February 12, 1911
April 22, 1968
As a high-level recording executive, Stephen Henry Sholes helped to shepherd country music’s commercial growth in the years following World War II.
After his family moved near RCA’s Camden, New Jersey, plant, where his father worked, Sholes began his RCA career in 1929 as a messenger boy and worked part-time for the firm while attending Rutgers University.
In 1935 he joined RCA’s radio department, but his experience playing saxophone and clarinet in territorial dance bands soon landed him a sales clerk’s position in the record department. Under senior executives Eli Oberstein and, after 1939, Frank Walker, he assisted in producing pop, country, and ethnic acts, mostly in New York, Chicago, and Atlanta. During the war, Sholes worked in the Army’s V-disc operation, which made recordings for radio broadcast and for personal listening by soldiers.
In 1945 Sholes became head of both country and R&B recording for RCA, based out of New York. Over the next two decades he would sign or develop such country artists as Chet Atkins, Eddy Arnold, the Browns, Hank Locklin, Homer & Jethro, Hank Snow, Jim Reeves, and Pee Wee King. At various points in his RCA career the producer also recorded jazz artists such as Jelly Roll Morton, Earl Hines, and Dizzy Gillespie.
Along with producers for other labels, Sholes helped to build Nashville as a music center by recording country talent there. After using a series of local studios (beginning in 1949), he convinced RCA to rent a newly built studio on Seventeenth Avenue South in 1957, just two years after Owen Bradley had opened Nashville’s first Music Row studio a block away. This allowed the label to schedule sessions for its own artists and to lease the facility to other labels when RCA acts weren’t using it.
Sholes’s influence in this decision was greatly enhanced by his signing of Elvis Presley in 1955, a seminal event in the international rock & roll revolution. As Presley’s sales skyrocketed and other Sholes-produced acts gained hits, the rising executive became the company’s pop singles manager in 1957, pop singles and albums manager in 1958, and West Coast manager in 1961. In the latter role, Sholes moved to Los Angeles and supervised recording, administration, sales, and marketing activities. Sholes had installed Chet Atkins (formerly his production assistant) to run RCA’s Nashville operation in 1955 but continued to supervise Presley’s recordings there and in other cities. In 1963 Sholes became RCA Records’ vice president for pop A&R and returned to New York.
During the 1960s Sholes served on the Country Music Association (CMA) and Country Music Foundation (CMF) boards of directors. He died during a visit to Nashville only a year after the opening of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, which he and fellow CMA leaders had worked hard to establish. –John Rumble
– Adapted from the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum’s Encyclopedia of Country Music, published by Oxford University Press.