Luke Bryan is remembering someone who had a major hand in his career, paying tribute to A&R executive Larry Willoughby after he died of complications due to COVID-19 on Thursday, Jan. 14. Bryan used Instagram to share a photo of himself with Willoughby, writing in his caption that the executive was an important part of his early success.
"This guy believed in me and rolled the dice on a goofy boy from Georgia. He was very key and critical in getting me my record deal at Capitol Records," the American Idol judge wrote. "He passed away today due to COVID. He was a great artist, songwriter and a hell of a song guy. Thank you for believing in me Larry Willoughby. You will be missed. I love you, buddy."
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Before becoming the Vice President of A&R at Capitol Records, Willoughby was a singer/songwriter in the '80s, releasing his debut album, Building Bridges, in 1984. In a 2016 episode of Kelleigh Bannen's podcast This Nashville Life, she interviewed Autumn House Tallant, an A&R executive who worked under Willoughby. Tallant revealed that Capitol initially passed on Bryan twice but ultimately saw something in him that they believed in.
"The majority of artists on our record now were second or third looks," Tallant shared. "Luke Bryan came in [during] two different variations of productions so his music was still evolving. We knew he was talented and there was something there but the music wasn't always quite right."
Tallant added that after seeing Bryan again, she spoke to Willoughby, who also had the same hunch. "Incidentally the day before I had been out and about and run into Luke — obviously we had known each other because we had seen him perform in our office a few times — and he was telling me a story about it his [now wife] Caroline and I remember watching him and thinking, Oh, he's got it. He has got it," she recalled. "He was funny and charming. He just had this star power."
"I came back to the office and said to Larry, remember that guy, Luke Bryan?'" she continued. "And he said, 'Oh my goodness, I had the same experience playing poker with him and we should sign him.'" Bryan ultimately signed with Capitol Records in 2007 and released his first album, I'll Stay Me, later that year.