Bartlett Man recalls writing rock’s past

From steel guitar to rock ‘n’ roll, hit songwriter Stan Kesler has dedicated his life to music.

Stan Kesler, who wrote songs for Elvis and produced others for several early rock 'n' roll groups, sits by some of his music awards recently in his Bartlett home.
Stan Kesler, who wrote songs for Elvis and produced others for several early rock ‘n’ roll groups, sits by some of his music awards recently in his Bartlett home.

The Mississippi native spent 60 years in the music business, writing songs for well-known artists such as Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. Kesler, now 84, retired more than 20 years ago but still writes songs today.

Kesler, who moved to Bartlett a few years ago, said his fascination with music began at age 8.

“I had older brothers that played a little bit for their own amazement, and I listened to them and the radio a lot and it just kind of hooked me,” said Kesler. “I just fell in love with music and have been doing it ever since.”

He never went to college and said he had about three to four months of regular employment before Uncle Sam had other plans for him.

Kesler joined the Marines at 17, right around the time when he also bought his first steel guitar and taught himself how to play. That would serve him well when he got out of the Marines in 1946, and he and his older brothers started a band.

“We had a steel guitar, two fiddles, and a banjo,” said Kesler. “No bass and no drums.”

Then, he joined the Al Rodgers band in 1950 and played for about two years in and near Amarillo and San Antonio in Texas. But his playing days with Al Rodgers weren’t what would stand out years later. Kesler wrote his first song, “Buckshot,” while playing for them.

“That song did not make it as a hit,” he said. Nevertheless, he caught the writing bug and was on his way.

“Writing songs is like an author writing a murder mystery; they don’t have to kill somebody to write a book,” he said of his inspiration for his music. “All songs came to me from my imagination.”

The imagination would eventually lead him to Memphis, where Kesler would meet Clyde Leopard with the Snearly Ranch Boys and later, Sam Phillips of Sun Studio, who discovered Elvis.

“When Sam Phillips discovered Elvis and cut his first hit at Phillips Recording Service, I started hanging out and was stuck at Sun Studio,” said Kesler. “I hung around there so much that they started using me on some country sessions playing steel.”

It was in 1954, a year after Phillips discovered Elvis, that Kesler’s time at Sun Studios paid off. Bill Taylor came to him a with an idea for a song: “I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone.” And he wrote that song, which eventually would become Elvis’ third release.

“I would sit with my little tape recorder and wait for Sam Phillips to come in and I would play him my song,” said Kesler. “When I played that one, he took it.”

It was an instant hit, Kesler said. He and Taylor split the profit from the song.

In July of that year, Kesler wrote “I Forgot to Remember to Forget” for Elvis. It went to the top of the charts and set the record for weeks on the Top 100. He’d go on to write three more songs: “Playing for Keeps,” in 1957; “Thrill of Your Love,” in 1962; and “If I’m a Fool for Loving You,” in 1968.

Kesler also wrote a couple for Jerry Lee Lewis during that time: “I Know What It Means” and “One Minute Past Eternity.”

In 1955, Kesler played steel guitar on Carl Perkins’ first two country records. Later, he switched to bass guitar. And that proved to be a good change for him, he said.

“I had to get with the program and the change of times,” he said. “I played bass on my first Rock and Roll hit “Great Balls of Fire” by Jerry Lee Lewis.”

He also played on Roy Orbison’s “Sweet and Easy to Love.”

Kesler then learned to engineer and did some studio work. He started with some partners, but continued alone for a few years after they left. During that time, he produced a folk blues song called, “You Don’t Love Me.” Sonny and Cher cut it later and it became a hit record. The latest artist to release another version of it is Beyonce.

Later, Kesler went into a partnership with Gene Luchessi and Paul Bomerreto and started Penn and XL Records. There, he produced “Wooly Bully” on Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. Kesler said it was probably the biggest thing he had ever done. He also produced “Lil’ Red Riding Hood.”

But eventually, that partnership ended and Kesler moved to Nashville, where he continued producing.  In 1972, he worked as an engineer for Chip Moman, first at Onyx then at American Studio. He went to Alanta and Nashville with Moman and worked as a producer also. In 1977, he started cutting gospel music and did that for three years. He returned to work for Phillips in 1978.

It was there in the late 1980s that Kesler and more of the studio’s musicians formed a band called Sun Rhythm Section. They were asked to play at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C., because they were honoring Tennessee that year.

“They were exploiting old-time music and how it started,” said Kesler. “They liked us so well that they booked a cultural exchange.”

The band toured Jordan, Berlin, Bangladesh, Kuwait, Sudan and England over a 10-year period, before Kesler finally retired from the music industry full-time.

Yet, even in his mid-80s, Kesler still wants to improve on what he’s accomplished. He said his favorite song he has written is “If I’m a Fool for Loving You,” but he still wants to rewrite it in a different style.