Ted Jarrett pioneered the rich if under-recognized tradition of Nashville R&B -- an African-American performer, composer, and label owner working in the margins of Music City USA's celebrated country recording industry, he carved out a career spanning half a century, creating now-classic crossover efforts including "You Can Make It If You Try," "Love, Love, Love," and "It's Love Baby (24 Hours a Day)." Born in Nashville on October 17, 1925, Jarrett was just two-years-old when his father was shot dead by his mistress' boyfriend -- he was later raised by his grandparents in rural Rutherford County, where his step-grandfather discouraged his budding interest in music: "He told me that black boys didn't write songs," Jarrett later recalled. After returning to Nashville in 1940, Jarrett worked a succession of odd jobs to help support his mother, but he also saved up enough money to purchase a second-hand piano, even taking a few lessons before he was drafted into the U.S. Navy in 1944. He returned to civilian life two years later, studying music at Fisk University. In 1951, Jarrett landed a job as a disk jockey with WSOK, one of the first U.S. stations expressly targeting black audiences, and in time he also started moonlighting as a talent scout for the local Tennessee Records imprint. As a songwriter, Jarrett scored his first hit in 1955, penning "It's Love Baby (24 Hours a Day)" for Louis Brooks & His Hi-Toppers -- not only did the Excello label release hit number two on the Billboard R&B chart, but subsequent covers by Hank Ballard and Ruth Brown both entered the Top Ten later that same year.
Jarrett's songwriting prowess eventually brought him to the attention of Nashville's country music braintrust, and in late 1955, singer Webb Pierce recorded his "Love, Love, Love." The record topped the Billboard country chart for 13 consecutive weeks, and earned its composer a songwriting award from the performing rights organization BMI the following year. In his autobiography, Jarrett later recalled how a policeman stopped him at the door of the Hermitage Hotel on the night of the BMI awards gala: "When he saw me, a black man, at this 'white' affair, he reasoned that I was trying to crash the party. I tried to tell him I was there to accept an award, but he just couldn't conceive that any black man that he had seen in low places could be the same man to win a national award in country music." Such incidents no doubt shaped Jarrett's biggest hit, Gene Allison's inspirational "You Can Make It If You Try," produced by Nashville legend Owen Bradley at his Sixteenth Avenue studio -- licensed to Vee-Jay, the single crossed over from the R&B charts to the Billboard Top 40 in 1958. Later recorded by the Rolling Stones on their 1964 debut LP England's Newest Hitmakers, "You Can Make It If You Try" was also covered by acts ranging from Solomon Burke to Gene Vincent to Junior Parker, and remains a watershed in the evolution of Southern soul, anticipating the inspirational urgency and gospel-inspired intensity of myriad R&B classics to follow.
Although Jarrett cut dozens of singles as a solo artist, none dented the charts. But while his legacy rests largely on his success as a songwriter, he was also the driving force behind a series of independent labels like Champion, Calvert, Cherokee, Poncello, Valdot, Spar, and Ref-O-Ree, nurturing the early careers of Nashville soul and gospel cult heroes including Larry Birdsong, Earl Gaines, Christine Kittrell, Roscoe Shelton, and the Avons. Jarrett also mentored the career of bluesman Johnny Jones (who briefly toured in front of a backing band featuring then-unknown guitarist Jimi Hendrix and bassist Billy Cox) as well as singers Herbert Hunter and Freddie Waters. Jarrett returned to Fisk University in 1973 to complete his degree, performing pieces by Bach, Brahms, and Mendelssohn on piano during his graduate recital. In the years to follow he focused most of his creative attention on gospel music, but as a wave of archival reissue collections brought new attention to the forgotten innovators of American R&B's golden age, Jarrett's profile began to grow among audiences and critics alike. In 2004 the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum mounted an acclaimed exhibition titled "Night Train to Nashville: Music City Rhythm & Blues 1945-1970," followed by a two-CD collection featuring six tracks written and produced by Jarrett -- the disc eventually won a Grammy award, and in 2005 he was the subject of Country Music Hall of Fame tribute concert featuring "Sunny" singer Bobby Hebb and country-soul heroine Tracy Nelson. Jarrett died in Nashville on March 21, 2009. ~ Jason Ankeny