A version of this story appears in Friday’s Weekend Look section of The Oklahoman.
Jim Halsey reflects on his long career as a music impresario
The longtime Tulsan is the subject of the “Starmaker” exhibit, featuring photos, posters and memorabilia from Roy Clark, Reba McEntire, Wanda Jackson, The Judds, Merle Haggard and many other musicians he influenced. The exhibit is on view through May 18 at the Gaylord-Pickens Oklahoma Heritage Museum.
Blake Shelton, Keith Urban and Trace Adkins can thank Jim Halsey for their side jobs.
These days, it’s practically commonplace to see country music superstars regularly appearing on national TV shows like “The Voice,” “American Idol” and “The Celebrity Apprentice.” When the premier artist manager, agent and impresario known as the “Starmaker” started his career in 1949, however, “people even in the summertime, if they were listening to country music they had the window rolled up.”
“But we tried to popularize country music to the world. And in order to do that, you had to take it around the world. And we did that,” Halsey said in a phone interview from his longtime home base of Tulsa.
“To me, there’s nothing impossible. In the beginning in country music, everybody said, ‘Oh, they won’t buy country music’ or ‘they don’t play country music’ or ‘the television networks don’t use country music.’ And I made up my mind I was gonna overcome that barrier. I was more challenged by somebody telling me that it can’t be done than I was just looking at something that was maybe normal and still successful and all that.”
Halsey’s successful six-decade career is showcased in the exhibit “Starmaker: Jim Halsey and the Legends of Country Music,” on view through May 18 at the Gaylord-Pickens Oklahoma Heritage Museum.’
“It’s not really about me, either. It’s about all the artists that I represented. It’s not a Jim Halsey collection. It’s a collection of people that worked with Jim Halsey, so that’s gratifying,” he said.
“I kind of get overwhelmed myself sometimes. I think ‘Man, what an honor to work with Mr. James Brown. Wow.’”
In honor of its sixth anniversary, the museum is offering free admission Saturday, said Shelley Rowan, marketing director of the Oklahoma Heritage Association, making it an ideal time to view the Halsey exhibit.
“Here at the museum, we always support pride and Oklahoma, and he stayed and made it his home base,” Rowan said.
A native of Independence, Kan., Halsey, 82, said Tulsa was the big city he traveled to growing up.
“I remember my uncle who lived here in Tulsa taking me to see Bob Wills’ live broadcast on KVOO,” he said. ‘So I became interested in music and … by the time I was 18 I wanted to be a promoter.”
He started out promoting dates for Western swing musician Leon McAuliffe, but his big break came in 1951, when country star Hank Thompson asked Halsey to handle his business affairs. The future “Starmaker” formed Jim Halsey Co. Talent Agency in 1951 in Oklahoma with Thompson as his first client.
He subsequently discovered Wanda Jackson and Roy Clark. His roster eventually grew to 40 or 50 stars; at its height, the Jim Halsey Company was the largest country music agency in the world. He sold his booking agency to William Morris Agency in 1990 and shifted his focus to educating people on how to make it in the music business.
The “Starmaker” exhibit, which shares the title of his 2010 book, features an array of photos, posters and memorabilia from the veritable galaxy of country music stars Halsey has worked with in his more than six-decade career.
Stars on the gallery floor are emblazoned with famous names like Minnie Pearl, Mel Tillis, Waylon Jennings, Ronnie Milsap and others he has represented, advised or influenced. The exhibit is packed with gold records from Reba McEntire, Merle Haggard and Dwight Yoakam, a Roy Clark banjo, one of Jana Jae’s signature blue fiddles and pink guitars from Jody Miller and Wanda Jackson.
Lavishly adorned performance suits Nudie Cohn designed for Thompson and Cohn’s protégé/son-in-law Manuel Cuevas devised for Duane Allen of the Oak Ridge Boys also are showcased.
“It really is so impressive, the embroidery and the rhinestone work,” Rowan said. “On the Nudie, there’s even rhinestones on each of the belt loops. … It was designed for Hank Thompson, and in the 1950s when he made it, it was $10,000.”
The exhibit even includes Halsey’s signature red 1980s mobile phone. He still uses a red handset, only these days he hooks it to an iPhone.
“It’s a little updated and it’s cellular,” he said with a laugh. “That was like mobile radio back then,” he said, adding you had to get an operator to dial for you. “And it was very, very expensive to make a phone call on that. It was like $4 a call or something. It was crazy, but sometimes that $4 call maybe made you a big deal somewhere.”
Several prized keepsakes come from his 1976 and 1988 tours of the Soviet Union with Roy Clark and the Oak Ridge Boys, the two artists he continues to represent.
“Nobody had been behind the Iron Curtain with country music — and we were the first. And we knocked the doors down,” he said. “We just fit in. They were just people to us.”
He also booked his country artists for shows in Europe, Asia, Africa and South America and expanded the format’s reach stateside into then-unlikely venues including Madison Square Garden, Radio City Music Hall and Carnegie Hall.
“I’m a dreamer, I’m a visionary, I’m one of those people that has an undeniable, unrelenting quest for something in the future and something new. And to me, to this day, nothing is impossible,” Halsey said.
“I still follow my dreams today.”
“Starmaker: Jim Halsey and the Legends of Country Music”
When: Through May 18.
Where: Gaylord-Pickens Oklahoma Heritage Museum, 1400 Classen Drive.
Anniversary celebration: The museum is offering free admission and special activities Saturday in honor of its sixth birthday.