Forgotten Artists: Narvel Felts

Paul W. Dennis | February 12th, 2009

Narvel Felts

Give Me The Beat Boys and Free My Soul
I Want To Get Lost In Your Country Song
And Drift Away

Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios in Memphis had quite a coterie of performers during the mid 1950s: Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Harold Lloyd Jenkins (aka Conway Twitty), Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich, Carl Mann, Warren Smith, Billy Lee Riley and Narvel Felts. Many have gone on to their maker, while others still perform occasionally but with greatly diminished vocal capacity. Only Narvel Felts continues to perform on a regular basis and can still be considered at his vocal peak, his soaring tenor and high falsetto undiminished by the ravages of time. Among male artists who have had commercial success in Country Music, only Slim Whitman had a comparable ability to hit the high notes. Expand the discussion to include pop and rock music and you can add Jackie Wilson and Roy Orbison to the list. None, however, had quite the range that “Narvel the Marvel” possesses.

Felts was born November 11, 1938 in Keiser, Arkansas, and raised in Bernie, Missouri, where he became interested in music at an early age. During his teens Narvel worked in the cotton fields, saving his money to buy a guitar. While attending Bernie High School, Narvel entered (and won) a talent contest held at his school, singing Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes.” A deejay from Dexter, Missouri, was in the audience, and was so impressed that the next day he announced over the air that his station, KDEX, wanted to get in touch with Narvel Felts. Soon Felts was appearing at the station for his own Saturday afternoon show. This lead to further opportunities, especially with buddy Roy Orbison and noted record producer Jack Clement assisting Felts in getting placed on Sun Records. The first harvest came in the form of a rockabilly number titled “Kiss-a Me Baby.” Felts was all of 16 years old at the time.

Unfortunately, rockabilly had a short shelf life as the dominant form of American popular music and artists that stayed with the format were quickly forgotten. Even the “King,” Elvis Presley, had to expand beyond rockabilly to keep his career moving forward. Nothing happened for Felts on Sun Records and he soon signed with Mercury where five singles were released without notable success. He recorded with minor labels for the next few years, achieving a minor pop chart success in 1960 with a cover of the Drifters’ “Honey Love.” This success led him to sign with MGM where he cut a number of singles.

Felts continued to perform and record throughout the 1960s with little commercial success as far as record sales were concerned, although he made many excellent records. Despite the lack of success, Felts was able to keep his career chugging forward as a popular gate attraction due to his dynamic stage presence. Hi Records had recording sessions with Felts at scattered times during the 1959-1973 period.

On April 30, 1962, Felts married Loretta Stanfield, a union that produced two children: a daughter Stacia and a son, Narvel “Bub” Felts, Jr. (Bub was a talented drummer, and a part of Felts’s touring band until his death in an auto accident in September 1995).

Like former label-mate Charlie Rich, it took Narvel Felts until the 1970s for his career to hit high gear. Also like Rich, Felts’ talents were so diverse that it was difficult to pigeonhole him into any particular genre. While no one would ever describe Narvel Felts as being part of the “outlaw movement,” he unquestionably benefited from it as Nashville in the 1970s became more accepting of artists not cut from the Roy Acuff/Ernest Tubb/Merle Haggard mold. Recording on the small Cinnamon label, Felts started producing hit records.

In 1973, while signed with the Cinnamon label, his second single, the Mentor Williams composition “Drift Away” (#8BB/#5CB) became his first top ten country hit. This was followed by “All In The Name of Love” (#13BB & CB), “When Your Good Love Was Mine” (#14BB/#10CB), “Raindrops (#33BB/#30CB) and “I Want To Stay” (#26BB/#23CB).

In 1975 Cinnamon went out of business and Felts moved to ABC Records, where his first single, “Reconsider Me,” exploded onto the charts reaching #1 on the Cash Box and Record World country charts (inexplicably, it only reached #2 on Billboard’s chart) and received many honors both in the USA and abroad, including Cashbox Country Record of the Year, Billboard DJ’s Country Record of the Year and ASCAP Country Record of the Year.

While never again reaching these heights, the following three years found Felts consistently charting. A listing of the ABC (later MCA) top 30 charting singles follows:

Year Title Billboard Cashbox
1975 Funny How Time Slips Away 12 6
1976 Somebody Hold Me 10 6
1976 Lonely Teardrops 5 4
1977 My Prayer 14 12
1977 To Love Somebody 22 18
1977 The Feeling’s Right 19 24
1978 Runaway 30 32
1978 Just Keep It Up 31 30
1978 One Run For The Roses 26 32
1979 Everlasting Love 14 8

MCA bought out ABC in 1978 and lost interest in many of the ABC artists, giving them little promotion. After 1979, Felts recorded for minor and independent labels. In all, he charted 42 singles from 1973-1987. The songs recorded represent a mix of original material and covers of pop and country hits from the 1950s and 1960s.

Through the years, Felts has made many television appearances in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and New Zealand and continues to rank among the top country recording artists of all time. Although radio airplay has been scarce on American country radio stations (aside from satellite radio and over-the-air stations using a “classic country” format), he continues to enjoy hit records and radio airplay throughout Europe and had songs chart in the top ten in several European nations during 2008.

I have seen Felts perform during each of the last four years and continue to be amazed at his vocal prowess. He is one of the nicest individuals you could ever hope to meet, staying hours after the show to greet and speak with his fans. If you have the opportunity to see him perform, please do so. You will see that “Narvel the Marvel” is aptly named.

Discography

CD
Narvel Felts is one of the few artists of his generation to be well-served by reissues on compact disc. This stems mainly from the English and German obsession with rockabilly music. The German label Bear Family has issued several nice single-disc collections of Narvel’s music and various other English and European labels have kept Narvel’s music in print.

The essential disc to own is Drift Away: The Best of Narvel Felts (1973-1979), a Bear Family disc containing all of Narvel’s top country hits of the 1970s as recorded for Cinnamon and ABC. This is the only CD available to contain the original versions of Felts’ 1970s hits.

In 1997 Gusto issued The Very Best of Narvel Felts, a CD of hit songs–but please note that these are re-recordings of the Cinnamon and ABC hits. They are worth having, but lack the sparkle of the original hit versions.

There are many CDs available of Narvel’s material from before 1970. All of these are good; most of them will feature cover versions of various pop, rockabilly and r&b hits. I have yet to encounter a badly mastered disc of this material so apparently the persons reissuing this material are treating it with TLC.

Among these are the following:

Year Title Label Comments
1990 Memphis Days Bear Family material from 1962-1964
1992 This Time Hi 60s recordings
1997 Did You Tell Me Bear Family Sun, Mercury & MGM  
2000 Through The Years (1956-1959) Legend  
2001 The Hi Records Era (1959-1973) Hi  
2006 The Early Years (1957-1973) NFE  

There is some overlap with the above-referenced CDs, but each contains some unique material. Narvel has a loyal international fan club which has released some CDs in the past.

Two CDs of more recent material are Tribute To Bub (1998) and Super Songs Narvelized (2002), both on the Cone Records label. The “Bub” CD is comprised of songs (mostly) recorded by Narvel, featuring Bub on drums or as a vocalist. “Narvelized” is more recent recordings from Narvel.

Collectors Choice Music has some of Narvel’s CDs available.
Narvel’s official website also has product available.

Vinyl
Both Cinnamon and ABC/MCA issued vinyl albums on Narvel Felts that can be found with some effort. They are all worth the effort to track down. Most of Narvel’s other vinyl-era recordings appear on 45 rpm singles and were not collected onto albums until the CD era, although there may be some vinyl albums out there of which I am not aware. Happy Hunting!

  1. Jim Malec
    February 12, 2009 at 9:25 am

    This is really an excellent article, Paul. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Razor X
    February 12, 2009 at 9:35 am

    Great article. I learned something new today because I’d never heard of this artist before. I’ll have to look up some of his music and give it a try. Thanks.

  3. Chris N.
    February 12, 2009 at 10:51 am

    Very nice guy, also.

  4. J.R. Journey
    February 12, 2009 at 11:00 am

    I’d only vaguely heard of Narvel Felts. And that’s because I have 2 45s of his songs that came in a large box of 45s I bought at a yard sale one day.

    I didn’t know he did the original country recording of ‘Drift Away’ either. It’s always cool to learn something new about country music and it’s history. I really enjoy these Forgotten Artist pieces.

  5. Patrick
    February 12, 2009 at 7:28 pm

    Narvel’s was one of the last unique, recognizable voices at the time the format became totally homogenized. Just a great singer!

  6. Rick
    February 12, 2009 at 7:38 pm

    A fine job as usual, Paul. I’m not familiar with Narvel’s music at all, but at least I know about his career now thanks to you. If ever an artist needed a cool sounding fake stage name, it was Narvel! Yikes!

  7. Kelly Green
    February 13, 2009 at 12:29 pm

    Narvel still performs live and puts on an amazing show! He’s headlining our Fun On The Farm Jamboree in Huntingdon, Tennessee on June 20th.

  8. Kim Limbach
    March 14, 2009 at 7:27 pm

    I loved your article about Narvel. I have listened to his music since I was 10 years old..now I am 46!! I have went to many of his concerts and traveled as far as Texas to see him ( I live in Indiana)yes, he is that good. Narvel is 70 and like Paul said, the man can still sing. If you get a recording of Narvel in the 70’s and a recording of him today, you can’t tell the difference. Great man and great singer.

  9. Louise Lane
    November 22, 2009 at 10:19 am

    Just saw an old Porter Wagonner show with Narvel as his guest star.
    I’ve heard some of these songs before but never knew who sang them till now.
    He is absolutely G R E A T…I am now looking for CD’s with his songs on them….
    I want ALL of his CD’s…..

  10. Joe Velten
    December 26, 2009 at 1:35 pm

    We have listened to Narvel for the past 39 years. He never changes. I think his voice is almost as pure as it was 39 years ago. We have seen him numerous times in concert and talked to him in person.This is one voice that will never be replaced.

  11. al conner
    February 22, 2010 at 11:34 pm

    During the early 1960s my father,J.W.Conner, help promote Narvel from his filling station in Bernie, Missouri. Does he remember this?
    Al Conner

  12. Irene Stafford
    May 12, 2010 at 11:36 pm

    I am sure that Narvel does not remember me. But I went to Bernie High School in 1956 and 1957 with Narvel. He would sometimes ride the School Bus out to the Smith School area to spend time with friends. He would sometimes bring his guitar along and play and sing on the Bus ride. I really did enjoy hearing him sing and play. So all through the years. I have kind of stayed in touch with his music.

  13. FRANK N
    June 5, 2010 at 7:52 pm

    I WOULD LIKE TO SEE NORVELL COME TO THE RIO GRAND VALLEY IN TEXAS NEXT WINTER. SEVERAL ENTAINERS COME DOWN THERE IN THE WINTER.LAST WINTER I WENT TO SEE BARBARA FAIRCHILD AND SEVERAL OTHERS.

  14. Paul W Dennis
    January 17, 2011 at 7:20 am

    I saw Narvel in concert Saturday night in Eustis Florida. He reamins in excellent voice, still one of the few artists who should even be allowed to tackle Orbison songs like “Crying”, “Blue Bayou” and “Only The Lonely” (Raul Malo is one of the few others and even his voice is no match for Felts).

    There are two venues within driving range that feature vintage country artists. Choosing between the two venue’s Saturday fare is usually not difficult but this particularly Saturday the competing venue had the legendary Ray Price as trhe headliner. I’ve seen Ray within recent years and chose Narvel because (1) he puts on a better and longer show, (2) Narvel is a talented guitar picker who really gets the most out of his accompanying musicians – all of whom really love working with him and (3) Narvel’s voice is much better condition than Ray’s. Narvel is still at his peak,vocally. Ray, sadly, is not. If Ray Price were still in his prime, I might have chosen to go see Ray, but probably not since Narvel is that much better as an entertainer

    Narvel had available his first new CD in several years. Titled I REMEMBER YOU, it contains a generous 24 songs and well displays broad spectrum of Narvel’s abilities

    You can order this disc from Cone Records 573-888-3032. His website should also have it available shortly

    http://www.mkoc.com/NarvelFelts/

  15. Laurie Adams
    January 27, 2011 at 8:22 am

    We saw Narvel Felts in Eustis also and I was blown away by his vocal talent — the strength of his voice and the wonderful performance! It may have been a small venue but Narvel Felts performance was gigantic! And, he is the most approachable entertainer I’ve ever met! Loved the concert and have an enormous respect for Narvel Felts!

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