Award-Winning Singer-Songwriter Larry Henley Passes

Larry Henley

Larry Henley

Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member Larry Henley has died at age 77 following a long illness.

During his varied career, Henley was a pioneer of the Nashville rock ‘n’ roll scene and also provided Music City with some of its most iconic songs. As the lead singer of The Newbeats, he had big pop hits in the 1960s such as “Bread and Butter.” During the 1970s and 1980s, he co-wrote “The Wind Beneath My Wings” and “Til I Get it Right,” among other classics.

Born in Texas in 1937, Larry Joel Henley was the son of country singer “Kewpi” (Helen) Timms. She performed with Cowboy Slim Rhinehart on the widely-heard Mexican-border radio station XERA.

When the rock ‘n’ roll explosion detonated in the 1950s, Henley moved to Southern California dreaming of becoming either a movie actor or a rock star. He won a talent contest in San Diego, which got him a job as an opening act for the r&b revue The Johnny Otis Show.

He relocated to Shreveport, LA, where he met the already successful brothers Marc and Dean Mathis. Henley jumped on stage and sang with their eight-piece band. Impressed, they hired him, and the resulting ensemble toured throughout the South. They were billed as “The Dean & Marc Combo Featuring the Golden Voice of Larry Henley.”

The singer next headed to Nashville. He was signed as a solo artist to Hickory Records. The Mathis brothers soon relocated as well. They, too, were signed by Hickory. Neither Henley nor the brothers scored hits until they re-teamed as the vocal trio The Newbeats.

The Newbeats posterThe newly christened act had a smash with its first single, 1964’s million-selling “Bread and Butter.” It introduced Henley’s stylized falsetto singing voice, which was higher than that of Frankie Valli of The Four Seasons. “Bread and Butter” went on to become an ad jingle for Sunbeam Bread, Quaker Rice Cakes and Friskies cat food. Devo re-recorded the song in 1982, and during the 1991-92 TV season, it was the theme song of the ABC series Baby Talk.

The group’s catchy melodies with heavily rhythmic arrangements led to a string of other charting pop singles between 1964 and 1970, including “Break Away” (1965), “The Birds Are for the Bees” (1965), “Shake Hands” (1966) and “Groovin’ (Out on Life)” (1969). Particularly successful were 1964’s “Everything’s Alright” and 1965’s Motown-influenced “Run Baby Run.” The Newbeats appeared on Shindig, American Bandstand, Where the Action Is and the other teen TV shows of the era.

In 1971, “Run Baby Run” was re-released in England and became a top-10 hit there. This led to the group touring with The Rolling Stones. Following their tenure at Hickory, The Newbeats recorded for the Buddah, Casablanca, Playboy and DJM labels before dissolving in 1974.

Larry Henley continued to record as a solo artist, as well. He had contracts with Atco, Epic, Viking and Capitol and released Piece a Cake as a solo album on Capricorn Records in 1975.
Henley’s earliest attempts at songwriting were tunes recorded by The Newbeats and their fellow Nashville pop acts Mark Dinning, Roy Orbison and Bobby Goldsboro. His first charting single as a writer was 1972’s “The World Needs a Melody,” as sung by Johnny Cash & The Carter Family. The song was also recorded by George Jones & Tammy Wynette, Jack Greene & Jeannie Seely, Bill Anderson, The Chuck Wagon Gang and The Kingston Trio, among others.

His first No. 1 hit as a songwriter was Wynette’s 1973 version of “Til I Get it Right.” The song has subsequently been recorded by Jean Shepard, Millie Jackson, Englebert Humperdinck, Highway 101, Kirk Whalum, Trisha Yearwood and more. Henley’s second chart-topper was Tanya Tucker’s 1975 version of “Lizzie and the Rainman.”

“If it’s All Right with You” (Dottie West, 1973; Tina Turner, 1979), “Come on Phone” (Jean Shepard, 1974), “As Long as I Can Wake Up in Your Arms” (Kenny O’Dell, 1978), “Why Don’t We Go Somewhere and Love” (Sandy Posey, 1972; Charlie Rich, 1974) and other songs made Larry Henley a steady presence as a songwriter on the country charts of the 1970s.

In the 1980s, his songs were recorded by Delbert McClinton, Levon Helm and Irma Thomas, as well as such country artists as Eddy Arnold, Joe Sun and Bobby Smith.

Gary Morris scored a major 1983 country hit with Henley’s co-written “The Wind Beneath My Wings.” It was named the CMA and ACM Country Song of the Year in 1984.

Lee Greenwood took the song up the British charts, and Gladys Knight and Lou Rawls both scored big r&b hits with it. In 1989, Bette Midler revived “The Wind Beneath My Wings” for the movie Beaches, taking it to No. 1 on the pop charts and earning it the Grammy Award as Song of the Year. The song has been recorded by dozens of others, including Judy Collins, B.J. Thomas, Sheena Easton, Willie Nelson, Patti LaBelle, Perry Como, Jack Jones, Little Milton, Ray Price and Kenny Rogers.

Other big Larry Henley songwriting hits of the 1980s included “You’re Welcome to Tonight” (Lynn Anderson & Gary Morris, 1983), “He’s a Heartache” (Janie Fricke, No. 1, 1983) and “Is it Still Over” (Randy Travis, No. 1, 1989). Henley was the NSAI Songwriter of the Year in 1983.

In 1991, Donna Summer had an r&b hit with Henley’s co-written “When Love Cries.” Others who have recorded his works include Regina Belle, Roger Whittaker, Billy Burnette, Lane Brody, The Everly Brothers, Connie Francis, Johnny Rodriguez, Lobo, Ray Stevens, The Lettermen, Roger Miller and Shirley Bassey.

Larry Henley’s health appeared fragile when he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2012. He passed away around 1 a.m. on Thursday, Dec. 18 while in hospice care. Funeral arrangements are incomplete at press time. A celebration of Larry Henley’s life will be scheduled after the first of the year, according to his longtime friend, Charlie Anderson.

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Robert K. Oermann is a longtime contributor to MusicRow. He is a respected music critic, author and historian.

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