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Larry Butler, Grammy-winning producer, dies at 69

Larry Butler, the only person in Nashville history to win an all-Genre producer of the year Grammy, died of natural causes Friday morning at his home in Pensacola, Fla. He was 69.
Mr. Butler produced works by numerous stars, including Johnny Cash, Charlie Rich, John Denver, Bill Anderson, Dottie West and Waylon Jennings, but his biggest impact was on the career of Kenny Rogers. Mr. Butler helmed Rogers’ shift from rock music to country, and he produced major hits including “The Gambler,” “Lucille” and “Coward of the County,” taking care to place Rogers’ vocals front and center in the mix, and accentuating acoustic guitar parts and percussion.
“The success he and Kenny had together is mind-boggling,” said Kim Carnes, who co-wrote Rogers’ Gideon album, produced by Mr. Butler. That album featured “Don’t Fall in Love with a Dreamer,” a Rogers/Carnes duet that became a top five country and adult contemporary hit. “Larry and Kenny were really intertwined. Larry worked with artists who had their own individual style, and he would figure out what made them unique and then get the best out of them.”
A native of Pensacola, Mr. Butler was also a celebrated songwriter, who with Chips Moman wrote the B.J. Thomas hit, “(Hey, Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song.” He also wrote “Only The Strong Survive” (Tammy Wynette) and “Standing Tall” (Billy Joe Spears, Lorrie Morgan).
Born and raised in Pensacola, Mr. Butler began playing music as a child, and as a teenager he hosted a radio show and co-hosted a television show. He moved to Nashville in 1963 with the encouragement of producer/publisher Buddy Killen. Mr. Butler was soon playing piano on recordings by Conway Twitty, Johnny Cash, Roger Miller, George Jones, Jerry Lee Lewis and many others. In the late 1960s, he moved to Memphis, recording as the Gentry’s with Moman and notching charting pop hits “Keep On Dancin’” and “Every Day I Have To Cry Some.” He returned to Nashville in 1969, working as an in-house producer at Capitol Records, though before long he moved to CBS Records, to work with Cash and others.
In 1973, Mr. Butler became the head of United Artists Records’ Nashville division, where he signed artists including Rogers and Crystal Gayle. He was instrumental in getting Rogers to record “Lucille,” and his crisp production of “The Gambler” expertly framed Rogers’ voice and Don Schlitz’s story-song, aiding Rogers’ rise to superstardom and helping “The Gambler” to a place among the 20th century’s best-known songs. The success of “The Gambler” and other Rogers’ hits led to Mr. Butler’s producer of the year Grammy, which he received in 1980.
“With Larry, everything that happened in the studio had to be tested out,” said country hit-maker Billy Dean, who said Mr. Butler was his first producer in Nashville. “And he was testing it out not in a technical way, but in an emotional way. If it won out emotionally, it stayed. He always led with his heart.”
In the early 1980s, he started independent company Larry Butler Productions, where he worked with Denver (“Some Days Are Diamonds”), Mac Davis (“It’s Hard To Be Humble”), Debbie Boone (“Are You On The Road To Loving Me Again”) and many more.
Mr. Butler helmed a publishing company and signed writers including Mickey Newbury and Dean Dillon and whose company’s songs were recorded by George Strait, Keith Whitley, Vern Gosdin and others (including, of course, Rogers).
In recent years, Mr. Butler was back in his native Pensacola, writing songs and mentoring young talent.
Memorial service and survivor information are as yet unavailable.
Reach Peter Cooper at (615) 259-8220 or pcooper@tennessean.com.

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