For Sammy Sadler, a recording studio feels like home. He came to Nashville like so many, ready to make his mark on the music industry, but he left with a mark the music industry made on him.
“I still carry the bullet in my shoulder,” Sadler said.
It’s a bullet that changed his life forever on the night of March 9th, 1989.
“I can close my eyes and take you step by step that whole night,” Sadler said.
He and chart manager, Kevin Hughes, stopped by Evergreen Records to make a quick phone call after dinner. When they left the studio to call it a night, everything changed.
“I walked around Kevin’s car, and sat down at his car and started to reach for the door, and that’s when I caught something out of the corner of my eye, and I looked up and the guy was right there on me with a gun, and I just threw my arms up to cover my head, and said ‘Oh my God, this guy’s got a gun,’ and that’s when he shot me,” Sadler said.
As Sammy slumped over in his friend’s car, the shooter chased down Kevin Hughes and shot him to death in the street.
“There’s some things as a law enforcement officer that continue to play back in your head sometimes and when I walked up here [Music Row], I do remember Kevin and the blood that had ran down into the sidewalk and into the grate,” retired Metro officer David Williams said.
David Williams was just a rookie police officer when he pulled up to the scene alone, with no backup nearby. He remembers wanting to secure the scene, but having to change plans when he learned about another possible victim. He found Sadler crouched in an apartment, shell shocked, as a nurse tried to help him.
“I can remember the words he said. At that time, he said, ‘Don’t leave, he’s gonna come back and finish me off,’” Williams said.
Fourteen years later, they learned the “he” he’s referring to was Richard D’Antonio. Prosecutors argued that a former promoter enlisted D’Antonio to kill Hughes, because they thought he’d expose a payola scheme where artists and promoters would pay to place their songs on the charts.
“Being the honorable person that he is, he was like, I’m not gonna do this, I’m not gonna play along with this. This is wrong and I’m gonna stand up for what’s right, and he lost his life because of it,” Williams said.
For Sadler, the 14 years it took to figure out who murdered his friend were excruciating.
“They made me feel like a suspect, and you know, here I am a victim,” Sadler said, “They made me go take a lie detector test, they made me go get hypnotized, and they still made me feel like they didn’t believe me or thought I was holding something back,” Sadler said.
He says at the time, he didn’t realize what a big part payola played in the music industry, and it was the same for many in law enforcement..
“In 1989, if you had said ‘payola’ to me, I probably would have thought it was a drug or something,” Williams said.
It took Hughes’s murder to spotlight how common this was.
“My understanding of it was it was pretty routine,” Williams said.
And even to this day, it’s not over. In 2005, Sony BMG had to pay $10 million in fines for a similar payola scheme, and even more recently, Payola’s taken a different shape in the age of music streaming. People are paying popular playlist creators for song placement on platforms like Spotify, forcing the service to crack down in 2015, banning users from accepting cash and other compensation to influence playlists.
“Well, it’s cheating,” Williams said.
It’s that sort of cheating Kevin Hughes hoped to put an end to.
“To me, he’s a fallen hero. He died for doing the right thing, you know? He died for country music and I took a bullet for it,” Sadler said.
Now, Sadler honors his friend with his music and a new book explaining everything he knows about that night and the following trial, hoping his sacrifice will never be forgotten.
Sadler’s book comes out at the end of this month. It details payola, the shooting, and the court process, including how Sammy was treated as a suspect. For information on how to get a copy, you can visit his website here.