In the spring of 1945, 19-year-old Matilda Genevieve Scaduto was working as an elevator operator at the Schroeder Hotel in Milwaukee. One afternoon, she struck up a conversation with one of the guests, a musician from Georgia with the poetic name of Diadorius Boudleaux Bryant. Five days later, Matilda and Boudleaux ran off together and one of the great songwriting partnerships was born.
Over the next 30 years, the couple would write nearly 6,000 songs together, selling over 200 million records with artists such as Roy Orbison, Tony Bennett, Dean Martin, Buddy Holly, Eddy Arnold, Bobbie Gentry, Gram Parsons, Simon & Garfunkel and most memorably, the Everly Brothers. The Bryants’ list of classics includes “Bye Bye Love,” “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” “Wake Up Little Susie,” “Love Hurts” and “Rocky Top.”
Felice (which was Boudleaux’s pet name for his wife) believed that the couple’s meeting was fate. “I had dreamed of Boudleaux when I was 8 years old,” she said. “When this man was walking toward me in the hotel I recognized him right away. The only thing that was wrong was that he didn’t have a beard. Although he grew one for me later. In the dream we were dancing to our song. Only it was our song.”
In the early years of their marriage, the couple settled in Moultrie, Ga. Boudleaux continued to work as a musician and a mechanic, while his wife started dabbling in songwriting. “I always wrote,” Felice said. “I wrote letters and poetry that I would tear up so that they couldn’t be found. I wrote all the time, even if I was only doodling. I had to have someone to talk to, so I talked to myself. I don’t read music. I don’t play an instrument. The words themselves will have a musical value. That’s how I can compose a melody. Then Boudleaux will write the music down, or I’ll turn on the tape machine.”
“We started writing for the hell of it, for fun,” Boudleaux said. “And after about 80 songs we thought, this looks like it could be a good thing. But we originally wrote them for our own amusement, and we’d show them to our friends.”
After months of writing letters to everyone he knew—and didn’t know—in the music business, Boudleaux placed a song called “Country Boy” with Grand Ole Opry singer Little Jimmy Dickens. The song went to No. 7 on the charts in 1949, and by the next year, the Bryants had upped stakes to Nashville.
“At the time, in the field that we flopped into, the artists wrote and performed all of their own material,” Felice recalled. “Then, after a while, the road got to them. They couldn’t think, they couldn’t doodle around on the front porch with a guitar, they couldn’t stroll through the woods and get inspired. So Boudleaux and I were the first people who came to Nashville who didn’t do anything but write. We were the factory.”
They were signed by Acuff-Rose Publishing and scored with a few more hits, including “Hey Joe” by Carl Smith and “I’ve Been Thinking” by Eddy Arnold. In the mid-’50s, with rock ’n’ roll on the rise, the Bryants hit their creative stride when they hooked up with two young harmonizing brothers from Kentucky, Phil and Don Everly. Whether it was a doe-eyed ballad (“Devoted to You”), a novelty song (“Bird Dog”) or a rockabilly tune (“Problems”), the Bryants and the Everlys were a match made in hillbilly heaven.
“Their stuff fit us like a glove, because it was designed to fit,” said Don Everly. “Boudleaux would sit down and talk with us. A lot of his songs were written because he was getting inside our heads—trying to find out where we were going, what we wanted, what words were right.”
“They were masters,” added Phil Everly. “Anybody would be a fool not to watch how they did it. That’s the level that you wanted to be at. I learned more from them than from anybody.”
The Bryants’ biggest song of all was one that had been turned down by everyone in the business. “‘Bye Bye Love’ was shown over 30 times before it was ever cut,” Boudleaux recalled. “It was even shown the very morning of the same day the Everly Brothers heard it in the afternoon. When it was turned down, the fella said, ‘Why don’t you show me a good strong song?’ So nobody really knows what a good song is.”
The pair’s chart run continued from the ’60s through the ’80s with hits by Charley Pride, Glen Campbell, Joe Stampley and Moe Bandy. By the time Boudleaux passed away in 1987, they’d had over 1,500 recordings of their songs. Felice continued to collaborate with various writers, and at the time of her death in 2003, was working on a one-woman play. The pair were inducted into both the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Of their success, Boudleaux once said, “Unless one feels driven to compose and at the same time has all the instincts of a Mississippi riverboat gambler, he should never seek songwriting as a profession. Unless you know in your heart that you’re great, feel in your bones that you’re lucky and think in your soul that God just might let you get away with it, pick something more certain, like chasing the white whale or eradicating the common housefly. We didn’t have the benefit of such sage advice. Now it’s too late to back up. We made it. Sometimes it pays to be ignorant.”
by Bill DeMain