Thirty-nine years ago today Joe Stampley’s sunny, R&B-steeped single “Soul Song” claimed the top spot on the country chart. It was the first of more than 90 country number ones Jim Foglesong would oversee during his Hall of Fame career as a label executive. And part of what made him such a great leader was that he knew firsthand what it took to deliver a great performance
Behind the Microphone
People recognize Jim Foglesong as a tremendously successful and beloved record man. But the reality is he originally envisioned himself in a role behind the microphone: light lyric tenor-for-hire.
He grew up in a coal-mining region of West Virginia in a musical family that tuned in to opera on Saturdays and sang in church on Sundays. By his teens he was performing light classics and pop on local radio, accompanied by his piano teacher mother, while his older brother was landing gigs as a big band jazz pianist. After a stint in the army, Foglesong made use of the G.I. Bill to polish his vocal technique at the prestigious Eastman School of Music.
Joining a Record Label Staff
With that rigorous training under his belt, he moved to New York City ready to launch a career singing just about anything—from Fred Waring’s serious choral fare to smooth backing vocals for Neil Sedaka—just about anywhere—stately churches, recording studios, tour stages and radio shows.
In 1951, he got what he considered a side job at Columbia Records helping engineers transfer symphonies to vinyl LPs.
As Foglesong explains, “On the 78 rpm disc you could only get three and a half minutes of music on that side, approximately. So you’d be listening then suddenly it would stop because it ran out of space.”
It was his responsibility to follow along in the score and tell the engineer where to splice the recording, and it wasn’t long before his good ears and broad musical taste began getting him producing work. He’d often take on projects nobody else knew quite what to do with, like minstrel shows (Gentlemen, Be Seated! was a big hit) and Gregorian chant (he even found himself correcting the Latin pronunciation of Trappist monks he was recording in Kentucky).
And before the ‘60s were out, Foglesong was having pop success, like Ed Ames’s regally crooned rendition of the Broadway number “My Cup Runneth Over”, which cracked the top ten.
By this point, Foglesong the family man had traded his pursuit of singing work for a more secure record company salary. And people who did business in Nashville were telling him that he ought to check out what was going on in the music industry down south.
Foglesong still chuckles at the straightforwardness of their reasoning: “‘Well you’re from West Virginia. They’ll like you. …They hate New Yorkers.’”
Whether or not the Mason-Dixon Line had anything to do with it, Foglesong indeed thrived when he took the reigns at Nashville’s Dot Records in 1970. He produced Roy Clark’s biggest records, snatched up Freddy Fender and Donna Fargo hits, made country stars of gospel’s Oak Ridge Boys and went on to sign lasting contracts with one-of-a-kind singers who’ve since joined him in the Country Music Hall of Fame: George Strait, Reba McEntire and Barbara Mandrell.
Sharing in Success
Under Foglesong’s watch, Mandrell blossomed into an all-around country-pop superstar, and became the first to win the CMA Entertainer of the Year award twice in a row.
Says Mandrell, “He believed in me and he thought I had talent. And he was always there for me to talk to. It was a good thing.”
So good that she even followed him to another record label, and spent a Thanksgiving playing touch football with his family.
“[Jim] had the ball,” Mandrell recalls, “and I, for a moment, forgot it was touch. And I tackled him. My husband Ken laughed when I said, ‘That was really an experience.’ He said, ‘Yeah, it’d probably be a better memory for Jim if you hadn’t bitten his shoulder as you went down.” She laughs at the uniqueness of the situation. “There’s just not a lot of artists that have tackled their record president—literally.”
Don Williams was another Foglesong signee, and he also became a fellow Hall of Famer last year. They had a phenomenal run of country hits together, and a relationship so secure it could withstand a rumor traveling around town that Williams had been stolen away by another label.
Foglesong remembers, “I waited two or three days at least to call Don, because our word was our bond and we didn’t mess around with that. And sure enough, when I called him I said, ‘Don, I’m really sorry but somebody was in my office yesterday, and they said that the Elektra deal is done and that they actually saw the contract. There was this long pause at the end—there usually was with him anyway. Then he said, ‘Well, Jim you know better than that, don’tcha?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I do.’”
Williams stayed put, and Foglesong’s door stayed open. Up-front communication was as the heart of his leadership style, and so was treating people in a way that merited their trust.
It didn’t hurt in the trust department that Foglesong had good instincts and recognized a risk worth taking. He was sure he heard one when a certain game-changing, fresh-faced Oklahoma songwriter auditioned in his office.
Foglesong remembers the tension in the air that day: “An executive on Music Row sitting around with other people that have heard about everybody, it’s a tough audience. And yet Garth right off the bat entertained us. The first song, practically the first phrase was a grabber. …I said, ‘I’ll Tell you what I think. I’m ready to sign that kid right now.’”
And sign the kid Foglesong did. Since that time, he’s been shepherding college students who want to work with the next Garth Brooks. He recently retired from leading Trevecca’s music business program, and he still teaches a class at Vanderbilt that’s filled to capacity each semester.
To say Foglesong’s lifetime of experience is a plus in the classroom is quite the understatement.
Amanda Walls, who took his classes at Trevecca, reflects, “You learn about everything that goes on behind the scenes and the type of stuff that you can’t learn from the textbook. Having someone like Mr. Foglesong…every contact who comes in talks about how he’s a legend and stuff like that.”
“The students,” says Foglesong warmly, “the more names you can drop and all, the better they like it.”
It doesn’t take too long for them to learn Foglesong is a name to know.