RAMBLIN' ROUND: When 'Blue' turned to gold for LeAnn Rimes and Bill Mack

LeAnn Rimes

I used to think anyone would recognize a great song upon first hearing it, and I still think lots of people do — especially the everyday music fans. It seems to be the record executives, managers and others who sometime miss a song’s worth the first time around.

An exception to those in the music business who sometime have a tin ear are disc jockeys. Stories abound regarding the days when vinyl 45 rpm records were the medium of choice, when record companies would ship a record to disc jockeys designating an A-side, only to have the deejay spin it around and play the B-side — many times leading to a major hit the record execs would have missed.

Managers can also miss a great song — even when they have the best interests of their charges at heart. LeAnn Rimes has told how her father, Wilbur Rimes, threw the demo recording of her breakthrough song “Blue” into the trash when he first heard it — even though it was written by their friend, acclaimed disc jockey, country music singer, songwriter and record promoter, Bill Mack.

Mack was a deejay in Dallas, while the Rimes lived in nearby Garland after moving there from Mississippi. LeAnn Rimes, who was still a child at the time, saw the song’s potential dug it out of the trash, and began working with it.

Rimes said she’s the one who added the song’s yodeling vocal trill, as in “Blue-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh, Oh so lonesome for you. Why can’t you be blue, over me?”

To her dad’s credit, he recognized how great the song was when he heard his daughter’s reworked version.LeAnn Rimes first recorded “Blue” on an independent label. When she signed with Curb Records, record executives there included “Blue” on her first album for Curb.

However, when it came time to issue that all-important first single from the album, they planned to release another track, “The Light in Your Eyes” as the A-side for disc jockeys to play over the radio, relegating “Blue” to the B-side.

Wait a minute! A soon as deejays heard a clip of “Blue,” they made their preference known to Curb, which wisely made “Blue” the A-side.

Rimes was only 13 when Curb Records released her single of “Blue” and turned 14 as the song shot up the charts in 1996, making Rimes the youngest singer to score a major country music hit since then-12-year-old Tanya Tucker took “Delta Dawn into the top ten in 1972.

I remember at the time a number of my friends were amazed at the powerhouse vocal coming from so young a singer, with many of them — including me — comparing her to Patsy Cline, one the greatest female vocalists in any genre. One even said “Wow! She’s Patsy Cline!”

It felt all the more impressive because Rimes didn’t sound as if she tried to imitate Cline — rather she captured the spirit of those timeless recordings Cline made for Decca records back in the early 1960s. A key component of Clines’s Decca recordings  — such as “Crazy,” “I Fall to Pieces” and “She’s Got You” — came from producer Owen Bradley, who added a pop element rare in Nashville at the time. He had similar success with Brenda Lee. (Thankfully, when Bradley began producing a then-up-and-coming new female vocalist named Loretta Lynn, he wisely let Loretta be Loretta).

Even with LeAnn Rimes’ unforgettable vocals on “Blue,” her dad deserves a nod, too, since he’s credited as producer. While LeAnn seemed to typify the spirit of Patsy when she sang the song, Wilbur Rimes perfectly captured the mood that Bradley had produced on Patsy’s Decca recordings.

Ironically “Blue” only made it to #10 on the Billboard Country Music Charts, while a followup from the album, “One Way Ticket,” made it all the way to #1.

I figured at the time “Blue” had been a song Mack had written as a sort of tribute to Pasty Cline, shortly before he submitted it to Rimes, but I later learned that wasn’t the case at all. He’d written it years before in Wichita Falls, Texas, and recorded his own version back in 1958. Not only that, the song had been recorded by several other artists, but had never become a hit.

Mack said he wished he could say his own version had been a regional hit, but said calling it a local hit was more accurate.

I’ve since learned something that amazed me. Patsy Cline not only heard “Blue” in the early 1960s before she lost her life in a 1963 plane crash — she heard it from Mack himself.

In an interview with The Grammy Foundation, Mack said another artist, Roy Drusky had suggested “Blue” would be a great song for Patsy Cline. Mack related how Drusky had instilled that in his mind, so he went to see her at a show in San Antonio, Texas, and borrowed a guitar from Roger Miller, who was also performing on the show.

“I said ‘Patsy there’s a song I want you to hear and I sang it to her back in her dressing room,” Mack said. “She said ‘I  like it. I like it.’ but that’s as far as it went.”

He later had another female artist in San Antonio record a demo and he sent it to Bradley, but apparently never got a response.

Mack has said it took him about 15 minutes to write “Blue.”

That 15 minutes worth of work back in 1958 paid off in 1996 and 1997, winning a slew of awards for Rime as well as Mack himself.

Rimes’ awards included the 1996 Grammy Awards for Best Female Vocal Country Performance and Best New Artist, marking the first time a country singer won the Best New Artist Grammy.

Mack picked up the Grammy Award for Best Country Song, with Rimes’ performance and the song also picking up major awards and nominations from the country music organizations, including an Academy of Country Music Award for Song of the Year.

Due to the song’s success and Rimes’ comparisons to Patsy Cline, many wrongly assumed Mack had written “Blue” with Patsy in mind in the first place.

“I didn’t write it for anybody,” Mack said. “I just wrote it.”

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