COUNTRY HERITAGE – DAVID HOUSTON

Country Heritage: David Houston

This article originally appeared on the 9513 weblog, then several years later on the My Kind of Country weblog in October 2012

A person surveying the country music scene at the beginning of 1973 could be forgiven for thinking that David Houston was en route to a career that would culminate in eventual induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. His most recent single, “Good Things,” would reach #1 on Cashbox and complete a decade in which 13 of his singles topped one or more of the Billboard, Cashbox and/or Record World country charts. His 1966 hit, “Almost Persuaded,” was the biggest country hit of the decade (1966-75) and another 17 singles cracked the top 20 during that span. Eight of his songs cracked Billboard’s pop charts.

Instead, Houston’s career would come to a screeching halt with only two more top 20 singles to follow.

Charles David Houston (December 9, 1935 – November 30, 1993) was born and died in Bossier City, Louisiana. Between those dates, he compiled a career worthy of his antecedents who include former Revolutionary War hero (and Virginia governor) “Lighthorse” Harry Lee, General Robert E. Lee and Texas hero Sam Houston. His godfather, 1920s pop singer Gene Austin (“My Blue Heaven”), co-owned an auto dealership with Houston’s father and took an active role in encouraging David’s musical career. Like Gene Austin, Houston was very much at home with pop music. Eventually, he came to the attention of Slim Whitman, who recorded his first session in 1955 and got him placed on Imperial Records. A spot on the Louisiana Hayride soon followed.

The contract with Imperial didn’t lead anywhere, nor did subsequent recording contracts with RCA and Atlanta-based National Recording Corporation. Finally, in 1963, Tillman Franks, former manager of Johnny Horton and Claude King, pitched a song to Houston and got him on the Epic label. The song, “Mountain of Love” (not the same song that Johnny Rivers and Charley Pride recorded), rose to #2 on Billboard. After a couple of minor hits, Billy Sherrill took over Epic’s Nashville operations and provided Houston with a song he penned (with Glen Sutton) titled “Livin’ in a House Full of Love,” which hit #3 in late 1965.

In 1966, Sherrill had Houston record a waltz that he and Glen Sutton had written as a possible B-side. The song, a tale of a married man struggling (and succeeding) in fighting off temptation, became an A-side and a sensation. “Almost Persuaded” jumped to #1 that August and spent nine weeks at the top of Billboard’s country chart and reached #24 on the pop chart (no record since 1966 has topped the country charts for as long a period). Aided by the piano signatures of Hargus ‘Pig’ Robbins, “Almost Persuaded” garnered two Grammys for Houston (Best Country & Western Recording and Best Country & Western Performance, Male) in 1967. The CMA Awards did not start until the next year so his biggest record went unrecognized by the CMA.

“Almost Persuaded” launched a string of hits that lasted through 1973 and created the template that Sherrill used on his future recordings with Tammy Wynette, George Jones and numerous other artists. Sometimes referred to as “country cocktails,” the Sherrill arrangements would come to dominate country music until the outlaw movement came to the fore in the mid ’70s. Such David Houston solo hits as “With One Exception” and “You Mean the World to Me” (1967); “Have a Little Faith” and “Already It’s Heaven” (1968); “Baby, Baby (I Know You’re a Lady)” (1970); and the 1967 duet of “My Elusive Dreams” with the then-largely unknown Tammy Wynette served to demonstrate how well the arrangements could work in the hands of an expressive singer. Along the way, Houston also provided Barbara Mandrell with her first major hit in “After Closing Time” (#6 in 1970).

Houston’s last top ten country hit came in 1974 with “Can’t You Feel It” and his contract with Epic expired at the end of 1976. The hits he had after that time were minor, and (except for a couple of singles on Elektra in 1978-79) the labels to which he was signed became increasingly smaller. He last charted in April 1989 after racking up a total of 61 chart singles of which 24 cracked the top ten.

David Houston died of a brain aneurysm in Bossier City a few weeks before his 58th birthday.

Someone once asked me why Houston’s recording career dropped off so sharply after 1973. I don’t have any inside information on this but I suspect that several factors were at work:

1. David Houston sang in a high tenor that fell out of popular favor as the 1970s progressed. He could easily handle the Slim Whitman/Eddy Arnold/Kenny Roberts/Elton Britt songbook, meaning he could yodel and sing falsetto–talents not much in demand in the mainstream country music of the 1970s and certainly not staples of the “outlaw” movement that dominated country music in the mid and late ’70s.

2. He was not a particularly compelling live performer. I saw him perform on three occasions from 1969 (in London) to 1971 and 1974 in the United States. None of these live performances were particularly satisfactory: he seemed plagued by stage fright in ’69 and ’71 and in 1974 he seemed disinterested.

3. At some point after 1982 he seemed to lose some of his vocal range.

Whatever the reason, David’s career unraveled after the early 1970s. Even so, he left behind a magnificent catalog of great songs and albums on the Epic label–a catalog that pushed the boundaries of traditional country music without abandoning it. While Billy Sherrill’s later recordings with Tammy and George are better remembered, it is with the great David Houston recordings that Billy Sherrill and his “country cocktail” production reached their zenith.

I mentioned at the start of this article, that from the vantage of early 1973 that it looked like David Houston would culminate in induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Given the extremely strong decade he put up from 1966-1975, and the template his recordings created for many of the artists who followed him, I can make a good case for his induction and would like to see it happen some day.

Discography

Vinyl

Epic issued 18 LPs (including duet albums with Tammy Wynette and Barbara Mandrell) on David Houston plus two Greatest Hits albums and a World of David Houston two-album set. The albums follow the format of the time (one or two hit singles, some covers and some filler). If you like the songs, you’ll like the album. I like the pre-1971 albums better than the later efforts, as they feature more covers and less filler, but Houston’s albums were always an eclectic mix meaning you never knew what kind of gem (cowboy songs, pop songs, western swing, Irish ballads or other folk material) you would find among the non-singles.

The Liberty, RCA and NRC recordings – usually found on multi-artist albums (if found at all) but also issued on 45 rpm singles–reveal an artist who has yet to find his niche.

The post-Epic albums, especially those recorded after 1982, either did not find Houston in good voice or have him dropping down some to accommodate the loss of range. Like many other artists of the period, Houston re-recorded his big hits for some of the smaller labels; however, there are some good performances on the non-Epic labels, some of which are more authentically country sounding than the Epic recordings. I particularly like the albums on the Excelsior label (no remakes) and the album David Houston Sings Texas Honky Tonk on the Delta Label. The latter album features the great Johnny Gimble on fiddle and dobro as Houston works his way through a collection of hard-core country classics and some new material. This album does feature a re-make of “Almost Persuaded,” but it’s a good one with an entirely different feel than the original hit.

CD

Like most 60s/70s country artists, David Houston has been poorly served on CD.

The Columbia/Sony labels have issued ten track hits collections on Houston which contains the original hits. These have been reissued under several titles on various Sony/Columbia affiliated labels (American Originals, Best Of, Pure Country, etc) so check song selection before buying.

The crown jewel is The Best Of David Houston issued by Collectors’ Choice Music in 1999. It contains 24 tracks – the 24 biggest hits, good sound and decent liner notes. Unfortunately, this CD appears to be out of print. A more recent entry is My Elusive Dreams: Epic Country Hits 1963-1974. This CD has 23 tracks and is virtually identical to the Collectors Choice entry except it is missing the song “Good Times”.

Next best is Almost Persuaded: The Very Best Of David Houston on the Collectables label. This CD contains 16 tracks of original material. There is also a foreign release titled Almost Persuaded – 20 Greatest Hits which contains fifteen actual original hit recordings plus five pre-Epic recordings and/or album tracks.

Other available CDs are mostly re-makes so buy them only if they can be obtained cheaply. None of the Excelsior or Delta recordings seem to show up on CD and albums recorded after those seem to show extreme degradation of Houston’s once-soaring tenor.

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