Singer Found Gold and Inspiration in California

Times Staff Writer

Buck Owens, the Bakersfield rebel who brought a distinctly California flavor to country music in the 1950s and '60s and built a Central Valley-based multimedia empire belying his "Hee Haw"-bred bumpkin persona, died Saturday. He was 76.

Owens died at his home in Bakersfield, said Jim Shaw, the family's spokesman and longtime member of his Buckaroos band. The cause of death was not immediately known, but the country music giant who charted 21 No. 1 country singles from 1963 to 1988, among them "Act Naturally," "I've Got a Tiger by the Tail" and "Streets of Bakersfield," had been in declining health for years after undergoing surgery for throat cancer in 1993.

Just hours before he died, Owens was on stage Friday night with the Buckaroos singing at his $5-million Bakersfield nightclub and restaurant, Buck Owens' Crystal Palace, something he'd done routinely since opening it almost 10 years ago.

"He had come to the club early and had a chicken-fried steak dinner and bragged that it's his favorite meal," Shaw said. After dinner, Owens told band members he didn't feel up to performing and decided to drive home. On his way to his car, fans on their way in told him that they had come from Bend, Ore., and that they were really looking forward to hearing him sing. Owens turned around and did the show.

"He mentioned that onstage: 'If somebody's come all that way, I'm gonna do the show and give it my best shot. I might groan and squeak, but I'll see what I can do,' " Shaw said. "He died in his sleep -- they figure it was about 4:30 [a.m.] -- probably of heart failure. So he had his favorite meal, played a show and died in his sleep. We thought, that's not too bad."

In the 1950s, when the music coming out of country capital Nashville was laden with swelling violins, swirling piano fills and choirs of background singers, Owens put out stripped-down records that were part Chuck Berry and part Hank Williams. His recordings jumped with stinging electric guitar work by his close friend and musical partner Don Rich, further punched up by an energetic rhythm section.

"I don't think there have ever been two people in this business closer than Don and I," Owens said backstage after a rare L.A. performance at the House of Blues in 1998. "It's like we could read each other's minds."

The relationship was central to Owens' success, and when Rich was killed in 1974 in a motorcycle accident, the loss was devastating. After Rich died, Owens recorded sporadically, but famously came out of his self-imposed retirement and landed his final No. 1 hit in 1988 with "Streets of Bakersfield." That duet paired him with Dwight Yoakam, one of many younger-generation country stars who sang his praises, in part hoping to undo some of the damage inflicted on his musical credibility by his years playing a hayseed on "Hee Haw."

"What a musical innovator," said Chris Hillman, a veteran of California rock, country and folk music as a member of the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Desert Rose Band. "His music had so much norteno and Tex-Mex in it. It had such a California influence that Nashville never had....

"That put the state of California on the map. Not better, just different. It had more edge," Hillman said Saturday. "There was a regional difference, and the different music that was out here -- 90% of which was Hispanic, especially in Central California -- filtered right into their stuff."

Robert Hilburn, former pop music critic at The Times, said Saturday that Owens was quick to embrace what most of Nashville was shying away from: rock 'n' roll.

"Owens and his indispensable musical partner Don Rich embraced the energy and exuberance of the youthful sound," Hilburn said. "Even after all these years, it's hard to listen to one of his rollicking hits without joining in."

Nashville also had few country musicians with the business savvy to own their master recordings, as Owens did, wresting them from Capitol Records in the 1970s after a legal battle. The victory gave him, rather than the record company, control over how his recordings would be released in the future. In the 1990s, when Garth Brooks was famously involved in a contractual battle with Capitol, he sought Owens' counsel. The elder musician told him to retain ownership of his own masters at all costs, advice that Brooks heeded.

Owens plowed his royalties from licensing his songs for movies, television and commercials into investments in a string of radio and TV stations. At one time, he had an estimated net worth of more than $100 million. A 1992 Worth magazine survey of the richest people in the top 100 U.S. metropolitan areas put Owens at No. 1 in Bakersfield.

"He was a great influence to many people, from the Beatles to myself," said Merle Haggard, Bakersfield's other major contribution to country music who played bass in Owens' band before finding fame on his own.

"Over the years we'd been in a lot of battles together," Haggard said Saturday through a spokeswoman, "but we were always on the same side."

Owens' stream of hits through the '60s opened the door for him to star, with fellow singer-guitarist Roy Clark, in their own network TV variety show. "Hee Haw" premiered June 15, 1969, on CBS and ran for three seasons, then continued in first-run syndication until 1993, although Owens left in 1986.

The series' corny humor and stereotyped images of rural life and people ran counter to the creative freshness of Owens' recordings and contributed strongly to Owens' fall from the charts in the '70s.

"When you come into someone's home every week," he said in 1995, "it destroys the mystique."

But he rarely sounded apologetic, saying he earned more money for a few weeks of "Hee Haw" tapings than he and his band made in a year of touring and recording.

"Buck Owens won't be remembered as one of the great artists of country music," Hilburn said Saturday, "because his music lacked the soulful insight and character of some of the field's true giants. But he will be remembered because his music was so superbly crafted that they still make your emotions soar."

This son of a Texas sharecropper was willing to sacrifice some credibility, having once vowed to do anything rather than pick cotton again. But Owens bristled at what he felt was a lack of respect from the music industry and his own community that was more focused on "Hee Haw" than his musical legacy.

Alvis Edgar Owens was born Aug. 12, 1929, barely two months ahead of the stock market crash, in Sherman, Texas, a town of 1,500.

Along with millions of others from the Cotton Belt, his family -- mother Maicie, father Alvis, two sisters, a brother, an aunt, an uncle, a grandmother and a cousin -- headed west when Buck was 8, looking for a better life as agricultural workers.

They moved from one town in Arizona to another, and spent several years in Mesa. When he was 10, he walked out of a movie theater showing "The Grapes of Wrath.'

"I wasn't going to watch that movie," he told The Times in 1995. "I'd lived the damn thing."

Owens had started playing music in Arizona bars as a teenager, attracted by the prospect of collecting a few dollars in tips each night. It was in Mesa that he met singer Bonnie Campbell, whom he married in 1948.

With two young sons in tow, they moved in 1951 to Bakersfield, where many who had fled the Dust Bowl were creating a fertile country music scene, much of it centered at the Blackboard, a celebrated honky-tonk bar. Owens joined Bill Woods & the Orange Blossom Playboys, the house band.

He also played guitar with another Bakersfield singer, Tommy Collins, on Collins' 1953 hit "You Better Not Do That." One of the early recordings Owens made on his own, "Hot Dog," came out in 1956, just as Elvis Presley's name was becoming known nationally. Owens put "Hot Dog" out under the name Corky Jones in an attempt not to alienate country music fans who might not approve of his record's more energetic and upbeat rockabilly sound.

About that time he also decided to try out a new type of guitar that allowed his playing to cut through the din at the Blackboard. It was a radically different sounding and looking instrument created in Fullerton by guitar innovator Leo Fender.

Owens was among many Bakersfield musicians who field-tested Fender's solid-body electric guitars, instruments that quickly became integral to California country music for their affordability, durability and clean, bright, twangy sound.

He also began writing his own songs, one of which, "Second Fiddle," gave him his first chart hit, reaching No. 24 in 1959. Four years later, at the end of a collection of demo recordings being played for him and Rich by lyricist Voni Morrison and composer John Russell, came "Act Naturally."

"He put it on and there's Johnny Russell singing, 'They're gonna put me in the movies,' " Owens said in the liner notes for the 1992 CD box set "The Buck Owens Collection. "And I loved that song. I wanted it right then."

It became his first No. 1 hit, catching the attention of four rock musicians from Liverpool: the Beatles, who later recorded the song. In 1965, another Owens song, "Crying Time," became a huge hit for Ray Charles, making it into the Top 10 on the charts.

In recent years, Owens had rarely performed outside Bakersfield, and only if it struck him as something he'd enjoy.

"When anybody asks to do something now," he told The Times in 1998, "the first thing I look for is where the fun is. If it's there, then we can talk about the deal."

Owens is survived by three sons, Buddy Alan, who had a minor career of his own as a country singer, and Michael, both from his short first marriage to Bonnie, and Johnny, from his second marriage to Phyllis, whom he divorced. His marriage to his third wife, Jennifer, also ended in divorce.

Shaw said plans for a funeral or memorial services were pending.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Monday March 27, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction Buck Owens obituary: The Section A article Sunday on the death of country singer Buck Owens reported that a 1992 survey in Worth magazine identified him as the richest person in Bakersfield. The survey was published in 2002. For The Record Los Angeles Times Tuesday April 11, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction Buck Owens obituary: The obituary of country singer Buck Owens in Section A on March 26 reported that his third wife was named Jennifer. His third wife was Jana Jae and his fourth was Jennifer Smith. All four marriages ended in divorce.
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