Wilburn Steven (Bill) Rice (1939–)
Wilburn Steven “Bill” Rice is an award-winning Arkansas musician and songwriter who, along with writing partner Jerry Foster, wrote hit records for some of the best-known figures in American music, including Elvis Presley, Charley Pride, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Conway Twitty. Rice has received many songwriting awards and was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1994.
Bill Rice was born on April 19, 1939, in the small town of Datto (Clay County) to Arkansas natives Dewey Wilburn “Wid” Rice and Nova Stevens Rice. When he was a child, his family struggled to make a living in a tiny rural town in the throes of the Great Depression. According to the 1940 census, Rice’s father worked only twenty weeks in 1939. Rice attended high school in nearby Corning (Clay County). By the age of fourteen, with help from his mother, who had taught him a few chords, he started playing guitar. Within a few years, Rice was playing before audiences.
Rice had early success playing shows in Missouri, especially in the St. Louis area. At the age of eighteen, he was discovered by Elvis’s guitarist Scotty Moore, who signed Rice to Moore’s short-lived label Fernwood Records. Moore also recorded the song “Girl Next Door Went A’Walking,” which Rice penned with Thomas Wayne. The song had better success the next year as an up-tempo rocker on Elvis is Back!, the first album Presley released after returning to the United States after service in the U.S. Army.
While on tour in Missouri in the early 1960s, Rice met Jerry Foster, a songwriter and guitarist working in radio at the time. Foster was from a small town in southeastern Missouri not far from the Arkansas border and, like Rice, had grown up poor in the cotton fields. Shortly after they paired up, the two began a long and lucrative songwriting career.
When composing, Rice mostly worked on the music, while Foster contributed the lyrics. “His melodies would sing to me,” Foster said of Rice. Guitarist Roland Janes suggested that Rice and Foster travel to Memphis, Tennessee, and record demos. The two did so, though they remained in Missouri for much of the decade. In the early 1960s, Texas promoter Bill Hall and Cowboy Jack Clement (the latter of whom had worked with Sam Phillips and Johnny Cash at Sun Records in Memphis) signed Rice and Foster to a publishing deal. In the mid-1960s, with Clement’s help, Rice and Foster wrote for artists such as Moon Mullican, Johnny Preston, Dickey Lee, and Johnny Paycheck.
By 1967, Rice and Foster were in Nashville full time, following in the wake of Texas music promoter Bill Hall, who had moved there shortly before they arrived. Rice and Foster worked in radio and at odd jobs while they wrote songs. The duo had their first huge success with Charley Pride on such songs as “The Easy Part’s Over” and “The Day the World Stood Still.” Pride recorded nineteen Rice and Foster songs. After their breakthrough with Pride, other country stars began contacting them. The duo also had hits with Jerry Lee Lewis, for whom they wrote their first Billboard Hot Country number-one song, “Would You Take Another Chance on Me?,” released in October 1971.
Rice was successful recording solo material in the 1970s. In 1970, he wrote the up-tempo, fiddle-friendly “Wonder Could I Live There Anymore” for Pride, which was about a man’s return to the family farm. It was the only song that Rice wrote without Foster that reached number one on the country charts. Rice also played and sang on a Rice-Foster collaboration: the 1971 song “Travelin’ Minstrel Man.” His greatest success, however, was with the songs he wrote with Foster. The team’s most recorded collaboration was “Someone to Give My Love To,” which was covered memorably by Johnny Paycheck. In 1972, Rice and Foster won an unprecedented ten awards from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP); these were rolled out at the awards ceremony in a golden wheelbarrow. Two years later, they broke their own record by winning eleven ASCAP awards.
By the 1980s, after an eighteen-year partnership, Rice and Foster ended their collaboration. According to Foster, “Bill wanted to explore other avenues.” The pair had written 2,000 songs together, becoming known as the “Song Factory.” The two had agreed to not write with other musicians while they were partners, though they apparently never had a formal contract. After their partnership ended, Rice continued to write songs, such as “I’m Not that Lonely Yet,” which he penned with his wife at the time, Sharon Vaughn (the couple later divorced). Rice lives in Florida.
For additional information:
Foster, Jerry G. An Ol’ Rebel Still Rockin’. N.p.: Hughmont, 2015.
“Poets and Prophets: Salute to Legendary Songwriter Jerry Foster.” Country Music Hall of Fame. https://countrymusichalloffame.org/poets-prophets/jerry-foster (accessed January 31, 2020).
“Wilburn Steven Rice.” Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. http://nashvillesongwritersfoundation.com/Site/inductee?entry_id=3689 (accessed January 31, 2020).
Lee Family Digital Archive, Stratford Hall
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