One of the most productive songwriting partnerships of our time began at an elevator in Milwaukee's Schroeder Hotel. It was the spring of 1945 and the elevator operator was 19-year-old Matilda Genevieve Scaduto. While working, she struck up a conversation with a visiting musician from Georgia named Boudleaux Bryant. After five days, Boudleaux and Matilda ran off together.
For the next 30 years, as the husband and wife team of Boudleaux and Felice Bryant, they went on to become one of the most successful songwriting teams ever. They produced hits for Tony Bennett, Eddy Arnold, Ruth Brown, Roy Orbison, Carl Smith, Charley Pride, Buddy Holly, Jim Reeves, Leo Sayer, Christy Lane, Joe Stampley and Moe Bandy and - most memorably - the Everly Brothers.
An Everly Brothers/Bryant revival, "Bye Bye Love - The Everly Brothers Musical," debuts this week at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, home of the original Grand Ole Opry. The song "Bye Bye Love" was written by the Bryants. So were such Everly hits as "All I Have To Do Is Dream," "Problems," "Bird Dog," "Poor Jenny," "Like Strangers" and "Wake Up Little Susie."
Other Bryant compositions include "Love Hurts" and the Tennessee theme song, "Rocky Top." Altogether it's estimated that the songs of Boudleaux and Felice Bryant have sold 300 million records. The couple has been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, the National Songwriter's Hall of Fame and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. Phil Everly, who should know as well as anybody, puts their contributions in context:
"They were masters," Everly says. "Boudleaux was a great philosophic teacher. Anybody would be a fool not to watch how they did it. That's the level that you wanted to be at. I learned more from them than from anybody."
Boudleaux died in 1987, but Felice still lives in Gatlinburg, Tenn., where she and her husband owned and operated the Rocky Top Inn. Felice Bryant was born at St. Mary's Hospital and raised on the east side on Humboldt Avenue. She has semi-fond memories of knowing band leader Woody Herman as a child. "I didn't know he was going to be Woody Herman, he was just a rotten little (expletive)," she recalls.
Bryant attended St. Casimir Elementary School and went to Lincoln High School. Her musical talent flourished early. At 6, she sang on Cousin Betty's Saturday morning radio show. She also performed in live musicals at the Riverside Theater, where she landed a job as an usherette during the war years.
Man of Her Dreams. And, of course, she began working at the Schroeder, where she met the man of her dreams. Literally. "Boudleaux was working in the cocktail lounge at the Schroeder and he was on the wagon, so he'd have to walk over to the water fountain by the elevator," she recalls. A native of Moultrie, Ga., Bryant was a classically trined violinist who had spent a season with the Atlanta Philharmonic in 1938. Eventually, he veered toward playing country with Hank Penny and His Radio Cowboys. But he also dabbled in jazz bands, which was the type of gig that brought him to the Schroeder and Matilda's elevator.
Those trips to the water fountain were a psychic moment of great import. Though their paths had never crossed before, she knew him. As improbable as it sounds to most, Bryant explains it this way: "I had dreamed of Boudleaux when I was 8 years old. When this man was walking toward me I recognized him right away. The only thing that was wrong was that he didn't have a beard. Although he grew one for me later. In the dream we were dancing to our song. Only it was our song."
His romance with Felice wasn't exactly a source of jubilation within her family. They were, after all, unmarried. "We left without a minister, but we decided to get married later," she recalls. "The families were very upset. This was my second marriage. I'd been married earlier to a very nice boy from Wauwatosa - no - wait. Where's the fair park? West Allis." Matilda, incidentally, soon became Felice, a pet name from Boudleaux.
In the early years of their marriage the Bryants bounced around quite a bit. There was a stint in Cincinnati where Boudleaux worked at the Gibson Hotel, and there was a stopover in Green Bay, where they co-hosted a morning show on WBAY. "I loved Green Bay, until the first snowfall," she recalls. "We were living in a trailer house and we knew it was never going to take a Wisconsin winter."
Eventually, the Bryants moved back to his native Moultrie, but by now they had started to dabble in songwriting. "Bouldeaux was an accomplished violinist. I could compose and write a song. It was just a natural thing with me. It was a gift. After we moved back to Moultrie ... I went back to writing. He'd come home at night and say, 'What did you do today?' It was a game and he'd help me whenever I needed it.
"After a while we had about 80 songs and I said, geez, some of our stuff is a hell of a lot better than what you hear on the radio. Do you know anybody in the song business, Boudleaux? "We would send stuff out, but often it was rejected without even being opened. Then we got interest from Arthur Godfrey over a song called 'Country Boy.' The problem was that Godfrey wanted half of the songwriting credit and the publishing rights."
At the time, of course, Godfrey was a huge name, a star maker with his own TV show. The Bryants, however, wouldn't give ground, and the song eventually ended up with a Grand Ole Opry newcomer named Little Jimmy Dickens. Dickens' version of "Country Boy" went to No. 7 on the country charts, and the Bryants were off.
Birth of a Legend. Through "Country Boy," the Bryants began an association with the Nashville publishing house of Acuff-Rose. With the powerful backing of Fred Rose, they were soon writing hits for Carl Smith ("Hey Joe") and Eddy Arnold ("I've Been Thinking" and "Richest Man in the World"). The rise of rock 'n' roll and Elvis Presley in the mid '50s left many traditional country artists devastated, but the Bryants became more prosperous than ever.
In 1957, Boudleaux pitched an oft-rejected tune called "Bye Bye Love" to two aspiring young rockers named don and Phil Everly, and two legends were born. In 1958, the Bryants gave the Everly Brothers the hit that was to be the signature song of their careers. "All I Have To Do Is Dream" was a number one hit on the country, pop and R&B charts. Over the years it reappeared on the charts in hit versions by Richard Chamberlain, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Bobbie Gentry and Glen Campbell, and even Andy Gibb and Victoria Principal.
"That song captures something that is so heartrendingly innocent," said Ted Swindley, who wrote the "Bye Bye Love" musical. "If there was ever a song that epitomizes the naivete of that pre-Vietnam time it's 'All I Have To Do Is Dream.'" The Bryants also prospered with other artists. They wrote "Let's Think About Lovin'" for Bob Luman, and Boudleaux co-wrote "My Last Date" with Skeeter Davis. Boudleaux had an instrumental hit called "Mexico." There was "Rocky Top" for Buck Owens, "Raining In My Heart" for buddy Holly and "Love Hurts" for Roy Orbison.
The string of country hits continued in the '70s and '80s with hits by Charlie Pride, Joe Stampley and Moe Bandy. Eventually, they could claim 1,500 recorded songs. Today, Felice continues to write and is currently at work on a one-woman play. Yet, it is the collaborations with the Everlys that will always remain the touchstone of the bryants' art. Swindley calls it "a magical combination."
"The Bryants were able to see the potential in the Everlys and they were inspired enough to do something about it. It was just a remarkable confluence of energies."