American music pivoted in the spring of 1945 in Milwaukee, in an elevator at the Schroeder Hotel.
That’s when and where Matilda Genevieve Scaduto, age 19, met 25-year-old Diadorius Boudleaux Bryant. She was a Wisconsin girl, and a lift operator at the hotel.He was from Georgia, but he was playing violin in a band that held court at the Schroeder. In less than a week, they were a team, inseparable and ultimately indomitable.
Their parents were disconsolate. Their prospects were slim. Their future was grand, and it changed the course of country and rock ’n’ roll music.
Matilda Scaduto became Felice Bryant, wife and songwriting partner of Boudleaux Bryant. The songs that resulted from their partnership shaped the soundtracks of millions of lives.
“Bye Bye, Love.”
“Wake Up, Little Susie.”
More than 6,000 songs. More than 1,500 recordings, by artists including Eddy Arnold, Count Basie, the Beach Boys, Tony Bennett, Ray Charles, Jimmy Dickens, Bob Dylan, the Everly Brothers, the Grateful Dead, Joan Jett, Jerry Lee Lewis, Gram Parsons, Simon & Garfunkel, and Sarah Vaughan.
“They were masters,” said Phil Everly, of the Everly Brothers. “I learned more from them than anybody.”
Boudleaux and Felice Bryant became the first professional songwriters in Nashville, beginning five years after they met in that Milwaukee hotel. They had two sons, Dane and Del, and a short history of playing music in scattered environs: Georgia, Ohio, California, Idaho, Illinois, Alabama, and Wisconsin. By this time, songwriting was more inclination than obligation. They would write in the blue-black hours until night became morning, putting together songs that would shape their future and our present.
Occasionally, they wrote separately — “Love Hurts,” “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” “Bird Dog,” and “Like Strangers” are credited to Boudleaux, while Felice wrote the classic “We Could” on her own — but most often they were a creative team, inspiring each other to lyrical and melodic heights, and to creations of depth, texture, humor and heartbreak. Once a composition was complete, the Bryants found ways to find it a home. Often, those ways included dinner invitations, as recording artists in the newly burgeoning Music City of Nashville visited the Bryants for Felice’s spaghetti and Boudleaux’s song pitches.
“I’d feed ‘em so they couldn’t move, and then Boudleaux’d play them everything he knew,” Felice said.
The Bryants made fans of Fred Rose, who had published and mentored Hank Williams, and Chet Atkins, who became RCA Nashville’s label chief and an architect of the much-vaunted “Nashville Sound.” Rose and Atkins helped spread the word around Nashville that a married couple was in town with songs to suit most any sonic circumstance.
The Bryants could be clever — rhyming “one thing sure as shootin’” with “dadburn high falutin’” — or emotional. They could encapsulate adult drama or the rush of teenage infatuation, and their songs reached out to lonely souls (“Sleepless Nights”) or joyful crowds (“Rocky Top,” which became a state song of Tennessee and a rallying cry for University of Tennessee sports teams).
“They helped stretch the music that was coming out of Nashville at the time,” said Del Bryant, the son of Felice and Boudleaux who went on to lead performing rights organization BMI as President and Chief Executive Officer. “Anyone who does that makes it easier for others to stretch the music as well. They taught people that you can write whatever you want to … in one instance, a song about a kid in jail, the next about a country boy out behind the barn … but to make sure that it is all written well.”
For Felice and Boudleaux, writing well involved taking an idea — often springing from Felice’s wildly inventive brain — and whittling it to its essence, to what Boudleaux wished to be “a few words and not very many notes.”
From a Milwaukee hotel elevator to songs heard across the globe to a place in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Bryants captured the inherent and boundless power of imaginative simplicity.