February 16, 2017
TULSA - Over the course of his 68-year career, Jim Halsey has been a pioneer of country music innovation and expansion, transforming a once colloquial commodity into a global force. Halsey played a key role in the direction and management of country music giants. He has guided the careers of some of the most iconic figures in country music, including The Oak Ridge Boys, Roy Clark, Waylon Jennings, The Judd’s, Hank Thompson, Merle Haggard, Reba McEntire, Wanda Jackson, Freddy Fender, Roy Orbison, Tammy Wynette, Rick Nelson, Clint Black, Dwight Yoakam, Minnie Pearl, and even James Brown.
Halsey's vision, marketing, and passion was fundamental to the rapid growth of a genre that may otherwise have taken many more years to develop. His leadership and vision resulted in The Jim Halsey Company becoming the biggest country music agency in the world. Halsey's artists have sold hundreds of gold and platinum records, received countless awards, including Grammy awards and nominations, and sold out shows at The Grand Ole Opry, Carnegie Hall, and headlined festivals and performances all over the world.
Halsey has represented 25 of the 125 artists selected to the Country Music Hall of Fame, as well as ten members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and has played a pivotal role in bringing country music to television. To date, he is the only producer or manager who has ever presented every artist on a single episode of the Hollywood Squares television program.
Gold records adorn the walls of Halsey's Tulsa office.
Halsey first learned about business and marketing as a child in his family's department store, in Independence, Kansas. Salesmen would come from all over the country to conduct sales pitches and presentations. Halsey would sit back and listen, picking up the subtle art of sales and negotiations by observing their interactions. Halsey recalled a piece of advice from his grandfather that he employed throughout his career: "It's only a good deal when it's a good deal for all parties."
In high school, Halsey wrote a book report on Sol Hurok's memoir "Impresario," which ignited his interest in the music industry.
"I became entranced with the image of the impresario," Halsey said. "He seemed to be the grandest — the one attending all the openings, carrying his ornate walking cane, his cape flung over his shoulder. That's when I decided that, instead of getting a real job, I'd promote shows."
By beginning his career as a promoter, Halsey was introduced to all aspects of the industry, as the worked dealt with advertising, sales, marketing, promotion, artist relations, management, touring, agents, fair business practices, television, and radio.
Halsey organized and booked his first show in 1949 for Leon McAuliffe at the Memorial Hall in Independence, Kansas, at the age of nineteen. Halsey wrote a letter to McAuliffe outlining his idea to bring the western-swing star for a performance in Independence. McAuliffe agreed and Halsey set about promoting the show by putting posters around town and buying advertisements on local radio stations and newspapers. He even convinced the mayor to proclaim the day "Leon McAuliffe Day." The show was a hit, and it resulted in McAuliffe returning to Independence and the surrounding areas for years to come.
Hank Thompson and The Brazos Valley Boys at WKY-TV in OKC circa 1956.
With his first taste of success, Halsey wanted to expand to bigger and better things. His next step was acquiring artists to a management booking agency he founded in 1952, The Jim Halsey Company, Inc. Halsey's first client was Dallas native, Hank Thompson.
In 1952, Halsey suggested Thompson relocate to Oklahoma City, where he saw potential for a new market. Unlike Dallas, where Thompson had been competing with Bob Wills, Oklahoma City provided an opportunity to grow.
Halsey's intuition paid off tremendously. In Oklahoma City, Halsey established a relationship with E.K. Gaylord Company who ran the state newspaper, the state's first major radio station, and the state's first television station, which allowed tremendous exposure. Halsey managed to secure a position for Hank Thompson hosting a Saturday afternoon television program, and by 1956 Thompson had the first color-television variety show, “West of the Mississippi.”
Until that time, Thompson had primarily been a regional artist. However, after reviewing a series of magazines like Billboard, Cashbox, Variety, and Downbeat, Halsey saw an opportunity to expand Thompson's market across the country.
"Using record sale information gleaned from those magazines, I bought a large map and systematically plotted the areas, states, and cities I wanted to cover during my first year as Hank's manager and agent."
In the following years, as Halsey added more clients to his company, he continued to forge new paths, and expand the country music market. His clients became staples in Las Vegas, where they headlined at eight major casinos at one time.
Halsey has managed The Oak Ridge Boys since 1974.
Halsey had a tremendous eye for talent. He recognized the crossover appeal of country artists who had not yet been exposed or established in emerging markets or new mediums. Although several country stars had found success on certain television programs, films, and radio, much of the success was localized to specific geographic regions and demographics. Halsey saw the opportunity to take his clients to unchartered waters.
Every one of his artists had a signature style, the sort of showmanship that kept audiences wanting more. Each artist that Halsey signed had one common defining characteristic — a connection with the audience.
"The most important thing for anyone trying to make it, boils down to being seen and heard," Halsey said. "Very simply, you can be a great artist, but if you don't connect with an audience, you're not going to make it."
One of Halsey's most prolific clients, Roy Clark, was a master of this. He had flair and pizzazz, but above all he was an entertainer. Clark had found success in the 1960s with a series of successful hit records. However, in the 1970s, his national reputation grew tremendously because of his exposure on the show “Hee Haw,” and his frequent appearances as co-host of “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.” Clark captivated audiences simply by telling stories. Outside of being an incredible musician, Clark's personality and bravado transcended art.
"One touch of flair makes all the difference in the world," Halsey said.
Halsey proved that country music could thrive in major metropolitan cities and capture national television audiences. When it came to finding new areas for expansion, Halsey had a simple and specific plan: to take country music to places where it had never been before. By being the first to explore new markets and mediums, Halsey was able to set a precedent and establish a standard for others to follow.
"My challenge was to introduce people to something they had not experienced before, and I thought, would enjoy. That was the first goal, to introduce it for the first time. The second goal was to take it to the place that was least expected."
Halsey began taking artists overseas, at first to English speaking countries like England, Scotland, and Ireland, where folk music was already familiar and made for a smooth transition. Over the course of his career Halsey booked shows all across the North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa.
"You can achieve a lot of success in this business by doing something completely unexpected --and by being the first to do it," Halsey said.
With Sen. Ted Kennedy
A lot of Halsey's success came from establishing long-lasting relationships with people of influence. Halsey organized several shows in Europe, including a special birthday performance for Princess Stephanie of Monaco at the Sporting Club in Monte Carlo. Claude Nobs, who organized and ran the Montreaux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, attended one of the shows and interacted with Halsey. Nobs and Halsey worked out a deal to bring several of Halsey's performers to that year's jazz festival. Never before had a country act performed at the jazz festival, but the acts where a hit, and helped expand country influence throughout Europe for years to come.
Halsey always had a curious fascination with people and wanted to know what they were thinking. He believes that people, at their core, are similar, and through music and entertainment can find a connection and common ground.
Halsey's most audacious endeavor occurred in 1976 with a tour through the Soviet Union, accompanied by Roy Clark and The Oak Ridge Boys. At the height of the Cold War, this move was unprecedented.
"Eastern Europe was the biggest challenge of all because of World War II," Halsey said. "At the time, there seemed to be no meeting of minds between the East and West, but we proved in '76 that could be broken down.
"When we first went there, those people were curious to see what we were, but were also scared to death of America because of all the propaganda flying around. In the beginning, the relations between the two of us was as cold as the twenty-five below weather outside. Then Roy took the stage, and after about three or four minutes, you could physically feel and see the crowd relax and melt into their chairs. They were there to be entertained. It was one of the most amazing things I've seen in my life. That's the magic of music and entertainment, it helps create a better atmosphere between people. I believe art transcends everything because it helps us to connect."
Halsey has managed long-time friend Roy Clark since 1959.
The '76 Soviet Tour received universal international praise, and was the subject of numerous newspaper articles and headlines. Clark completed a second tour in 1988, which became the subject of a television documentary.
"We opened more doors culturally than anything that had ever been done before. We walked the streets and mingled with the public. We have letters from diplomats and artists that will attest to that. That was my goal at nineteen, to reach the world outside of Independence, Kansas, the most unique and odd places in the world, that was my dream and what gave me the most satisfaction. I think we did that."
In 1990, Halsey sold The Jim Halsey Company to the William Morris Agency and embarked on a new vision: education. He created the Halsey Institute, an education program which is "dedicated to providing the best possible specialized education in the Music and Entertainment Business".
Jim Halsey worked alongside Oklahoma City University to develop a music business degree program, which was the first of its kind. Although music business programs existed in places like Belmont and Berkley, those programs were more concentrated on musical ability — one had to audition for the program — and had a side emphasis on the business aspect. Halsey's program was unique in regards to the focus being business development rather than music. For his work, he received the Governor's Award in Arts & Education in 1998.
Along with his work in educational programs and institutions, Halsey has also published books about the music industry, including his pseudo-memoir, “Starmaker,” which combines his life's story, business marketing techniques, and a thorough history of the industry with personal anecdotes and experiences.
Currently, Halsey is focused on archiving his enormous collection of musical artifacts collected over the years. Halsey has a specific goal in mind, and rather than simply finding a museum or display room for everything, he wants to provide his archive as a learning tool for anyone interested in getting into the music industry.
"I think it's great to see memorabilia, but if you don't learn from it what's the purpose of going there?"
Halsey's archives include more than eighty signed guitars, hundreds of gold and platinum records, original production posters, pictures and signed documents from world leaders and presidents, six to ten-thousand photographs, sixty-thousand contracts, unreleased master tapes and videos from artists spanning several decades, and his numerous awards and recognitions.
"I'm proud of all this stuff," Halsey said, "but I want to move forward. If I were king for a day, what would I do? I would have a center that would have all of my history — this is all eye candy — the real stuff is the contracts and presentations. That's what people should study. I would have a learning center to go along with everything. People ask if I'll be involved in OK Pop, and yes, I probably will, but this is different. This is a living breathing thing, it's about the past, but it also takes you into the future. I want to take all of this and make it available to young people who want to come and learn about the business and how to be successful."
Halsey believes that by showing physical evidence of his accomplishments, he may encourage others to follow their dreams.
"I believe there's more of an impact seeing real, physical evidence rather than a mock contract. To know this really happened. I want to people to consider the months of negotiations that were required to make a contract happen. To consider everyone involved, from the manager to the record company, PR company, publicist, promoter, venue, and so on. My formula is teaching the consideration of all that is involved. We want people to understand how and why everything connects the way it does."
Halsey would prefer to host the archive in Tulsa because of his relationship with the city. Having seen the far reaches of the world, Jim Halsey has a deep love and appreciation for Tulsa. He believes Tulsa has a unique energy rarely felt anywhere else in the world and sees great potential for the city in coming years.
"Tulsa has become a vortex of entertainment. It's the center of the universe as far at this part of the country is concerned. With the three big casinos, Cain's, The Brady, the fair grounds, Oral Roberts, the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, people can come to Tulsa any day of the week and find great entertainment. Something is always going on and lots of it. Also, I don't think anybody realizes how important the Woody Guthrie Center and Bob Dylan Archives [are in giving] Tulsa credibility for a city this size."
By allowing accessibility to his wide range of resources, Halsey wants to demonstrate that anything is possible through hard work, determination, and establishing connections. Through his collection of artifacts and stories, Halsey allows a glimpse into the history of an industry which he helped transform into a global phenomenon. Halsey's ultimate goal is to provide a structured guide on how to make it in the music business, something that was not available when he was first trying to make a splash in the industry.
"Back then, it was very difficult to get information, except through reading and listening to lectures and seeing and meeting as many people as you could who had experienced the world. The key is global vision. It's not thinking about what's going to happen in Independence or Tulsa, it's what's happening in the world. Everything we do is based off of history and geography. It's a small place once you know the world."
Jim Halsey's career should serve as an inspiration to a new generation of eager minded individuals, who think, “Why can't I do the same?”