Born Winford Lindsey Stewart, 7 June 1934, Morrisville, Missouri
An influential though largely forgotten singer, Wynn Stewart is often considered as the main progenitor of the 'Bakersfield sound' in country music (a reaction against the smooth 'Nashville sound'). Both Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, the two most important representatives of the Bakersfield movement, have admitted that Stewart had a tremendous impact on their style. Ironically, Stewart never lived in Bakersfield (in California). Born to sharecropper farmers in Missouri, he moved to suburban Los Angeles in 1948, later relocating to Las Vegas, then Texas (1968-1973), winding up in Tennessee.
Stewart started playing guitar when he was eight years old and by the time he turned 13 he had landed a radio spot on KWTO in Springfield, Missouri. A year later his family moved to Huntington Park, California, where he formed his first band. Almost from the start the group included Ralph Mooney, who would develop into one of the country's finest steel guitarists and who plays on most of Stewart's recordings between 1956 and 1965.
Wynn signed his first recording contract in 1954, with Intro Records, the country subsidiary of the R&B oriented Aladdin label. Skeets McDonald (then an influential figure on the West Coast country scene) recommended him to Capitol and on January 30, 1956, Stewart had his first session for the label, produced by Ken Nelson. His debut single for Capitol, "The Waltz Of the Angels" peaked at # 14, but would remain the only chart entry of his first Capitol period. (All chart positions mentioned here refer to the country charts ; Stewart never had a pop hit.) From 1958 until 1963 he recorded for Challenge, which was run by Joe Johnson for its owner, Gene Autry. Wynn's first record, the excellent self-penned "Come On", was intended for the rock n roll market. When Ken Nelson had tried to persuade him to cut some rock n roll for Capitol, he had said "Absolutely not, I'm a country artist and that's it." Apparently he either changed his mind or was forced to compromise his musical integrity. Whatever the reason, Stewart's conversion to rock n roll was more convincing than one might have imagined. In January 1958, he played rhythm guitar on "Everybody's Movin'", a rockabilly classic by his friend Glen Glenn on the Era label. (Stewart also helped to write the song but waived the credit because of publishing commitments.) From the same session as "Come On" came "She Just Tears Me Up", another fine piece of rock n roll, but this one remained in the vaults until 1988.
The first three singles for Challenge came out on the Jackpot subsidiary. The third Jackpot single, "Above And Beyond" (written by Harlan Howard), would become a # 3 hit for Buck Owens in 1960 and a # 1 hit for Rodney Crowell in 1989. Stewart's first single on Challenge proper, "Wishful Thinking", brought him his first Top 10 hit (# 5), in early 1960. The flip was a pleasant rocker, "Uncle Tom Got Caught", on which an uncredited Jan Howard sang the high harmony. Jan was Harlan Howard's wife and Stewart recorded many duets with her, including the # 26 hit "Wrong Company" (1960).
In 1961 Wynn moved to Las Vegas, fronting the Nashville Nevada club and performing there six nights a week in exchange for a one-third share. His band - the club's house band - consisted of musicians whose names would become well-known to followers of country music : Roy Nichols, formerly of the Maddox Bros. and Rose, played guitar ; Ralph Mooney was on steel guitar ; George French played piano and the rhythm section was rounded out by bassist and front man Bobby Austin and drummer Helen 'Peaches' Price. Merle Haggard would replace Austin on bass in 1962 and when he later formed his own band, the Strangers, the nucleus came from Stewart's group. Wynn wrote Haggard's first hit, "Sing A Sad Song" (1963), which he recorded himself in 1976 (a # 19 hit).
Personally, I consider the tenure at Challenge as Stewart's most satisfying period. The material is varied and melodic and Ralph Mooney's steel guitar is often featured prominently, giving these recordings their own distinctive sound. After five years with Challenge, Stewart re-signed with Capitol in 1964 and achieved wider recognition with a series of country hits, including his only number one, "It's Such A Pretty World Today" (1967, voted Song of the Year by the Academy of Country Music). Altogether, he had 31 country hits between 1956 and 1985, 19 of which went Top 40. After Capitol (1964- 1971) he recorded for RCA (1972-1973, produced by Bobby Bare), Playboy (1975-1976) and his own WIN (1978-1979) and Pretty World labels. He quit performing in the early 1980s, but launched a comeback in 1985, with an extensive tour and a new album on his Pretty World label. In the middle of the tour, Stewart suddenly died of a heart attack while at his home, on July 17, 1985, aged 51. Too soon for him to have enjoyed the acclaim his steadily rising historic profile has only lately engendered.
Much more info on his official website :
Discography / sessionography :
Acknowledgements : Todd Everett, Daniel Cooper, Rob Finnis
Dik, June 2013
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