. He championed Black artists who crossed over from R&B to pop, managed acts, and founded record labels such as Calvert, Champion, Ref-O-Ree, and T-Jaye. In total, Jarrett wrote approximately 300 songs, several of them portending the rise of southern soul music. The Rolling Stones covered “You Can Make It If You Try,” arguably Jarrett’s best known composition, on their eponymous 1964 debut album. All the while, Jarrett never gave up on his dream of a college degree, receiving a bachelor’s in music from Fisk University in 1974, when he was in his late 40s.