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Lee Emerson
Born:  May 15, 1927
Died:  December 2, 1978
KOOK Billings, MT

About The Artist

Lee Emerson Bellamy was a Virginia-born, Montana-reared country singer and songwriter who recorded for Columbia and toured extensively with Marty Robbins as a sideman-body guard. In Nashville he only used his first and middle names, dropping Bellamy. To the degree he is remembered in recent years, it is for being a homicide victim in an incident best described as bizarre.

A native of St. Paul, Virginia, young Bellamy joined the Marines at age seventeen and returned home a combat veteran. He married Roberta Smith, a Billings, Montana girl and moved west.

Over the next few years, he moved around a great deal, played baseball, worked at various laboring jobs, owned and/or operated taverns, and often had a band that worked his clubs. Professional musicians who dropped by his place of business often suggested that he should go to Nashville. Before doing so, however, he cut a single record in Cody, Wyoming for a label called Wagon Wheel under the name Lee Smith. Roughly in late 1954, it apparently served as an introduction for his entry into the Nashville scene. He dropped both Bellamy and Smith as surnames and was thereafter known primarily as Lee Emerson.

Among the figures who befriended Emerson in Nashville were manager of various people Eddie Crandall, Bob Ferguson, and perhaps most significant future legend Marty Robbins. Through the influence of one or some of these people, Lee obtained a contract with Columbia and did his first session on June 23, 1955. While none of his own recordings became hits, a song recorded at his third session on September 4, 1956 was covered on RCA by Porter Wagoner — "I Thought I Heard You Calling My Name" who had a hit with it. Over the years, other artists also did well with the song including Jessi Colter.

Emerson spent most of his early years in Nashville in the employ of Marty Robbins. The two worked numerous tours together and Lee, who was a relatively tough customer, acted as a bouncer and body guard. They even recorded a couple of duets together with a rockabilly flavor although neither charted. Somewhat later in 1963, Emerson's composition "Ruby Ann" became one of Marty's number one hits (although the credit was under the name of his wife Roberta Smith).

Lee's contract with Columbia expired in 1957 and for the next few years, he took care of some of Robbins' business affairs. A single for Mercury in 1961 under the name Heywood Jenkins had an R & B flavor, but failed to revive Emerson's singing career. He continued to write songs that were recorded by name artists, but none were more than minor hits on the lower end of the charts. Lee Emerson's last recording was a single on Plantation in 1976.

By 1976, Emerson went to Texas for a while, but by 1978 he returned to Nashville. There he became involved with an aspiring singer named Darlene Yvonne (Darlene) Sharp, who also became involved with Barry Sadler of "The Ballad of the Green Berets" fame. In September the two had a serious scuffle at the Hall of Fame Motor Inn and thereafter made serious threats to each other.

On December 1, they had another fight which ended in Emerson having a fatal gunshot wound. There were no heroes. Sadler plead guilty to manslaughter and received a prison sentence, but was released after three weeks. Emerson's son, Rod Bellamy, later collected some money from Sadler in a civil suit.

News reports of the incident indicated that police were examining the fatal bullet that struck Emerson — to determine whether it was fired by Mr. Sadler or had been accidentally fired by Emerson himself. Sadler stated he had fired one shot but also said the bullet from his gun could not have killed Emerson.

The police removed two bullet fragments that were sent to the state crime lab. Detective Jim Sledge it would have been a "very bizarre accident" if Emerson shot himself. Sadler claimed he shot at Emerson intending to miss him by two feet. One possibility was that Emerson's gun was already cocked and went off or the bullet from Sadler's gun richocheted off the glass.

Emerson was shot in the front seat of his van that was parked at the Knollwood Apartments where Sadler was visiting Ms. Sharp. Mr. Sadler and Ms. Sharp had been to the Natchez Trace Lounge the previous night with friends.

The group had dinner at Ms. Sharp's apartment and when everyone left, Sadler said he stayed behind due to a threatening phone call that had been received. He went out a side entrance. Ms. Sharp indicated less than a minute after everyone had left, she heard a knock at the door, but saw no one through the peep hole. Sadler then went out and found Emerson climbing into his van and then saw Emerson pull out his gun (a .38 caliber) . Sadler told him to stop. Sadler said he fired his .32 caliber pistol through the driver's window and that Emerson slumped backward after the shot.

Sadler indicated that Emerson had been entangled with Ms. Sharp for more than a year, even running her off the road at one point and later, knocked down her apartment door. The evidence from the case was to be presented to the Davidson County Grand Jury to determine whether charges would be filed.

On December 1, 1979, Mr. Sadler was charged with second-degree murder, under a sealed indictment by the Davidson County Grand Jury. In May of 1980, he was sentenced to 4 to 5 years in prison. But in September 1980, his term was reduced to 30 days and a two year probationary period.

Emerson's recordings including several demos came out in a 2011 on a Bear Family compact disc.

Credits & Sources

  • Hillbilly-Music.com would like to express its thanks to Ivan M. Tribe, author of Mountaineer Jamboree — Country Music in West Virginia and other books that can be found on Amazon.com and numerous articles in other publications for providing us with information about this artist.
  • Bullet Being Studied In Songwriter Death; Robert Sherborne; December 3, 1978; The Tennesseean; Nashville, TN
  • No charges in shooting; December 3, 1978; The Daily News-Journal; Murfreesboro, TN
  • Singer Fires Shot; Bullet In Body Is Investigated; December 4, 1978; The Memphis Press-Scimitar; Memphis, TN
  • Songwriter Involved in Shooting; December 5, 1978; The Jackson Sun; Jackson, TN
  • 'Green Beret' Singer Charged With Murder; June 2, 1979; The Knoxville-News Sentinel; Knoxville, TN
  • Barry Sadler Pleads Innocent in Slay Case; June 27, 1979; The Tennessean; Nashville, TN
  • Barry Sadler Sentenced In Shooting Death; May 9, 1980; The Knoxville News-Sentinel; Knoxville, TN
  • Singer Sadler Gets 4-5 Years In Slaying; Kirk Loggins; May 9, 1980; The Tennessean; Nashville, TN
  • Court Slashes Sadler's Term In Gun Death; Adell Crowe; September 27, 1980; The Tennessean; Nashville, TN
  • Obituary: Lee Emerson Bellamy; December 4, 1978; The Tennessean; Nashville, TN

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Recordings (78rpm/45rpm)

Rec. No. Side Song Title
  21435 A You Call That Waitin'?
  21435 B A Pair Of Broken Hearts
  21487 A Thank You My Darling
  21487 B So Little Time
  21525 A I Know You're Gone (w/Marty Robbins)
  21525 B Now Long Will It Be (w/Marty Robbins)
  21570 A I Thought I Heard You Callin' My Name
  21570 B It's So Easy For You To Be Mean
  40888 A Where D'ja Go (w/Marty Robbins)
  40888 B I Cried Like A Baby (w/Marty Robbins)
  40985 A Do You Think
  40985 B Start All Over
  41046 A Catch That Train
  41046 B What A Night
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  71855 A You Can't Hear Me (as Heywood Jenkins)
  71855 B Totalin' Time (as Heywood Jenkins)
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  134 A Gospel Truth
  134 B Let Me Be The First To Know
Wagon Wheel
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  10001 A I Hate To Say Goodnite (as Lee Smith)
  10001 B Forever Alone (as Lee Smith)

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