2019 American Music Awards

Spotlight: Veteran Manager Jim Halsey Looks Back at 70 Years in the Biz, 'Taking Country Music to New Places'

Minisa Crumbo
Jim Halsey

"The satisfied customer is the reason you stay in business. And that's what I'm still doing today with The Oak Ridge Boys."

In 1974, Jim Halsey's client, Roy Clark, was the star of Hee-Haw and one of the world's biggest country singers. But he still had to "audition" for the biggest gig of his life. When he played a show in Pittsburgh, a three-man Soviet Union delegation showed up to scout the music for a potential U.S.S.R. visit. They made notes: Clark could not perform a regular tune, the "Doctor Zhivago" theme, because officials considered Boris Pasternak's original novel anti-Soviet. And he couldn't mention God or Jesus.

Clark and another Halsey client, a group of gospel-to-country converts known as The Oak Ridge Boys, passed their audition and agreed to Soviet terms. In January 1976, they headlined the first-ever country music tour in the Soviet Union, braving 18-hour flights, 14-hour train rides and 25-below-zero temperatures to play 18 sold-out shows in 21 days, all broadcast before 750 million viewers on state television. Of course, Clark, who died in 2018, and The Oak Ridge Boys, who are releasing their eighth Christmas album, closed every show with "Just a Little Talk with Jesus." 

"And nobody said anything," Halsey recalls. 

Halsey, 89, spends much of an hourlong phone interview recalling the famous artists he has represented as a manager or, for much of his career, an agent -- '50s star Hank Thompson was the first, then dozens of others, like Wanda Jackson, George Jones, Merle Haggard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Willie Nelson and James Brown. The Godfather of Soul insisted he call him "Mr. Brown" and reciprocated with "Mr. Halsey." In the mid-'50s, he paid a star he'd never heard of, Elvis Presley, $1,800 to open six shows for Thompson. Halsey still has the contract, as part of his huge memorabilia collection, which in July he made available briefly for public viewing in Tulsa.

After reminiscing about the biggest names in country and rock, he abruptly changes direction. "I'm about today," Halsey says. "This is stuff 70 years ago. I appreciate you asking, but I'm about opening doors and creating new streams of revenue and taking country music to new places."

What he wants to talk about is The Oak Ridge Boys, whom he has managed for 45 years, since the beginning, when he had to talk them into expanding their repertoire from gospel to country. The group's new album, Down Home Christmas, is out Friday and Halsey sees it as a package to promote the band’s 30th annual holiday tour, beginning Nov. 13 in Branson, Missouri. Producing is Dave Cobb, who worked on the band's 2009 album, The Boys Are Back, before moving onto Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson and, this year, The Highwomen. "Jim, I never forget people who helped me when I was starting," the Grammy-winning producer told Halsey before signing on.

Halsey grew up in Independence, Kansas, a town of 10,000 people where his family owned the Halsey Brothers Department Store. He absorbed the basic rules of retail early on: "Everyone worked hard to please customers, finding good merchandise and giving value at a fair price," he writes in his 2010 book, Starmaker: How to Make It in the Music Business. At 10, he went door-to-door as a salesman, pushing Dolly Dozits or pot scrubbers that he describes as "a small tool full of metal strips coiled tighter than Little Orphan Annie's hair." After selling out his entire inventory, he realized he'd overcharged by 5 cents apiece and set out the next day to correct his mistake; to his surprise, the customers not only weren't mad, they bought even more.

"The satisfied customer is the reason you stay in business," he says. "And that's what I'm still doing today with The Oak Ridge Boys."

Early on, Halsey learned the saxophone and listened to a Tulsa radio show on KVOO -- the stars were western-swing legends Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. An uncle took Halsey to see the band in person in Tulsa; he met the station owner and began to dream about the music business. After reading Sol Hurok's book Impresario, he promoted his first show with Wills' steel-guitar player, Leon McAuliffe, at a 1949 dance. "I did everything I learned within the store -- from sending out postcards to getting the mayor to create a Leon McAuliffe Day. I put out posters, I used radio and I used newspapers -- in the store, we advertised within a 40-or-50-mile radius, so I did that, too," he recalls. "Then it's about time to open the box office and there's a whole line of people standing outside waiting to buy tickets and I thought, 'My gosh, it's worked.'" 

In 1951, Thompson, who was on the cusp of releasing his blockbuster "The Wild Side of Life," called to offer Halsey a job as his agent and manager. The relationship led to managing rockabilly star Wanda Jackson, whose "Fujiyama Mama" was a No. 1 hit in Japan, prompting Halsey to set up a Japanese tour and "whetting my extreme interest in the global business."

The '70s Soviet Union tour, which Halsey considers his career highlight, expanded later to tours with Roy Clark and Roy Orbison to far-flung European countries like Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia. There was no touring infrastructure whatsoever in those regions at the time. "Nobody ever went to Bulgaria," Halsey recalls. "One thing I remember is, if you're at an airport or the train station, and you ask, 'Is my plane on time?,' they had a standard answer: 'Any moment now.'"

It was The Oak Ridge Boys who allowed Halsey to fulfill his international vision. Halsey first saw them as a gospel group in late 1973, when the boys were tacked onto the end of a record-company showcase. He quickly discerned their talents in stage presence and harmonies and invited them to open -- for almost no money -- for his headliners Mel Tillis and Roy Clark at "one of Jimmy Nederlander's sheds." The band "just blew it all away," he remembers, and he challenged them to expand into secular music. "You're only three minutes away from being the biggest stars in the world," he told them. "By three minutes, of course, I meant a record."

It took the band a few years to transition to its new identity, almost breaking up in the process, but with Halsey's guidance they persevered, and hit the top five in 1977 with "Y'all Come Back Saloon." It was Halsey who commissioned video shoots, booked them on The Tonight Show and brought them to Las Vegas Strip hotels and dozens of state fairs. And once they clicked, they clicked: The band launched 27 big hits in a row, including blockbusters like 1981's "Elvira" and 1983's "American Made" and "Love Song." In Starmaker, singer Joe Bonsall recalls Halsey "dancing on top of a record company president's desk" in the '70s to advocate for the band.

Halsey laughs. But he won't name names. "I've pounded my shoe. I've done other things to create attention," he says. "I'm a very low-key and low-profile type of person. But sometimes you have to get the attention of people that don't know what you're talking about -- and they need to realize that what you're talking about really is significant."

SPOTLIGHT:

My grandfather always taught me that to stay in business you had to have a satisfied customer. That's what their [family department] store was always about, satisfied customers. But it just wasn't exciting to me. I liked all the sales and marketing -- the special sales day and Mother's Day and fall openings and things like that. But I wanted something on stage.

In December of 1951, Hank Thompson called and said my agent-manager is going with MCA -- that was the big booking agency at that time, Music Corporation of America. He said, "Would you become my manager and my agent and handle all my business?" All of us have opportunities, but being able to recognize those opportunities and act on them is what's going to make you a success or not a success. It took me about 30 seconds to indicate I was not only interested in it but would love to do new things and create new things with him. So that was a start.

Dealing with musicians is about their art. I'm married to an artist, a painter, Minisa Crumbo, so I know that sensitivity. Being a musician myself, it brought forward that sensitivity to recognize that it is an art.

What I've never understood is people not having a broader interest in music and the arts. People said, "I don't listen to country music" -- well, maybe they never have listened to it. Or "I don't like jazz" -- maybe they didn't listen to jazz they would like. 

I am learning every day. I'm learning something every day.

Something most people don't understand is the audience really decides who they want to like.

Spotlight is a Billboard.biz series that aims to highlight those in the music business making innovative or creative moves, or who are succeeding in behind-the-scenes or under-the-radar roles. For submissions for the series, please contact spotlight@billboard.com.

 


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