The story of T.G. Sheppard is loaded with more riveting twists and turns than a well-plotted mystery tale. But his remarkable rise to country fame is pure truth, not fiction – in fact, you couldn’t make this up regardless of how fertile your imagination might be. Sheppard turned his life around from runaway teen to music industry executive and perhaps the only country artist who can say that he once recorded for Motown. Then, there’s the period of his life when he formed a friendship with the “King of Rock ‘N’ Roll” himself, Elvis Presley. While working as a record promotions man for RCA, the label for which Presley recorded, the two became close friends, with Sheppard often staying at Presley’s Graceland mansion as a guest. In 1976, Presley showed his support for Sheppard’s artist career when he bought him his first tour bus. Like we noted, you can’t make this stuff up.
During his peak period from the mid-1970s through the 1980s, Sheppard reeled off a string of 14 No. 1 singles, including “Last Cheater’s Waltz,” “Do You Want to Go to Heaven” and “Party Time.” At age 75, Sheppard is still active on the music scene, touring regularly and hosting his own Sirius XM radio program. He and his wife, recording artist and songwriter Kelly Lang, live just outside of Nashville.
In this first in a series of S&E Profiles, we examine Sheppard’s career from the beginning right up to present time. Sheppard talked with S&E Nashville about some of the obstacles he had to overcome, songwriting and choosing songs, his influences and other topics.
An Early Start to His Career
Born William Browder in Humboldt, Tennessee, July 20, 1944, Sheppard had an early passion for music. The urge to pursue his musical dream was so strong that he left home at age 15, not wanting to wait until he reached adulthood. “I ran away from my hometown and went to Memphis,” he recalls. Memphis, as even the most casual fan knows, is where Presley lived and recorded. The city was also a vibrant music hub in the 1950s and 60s, with the presence of Sun Records, the label home of Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and other greats. The sounds of R&B and traditional blues poured out of the clubs that dotted Memphis’ famed Beale Street. That seemed the place to be in the youngster’s mind. “I struck out on my own,” Sheppard says. “I always knew that I wanted to be in music. I started playing in bands and we played high schools and some of the fraternity and sorority houses at the colleges. Playing in those bands helped me develop my stage skills.”
His youth was also a hindrance, though. “I was a runaway at 15,” Sheppard explains. “That was an obstacle in itself because you had to do anything to keep from starving to death. And of course, the record business is highly competitive. I come from a divorced family and my father wasn’t too crazy about me being in music.”
In 1966, young Browder did get the chance to make his first record, “High School Days,” under the name Brian Stacy. He gained enough momentum from that single to land opening spots for a few rock ‘n’ roll acts, including The Beach Boys.
Important Influences “My earliest influential person was definitely Sam Phillips,” Sheppard notes. “At the time, he was recording Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison, people like that. Sam was very big in the 1950s and 60s and he was very cordial to a young kid. As far as a musical influence,” Sheppard adds, “it was Elvis. I loved R&B, country, pop, any kind. I used all of those influences in my sound.” Later, Presley served as a mentor to Sheppard and helped guide his career.
In the late 1960s, he went back to his original name of William Browder and landed in a different spot in the music business. Actually, it was the “business” half of the equation. He scored a position in the record promotions department at the RCA Records label. And due to his love for music and knack for hearing a good song, he was pretty successful at the job. In his capacity, Sheppard worked with such artists as Waylon Jennings, John Denver and his musical hero Elvis.
But the performing desire never burned out. A nudge from Waylon himself provided one of the earliest big breaks Sheppard needed. “Waylon was the guy who encouraged me to quit being a promotions man and start becoming a singer,” Sheppard remembers warmly. “He said, ‘You’ve got a really good voice. You need to get out of that shirt and tie.’ And I took his advice.”
That led to break No. 2. In 1974, Sheppard found a song called “Devil in the Bottle.” His keen musical instincts told him the song was a smash, but apparently, no one else shared his enthusiasm. “That was a song I had pitched to everyone,” Sheppard laughs. “I knew it was a hit. But I couldn’t convince anyone to record it.” He decided to cut the song himself and went to Nashville. While in Music City, he was signed to the Melodyland label, a division of the legendary R&B record label Motown. Berry Gordy, Motown’s founder and guiding light, was trying to establish a foothold in country music during that time.
He concocted a new name, T.G. Sheppard, for the recording of “Devil in the Bottle,” to avoid any conflict with his job at RCA. That became his official artist moniker. And was he ever right on the money about the song’s potential. “Devil in the Bottle” hit No. 1 in 1975 and became the first chart-topper of Sheppard’s career. “So, that was my second big break, being signed by Berry Gordy to that label,” Sheppard says. With a laugh, he recalls an ironically humorous story surrounding “Devil in the Bottle,” the song that no one wanted. “I got a package in my mailbox with a rejection notice for ‘Devil in the Bottle,’ the same day ‘Devil’ went to No. 1,” he notes in a wry tone. “That was a strange day. But I’m glad I kept that song.”
Sheppard followed that with another No. 1, “Tryin’ to Beat the Morning Home.” From here, there was no stopping the Sheppard express. He bid farewell to the promotions game and devoted his energies to music on a full-time basis. With that, along came the third big break, courtesy of his good friend, Elvis Presley. To show his support for Sheppard, and as a token of their friendship, Presley bought Sheppard his first tour bus. That obviously relieved Sheppard of a huge financial burden. But the gesture’s personal impact was even more important to Sheppard.
“The bus itself was not the greatest gift,” he says. “It was knowing that Elvis supported me and believed in me that much, and that gave me the confidence to move forward.” And move forward he did indeed. In 1977, Shepard signed with the Warner/Curb label and he soon ran off a string of hits that was almost unmatched. One of his most popular songs, “Last Cheater’s Waltz,” danced to the No. 1 spot in 1979. From there, 9 of his next 10 singles all went to the top, including “Do You Want to Go to Heaven,” “I Loved ‘Em Every One” and “Party Time.” His 14th and final No. 1 came in 1986 with “Strong Heart” for the Columbia label.
BECOMING A SONG MAN
Like many of his peers, Sheppard mostly depended on outside songs for his material. While he did occasionally write, he and his team looked to the prolific stable of Music Row pros for the bulk of his material. That’s rarely done today, as most artists are encouraged to write their own songs. In fact, their chances of landing a record deal are severely hindered if they do not.
“Back then, writing wasn’t that important,” Sheppard explains. “We depended so much on those writers. I went to school, as I call it, with some of the great craftsmen of songwriting – the guys that did it every day. A lot of times, I got to hear their songs first, before they could pitch them to anyone else.”
Sheppard became a savvy song man, blessed with the ability to not only pick a tune that had hit potential but would also fit him perfectly. His years as a suit-and-tie exec proved a huge asset. “Being a promotions guy,” Sheppard says, “I knew what was popular on radio and what would work. I knew what radio was looking for. I was fortunate in that I had total input into picking the material. What also was a big help was that I had the chance to tour with Conway Twitty for a while. Conway was a good song man and a great writer. He had an ear for a good song and I learned so much from him.”
STILL IN THE GAME
Sheppard last appeared on the singles chart in 1991. But he remains a popular figure on the touring circuit and often performs at local Nashville events, as well as the Grand Ole Opry. Today, This past September, he released a new album “Midnight in Memphis,” his first solo album project in more than 20 years. You can also catch him Friday afternoons hosting The TG Sheppard Show, on Sirius XM’s Elvis Radio Channel 19.
Sheppard is quite active on social media, Facebook in particular, which he notes has been an unbelievable boon to artists of his era. “It is an instant vehicle,” he says. “People know where to find you now, where they weren’t able to do that 20 years ago. They can find out when you’re coming to their town or when you have a new record coming out. It is a new day right now,” he adds, “and I love it.”