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The harmonious Statlers.

It's another banner year for the Statlers--their hit record "Elizabeth" topped the charts this spring. The newest member of the group, who wrote the hit, is comfortably "settled in," and their Las Vegas debut was a sellout.

But some things never change.

The good old boys from Staunton, Virginia, still work the state-fair circuit, stay after each performance until the last fan has the final autograph and always plan their tour around the star-spangled "Happy Birthday, USA" tradition they established 15 years ago back home in Staunton.

"It was a joint idea," says Statler Harold Reid, explaining the patriotic party the group plays host to every Fourth of July. "When we started to sing professionally and were doing a lot of traveling, people around home would still call us and say, 'Hey, c'mon over and sing for the Rotary Club tonight.' We literally didn't have time; if we had, we would have worked 365 nights a year. So we came up with the idea that once a year we'd invite anyone who wants to raise money for a charity to participate in one big show on the Fourth of July. We decided to call it 'Happy Birthday, USA.' The first year it was bigger than we ever expected and it's grown ever since. In 1983, we had 72,000 people there. Not bad for a town of 24,000."

Not bad at all.

Fans stream to Staunton partly to enjoy the arts-and-crafts booths, games, gospel sing, parade and free concert, but mostly to trace the roots of the group that author Kurt Vonnegut once dubbed "America's poets." All four of the Statlers--Harold and Don Reid, Phil Balsley and Jimmy Fortune--live in the area and often are seen around the town's elementary school, which now serves as Statler headquarters. Buying their alma mater, jokes Harold, was the only way the boys could get out of school. But school was never this popular. Thousands now tour the facility to purchase souvenirs, to marvel at the gold and platinum albums on display and to snap pictures of the 300 music awards that dot the walls.

"It depends on how much privacy you want," Don Reid says of town residents who knew the boys "when" and still like to relive the memories at every chance meeting. "I can't say to my family, 'I'm going to run into town and I'll be right back,' because it takes an hour to do a 15-minute errand. Before I get back, 30 people might stop me. But that's okay; if I'm in a hurry I send my kids."

Their career was launched in earnest in 1963, just a few miles from home, when Johnny Cash saw them perform and asked them to open one of his shows. Two years later they won their first Grammy award by nosing out such heavyweights as the Beatles and Supremes. The song that thrust them onto the national music scene was "Flowers on the Wall."

"We were the darkest of dark horses," recalls Harold. "Everyone resented the fact that a bunch of ignorant upstarts had come along and beaten the Beatles."

"We got a lot of offers to do rock tours because we won in a category called 'Best Contemporary Performance by a Group,'" adds Phil Balsley. "We said no, that we didn't want to go on the road with a bunch of rock acts for 30 days."

They preferred country audiences and decided to concentrate on that segment of the business. The next five years were lean, but they clung to the belief that "Flowers on the Wall" had crossed over to the pop charts by chance...one of those once-in-a-lifetime flukes that never happen twice.

"During that time we sometimes wondered if we had made the right decision or if we should have taken the quick money," says Don. "But we were determined to stay in the country field, so after a few years of struggling we switched labels and cut a record that was 100 percent country. It was called 'Bed of Roses'--a big hit for us--and the first thing it did was cross over to the pop charts."

These days they don't worry about pop vs. country vs. middle of the road. Their appeal spills over from one genre and generation to the next, and their audiences are as enthusiastic in New York City as they are in Nashville. The boys no longer try to analyze their success but are content merely to enjoy it.

"We used to think our fans were young adults, ages 20 to 45," says Don. "But we're seeing more and more teen-agers in the crowd. Then little kids come up to us--four and five years old--and we wonder, what do they see in us? We sing about memories they never had, but I guess you can take those memories and transpose them to any place in time you want. Maybe that's one of the reasons we've been around as long as we have."

Another reason for their staying power is the total control they maintain over their career. They're quick to emphasize the "business" half of show business, and each member of the group has assigned duties. Don handles publicity, Harold oversees travel arrangements, bookings and wardrobe, Jimmy is in charge of the audio-video departments at Statler headquarters in Staunton and Phil keeps the books.

"He's probably cheated us out of more money than any other person," teases Harold. "But he does it with such grace."

"A regular Mr. Nice Guy," agrees Phil, on cue.

Their constant bantering is another clue to their longevity. They genuinely like each other, and that's a plus for a group that travels together ten months a year in the close quarters of a bus. When they conducted auditions to fill the spot of retiring Statler Lew DeWitt, they were as concerned with hiring a compatible partner as a competent tenor. They found both in Jimmy fortune. And, yes, Fortune is his real name.

"Actually, it gets worse," admits the new recruit. "It's really 'Lester James Fortune.'"

The rest of the boys call him the elf and tease him about his age--young--and his size--small. The onstage jokes have helped endear Fortune to Statler fans, but the ribbing doesn't stop with the final encore.

"You could almost lay a blueprint of Jimmy's background on top of ours and they'd match," says Harold. "He grew up only 35 or 40 miles from us, and the way he got started in the music business is almost identical to our start. We were bored with him the second day."

Not really. In more serious moments, Phil credits Jimmy with bringing a fresh point of view to the group, and Don marvels at Jimmy's quickness to learn Statler harmony and to fit in as one of the four cogs in the well-oiled Statler machine. Jimmy accepts the compliments and doles out a few accolades of his own.

"When I auditioned for the group they saw things in me I didn't know I had. I used to write songs in pieces; I didn't have anyone to play them for. Now I play for Don and he'll say, 'That's good; keep working on it.' I'm the kind of person who needs a lot of encouragement."

Subtly, each member buoys the others. They joke about past performances when one of them suffered laryngitis and mimed the lyrics of a solo while another member sang the verses ventriloquist-style. Even during their comedy routines they sense if one member is not keeping pace with the quips and cover for him with off-the-cuff one-liners.

"It's the camaraderie," explains Don. "Anyone can go out and hire three guys to form a group, but the rub is whether or not they get along when the show is over. Sometimes we spend more time together than we do with our wives. When we go on the road for ten days it means 24 hours a day for ten days. How we get along personally is as important as how we mesh professionally.

"Our written files tell us what songs we sang, the jokes we told and the clothes we wore in each city," says Don. "We work hard to keep the show fresh. By checking our records we don't risk somebody coming up to us and saying, 'Well, that's the same old joke you told here four years ago.'"

Still, repetition is inevitable, and after spending 43,000 hours together traveling more than a million miles, the boys delight in the gee-whiz statistics they're tallied along the way. According to Statler lore, they've played to 7 million-plus fans, cut 25 albums, released 30 singles, used 144 miles of recording tape and consumed 1,000 soft drinks during studio sessions. They've appeared at the White House four times, granted 15,000 interviews and explained the origin of the name "Statler Brothers" at least 10,000 times.

"It was taken from a box of tissues in a hotel room, explains Harold, for the 10,001st time. He pauses for effect and then adds: "We could just as easily have been the Kleenex Brothers."
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Copyright 1984 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:country-music group
Author:Miller, Holly G.
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Sep 1, 1984
Words:1519
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