Charlie McCoy brings lifetime of playing with the best to Lovers Key
The term “real McCoy” wasn’t coined after country musician Charlie McCoy (though it’s the name of one of his albums) but few artists can pull out the type of resume the guitarist and harmonica player has put together.
He has recorded with musical giants from Elvis Presley to Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan to Joan Baez, Johnny Cash to Dolly Parton, Ringo Starr and the Steve Miller Band.
Over a career spanning seven decades, the Country Music Hall of Famer has logged thousands of recording sessions and is considered the most recorded harmonica player in history.
He also calls Fort Myers Beach home and will be performing at the “Songwriters at Sunset” series at Lovers Key State Park Feb. 6 along with Kim Mayfield and Roy Schneider.
“I’m the most blessed man in America,” McCoy said in a telephone interview.
His key to success was his harmonica.
“Without that, I never would have got in the door,” McCoy said.
He was born in West Virginia.
“My grandmother played the piano in church. I had a couple uncles who could play a few chords on the piano and guitar,” he said.
His mother was a legal secretary and his dad was a World War II veteran and furniture worker. His parents split when he was young and after he was hospitalized for anemia, they made an agreement to let McCoy stay with his dad in Miami and return to West Virginia in the summertime. At the age of 8, he received two presents – a guitar and harmonica. Both would have a profound impact on his life.
He wanted the harmonica after seeing an advertisement in a comic book.
“I didn’t think much of it at the time,” McCoy said.
He wanted to play the guitar like his cowboy heroes Gene Autry and Roy Rogers did. At the age of 16 his musical destination changed when he heard “Honest I do,” by the legendary bluesman Jimmy Reed.
“It had the haunting harmonica. You wake up and you say ‘Hey, that’s a harmonica, I’ve got one of those,'” McCoy said.
Set on pursuing a career in music, he dropped out of the University of Miami to head to Nashville expecting to play guitar for a band led by John Ferguson but they hired a guitarist before he got there. They needed a drummer but McCoy didn’t know the drums. Faced with the prospect of heading back to Miami where his dad was mad at him for dropping out, he claimed he could play but didn’t have a drum set. Ferguson bought him a drum set and gave McCoy his start in Nashville.
“It was his dream for me to go to college,” McCoy said of his father. “My dad forgave me for dropping out of college when I introduced him to Dolly Parton.”
McCoy says he met Parton “the first day she came to Nashville.” He saw her in a producer’s office at the age of 18 and heard her sing. “This is something special,” was McCoy’s thought. He would go on to accompany her on several productions including her album “My Tennessee Mountain Home.”
McCoy’s first single as a solo artist was in 1961 with “Cherry Berry Wine,” which had a surf-rock attitude and was a minor hit. His early influences were Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and Carl Perkins.
From there, he earned recording auditions with legendary producers Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley put him in the studio with a harmonica to record with the Swedish-born singer Ann-Margret for her song “I Just Don’t Understand” which was before she become an international star as an actress.
“She was very nice. She was very nervous,” McCoy said.
His next session was his most iconic part: playing harmonica on Roy Orbison’s 1961 hit “Candy Man.”
“I think it was divine intervention,” McCoy said of his fortune at the age of 20. He called Orbison “very soft spoken. That voice was something special.”
“My phone started ringing” after that record broke, he said. He called his harmonica style “more bluesy” at the time. “As time passed, my style became more country,” he said. He became a member of the Nashville A-Team, recording with musicians such as Elvis Presley and Brenda Lee.
McCoy had parts on five Presley albums and seven of Presley’s movie soundtracks.
“He was really special. He was the nicest guy in the world but in that time he couldn’t go out on the streets of America. The studio was his safe place,” McCoy said. “I really enjoyed that experience.”
McCoy said Presley knew him by name and that he “always shook everybody’s hand” when he arrived at the studio.
During recordings with Presley, McCoy played the harmonica, guitar, organ and vibraphone on songs like “Big Boss Man,” “Hard Luck,” and “I Washed My hands in Muddy Water.”
In 1965, McCoy played a prominent acoustic guitar part on Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row” for his landmark album “Highway 61 Revisited.” McCoy said he was in New York City attending the World’s Fair when he called Dylan’s producer about Broadway tickets he was promised. When he went to pick them up, he was asked to play a guitar part that would be used on the album’s finale.
“We did it twice and that was it,” McCoy said. “It was a big challenging part.”
Dylan would return the favor by heading to Nashville for his next album “Blonde on Blonde,” on which McCoy played guitar, bass, harmonica and trumpet as part of a group of studio musicians. The classic double-LP features songs such as “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” and “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” McCoy’s trumpet can be heard on “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.”
It’s been a charmed life for McCoy. Along the way, he was able to play guitar with his boyhood baseball hero Stan Musial after meeting while playing on a country music baseball team in the 1970s.
McCoy and his wife bought a condo on Fort Myers Beach in 1991 and have a perfect view of Lovers Key State Park, where he will be playing Feb. 6 to benefit the Friends of Lovers Key.
With all of the superstars he has played with, his own successful career gets lost in the shuffle. His 1973 album “Good Time Charlie” went to the top of the country music charts. He had two other albums in the top five. He had several top 40 country hits in the 1970s such as “Today I Started Loving You Again,” “Orange Blossom Special” and “I Really Don’t Want to Know.”
McCoy still performs about 20 shows a year. On Feb. 20, he will be at Buccaneer Estates in North Fort Myers.
He enjoys the winters here.
“There are so many restaurants and so little time,” McCoy said. “I just love the area.”