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Subject: Legendary songwriter Mickey Newbury

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Date Posted: October 01, 2002 3:50:02 EDT

Mickey Newbury, part of a wave of Texas musicians whose literate songwriting helped change country music in the 1960s, has died. He was 62.

Newbury, best known for "An American Trilogy," his arrangement of three Civil War-era tunes that Elvis Presley used to close his concerts, died Sunday in Springfield, Ore., after struggling for years with respiratory illness, his longtime manager, Robert Rosemurgy, said Monday.

Newbury gained more recognition for the 500-plus songs that he wrote than for his own performances of them.

Besides Presley, the list of nearly 400 musicians who have recorded Newbury's songs includes Ray Charles, B.B. King, Willie Nelson, Linda Ronstadt, Keith Richards, Perry Como and Nick Cave.

At one point in 1968, four Newbury songs simultaneously held the No. 1 spot on the pop, country, R&B and easy-listening charts. The pop hit was "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)," the first charted single for Kenny Rogers, then with the First Edition.

But Newbury rarely crossed to the sunny side of the street, a tendency he addressed in "Sunshine" from his 1973 album "Heaven Help the Child": "Sunshine, you may find my window, but you won't find me/Sunshine, I got my friend the darkness here tonight to hide me."

It's not that Newbury was never happy, Rosemurgy said. "When people would ask why he didn't write more happy songs, he'd tell them, 'If I'm happy, I play golf; if I'm sad, I'll write a song.' "

The way he expressed that sadness, in uncommonly erudite songs of lonely people desperately seeking friendship, love or spiritual salvation, won him the admiration of many of the music world's most esteemed songwriters.

"He had a great effect on my songwriting," Kris Kristofferson said Monday. "The importance of the melody together with the words was the first thing I picked up from him. It just blew me away, when he got it just right, how simple lyrics and simple melodies worked in a way to break your heart.

"Just in the last few years I'd been on kind of a campaign hoping to get someone to recognize him and give him his flowers while he's living. He has a body of work that's really impressive."

Kristofferson met Newbury in Nashville in the mid-1960s, when both were eking out livings while trying to establish careers as songwriters.

Newbury had gravitated to Nashville after growing up in Houston, where he had become enamored in his youth with the blues and R&B he heard on late-night radio broadcasts from stations in Chicago, Memphis and elsewhere.

He formed his first band, the Embers, while in high school and toured with the Drifters, Clyde McPhatter and other R&B performers, often as the only white act on the bill.

He also came under the spell of Beat Generation writers, including Jack Kerouac, and began tapping that literary bent when writing song lyrics.

In the early '60s, the Nashville music establishment was difficult for outsiders to crack, especially high-minded, literary ones. But some of Newbury's songs had caught the attention of legendary country music publisher-manager Wesley Rose.

Newbury landed a contract with the Acuff-Rose publishing house in 1964, and got his first hit in 1967 when Don Gibson recorded his song "Funny, Familiar, Forgotten Feelings."

Once a few hits began to emerge in the late '60s, a raft of fellow Texas musicians that also included Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Townes Van Zandt started making inroads.

Newbury got his own record deal with RCA, but he didn't dent the charts until 1971, after he had switched labels twice.

"Frisco Mabel Joy," the biggest seller of his career, reached No. 58 on the Billboard album chart. It included "An American Trilogy," which he created during a 1970 performance at the Bitter End West in West Hollywood.

"At the time, there was a lot of civil rights activity and lot of criticism of the song 'Dixie' as being racist," Rosemurgy said. "Mickey's position was that there was nothing wrong with the song, but it was always played in a marching tempo, so he decided to make a ballad out of it.

"The owner of the club asked him not to do it because it would be controversial, but Mickey went on live and started to do it with that very slow tempo. As he was singing it, he continued with the chorus of the 'Battle Hymn of the Republic'.... He was just improvising, and into his head popped the verse from 'All My Trials,' the Jamaican slave song, and it was written live. The audience was stunned. They sat quietly for a time, then broke into a spontaneous standing ovation."

After marrying in 1972, Newbury and his wife, Susan, moved to Oregon, where her parents lived.

Newbury stopped recording for most of the '80s and gave concerts rarely. He released an album in 1988, and starting in 1994, he began working to reissue his '60s and '70s albums in an eight-CD boxed set that came out in 1998. He also wrote and recorded new songs. His most recent album, "Winter Winds," was released in February, and he had finished one more before his death, Rosemurgy said.

Fans from around the world met with Newbury in 1999 and 2000 at gatherings organized to let him mingle with listeners.

"People came with stories," Rosemurgy said, "and some were really compelling--like someone who had lost their only child and how his music helped them get through. It was really special for an artist to get that validation that his music had reached all these people. So he did get the flowers while he was alive, and that was nice."

In addition to his wife, Newbury is survived by four children, Christopher, Annaleah, Stephen and Laura; his mother, Mamie; and a brother, Jerry. No funeral services or memorial have been set.

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Is this the Mickey featured on the top of the page? (NT)KittenOctober 03, 2002 7:35:50 EDT

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