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VOL. 37 | NO. 44 | Friday, November 01, 2013

Music and art mesh in Veda’s storied life

By Tim Ghianni

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Nashville painter and singer/song writer Gil Veda, 80, was the first Hispanic singer to record at RCA’s Studio B.

-- Lyle Graves | Nashville Ledger

Introduced to the Grand Ole Opry crowd as “The Spanish Hank Williams” back in 1962, there remains a sense of music, of rhythm in the voice of Gil Veda as he sits in his adopted hometown’s busiest coffee house named for a dog and raises his soft voice as much as possible to be heard above the din.

“I was introduced onstage by Pete Drake,” says Veda, a Jersey boy born to Spanish parents in Puerto Rico, who first began to haunt Nashville recording studios and art gallery space – his portrait painting earned him a living as well as overtures into the lives of the city’s rich and famous – five decades ago.

“I came to Nashville in 1962,” says Luis Gilbert Sepulveda – he shortened his name because “people couldn’t pronounce Sepulveda,” he says, rattling off mispronunciations like so many epithets.

Before he became Gil Veda -- an unheralded trailblazer in Nashville’s art and music businesses (he’s written 1,000 songs, he says) -- he cut his musical teeth by singing with New York City’s Hispanic superstars. “I sang about six Saturdays with Vincent Lopez at the Taft Hotel in New York, and once I sang with Tito Puente at the Latin Quarter,” he recalls of his “if I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere” continental-style saloon singing years.

Doing ‘The Twist’ in Atlanta

Before he became a revered pillar of the Hispanic business community in Nashville –“He is very rich in knowledge and talent and he is appreciated by others in the community,” says Hispanic Chamber of Commerce honcho Yuri Cunza – Veda took his New York, New York, sensibilities to Atlanta in 1959.

“I came to Nashville from Atlanta, where I had a club,” says Veda, who turns 80 Dec. 13. “It was called The Peppermint Stick Lounge and I had Chubby Checker there,” he says, with a faraway gaze as he revisits that pre-Beatles time when “The Twist” ruled airwaves and dance floors. Of course, New York City’s Peppermint Lounge was the best-known venue. So why not Peppermint Stick down in Atlanta? C’mon, baby, let’s do the twist….

The Spanish Hank Williams smiles when remembering the great steel player Drake –whose musical influence not only was strong here, but in England, where he numbered John, Paul, George and Ringo among his fans and colleagues.

“I did a recording in Pete Drake’s basement,” says Veda. “I did ‘Hey Good-Lookin’,’ ‘My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It,’ ‘There’ll be No Teardrops Tonight’” – just a few songs from the satchel full Hank Williams wrote in his short, too-mortal life.

“Pete was my friend. He was ‘The Talking Guitar Player.’” Indeed Drake’s pedal-steel is as distinct a sound as ever was produced by that magnificently eclectic instrument, and it is said he taught guitarist Peter Frampton how to use the tools and tricks to make his own instrument talk.

To see examples of Gil Veda’s art work, visit
gilveda.com.

“I did a mural in Pete’s basement,” says Veda.

Creating his own rules of art

It was back then, while struggling to make it in Music City – gigging as much as possible, working on local radio and TV shows and taking Spanish-flavored hillbilly songs to the Opry – that he realized how important his painting could become in establishing what to this day remains a flourishing business.

Fact is, Veda – who early-on became a favorite at the old Printers Alley joint The Carousel, where he performed with acclaimed session pianist Bill Pursell and other A-Teamers – now has portraits and other artwork all over the country.

“When I came to Nashville, Printers Alley couldn’t afford me. But that’s where they told me I needed to play.” Indeed Pursell, the future professor, and other Veda cronies like Boots Randolph and Floyd Cramer reigned over the alley back then. (Of course, you’d have to take exotic dancing legend Heaven Lee into account, too, but that’s another glorious story.)

Pursell and his buddies welcomed Veda’s continental voice. But music didn’t pay his bills. “That’s when I started painting. I moved to the Cabana Apartments on Eighth Avenue. But I wasn’t painting portraits (he’s become known for his portrait work since). I was doing modern art with only three colors: Orange, black and white.

“I developed by painting on corduroy material. I learned to paint on corduroy. It was my own technique.

“And my portraits are in white and black. I don’t use any colors.”

He further experimented with materials. “I use acrylic on corduroy. Used to buy regular acrylic from a can, house paint. I don’t follow the rules of art, I create my own.”

Portraits of the rich and talented

While he continued to establish himself as a singer and songwriter in Nashville, his art without rules really helped him kick in the doors to success.

What he did attracted the eyes of collector Felton Jarvis, a music producer best-known for his work with Elvis but who also produced the likes of John Hartford, Willie Nelson, Skeeter Davis, Michael Nesmith and Fess Parker.

“Felton bought my first three paintings of modern art. I never went to art school,” Veda explains. Jarvis’ enthusiasm fueled that of the artist himself, who decided being unique was good business.

He also began painting the portraits – generally working from photographs. The money to fund his musical aspirations began funneling into his Cabana Apartments home.

“Felton Jarvis connected me with Buddy Lee, who had me paint Hank Williams Sr., had me do 25 portraits for Junior to give away when he was on tour.

“My painting has opened doors for me,” he says.

Big, thick doors in one case at least. His work on the portraits of Hank led to a connection with Audrey Williams – Senior’s sorta widow and Junior’s mom – who hired him to help redo the sprawling mansion on Franklin Road.

The 1965 portrait of Nashville Mayor Beverly Briley was featured in a recent Hispanic Heritage Month display of some of his work at Bridgestone Arena.

-- Submitted

“I decorated there while Hank Junior played the piano,” he recalls of the longtime home of Audrey after Hank’s Jan. 1, 1953 backseat-of-a-car passing. More recently that was the mansion where Tammy Wynette lived and died.

“I designed a Japanese garden in Audrey’s home,” he says. “I decided to do a sculpture of The Birth of the Buddha and put some goldfish in there.”

He also installed and decorated bars and painted a mural for Bocephus’ mom.

Art supports songwriting

Painting at that point still was a means to an end. “All the time I was painting, every time I made money with my art, I went out and recorded some of the songs I was writing.”

While he figures those songs number around 1,000, he says 200 of them are – like The Beatles’ masterworks – tied up with the Michael Jackson estate.

Some of the earliest portraits he painted were of politicos, Richard Nixon, John F. Kennedy, George Wallace and Hubert Humphrey. “It’s funny how you meet people,” says Veda, adding that his portrait of Nixon earned him an invitation to the White House.

He doesn’t know what became of his JFK portrait, but “I also painted a portrait of the guy who came after him. What’s his name? … Yes, Lyndon Johnson … I painted a portrait of LBJ. They also wanted me to do Lady Bird, but I never got around to that.”

In addition to feeding his musical dreams and paying his bills, his paintings – particularly his portraits – became massive calling cards of sorts.

“When I came to Nashville, nobody knew who I was. One way for people to know me was my painting. So, I picked up a picture of (governor) Frank Clement and painted it. He introduced me to the city, to Mayor Briley.” He painted him too.

That black-and-white 1965 portrait of Mayor Beverly Briley, first boss of consolidated Metropolitan Nashville, remains one of Veda’s favorites. It was featured in a recent Hispanic Heritage Month display of some of his work – co-sponsored by the Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Nashville Area Hispanic Chamber of Commerce – at Bridgestone Arena.

“One of my portraits of Andrew Jackson is at the State Museum,” he says, proudly.

He smiles when discussing one of his more unconventional deliveries that took place on a long-ago Printers Alley night after the strippers had buttoned up and the conventioneers had returned to their hotel rooms.

“I had another painting of Andrew Jackson that I delivered to a club at 3 in the morning,” he says. “I was paid in $100 bills.”

Other portraits during his long career include Leroy Van Dyke, Charlie Louvin, Johnny Cash (four times) and Chet Atkins.

He formed a fast friendship with Atkins, who gave him RCA studio time and otherwise helped the Spanish Hank Williams. “Chet invited me over to a recording session with Al Hirt and I painted a portrait of Al Hirt.”

Veda also proudly proclaims that one of the paintings he did of The Man in Black was considered by Cash “one of the best things ever done of him.”

“Music was my first love, but I had to do something to earn a living,” he says, of the art that hangs above fireplaces and in sitting rooms all over the country.

“Porter (Wagoner) asked me to paint him and Dolly together. And I painted a horse for Faron Young before I painted a portrait of him. He was The Sheriff, you know?”

A very American experience

So, while Veda came here to be a musician – and he accomplished that task – he also became a part of the visual arts culture of what was a growing Music City.

Even while straddling the art and music worlds in the Athens of the South, Veda, the Latino pioneer, says he “never had any problems being discriminated against because of being Hispanic. I call myself a Latin in Nashville, but I communicate the American way.”

Indeed he proudly speaks and sings with his Puerto Rican-by-way-of-Jersey accent, but he says it’s just flavoring he adds to the multi-layered American experience.

“America is not a race, but a way of life. I never considered myself minority at all. When you become an American, you are not a minority.”

This American’s artistic and singing dreams merged in 1963, when he had his first Music Row session, for which he hired the Jordanaires to sing harmony in RCA Studio B, the same joint the singing group had frequented with that Presley guy. “The Jordanaires didn’t want my money. They wanted me to do a painting.”

That was just the beginning. As a singer, his voice accompanied the work of A-Team studio musicians and others of their ilk. In addition to Drake and Pursell, musical comrades included Charlie McCoy, D.J. Fontana, Scotty Moore, Bob Moore, Buddy Spicher, Pig Robbins, Boots Randolph and Ray Stevens.

‘Fool for Losing You’

Heck, Fontana, who was Elvis’ early drummer, and Scotty Moore, the man who invented rock ‘n’ roll guitar on a steamy night at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis, even play on Veda’s “greatest hit.” “Fool for Losing You” was one of the “C&W Singles” highlighted in the July 21, 1973, edition of Cash Box.

The mini-review: “Singer’s charming Latin accent and robust delivery make this a real sleeper. Traditional country, Tex-Mex mix clicks. Enterprising programmers take note….”

Other top singles that week included Ferlin Husky’s “Baby’s Blue,” Troy Seals’ “I Got a Thing About You Baby,” Tommy Cash’s “I Recall a Gypsy Woman,” Brush Arbor’s bluegrass take on the Gilbert O’Sullivan pop hit “Alone Again (Naturally)” and the immortal Johnny Russell’s “Rednecks, White Socks and Blue Ribbon Beer.”

Veda’s running buddies included two fellows with not-necessarily-upbeat takes on life, at least as painted in their songs. Those pals were Mickey Newbury --“She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye,” “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In”) – and Roy Orbison --“It’s Over,” “Crying,” “Love Hurts” and countless other great songs.

“The three of us were very close friends. Mickey used to come to my gallery (on 16th Avenue South) and hang out all the time. My wife (he’s been divorced 30 years) used to cook dinner for Roy. He’d come to my place, and she’d cook and we’d make music together. He bought some of my paintings and I recorded some of his songs in Spanish. We just took out Roy’s voice and put mine in.”

Still looking forward

During a week-ago visit to RCA Studio B, where he recorded with so many greats – he looks at the portraits on the walls and name-checks his friends. He pauses when he gets to Orbison. “He had such a tragic life,” Veda says, voice turning quieter than the norm.

Newbury, Orbison, Drake, Cash … so many of his clients, chums and subjects are long gone … preserved with house paint on corduroy by the Spanish Hank Williams, who still pursues musical dreams.

“I’m trying to license my songs to films. And I’ve got a lot of good ones,” he says.

Other than that, he’s in his gallery … and plenty busy: “I paint two paintings a week.”

While his career has been filled with highlights, he spends much of his time thinking about the future. “I want to inspire each individual to have a dream, to follow the dream, learning from the elder. Delegation is the key. Make sure you appropriate a budget and hire the best to get it done.”

For example, he’ll gladly tell you where to find a portrait artist who uses house paint on corduroy and sings Orbison heartache tales in Spanish.

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