Born Donald Firth Law, 24 February 1902, London, England
As the head of Columbia Records' country music division through most of the 1950s and 1960s, Don Law was one of the most important and successful producers, not only in the annals of country music, but of popular music in general. Among the top- selling artists he worked with at Columbia were Lefty Frizzell, Ray Price, Marty Robbins, Johnny Horton and Johnny Cash, to name but a few. He also produced his share of rockabilly and rock 'n' roll (The Collins Kids, Ronnie Self, Billy Brown, Billy "Crash" Craddock, Carl Perkins during his Columbia tenure, a.o.).
Born in England, Law developed an early fascination for the USA and emigrated there in 1924, eventually landing in Dallas, Texas. He found a job at Brunswick Records, first as a bookkeeper, but gradually moving into A&R. When ARC (the American Record Corporation) bought Brunswick in 1931, he began working for a fellow Englishman similarly predisposed toward American roots music, Art Satherley, who would become his mentor. Ernie Oertle, ARC's talent scout in the mid-South, introduced him to Robert Johnson, arguably the single most important figure in blues history. Law recorded Johnson's entire 29-song body of work direct to disc in a San Antonio hotel room in November 1936 and in a Dallas warehouse in June 1937. Fourteen months later Johnson would be dead.
For Don Law, the blues and country and western were two sides of the same American coin. In 1938 (the year that ARC was acquired by CBS), he recorded "San Antonio Rose" (# 15) with Bob Wills for Columbia. In 1942 he went to New York to record children's music. Then in 1945, Law returned to country music when he and Satherley divided the nation at El Paso, with Law responsible for the Columbia sessions east of El Paso. After Satherley retired in 1952, Law was the sole head of Columbia's country division. By then he had brought important artists like Little Jimmy Dickens, Carl Smith and Lefty Frizzell to the label. Frizzell was found through the Jim Beck studio in Dallas, where Law would usually record. It was only after Beck died in 1956 that Law focused his attention on Nashville and moved there. He was one of the first producers to work at Owen Bradley's Quonset Hut (the first studio built on Music Row) and also helped found the Country Music Association. In 1962, Law convinced Columbia to buy the Quonset Hut, turning it into Columbia Studio B. In the '50s and early '60s Law recorded some of the greatest country music ever, both artistically and commercially. Lefty Frizzell, Marty Robbins, Carl Smith, Ray Price, Johnny Horton, Stonewall Jackson, Johnny Cash, Jimmy Dean, Flatt & Scruggs, Billy Walker and Claude King all topped the country charts and "The Battle Of New Orleans" (Johnny Horton, 1959), "El Paso" (Marty Robbins, early 1960) and "Big Bad John" (Jimmy Dean, 1961) were also # 1 pop hits, bringing country music to a new audience.
Along with Chet Atkins at RCA, Ken Nelson at Capitol and Owen Bradley at Decca, Law was instrumental in re-establishing country's commercial viability during the so-called Nashville Sound era (circa 1957-1972). But unlike Atkins and Bradley, Law and his frequent co-producer Frank Jones did not rely so much on the strings and smooth vocals commonly associated with the Nashville Sound. As successful as he was, Law nevertheless fell victim to the changes sweeping through American music in the late 1960s. In 1967 he was forced to take mandatory retirement from Columbia. Law's place at the helm of the Nashville office was taken by Bob Johnston, who had produced Bob Dylan's "Blonde On Blonde" sessions in Music City the year before. Some of the Columbia artists, notably Ray Price, were allowed to continue working with Law as an independent producer. But by the 1970s, Law's role in the business was rapidly diminishing and by the end of the decade he was fully retired. He died in 1982 in a suburb of Galveston, Texas, at the age of 80. In 2001 he was finally inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Amazingly, he has never been the subject of a book-length biography.
Acknowledgements: - Daniel Cooper, Entry for Don Law in The Encyclopdia of Country Music (edited by Paul Kingsbury, 1998), page 290-291.
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