Gary Morris: an artist with a multi-track musical career
Gary Morris is something a Renaissance Man with a career – or careers – that go from Number One hits as a solo artist to chart-topping duets with Crystal Gayle, starring roles on Broadway, his own ‘outdoors’ show on TV and starting up a music publishing company with the then-unknown Faith Hill on his staff. Now in his sixty-eighth year, Morris shows no sign of slowing down, currently devoting his time to finishing up his latest albums and planning his upcoming tour.
One of Morris’ earliest chart successes was his version of “Wind Beneath My Wings,” that until then had only been a little-known track on an album released by Roger Whittaker.
“I’d never heard Roger Whittaker’s version,” says Morris. “Jeff Silbar and Larry Henley [the writers of the song] both wrote for Warner Brothers, and I wrote for Warner Brothers. I heard it at Warner Brothers Publishing Company. I didn’t know it had ever been recorded, and I thought it’s the perfect song for me to sing.”
He said that his idea of how to make a record is “just get out of the way of the song.” He believes that some songs aren’t necessarily good songs but can make good records. “But some songs, you should just get out of the way and let the message come through and that’s what I tried to do with that particular song – and it worked.”
“Wind Beneath My Wings” reached number four in Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. “It died at four,” as Morris puts it, “because that’s the way the charts work, but it’s still a song that I’m glad to sing every night. It’s a song I can hang my hat on, very proudly.” Perhaps even better than hitting Number One was the fact that it received the ‘Song of the Year’ Award from both the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association.
Music had been part of his family’s life, but oddly, Morris was unaware that music was part of father’s background until he started making records. “I was playing a concert at Bass Hall in Fort Worth. My mom and dad had come and they’d brought some of their friends. We went over to [my parents’] house after the show and one of my dad’s buddies asked me where my musical talent came from. I started to say, from my mom’s side, because my mom’s dad and grandpaw had some songs they’d written in the Southern Baptist Hymnal. Then my dad said, ‘Well, he got it from my side of the family.’ He got up and went back to a closet and came back with a shoebox. There were pictures of my grandpaw that I’d never seen with a Martin guitar and a mandolin. There were postcards from the Carter Family saying, ‘Rufus when we’re back in Texas we hope to play with you again.’ You could have knocked me over with a feather! My dad had never mentioned it and I think part of that was that he thought that what you should really do is get a job. And that’s what my dad did, he got a job and I don’t think he wanted to influence me at all about music. When I found that out, I was probably about thirty-five at the time.”
At one point in his life, Morris was what he calls Jimmy Carter’s ‘opening act’ when he was running for President of the United States. “I performed about 85 different events from the whistle-stop tour on a train to Madison Square Garden. I wasn’t a recording artist then. I was kid from down in Texas that had done half a day with my band doing petitioning work, trying to get him on the ballot.”
From that humble start, Morris became part of Carter’s entourage during the election campaign, playing music at each stop along the way, and after Carter won the White House, Morris played at the Inaugural party at the Omni in Atlanta.
“Then they had CMA Night at the White House and I was invited,” he recalls. “You had Conway [Twitty] and Loretta [Lynn] and Tom T. Hall and Charlie Daniels and a plethora of country music artists. We all performed, then after dinner we all went back for a ‘guitar pull’ and then President Carter brought me up and said, ‘Now I want you to hear my favorite singer.’ And I thought, oh my goodness. We’ve got all these people out in the house, and I sang two or three songs.”
Morris was living in Colorado at the time, but soon afterwards he moved back to Nashville where legendary guitarist Harold Bradley had some advice for him. “He told me that the only guy that’s going to understand how you sing is Norro Wilson. So I kept calling Warner Brothers but [Norro] was always busy, so I just walked down there. I had long black hair and a big beard. I was wearing overalls and work boots. I went in and told the receptionist I wanted to see Norro.”
Not surprisingly the receptionist looked Morris up and down and said Mr. Norro was busy. Undeterred, Morris told her he’d wait. About four hours later Norro came out, looked at Morris and said, “Are you looking for me?” When Morris said that he was, Norro looked at him a little closer and asked, “Did you sing at the White House?” and Morris replied that, yes, he had. Norro had remembered him from his impromptu performance four years previously. He put his arm around Morris and said, “Come on in.”
Morris recalls that Norro told him, “I would have signed you back then, but I was working with a guy named Con Hunley and so we had a male vocalist at that time.” Norro listened to Morris’ cassette tape of songs then got on the phone to Warner Brothers’ head office in Los Angeles, telling them he want to sign him to a deal right now. “I walked out of there with a record deal and I was a Warner Brothers artist.”
Taking a break from his recording career, Morris scored a starring role in the Broadway production of the international hit musical, ‘Les Miserables,’ playing the lead role of Jean Valjean. He says that it was not a difficult transition, going to playing concerts to musical theater because “it’s all music,” as he puts it. “I would never consider myself a great actor, or maybe even a good actor, but if you add music to it, that’s another thing. I’ve always said that words always have musical notes in my head, and so having a lyric and a melody, and such a compelling story – in ‘Les Miz’ – that I believed in … so many dimensions as an actor you could go through, all supported by great music and great lyrics. Maybe you need a little spark to make it work and keep everybody fired up, but basically you just show up and do it because it is so well written.”
Morris may be a little too modest about his accomplishments: the full orchestral album of ‘Les Miz,’ featuring his performance, won RIAA Platinum certification and went on to win a Grammy. He was offered many other roles as a result of his success in the show, but he turned them all down. “It was because either I thought I wouldn’t bring something to those projects or it wasn’t upwardly mobile for me,” he says. “I didn’t start out to be a Broadway star or a theatrical star. I often get asked if I want to do that again, and it would have to take a really magical piece for me to say, yeah, I’ll go do that.”
Now Morris is concurrently working on two projects, and both have to do with him working as a solo artist. “One of my upcoming albums is called ‘One Plus One.’ It’s just me and a guitar plus one other person on each track, whether it’s a singer or an instrumentalist. It’s not really one that’s made for radio,” he notes. “The second project is called ‘Demos.’ I own a publishing company and I have a ton of demos that I wrote and sang, but didn’t make it to my records, or some of the made it to records for other [artists] and going through them I thought, man, I like the demos better than the records.
“I tried to explain that to people, that when you go into a studio with five or six guys that you know and who know how you think and maybe we’d worked on it together over at my office, and we go in and make a recording of the song.” Morris says there’s a difference, in his mind, between making a record and making a recording. “Records need to be made for a format,” he says, if you want to get on the radio in the United States. “In Europe, you could hear one of my songs then a ZZ Top song and a Frank Sinatra song, three in a row, because it’s about music. Here, it’s about marketing racks at WalMart and music stores so if it’s by a country artist it’s got to be a country record. Country records back in the 80s and 90s, you could barely hear drums, background vocals were set way back. It was all about the song and the voice. Now, it’s way different. Now you’ve got groove tracks where all the voices sound alike to me. Maybe part of that’s due to losing my hearing – which I’ve found to be convenient!”
When it comes to the ‘Demos’ album, Morris believes that some people will listen and say that they like what they hear on the demos better that what was released on the record. Why? “Because it sounds more real,” he says.
In September, Morris was named as the newest inductee into the Colorado Country Music Hall of Fame, acknowledging a career that included Number One hit singles such as “Baby Bye Bye,” “I’ll Never Stop Loving You” and “Leave Me Lonely,” and hit duets with Crystal Gayle including “Makin’ Up For Lost Time, as well as his resounding success on the Broadway stage.
But life for Gary Morris is not all about the past. He is still an active performer and recording artist with two album projects about to be released and plans already in place for a new tour beginning in 2017.
Find out more about Gary Morris, his new projects and his upcoming tour at www.garymorris.com
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(c) By Preshias Harris for Country Music News International