Buck Owens, the Bakersfield rebel who brought a distinctly California flavor to country music in the 1950s and '60s and built a Central Valley-based multimedia empire belying his "Hee Haw"-bred bumpkin persona, died Saturday. He was 76.
Owens died at his home in Bakersfield, said Jim Shaw, the family's spokesman and longtime member of his Buckaroos band. The cause of death was not immediately known, but the country music giant who charted 21 No. 1 country singles from 1963 to 1988, among them "Act Naturally," "I've Got a Tiger by the Tail" and "Streets of Bakersfield," had been in declining health for years after undergoing surgery for throat cancer in 1993.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday March 27, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Buck Owens obituary: The Section A article Sunday on the death of country singer Buck Owens reported that a 1992 survey in Worth magazine identified him as the richest person in Bakersfield. The survey was published in 2002.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday April 11, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Buck Owens obituary: The obituary of country singer Buck Owens in Section A on March 26 reported that his third wife was named Jennifer. His third wife was Jana Jae and his fourth was Jennifer Smith. All four marriages ended in divorce.
Just hours before he died, Owens was on stage Friday night with the Buckaroos singing at his $5-million Bakersfield nightclub and restaurant, Buck Owens' Crystal Palace, something he'd done routinely since opening it almost 10 years ago.
"He had come to the club early and had a chicken-fried steak dinner and bragged that it's his favorite meal," Shaw said. After dinner, Owens told band members he didn't feel up to performing and decided to drive home. On his way to his car, fans on their way in told him that they had come from Bend, Ore., and that they were really looking forward to hearing him sing. Owens turned around and did the show.
"He mentioned that onstage: 'If somebody's come all that way, I'm gonna do the show and give it my best shot. I might groan and squeak, but I'll see what I can do,' " Shaw said. "He died in his sleep -- they figure it was about 4:30 [a.m.] -- probably of heart failure. So he had his favorite meal, played a show and died in his sleep. We thought, that's not too bad."
In the 1950s, when the music coming out of country capital Nashville was laden with swelling violins, swirling piano fills and choirs of background singers, Owens put out stripped-down records that were part Chuck Berry and part Hank Williams. His recordings jumped with stinging electric guitar work by his close friend and musical partner Don Rich, further punched up by an energetic rhythm section.
"I don't think there have ever been two people in this business closer than Don and I," Owens said backstage after a rare L.A. performance at the House of Blues in 1998. "It's like we could read each other's minds."
The relationship was central to Owens' success, and when Rich was killed in 1974 in a motorcycle accident, the loss was devastating. After Rich died, Owens recorded sporadically, but famously came out of his self-imposed retirement and landed his final No. 1 hit in 1988 with "Streets of Bakersfield." That duet paired him with Dwight Yoakam, one of many younger-generation country stars who sang his praises, in part hoping to undo some of the damage inflicted on his musical credibility by his years playing a hayseed on "Hee Haw."
"What a musical innovator," said Chris Hillman, a veteran of California rock, country and folk music as a member of the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Desert Rose Band. "His music had so much \o7norteno\f7 and Tex-Mex in it. It had such a California influence that Nashville never had....
"That put the state of California on the map. Not better, just different. It had more edge," Hillman said Saturday. "There was a regional difference, and the different music that was out here -- 90% of which was Hispanic, especially in Central California -- filtered right into their stuff."
Robert Hilburn, former pop music critic at The Times, said Saturday that Owens was quick to embrace what most of Nashville was shying away from: rock 'n' roll.
"Owens and his indispensable musical partner Don Rich embraced the energy and exuberance of the youthful sound," Hilburn said. "Even after all these years, it's hard to listen to one of his rollicking hits without joining in."
Nashville also had few country musicians with the business savvy to own their master recordings, as Owens did, wresting them from Capitol Records in the 1970s after a legal battle. The victory gave him, rather than the record company, control over how his recordings would be released in the future. In the 1990s, when Garth Brooks was famously involved in a contractual battle with Capitol, he sought Owens' counsel. The elder musician told him to retain ownership of his own masters at all costs, advice that Brooks heeded.
Owens plowed his royalties from licensing his songs for movies, television and commercials into investments in a string of radio and TV stations. At one time, he had an estimated net worth of more than $100 million. A 1992 Worth magazine survey of the richest people in the top 100 U.S. metropolitan areas put Owens at No. 1 in Bakersfield.
"He was a great influence to many people, from the Beatles to myself," said Merle Haggard, Bakersfield's other major contribution to country music who played bass in Owens' band before finding fame on his own.