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Hall of Fame to honor Country Music's A Team
by Wayne Bledsoe

The names of the men known collectively as The A Team may be unfamiliar, but artists once came to Nashville from all over the world to play with them. The A Team was made up of A-list studio musicians who performed on a dizzying number of hits during the Nashville Sound era. Their contributions began in the 1950s, and a few are still recording today. Elvis Presley recorded with The A Team.

Their ranks include bassist Bob Moore, guitarists Grady Martin, Hank Garland, Ray Edenton and Harold Bradley (brother of producer Owen), drummer Buddy Harman, pianist Hargus "Pig" Robbins, fiddler Tommy Jackson, steel guitarist Pete Drake, saxophonist Boots Randolph, pianist Floyd Cramer and vocal groups the Jordanaires and the Anita Kerr Singers. Some members of the A Team will be among those honored Sunday, March 12, at the North American Country Music Associations International Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Many of the original members of the team will be in attendance. "We had absolutely no idea that we were making history," says Bob Moore of the A-Team's contributions to music history. "We were just doing a job."

It was a job the musicians say they loved. Which is a good thing, because they didn't get much time off.

"We worked a four-session day five or six days a week," recalls Gordon Stoker, longtime member of the Jordanaires (now celebrating its 50th anniversary). Guitarist Harold Bradley, credited in Guitar Player magazine as the most-recorded guitar player in history, likens those classics-producing, back-to-back sessions to being invited to a party at 10 a.m., another at 2 p.m., another at 6 p.m. and yet another at 10 p.m.

"One session would be Elvis Presley, another would be Patsy Cline, Kitty Wells, George Beverly Shea ...," recalls Bradley.

Bradley's late brother Owen (along with Chet Atkins) was one of the architects of what was called the Nashville Sound. However, Harold is quick to replace that singular term with a plural one.

"There were lots of Nashville Sounds," says Bradley, who became best known for playing the tic-tac bass that produced one of those signature sounds.

Another sound that began with the group included the "fuzz tone" guitar sound that resulted from Grady Martin playing through a defective mixing board pre-amp on Marty Robbins' song "Don't Worry."

Yet the most enduring innovation was not a sound, but a musical shorthand dubbed "the numbers system."

Jordanaires member Neal Matthews came up with a system that assigned numbers to chords and allowed musicians to transpose keys and learn new songs quickly. While it was the A Team players who first utilized the system, it quickly spread throughout Nashville and beyond.

The A Team components began assembling in 1947 when Castle Studios became Nashville's first established recording studio.

Chet Atkins became the prolific producer at RCA Records, while Owen Bradley was the head producer at Decca. The producers sought out musicians who were highly skilled and highly adaptable.

Many of the musicians had worked the road with country stars but found that studio work was more lucrative.

Bradley says the musicians saw each other more than their families, and it was sometimes difficult to adjust to their real families on weekends. However, Stoker says, musicians were loath to turn down work, fearing they might not get the next call.

"I loved it, and I still love it," says Bradley. "It's real high. That was our drug of choice. It's tremendously exciting."

It was also a musical treadmill.

"The only thing in your mind was to do that particular song, then go onto the next one," says Stoker. "Then you'd walk out of the studio and not remember one song you did."

Stoker says that by the time Twitty's "Only Make Believe" was released, 18 months after it was recorded, he had forgotten that the band had played on the song.

"I heard it on the radio and said, 'Who is that? It sounds like us!'" says Stoker.


Hank Garland

The musicians say there were occasional squabbles among them, but all had the primary concern of making a hit record.

"There were no egos about it," says Bradley, who filled in on a variety of instruments. "Whoever could play it better was who needed to do it." Each musician has his own favorite memories of working with certain artists.

Bradley has particularly fond memories of Patsy Cline. He believes he played on all but two of the singer's sessions.

"'Crazy' was a special session," says Bradley. "Patsy had just had the automobile accident, so my brother just kept working on the arrangement while she couldn't be there. We had to learn and unlearn and relearn our parts."

Finally, when Cline came in to record, Bradley says she nailed the song in one take.

"And that's the No. 1 jukebox record of all time," says Bradley.

He's also particularly proud of Roy Orbison's "Crying," which begins with Bradley's bass and Buddy Harman's drums. Orbison and Bradley became close friends.

Stoker, Moore and Bradley have fond memories of working with Elvis Presley.

It was Presley who demanded that the Jordanaires be given credit on his recordings. At the time, session players never saw their names on album liner notes, much less singles. Stoker says Presley was the first artist to insist that players be given credit on liner notes.

Moore remembers some hard sessions, such as when the hard-drinking George Jones would began a session and then be unable to finish. And then Perry Como sang so quietly that it was hard for the musicians not to overpower his crooning.

While much of the A Team has retired and a few have died, Stoker, Bradley and Moore are among those who continue to work in music.

Bradley, who is president of the Nashville musicians' union, still performs and produces albums. The Jordanaires continue to be in demand for concerts and session work. And Moore is currently working on an album project.

The musicians say they miss the days when artists and musicians all worked together in the studio. Now most albums are recorded one instrument at a time, with musicians rarely even seeing the singers.

"It was the absolute opportunity of a lifetime," says Moore. "I ended up spending my life with the finest musicians on earth. How fortunate can a poor kid from East Nashville be?"

"It's amazing," says Bradley. "I was a big band player, then I made country records and I've also played with 11 members of the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame."

"I can imagine how tragic it would be for a man to work all his life and not have access to what he did," says Moore. "I can turn on the car radio, and I can always hear me!"

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