Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Hugh Jarrett

A friend of mine, Hugh Jarrett, died on Saturday morning at the age of 78 in Kindred Hospital in Atlanta. We were members of the same church, but he and his wife Jeanne had not been able to attend services in several years because of health issues. Back in the early 1990’s, Hugh narrated several Easter and Christmas cantatas for our congregation; he was asked to do it because he had such a great, resonant speaking voice and had worked in radio.

But that doesn't begin to tell the story of Hugh Jarrett at all. Back in the 1950’s, when he was in his twenties, Hugh sang bass for several years in a gospel quartet called The Jordanaires. That’s him in the center of the photo below.
They sang at the Grand Ol’ Opry, sang backup for Eddie Arnold on his TV program, and then started singing backup on the road for a young singer out of Tupelo and Memphis whose name you may have heard before: Elvis Presley. When you see old black-and-white clips of the from-the-waist-up-only Elvis singing on The Ed Sullivan Show, those are The Jordanaires backing him up in their plaid jackets. Hugh is the tall one on the right in those clips. Of the nine Elvis hits in Billboard magazine's list of the 100 All-Time Top #1 Hit Records, Hugh's bass voice was on several of them, including “Hound Dog,” “Don't Be Cruel,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “I Can't Help Falling In Love With You,” “Love Me Tender,” “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You,” “Are you Lonesome Tonight?” and others. Just mentioning those titles brings back memories of my teen years. Hugh was friends with and made recordings with the likes of Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash, Dottie West, Eddie Arnold, Patsy Cline, Wayne Newton, Tommy Sands, Sonny James, Willie Nelson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ricky Nelson; the list goes on and on.

Hugh left the Jordanaires in 1958 and moved back to Nashville, where he got a job at radio station WLAC. He soon became known all over the mid-South as a DJ and the emcee of something called “Big Hugh Baby’s record hops.” Someone on a blog this week called Hugh one of the five most successful disc jockeys of all time. Later, when he and Jeanne moved to Atlanta, he worked at WPLO, WXIA, WSB, and WFOM over the years. He was still working, doing Sunday morning programs at a Christian station, WWEV, when he was injured badly in an auto accident a couple of months ago.

He appeared with the Jordanaires in several of Elvis’s movies, but more recently Hugh did voice-overs in commercials and was a member of Actors Equity. He was chosen for a role in the TV-movie Murder in Coweta County that starred Johnny Cash, as well as a film with Andy Griffith, and also appeared in several episodes of Carroll O’Connor's TV series, In the Heat of the Night. Oh, yes, and one other thing. Hugh had been inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, and the Georgia Radio Hall of Fame.

The funny thing is, you would never have known any of this from talking to Hugh. He was happy to talk about his career if someone else brought it up, but in all the years I knew him I don’t think he ever mentioned the subject first. He was funny, and modest, and humble. For the last couple of years we ate together on Thursday evenings at a local restaurant with a group of seniors from our church. I knew Hugh as a friend, not as a part of show-biz history. I saw him as a kind and loving husband, father, grandfather, and recently, great-grandfather. He and Jeanne were married for fifty-seven years.

Jeanne has asked me to play and sing two of Hugh’s favorite hymns, “He Touched Me” and “There’s Room At The Cross For You,” at his funeral on Friday. I told her that I would consider it an honor.


  1. What a very nice tribute. I hope everyone is blessed with good memories of him at the service.

    And thanks for your words of encouragement on my post today.

  2. My sympathies to you at the loss of your friend, and what a very thoughtful tribute to him you have written. He sounds like a very special guy!

    A very interesting story! Awhile back I enjoyed a documentary about Elvis on PBS and saw the Jordanaires singing with him. I'll have reason now to watch closer next time and notice Hugh.

  3. helllo! what a nice story! do any of you know how my boss could get or download old recordings of when Hugh was a DJ?
    thanks for any help

  4. Ruth and Jeannelle, thank you, somewhat belatedly (three years), for leaving a comment on this post.

    Lara, I have sent you an email containing contact information for Hugh's widow.