Born September 8, 1929, in Kentucky; married first wife, Lula Johnson (later known as Jan Howard), 1958 (marriage dissolved). Military/Wartime Service: Joined U.S. Army, 1947. Addresses: Publishing company--Harlan Howard Songs, Inc., 1902 Wedgewood Ave., Nashville, TN 37212.
In Nashville's country music star system, everyone is in service to the song--including the singer, the musician, the producer, the promoter, and the executive. It follows, then, that Nashville is bursting with songwriters, yet most are broke, transient, or not long for the vagaries of Music Row. One thing, though, is consistently true: All of those songwriters persist because of the legacy of Harlan Howard, thought by many to be the greatest of country songwriters.
Sometimes called the dean of country songwriting or even Nashville's answer to Irving Berlin, Howard has accomplished feats that seem impossible. Of the nearly 5,000 songs he has penned, 2,000 have been recorded and more than 40 have reached the Top Ten of Billboard's country chart. Three of Howard's most enduring titles-- "Heartaches by the Numbers," "I Fall to Pieces," and "Busted"--crossed over into the Top Ten of the pop charts.
Because of his extraordinary success, Howard is continually asked if he employs a formula when he is creates songs. He has responded with humility, even a tinge of guilt. "I've got a kind of system," he explained in a Country Music interview, "and it's always been that way. But really it's just doodling on a legal pad. I like to find a good title. Then I study it for a while, think about what stories I could write from that title. Then I'll pick out the one that I think most people would like, the most commercial story. Then I'll either reject the idea as not strong enough, or I'll keep thinking about it, and all of a sudden I'm thinking that we've got to have a little chorus here and a line pops to mind. When I get about halfway through, I pick the guitar up and I mess around with a melody. Finally I judge it against other things I've written."
Howard was born in Kentucky on September 8, 1929, and his family moved to Detroit in the early 1930s in pursuit of car magnate Henry Ford's five-dollar-a-day-factory-work promise. In the predominantly white ghetto where the family lived, young Harlan was able to hear the sounds of hillbilly country as well as the rhythm and blues from the nearby black ghetto. He especially loved the clear, hard sound of Ernest Tubbs, then country's most prominent practitioner.
In 1947 Harlan joined the army and was stationed at Fort Benning in the 11th Airborne Division. While in the service he learned to play the guitar, jotting down derivative lyrics in his spare time. In 1954 he moved to Tucson, Arizona, to find factory work. He ended up becoming more serious about his music, writing "Keeper of the Key," his first mature effort.
In 1955 Howard took a job driving a fork truck at Pacific Pressing in Los Angeles. He would often write songs between loads, at times ending his day with three finished lyrics. Through honky tonk singer Skeets McDonald, Howard met a young and struggling Buck Owens, with whom Howard soon began writing. Howard also became friends with Johnny Bonds and Tex Ritter, co-owners of Vidor Music, Howard's first publisher. In 1956 Howard met and later married Lula Johnson, who would gain fame as Grand Ole Opry star Jan Howard.
Howard and Owens had a couple of songs--"You Took Her off My Hands" and "Above and Beyond"--recorded by Wynn Stewart, who was then a star on the West Coast. Later, in 1958, Charlie Walker cut Howard's "Pick Me up on Your Way Down," which became a Number Two country hit. More importantly, the song was heard by Ray Price, the most influential country singer alive at the time. He called Howard, looking for songs; a nervous Howard quickly sent him a new song, "Heartaches by the Number." In May of 1959 Price released the song, which stayed on the charts for 41 weeks. Singer Guy Mitchell took it to Number One on the pop charts a year later. The song has since been cut more than 200 times.
In June of 1960, Howard quit the his job at the Los Angeles paper mill and moved to Nashville. Upon arriving he hit the ground running, and would eventually rack up a significant string of song credits between the years 1960 and 1975. In 1965 he opened his own publishing company, Wilderness Music, but quickly sold it to the conglomerate Tree Publishing when he found the business end of creating songs tiresome. The majority of Howard's tunes since that time have been administered by the firm Pamper, Combine and Central.
In the early 1960s Howard bonded with a small group of other wild and hugely talented songwriters--Roger Miller, Willie Nelson, and Hank Cochran. Along with legendary country crooner Patsy Cline (who recorded Howard's "I Fall to Pieces"), they were regulars at Tootsies Orchid Lounge, located just across the street from Ryman Auditorium. "We were all young and poor," Howard commented in USA Today in 1992. "Looking back I now know that we were really happening. We didn't know it but we were hot as hell."
In the mid-1960s Howard recorded the first of five albums of his own. He never considered himself a performer, and in fact, he performed only once, in Houston, Texas, on a bill with Johnny Cash. His songwriting, though, earned him numerous awards, including ten from Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI) in just one year.
Howard's oeuvre is not just a compilation of popular country songs. He in effect galvanized the country sensibility, establishing an emphasis on words above melody, using the melancholy nature of male/female relationships as a theme, and letting the songs suggest an entire way of living. Howard's songs have been recorded by everyone from Ray Charles to Bing Crosby to Mel Tillis to Pam Tillis.
Having reached his mid-sixties in the mid-1990s, Harlan has slowed his pace, as he noted in Country Music, to about "12-15 songs a year, which also includes some co- writing. I want to stay pretty active from here on out." He continues every September to hold his famous Birthday Bash and Guitar Pull, a bit of reverie that features proven and unproven songwriters alike.
"I've lost my confidence before," Howard admitted in Country Music, "but I've always fought my way back. I've always just really bore down, and even if I had to write a few terrible songs, I eventually worked my way back to the mark. I don't quite understand it myself. I know when I was a kid, I admired not only the people in country music, but also the old Tin Pan Alley masters, and I always wanted to be like them. I considered that if I ever got in this profession, I was going to do it for the rest of my life."
Howard died on March 3, 2002, at his home in Nashville, Tennessee. He was 74.
by Stewart Francke
Harlan Howard's Career
Songwriter. Learned to play guitar while in the army; moved to Tucson and wrote songs while working hourly jobs, 1954; moved to Los Angeles and worked at a paper mill while writing songs with Tex Ritter and Buck Owens, 1955; wrote "You Took Her off My Hands" and "Above and Beyond" for Wynn Stewart, 1957; wrote "Heartaches by the Numbers" for Ray Price, 1959, re-recorded by Guy Mitchell and became Number One hit on Billboard pop charts, 1960; moved to Nashville, TN, 1960; released first album, 1964; established Wilderness Publishing, 1965, then sold it to Tree Publishing, Nashville, 1967; wrote nearly 30 Top Ten hits, 1965-80; took a three-year sabbatical, 1980-83; inaugurated annual Birthday Bash and Guitar Pull, 1988; contributed to Signatures II, a songwriter's compilation, 1993.
Harlan Howard's Awards
Ten Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI) awards, 1961; Grammy Award, 1963, for "Busted"; inducted into Country Music Hall of Fame, 1991; Robert J. Burton Award for most performed song for "Blame It on Your Heart," BMI, 1994.
- Selected songs "Pick Me up on Your Way Down," Charlie Walker, 1957.
- "Mommy for a Day," Kitty Wells, 1959.
- "Heartaches by the Numbers," Ray Price, 1959; Guy Mitchell, 1960.
- "Above and Beyond," Buck Owens, 1960.
- "I Fall to Pieces," Patsy Cline, 1961.
- "Busted," John Conlee, 1961; Ray Charles, 1963.
- "I Don't Remember Loving You," John Conlee, 1962.
- "Too Many Rivers," Brenda Lee, 1963; Forester Sisters, 1987.
- "You Comb Her Hair," George Jones, 1964.
- "Tiger by the Tail," Buck Owens, 1965.
- "The Chokin' Kind," Waylon Jennings, 1967.
- "Yours Love," 1969.
- "Life Turned Her That Way," Ricky Van Shelton, 1985.
- "Somebody Should Leave," Reba McEntire, 1985.
- (With Kostas) "Blame It on Your Heart," Patty Loveless.
- Biracree, Tim, Country Music Almanac, Prentice Hall, 1993.
- DeCurtis, Anthony, James Henke, and Holly George-Warren, editors, Rolling Stone Album Guide, Straight Arrow, 1992.
- Guralnick, Peter, Lost Highway, Vintage Books, 1982.
- Marsh, Dave, Rolling Stone Record Guide, Rolling Stone Press, 1979.
- Pareles, Jon, and Patricia Romanowski, Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Rolling Stone Press, 1983.
- Rees, Dafydd, and Luke Crampton, Rock Movers and Shakers, Billboard Books, 1991.
- Whitburn, Joel, Top Billboard Country Singles, 1942-88, Billboard Books, 1990.
- Periodicals Billboard, October 29, 1994.
- Country Music, January/February 1994.
- Country Music Parade, May 1993.
- Los Angeles Times, June 14, 1992.
- USA Today, May 8, 1991.