BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) – Charles Lee Owen – Fuzzy Owen for anyone who knew him – helped create Bakersfield Sound and in so doing helped make Merle Haggard a star. He worked behind the scenes, in the center of the stage, established himself as a star, but mostly worked to support others.
He died Monday evening at the age of 91.
Local residents of a certain age may remember Owen in the late 1950s, when he and his girlfriend, Bonnie Owens – she was between two marriages with Buck Owens and Merle Haggard – were local celebrities. Haggard, this great American songwriter, was still in prison, unknown
At this time, Fuzzy was playing honky tonks, usually with his cousin Lewis Talley – the Clover Club, the Lucky Spot, and most infamously of all, the Blackboard. When Haggard was released from San Quentin in 1961, after living for nearly three years on burglary and general incorrigibility, he also began singing in honky tonks.
Fuzzy recognized his talent – even his mistakes sounded good, Fuzzy once said – and signed him to the microscopic label he and his cousin had founded – Tally Records. Thus began a close friendship that lasted almost 60 years, through poverty, fame and grief.
Haggard passed away in 2016 and Owen at his home early Monday evening, just months after the publication of his memoir – written with his pastor at Valley Baptist Church, Phil Neighbors: âMerle Haggard, Bonnie Owens and me.
âHe always wanted to write history with Bonnie, but Bonnie did it
Far away, âthe neighbors said. âSo he had this desire to write the book and tell the story. Fuzzy is one of the pioneers. I like to think, because it was there from the very beginningâ¦ âA Dear John Letterâ is really kind of a starting point. Well, that was the song that he and a few other guys, Lewis Talley and Hillbilly Barton, composed. And if this is the start, Fuzzy was there at the Big Bang.
Many Owen fans knew him through his connections to cousin Herb Henson, whose 45-minute TV show, âCousin Herb’s Trading Post Gang,â which airs weekdays just before the newscast, caused laughter and thrills throughout. Southern Valley shows for a decade.
Shortly after Henson’s show ended, Haggard formed his band, the Strangers, with Owen (no “s” at the end of his name, unlike two other musicians of the time with the same name) in the steel guitar. But Owen also took on a much bigger role, one that would last a lifetime – that of Merle’s manager.
The group was a success almost immediately. By 1965, they had joined that other Bakersfield mega-star, Buck Owens, at the top of the country charts, where they remained for years.
Owen left the group as an active member in the early 1970s, but remained Haggard’s closest friend and most trusted advisor from that point on.
Now, with his passing, Bakersfield is losing one of the last ties to its glorious past as the mecca of the West Coast country.
âFuzzy’s greatest contribution to Bakersfield Sound has been as a businessman,â said Scott B. Bomar, Bakersfield Sound specialist. âYou know, Buck Owens was obviously a great businessman too, but even before Buck built his empire, Fuzzy was on the scene. He was a songwriter, he was a conductor, he was a performer, he was a singer. was a musician, he was a music publisher, he had a recording studio, he produced records.
âI mean, he had a hand in every aspect of the music that you could have a hand in,â Bomar said. “And I think he’s a very important figure at Bakersfield in terms of getting started on a professionalized scene that stretched beyond just having live music in clubs, but had music intended for consumption beyond city limits. “
When he arrived in Bakersfield in 1949, Owen could not imagine he would become the quiet standard-bearer of a unique musical genre that gave his adopted city an enduring identity. This is exactly what he did.
It all started in 1949 with a concert at the then unknown Blackboard Cafe with Cousin Lewis; graduated in 1956 in a small building on East 18th Street, not much larger than a typical suburban garage, where Tally Records (no “e” in Tally) established their first low-tech recording studio; and rose in 1965 with the commercial breakthrough of Haggard.
Small buildings, big dreams: that was how it was in Bakersfield back then for so many musicians, none more than Fuzzy Owen.
Owen leaves behind three grown daughters, six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, with a fifth on the way. The family is still working on the funeral arrangements.