He is best known to today’s music fans as the founder of the record store and comic book chain The Great Escape. Walker had earlier careers as a hit songwriter, a recording artist, a manager, a publisher, a record producer, a song plugger, a record label executive and a studio owner.
He began his journey in the music business while he was still a college student in his native Missouri. Walker and Porter Wagoner co-wrote “That’s It,” which Wagoner released as a single on RCA in early 1953.
Gary Walker subsequently became a highly successful songwriter in Music City. Among his top-10 hits were “Trademark” by Carl Smith (1953), “According to My Heart” by Jim Reeves (1956) and “Repenting” by Kitty Wells (1957).
He also wrote songs covered by George Morgan (“Look What Followed Me Home Tonight”), Webb Pierce (“One Week Later,” with Kitty Wells), pre-teen Brenda Lee (“Doodle Bug Rag”) and several other top names.
Success as a songwriter led to Walker’s recording contract with MGM Records. In 1957-58, he issued a trio of now collectible singles on the label—“Everybody’s Gotta Go Sometime”/It’s Only a Matter of Time,” “Makin’ Up With You”/”Then I Think of You” and “Runaway Heart”/”Pretty Patty.”
He gave up his recording aspirations to become a studio entrepreneur. He co-owned Reavis Studio, which became Fidelity Recording. This is where many aspiring acts recorded for the independent labels that sprang up to service the teen rockabilly market of the late 1950s.
Gary Walker next pioneered the profession of Nashville song plugger by representing a number of songwriters as well as several out-of-town music publishers. He notably represented Atlanta’s Lowery Music, whose songwriting stable included Jerry Reed, Joe South, Ray Stevens, Freddy Weller and Mac Davis. His successes for the firm included “Misery Loves Company” (Porter Wagoner), “That’s All You Gotta Do” (Brenda Lee) and “Walk On By” (Leroy Van Dyke).
During the 1960s, he branched out into record production. Walker produced sides for Sonny James, Bill Carlisle, Bobby Russell and Lynn Anderson, among others.
In 1964, Walker founded the Chart Records label. Its roster eventually included Anderson, Johnny Bush and Billy “Crash” Craddock, among others. Most of the label’s success occurred after he sold it to Cliff Williamson.
Walker next managed singer Sandy Posey. Her big pop hits of 1966-67 were “Born a Woman,” “Single Girl,” “What a Woman in Love Won’t Do” and “I Take It Back.”
He also continued to work as a song plugger. During the 1970s, he represented the catalogs of Painted Desert Music and Screen Gems. He later took on the posthumous catalog of Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member Don Wayne.
As a hobby, he began selling records and comics at flea markets and mall shows. The pastime eventually led him to open The Great Escape in 1977. The store has become a beloved Nashville icon.
The Great Escape deals in used records, comic books and pop-culture memorabilia. Its headquarters is a large storefront on Charlotte Avenue. Branches were established in Madison and Murfreesboro, as well as Bowling Green, KY and Louisville, KY. In 2000, The Great Escape Online was added to the retail chain.
Charming and talkative, Gary Walker could often be found in the stores chatting with customers and sharing anecdotes about his life with history-minded record collectors. After selling the retail chain in late 2017, Walker focused his energy on The Great Escape Music Group. It includes three publishing companies and a record label, Great Escape Records, which has had some success in the bluegrass music field.
He was proud of his Ozark County roots. He and his family regularly attended the annual Walker family reunions held in Missouri, most recently in 2019 in Branson.
Gary Ray Walker passed away at Vanderbilt Hospital. He is survived by his wife, Peggy, son Greg and daughter Karen, as well as many relations in the extended Walker family in Missouri.
Funeral arrangements are being handled by Clinkingbeard Funeral Home in Gainesville, MO. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a memorial service will be delayed until a later time. A small graveside service will be held at 10 a.m. Monday, July 13, at Lilly Ridge Cemetery near Gainesville. Those attending are asked to maintain social distancing and wear face coverings.
Memorial contributions may be made to the Woodmont Christian Church Capital Campaign, 3601 Hillsboro Pike, Nashville, TN 37215, or to the charity of the giver’s choice.
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