Oklahoma has a rich history of producing world-renowned musicians. Last month executive producer Brenda Cline, with “Women of Song”, honored three women with Oklahoma connections.
The 2022 tribute honored the lives and music of Oklahoman’s Gus Hardin, Betsy Smittle, and Debbie Campbell on May 15th at the Cains Ballroom.
Born Carolyn Ann Blankenship, Hardin was raised in Tulsa where she raised her daughter, Toni Jones now of Sapulpa. In 1969 she took on the stage name of Gus Hardin and became part in the growing “Tulsa Sound” in the 1970s. Following her daughter’s graduation from Jenks High School, she was signed by RCA and began touring.
Her first album was “Almost Live with Gus Hardin” in 1978. From 1982 to 1985 she released self-titled “Gus Hardin”, “Fallen Angel”, “Wall of Tears”, and “I’m Dancing As Fast As I Can” containing singles “After the Last Goodbye” which reached top 10, “Fallen Angel”, “If I Didn’t Love You”, “Lovin’ You Hurts”, “I Pass”, and “Just as Long as I Have You.”
As a duet-artists, she recorded with Earl Thomas Conley on “All Tangled Up in Love”. She then released “Mama Knows Best” and “One of the Boys” with Kevin Weyl, followed by “Tornado” with Kevin Weyl and Steve Robertson.
Toni Jones remembers her mother performing with musician and songwriter Leon Russell, guitarist John Weldon “J.J.” Cale, drummer Gary Busey (before he became an actor), and many more. Later she toured with icons Hank Williams Jr., Ronnie Milsap, and Alabama, as well as performing on Hee Haw and the Ralph Emery Show.
Jones said she grew up in rehearsal halls watching her mom sing and attending special occasions. She sang harmony with her mother 2 times over the years.
“I was around some really famous Tulsa Sound musicians and didn’t realize it,” she said.
Hardin’s music had a unique sound, with a touch of blues, country, and rock. The music’s energy made you want to move, she said. The fullness of the music would radiate all through your body from head to toe.
Hardin’s honors included 1984 CMA New County Music Female Vocalist; in 1985 she was nominated for Favorite County Female Singer; 1985 CMA Best Performance by a Duet with Earl Thomas Conley; and in 2018 Hardin was inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame in Muskogee.
She is one of the featured singers in the Grand Ladies of Oklahoma Museum at Kendall’s Restaurant in Noble Oklahoma, which includes Becky Hobbs, Norma Jean, Leona Mitchell and Wanda Jackson among others.
During the 2022 tribute, current and past musicians performed songs made famous by the three ladies. Their original recordings were played during a documentary of their historic performances.
Jones said Ann Bell’s performance of “When the Battle is Over” and “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” brought back so many memories of her mother. It was the first time in 26 years, since her death on Feb. 17, 1996, Jones had heard her mother’s “full-bodied amazing music” and the power of it blew her away.
Ann Bell is currently in London recording at Abbey Road Studios with Joe Crocker.
This night’s performances included Don White, Becky Hobbs, Jana Jae, Ann Bell and many other seasoned and up and coming talent.
Cline said it was a beautiful evening and the families of Hardin, Smittle and Campbell were thrilled. The videos played that night were designed to honor their legacy and careers.
She doesn’t believe a performance honoring the Oklahoma women who contributed to the music industry has ever been done before, but she hopes it will inspire the incredible pool of talent in Oklahoma. The mixture of past and current performers in the tribute was designed to reach a younger demographic.
The “Women in Song” project is multifaceted, Cline said. A compilation CD and documentary film will be release at a later date.
Betsy Smittle reached fame as the bass player with her half-brother, Garth Brooks, and then she sat out on her own to release “Rough Around the Edges” in 1994. Her career included performances with Gus Hardin, Leon Russell and Ronnie Dunn, and performances at gay pride events. She passed in November 2013 from cancer.
Debbie Campbell began touring in her teens with an all-girl band, Kandy Kanes. In the 1970s she gained prominence as lead singer of Buckwheat, a country-rock band, and as a top club singer while making her own contribution to the Tulsa Sound. Campbell opened for and toured with such greats as Don Williams, the Oak Ridge Boys, B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt, Taj Mahal, and J.J. Cale.
Cline is from Oklahoma, but worked to find and develop talent in Nashville Tn. She said it is important to her to contribute something to music in Oklahoma. For more information on the “Women of Song” project visit womenofsongok.com or Womenofsong on Facebook.