-by Cowboy Anton, Jackson, TN.
The other day, while looking through our record collection, we stumbled upon a compilation of Mel Street's hits from the 1970s. His was a story of short-lived success and of a fatal gunshot that tragically ended the career of a magnificent country vocalist.
There was a time when a totally unknown singer could come to Nashville, cut a song backed by the finest musicians in town, and make it into a hit. This was the case of Mel Street and his 1972 hit "Borrowed Angel," one of the best cheating songs in country music history. It did not happen overnight, though. Mel Street's road to success was long and rocky: in order to provide for his family, he had to combine singing in nightclubs with several different jobs as an electrician and auto repair man. Before coming to Nashville, he lived with his family in places like Ohio, West Virginia, and upstate New York (for a while he was employed by the Niagara Power Project), singing on radio stations and TV shows.
It was through the help of businessman Jim Prater, who caught one of his television broadcasts out of Bluefield, WV, that Mel got to record "Borrowed Angel," one of his own compositions. The record, steeped in the country-pop-cum-honky-tonk tradition of George Jones and Billy Sherrill, made it to the Top Ten in 1972. It not only showcased Mel's gift for songwriting, but also his very personal style of singing, which was perfect for delivering all the pathos of a cheating song. This is the kind of theme that Leroy Van Dyke had explored with so much success in "Walk On By" and "If a Woman Answers (Hang Up the Phone)" and that would prove equally successful for Moe Bandy in years to come.
Mel's follow-up to his first hit, "Lovin' on Back Streets" (which peaked in the Top Five in 1972) treads on similar ground, being another take on the subject of extramarital affairs, which would actually become a leitmotif of many of his subsequent releases.
The vast majority of Mel's records were released on small independent labels, and songs like "Lovin' on Borrowed Time," "You Make Me Feel More Like a Man," and "I Met a Friend of Yours Today" all made the charts in the mid-1970s. They are the work of a master stylist who, like George Jones or Ray Price, understood the meaning of song lyrics and made them believable, turning them into country masterpieces. In 1978, following a short stint with Polydor Records, Mel signed with Mercury, one of the majors. Thus, his professional career was taking an upward turn, yet his personal life was quickly deteriorating: Mel plunged into depression due to the pressure derived from the committments of his career and began drinking heavily. He wound up shooting himself on the day he turned 45, tragically ending a six-year run of hits and leaving us to wonder at what could have been had he not made that drastic decision. George Jones, the man on whom Mel modeled his style, showed his admiration for the Virginia-born singer by singing at his funeral.
In spite of his short career, Mel Street ranks high among 1970s country stylists. His approach to country singing is very engaging, and although we can spot touches of George Jones here and of Lefty Frizzell there, his style sounds all his own. Unfortunately, although his life and career are well documented in Dennis Schuler and Larry Delp's Mel Street: A Country Legend (Mountain State Press, 2002), a great deal of his recorded output is not available on CD yet. Hopefully some reissue label will right the wrong and restore Mel Street's legacy to the place where it really belongs.