The Statler Brothers - Biography
By Jonny Whiteside
Mixing the deep harmony tradition of southern gospel quartets with sharply crafted songwriting and an unflagging sense of humor and pathos, The Statler Brothers rose from back hills anonymity to the very pinnacle of the country music field. The Statlers were also unusual in that they were a near completely self-contained force – the band members themselves designed their own wardrobe, wrote almost all of their material (to the point that it was considered somewhat akin to a miracle on Music Row if they agreed to cut another writer’s song). Later they even penned the scripts for the seven years that their highly successful, mid-1990s TNN variety program, The Statler Brothers Show, was on the air. Although only two of the band were siblings, they were all as close knit as blood relatives and tellingly remained based in their small town home of Staunton, Virginia throughout a long and illustrious career.
The four founding singers, Harold Wilson Reid (born August 21, 1939 in Augusta County, Virginia), his little brother Donald Sydney Reid (born June 5, 1945 in Staunton, Virginia), Phillip Elwood (born August 8, 1939 in Augusta County, Virginia) and Lewis Calvin DeWitt (born March 8, 1938 in Roanoke, Virginia) were all raised in the Shenandoah Valley area. Harold, Phil and Lew began singing together as teenagers at the Lyndhurst Methodist Church circa 1955. When fifteen-year-old Don joined them in 1960, they launched their own gospel quartet, dubbed themselves The Kingsmen and worked as many local jobs as they could. But their ambitions reached beyond the spiritual music each excelled at and in 1963, they took a chance on allying themselves with one of country music’s fastest rising stars, Johnny Cash. It took a fair amount of persuasive fast-talking but in late 1963, they joined Cash’s Roadshow, a hard-touring package that included Johnny Western, Carl Perkins, Gordon Terry, Rose Maddox (and, starting in 1964, June Carter).
The gamble paid off – they stayed with “the Man in Black” for over eight years. After Cash personally intervened (some say flat out demanded) at Columbia Records, the label signed The Statler Brothers (they had changed the band name, following the rise of the Seattle rockers The Kingsmen of “Louie Louie” infamy). They were in an enviable position; despite Cash’s erratic behavior – their many cancelled shows and the occasional arrest of their boss – the singer was one of the most respected artists in country music and his greatest success still lay ahead of him. In 1965, the Statlers scored big time with “Flowers on the Wall,” a maddeningly catchy tune with an offbeat combination of “aw shucks” folk whimsy and an implicit whiff of amphetamine-fueled, all-nighter hipster lunacy. The disc hit number three on the country charts and floated around the chart’s upper reaches for six months; it also crossed over to number five on the pop chart. While they had difficulty repeating that success, several of their Columbia singles made the country Top 40 over the next few years. In 1967, they released a pair of back-to-back Top Ten singles, “Restless” and zany novelty “You Can’t Have Your Kate and Edith Too.” But that was it for chart action and in 1969, Columbia released them.
Although they never moved to Nashville, touring with Cash and regular appearances on his surprise hit summer replacement ABC network television show provided valuable exposure for the Statlers. When they signed to Mercury Records in 1970, things got hot all over again. Working with brilliant producer Jerry Kennedy (who had masterminded Jerry Lee Lewis’s resuscitation as a major country star in ‘68), the Statlers began making regular visits to the country chart, with eleven Top 30 country hits in the next three years. By the middle of the decade, they consistently managed a series of top ten country hits and finally made it to the top in 1978, when “Do You Know You Are My Sunshine” hit number one. They steamed into the ‘80s with another batch of consistent Top Ten and Top Five records and their albums Entertainers . . . On and Off the Record (1978-Mercury) and The Best of the Statler Brothers Ride Again Vol. II (1980 Mercury) were both quickly certified Gold. They were almost knocked off kilter when founding member Lew DeWitt, who suffered from a painful bowel disorder (Crohn’s Disease), decided life on the road was too much and went into retirement. His replacement and another ace songwriter in his own right, Jimmy Fortune (born Lester James Fortune on March 11, 1955 in Newport News, Virginia) brought welcome fresh blood to the sound and the hits kept coming for the next several years.
Following the rise of the New Traditionalists and the Hats (e.g. Garth Brooks), sales declined at the dawn of the nineties, but their TNN variety show kept them busy and brought in the cable networks highest ratings. The Statlers, who were inducted in the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2008, are also one of the most award winning-est acts of all time. Right out of the gate, "Flowers on the Wall' earned them two Grammys, 1965's "Best New Country & Western Artist" and "Best Contemporary Performance Group," followed by the 1972 Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group. Although Nashville's Country Music Association did not recognize them until 1972, when they were named Vocal Group of the Year, the CMA more than made up for lost time, bestowing the same honor on the Statlers annually until 1978 (and did so again in 1979, 1980 and 1984). The Music City News' annual awards have handed out over fifty trophies to the Statlers over the years, while the Los Angeles-based Academy of Country Music named them Group of the Year twice, in 1972 and 1978. The band also appeared at the White House some five times. With a track record like that, there was really nowhere to go but down and the Statlers finally decided to call it day, playing a farewell show near Staunton on October 22, 2002. They still maintain their business headquarters there (the building was originally the elementary school they attended as children) and brothers Harold and Don Reid penned a memoir The Statler Brothers: Random Memories, published in 2008. Have we heard the last from them? One never knows.