"I just pretty much always did what was there to do,” said Eddie Setser, a Corbin native retired from a career in the music industry that put him in contact with some of the biggest names in the business.
In Setser’s case, “what was there to do” was to play The Apollo, appear on The Merv Griffin Show, and write 8 BMI-award-winning songs. He is credited as a writer or arranger on more than 100 recordings.
Setser was born while his father was fighting in Germany during World War II, and he grew up in Corbin until he was ten years old, when Ed and Anna Setser relocated to Cincinnati.
“My dad got laid off at the L&N when I was ten years old,” Setser said, “and he and mom went up to Cincinati. I stayed here to finish the fifth grade, and then I moved to Cincinnati…My elementary school was in the Edwards Gym, the basement of Edwards Gym.”
It wasn’t long after that when Setser first picked up a guitar.
“I started playing when I was about 12 years old,” he said. “Sixth or seventh grade maybe. My dad had an old Gibson guitar. There was a woman that lived downstairs. Her husband owned a linoleum store in front. She was a pretty good player, and she showed me a bunch of stuff. I had to promise I’d never play in a bar, which I did and lied about it. I started playing in clubs when I was about 19…just started meeting other musicians. It’s always kind of word of mouth. You’d get a better job. Somebody’d hear about you and come and listen to you and offer you a job. I played with some pretty good bands.”
During his years in Cincinnati, where he was based until 1974, Setser played dance clubs with a few different groups, including one of his personal favorites, Leroy and the Emeralds.
But it was while he was playing with a different band that Setser ended up working with music legend James Brown, who booked him in some of the most famous venues in the world.
“I was playing with a group called Cincinnati Kids,” he recalled. “That was a really good band, too. We were doing a lot of soul music, like Otis Redding, Johnny Taylor, B.B. King kind of stuff. And his business manager came in the club and asked me if I’d do a session. He wanted to replace the horn part in the introduction to this song they were doing. I went and I played some B.B. King stuff on the intro…so they finally hired our whole band and it turns out we started working for James’s production company—he pretty much ran King Records—and he mentioned he signed us as a group to market under his personal management contract. It was a white group called The Dapps. He would book us in black clubs, and we did like The Merv Griffin Show and The Donald O’Connor show out in Los Angeles. We did play the Apollo. We played I think one song. I think it was something where he just introduced us and we came out and did one song and got off stage before people could throw things.”
Playing with Cincinnati Kids also cemented Setser’s relationship with Troy Seals, a man he credits with helping him to turn his career around.
“Troy Seals is a man that I’m very indebted to because he wasn’t much older than me, but he was always way more together than I was,” Setser said. “I was always pretty crazy. He was a great singer. I went to this club up in Hamilton. The dance clubs up there would have this little box outside where you could hear the band playing while you stood out there and they checked I.D.s and stuff. And I hear this guy and I’m thinking, ‘Wow, this guy is great!’ And I’m thinking it’s going to be a black man. I walk in and it’s a bunch of rednecks, and he’s just singing his fanny off. Snap-tab collar, pompadour hair sprayed back. I was really impressed with him. He was a good guitar player. He was a great singer. I finally just hung out with him, and I started doing Jonathan Winters imitations, and he liked that, so I think he finally got to the point where he just said, ‘Why don’t you just sit in and play a little bit.’ We kind of started that way. He was part of the band that we worked for in Cincinnati—Cincinnati Kids. He played rhythm guitar.”
By the early 70s, though, things weren’t going so well for Setser, and it was his friend Troy Seals who got him up and out again after some disastrous experiences with psychedelic drugs and a failed marriage.
According to Setser, “Troy came by my house, and I wasn’t doing any drugs or anything by then, but I was just kind of spooked. I was out there. And he said, ‘Man, you ought to come down to Nashville.’ And I said, ‘Naw, I don’t want nothing to do with that. I can’t write no country music.’ And he said, ‘Well, it’s not all country. You need to be doing something. You’re just wasting away up here.’ He came back a couple of times. He’d stop by, and finally he said, ‘Why don’t you just do this: you come down to Nashville about three weeks, and if you don’t like it, I’ll never bother you again.’ So I went down there, and it was just amazing. The people were amazing. Everybody wanted to see everybody make it. Nobody was trying to play games with everybody. It was open. Everybody was just incredibly friendly, and I just felt comfortable and I just…started getting my chops back.”
During his years in Nashville, Setser learned to be a professional songwriter, under Seals’ tutelage.
“We had songs on albums by Aretha Franklin, The Four Tops, Isaac Hayes. We got this record on this guy called Con Hunley from Knoxville that actually went to number 12 on the charts…anyways, the songs just kept getting a little bit better and a little bit better, and, well, after the Con Hunley thing, I thought, ‘This is gonna be easy.’ But then it was like another two years before we had anything that charted. He’s like a hall-of-fame writer, Troy is…I wouldn’t have been in Nashville if it wasn’t for him. It wouldn’t have known how to write if it wasn’t for him,” Setser said.
In 1980, after a religious experience that he describes as “one of the most important things that happened in (his) whole life,” Setser cleaned up his lifestyle and got to work in earnest.
“I said, ‘Lord, I don’t know what you’d want with me, but take me.’ I wept on the floor for 2 or 3 hours,” he said. “Everything just felt different after that…I was off drugs. I didn’t drink anymore…It was really an amazing encounter…That’s when basically every good record I had came out, probably within 3 years after that.”
His songs continue to be played and downloaded thousands of times each month. “The Voice” contestant Adam Wakefield performed Setser’s personal favorite, “Seven Spanish Angels,” just last week as part of the competition. The song was originally performed as a duet by Ray Charles and Willie Nelson and was an award-winning song for Setser.
“I had 8 BMI awards for the most performed songs of the year, two on Gary Morris, one on John Schneider, the ex-‘Dukes of Hazzard’ star, one on Reba, one on the (Oak Ridge Boys), and of course, Ray Charles and Willie Nelson on ‘Seven Spanish Angels,’” he said.
Setser has played the Sydney Opera House and twice played in South Africa, both during and after Apartheid.
“We went in 1978, and we played two shows,” he said. “We played a white show and a black show. We went back in 1980, and they were mixed, which was cool. The first time I went, I think I was just in my crazy phase and probably had a death wish. People said you can’t go to South Africa. They’re gunning people down! That was about two months after they gunned all those people down, so I didn’t know what to expect. But, ‘I’m bored. Let’s go!’”
While Setser was living in Nashville, the railroad called his father back to Corbin after more than 20 years, and about a decade ago, Setser said he could feel his career in Nashville winding down, so he put all his things in storage and came to Corbin to see his family. He intended it to be an extended vacation.
While he was in Kentucky, though, the storage facility was flooded, and all his possessions washed away, so Setser never went back. With the flood waters went all his industry memorabilia.
“I don’t really care about the awards, but I kind of miss the pictures,” he said.
At this time in his life, Setser said he is glad to be back in his hometown, where he has good friends like Gary McDaniel and Drew Mahan and where he can care for his mother. The nerves and arthritis in his hands won’t permit him to play the guitar anymore, and he says he has given up songwriting for good.
“It’s really comfortable to be here,” he said. “Once you’ve done everything, I mean that’s it. Probably this stuff wouldn’t have happened if I’d never left, but…There’s so many nice people in Corbin. You kind of forget that when you go away. I like Corbin. I love my mom, and she’s pretty much the last of my family…I ain’t looking to do nothing I ain’t already done. I don’t miss nothing. I don’t have a bucket list.”