Sunday, February 18, 2007

Happy Birthday Pee Wee King

When Carl Perkins’ Blue Suede Shoes became the first ever record to appear simultaneously in the country, pop and R&B charts a slew of cover versions quickly followed. Elvis Presley’s is probably the best known of these but accordion player Pee Wee King with his Western swing outfit The Golden West Cowboys, were there first. King had something of a headstart on rival s having been given a prerelease acetate of the song by Perkins himself when they played the same bill in Memphis. The Golden West Cowboys' version was recorded on February 7th 1956 and featured Walter Hayes, the band's fiddle player, on vocals. It is, in truth, a workmanlike and unconvincing reading of Perkins’ classic.

King made an altogether better stab at rock ‘n’ roll later that same year with vocalist Dick Glasser. Ballroom Baby and Catty Town, both of which Glasser had a hand in writing, are very pleasing examples of early rock ‘n’ roll. Pee Wee King recalled: “(Dick Glasser) was a very good rock ‘n’ roll singer …he fit into our group like the missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle. The first two recordings we did with him were a smash. The people at RCA Victor thought I was going nuts with our new sound. I said ‘No. I’m an entertainer and we have to change with the times. Rock ‘n’ roll is changing American music, and that includes country music.’”(from Hell-Bent for Music Wade Hall)

King was not altogether the rockin’ virgin that this would suggest though. Nearly a decade before the Glasser recordings King had, with the band's regular singer Redd Stewart, written and recorded Ten Gallon Boogie which features the rockin’est accordion solo ever. It was the Golden West Cowboys contribution to the hillbilly boogie craze that swept country music in the late forties and early fifties, and which helped to lay the foundations of rock ‘n’ roll. Indeed King’s friend, Bill Haley, had recorded a number of hillbilly boogies before he discovered rock ‘n’ roll. Jolly Joyce, Haley’s booking agent, tried to persuade King to change the name of his act so that he could book him overseas as a rock ‘n’ roll act: “ I said, ‘Nothing doing! I’ve worked hard to make our name mean something and I’m not about to change it. Anyway, why should I want to become a rock ‘n’ roll band? I can play rock ‘n’ roll any time I want and still call our band the Golden West Cowboys” (from Hell-Bent for Music Wade Hall).

However it is not as a rock ‘n’ roll pioneer that King is best remembered, nor as the man whose band introduced the electric guitar to the Grand Ole Opry, nor yet as a pioneer of television, although in November 1948 Pee Wee King’s was the first show on the state of Kentucky’s first television station, but rather as the composer of one of the biggest hits in music history: The Tennessee Waltz.

Pee Wee King was an unlikely candidate for country stardom. Born on February 18th 1914 in Milwaukie of Polish stock he was christened Frank Julius Anthony Kuczynski and his favoured instrument, the accordion, was not regarded as a ‘proper’ country instrument at that time.

In 1929 the 15 year old Kuczynski formed his first band and in 1930 he met saxophonist and band leader Wayne King, who was himself from a Polish background, who gave him this advice: “You need a catchy name…Now remember: K-I-N-G. Nobody can misspell it. Nobody can mispronounce it. That’s your hook. You say your name is Frank. Call yourself Frankie. It has a better ring. Frankie King that’s a name nobody will forget” (from Hell-Bent for Music Wade Hall). Thus Frankie King and the Kings Jesters were born.

In 1934 a stroke of good fortune brought Gene Autry into King's life. Frankie King and the Kings Jesters were playing the Polish–American Hour on WJRN in Racine. Gene Autry together with his band, The Range Riders and their agent were touring southern Wisconsin when they were forced to pull up at a garage in Racine to have a fender straightened on their car. Whilst they were waiting for the repair to be completed they heard Frankie King’s band on the service stations radio. Autry’s agent, Joe.L. Frank, was impressed enough to ask King to join The Range Riders, for the remainder of the tour.

“I wasn’t with the group long before I got my nickname. There were too many Franks in the band so Mr Frank said we had to have nicknames to tell us apart. He first wanted to call me Shorty, but I didn’t like that one, so we settled on Pee Wee” (from Hell-Bent for Music Wade Hall).

Autry left for Hollywood shortly after the tour ended and the Range Riders disbanded. Joe Frank invited Pee Wee King to join a new band he had put together, the Log Cabin Boys, who performd on WNOX in Knoxville. The steady income it provided enabled King to marry Joe Frank's stepdaughter Lydia Frank in December 1936.

In January the following year King and his new wife moved to Louisville. Joe Frank was already there and organising a new band for King to lead. Pee Wee King and the Golden West Cowboys , as the band were known, auditioned successfully for The Grand Ole Opry in 1937 and were regulars for the next ten years.

Throughout the band's thirty year lifespan, The Golden West Cowboys underwent several line up changes and at one time or another featured such luminaries as Cowboy Copas and Eddy Arnold.

Redd Stewart first joined The Golden West Cowboys in 1940 before being drafted into the Army and Stewart's return from the armed services ushered in what Pee Wee King thought of as the golden age of The Golden West Cowboys.

It was whilst driving back to Nashville from a show in Texarkana, Texas in December1946 that King and Stewart wrote The Tennessee Waltz

“We were getting close to Memphis and had the radio playing…when we heard the disk jockey say ‘I want you folks to hear Bill Monroe’s new song dedicated to his home state of Kentucky. It’s called The Kentucky Waltz’. While the record was playing Redd said ‘Pee Wee, I’ve got an idea for a song. Trade places with me and drive and I’ll get that kitchen matchbox that I light my cigars from out of the glove compartment and we’ll write a song about Tennessee. After all I was born in Ashland City, Tennessee and we both live there now. We can write a Tennessee waltz” (from Hell-Bent for Music Wade Hall).

The melody already existed, King having devised it as the Cowboys theme song though at that time it was known only as No Name Waltz:

“Redd sat there writing the words on the matchbox as we both hummed the melody we knew so well. We’d hum along and Redd would write a word down. Every once in a while he’d say ‘How does this sound?’ and he’d sing the words to the melody. Finally we had the words pretty much the way everybody knows them today”(from Hell-Bent for Music Wade Hall).

It was recorded in 1948 in Chicago and proved a hit for the Golden West Cowboys selling half a million copies. Despite a verbal agreement to the contrary, Cowboy Copas - a former Golden West Cowboy - cheekily released his version on King Records just ahead of Pee Wee King's and had a sizable hit with it too. It seemed almost from the start that Tennessee Waltz was a country music standard.

When Ernest Tubb recorded The Tennessee Waltz and published a sheet music edition, he did so without the permission of either of the song's composers. Not only that but the songwriter's credits on both the record and sheet music went to the Short Brothers (presumably referring to James Erwin Short and Melvin Leon Short - members of Tubb's band in the '40s) .

King recalled: "It was all a big stink and I didn't like it at all...we remained friends with Ernest throughout the lawsuit... We didn't get any damages but we put an end to their pirated record and sheet music. Most important we didn't make enemies out of our friends. I didn't hold a grudge against Ernest even though his company recorded and published the song illegally. Ernest and the Short Brothers made a mistake but I don't think it was an honest one. I believe they knew that they were doing something morally wrong and illegal. They were putting us to the test to see if they could get away with it. I've never heard the Short Brothers recording. I don't know how it sounded and I don't want to know" (from Hell-Bent for Music Wade Hall).

Other covers followed. On hearing Cowboy Copas' version, Tuxedo Junction composer and jazz trumpeter Erskine Hawkins was inspired to record his own version in 1950 . It was this version that caught the ear of a young Billboard columnist and jazz buff Jerry Wexler.

So when in October that year Jack Rael, pop singer Patti Page’s manager, was looking for a flip side for her Boogie Woogie Santa Claus Wexler suggested The Tennessee Waltz.

“‘Patti knew the song’ said Jack. ‘I didn’t. She said ‘That’s my daddy’s favourite song.’ We did it with five pieces. The baritone player from Ellington’s band was on the date. We copied the arrangement from Erskine Hawkins. Joe Reisman wrote it out for us” (from Road Kill on the Three Chord Highway Colin Escott).

Page used an overdubbing technique that she had previously employed succesfully on a her 1948 hit Confess.

"You recorded onto an acetate , then played it back into one microphone while overdubbing into another microphone. The engineer would mix the overdub with the original (itself no mean feat), then cut the results onto another acetate. If the singer flubbed just one note or the engineer messed up the balance they'd have to start over"(from Road Kill on the Three Chord Highway Colin Escott).

Described by James Miller, in his book Almost Grown, as "a tricked up, technologically evolved sort of pseudo folk song", Page's version was a phenomona selling in excess of six million copies. The song had transcended its roots, it was no longer simply a country song, indeed for the twenty six weeks Page's version spent on the charts, it became the country's song. In other words simply a great American song.

Everybody from Jo Stafford to James Brown has recorded The Tennessee Waltz.

On February 17th 1965 it was adopted as the official song of the state of Tennessee.

Pee Wee King and Redd Stewart were elected to the Songwriters Hall Of Fame in 1970 and Johhny Cash was on hand to present the award when King was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1974.

King died of a heart attack aged 86 on March 6th 2000.