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His career didn't start until he thought it was over. and then it continued long after he thought it would end. Narvel Felts is the man behind more than a dozen hits, who beat the odds, bucked the system and managed to see the world in the process.

One day in 1957, 18-year-old Narvel Felts stood behind the microphone at Sun Studios in Memphis, ready to cut his first record. He took a good look around, and still perfectly remembers what he saw.

"Roy Orbison was in the control room," he recalls. "Conway Twitty was sitting in a chair he had dragged out by my microphone. Johnny Cash was there, along with this new piano player who was yet to have a hit record, Jerry Lee Lewis. It was pretty amazing."

Heady stuff indeed for a sharecropper's son from Bernie, Mo., whose previous musical highlight had been winning a high-school talent contest. But the moment passed - his rockabilly career on Sun Records fizzled, and Narvel would spend the 1960s wondering if another shot at stardom would ever come. He wed Loretta Stanfield in 1962, and the couple had two children. Finally, Narvel came to believe that the window of opportunity had closed.

"When I turned 30, I sat around and mourned all day long," he remembers. "I thought I was an old man, a has-been, over the hill. It was too late."

All that changed in 1973, when Narvel, then 34, hit the country charts with a cover version of Dobie Gray's pop smash "Drift Away."

"I had been in this business for 17 years, been on a dozen labels and had 30 records out before that first really big hit came along," he points out. "It was like the impossible dream coming true."

The dream didn't end there - the man they called "Narvel the Marvel" earned his nickname with 10 more Top 20 hits during the '70s, including "Reconsider Me," "Lonely Teardrops" and "Somebody Hold Me (Until She Passes By)."

"Stardom changes your life when it comes, no matter how prepared you think you may be or how long you've worked for it," he says. "It's not an easy thing to handle, and it's not easy on your family, either. All of a sudden your life is an open book, and everybody's looking in."

Narvel avoided some of that scrutiny by staying right where he was - in Malden, Mo., minutes from his hometown. "People were saying, 'You can't be in this business and not live in Nashville,' " he remembers. "But the kids were 10 years old at the time. Had we moved to Nashville, they would have been in a strange school and a strange city, and I would have still been on the road doing four one-nighters a week. I didn't think it was quite fair to them."

Indeed, Narvel kept up his steady touring pace. And even as his hit streak dried up in the '80s, he found excited audiences overseas. "Europe is very much into the roots of country, rockabilly and rock 'n' roll," he says. "Usually it's young audiences there that are really into it."

Narvel even employed his son, Narvel Jr., nicknamed "Bub," as his drummer on tour - until 1995, when the 31-year-old died tragically in a car wreck on a foggy highway near Campbell, Mo. "Losing him was just devastating," admits Narvel.

Narvel's family has been dealt more tragedy and heartbreak lately. Loretta's sister, Althia Mae Wheeler, was carjacked and murdered in April 2003 - and only five months later, her brother, Billy Joe Stanfield, died of cancer.

The couple takes special comfort in their daughter, Stacia, now 41 and living nearby. "We talk to her every day, and see her and the grandchildren at least once a week," says Narvel. "We've even got a great-grandchild! That's pretty strange. Looking back at my life, I never knew a great-grandparent. That seemed way in the distant past somewhere!"

Narvel has also reentered the recording studio in recent years. "People would be coming up to me and saying, 'Man, you ought to be back in the recording studio. You've still got it!'" he chuckles. "And so I decided to do another project."

The resulting album, Super Songs Narvelized, finds him covering some of his favorite songs. "I just do 'em the way I feel 'em, and try to put my own signature on the song," he says. "I try to live the song when I sing it, and put my soul and emotion into it." (The CD is available by calling [573] 396-5816.)

Narvel is still putting his soul into his songs, after celebrating his 65th birthday in November. "That was the big one!" he laughs. "That's when everybody's supposed to retire, right?"

Don't count on it!

"I may not do as many dates as I've been doing, but I'm still going to be out there," he vows. "I feel fine, and I think I probably sing as well as I ever did. As long as I have the health and the talent, and there are people out there who want to come to see me, I plan on keeping on doing it."

-- Chris Neal