2 former members of the Grand Ole Opry passed away on September 19. One was Skeeter Davis, and I covered her last month in relation to when she joined the Opry. The other former Opry member who passed away on this date was Red Foley, who passed on September 19, 1968 in Fort Wayne, Indiana. To say that Red led a difficult life would be an understatement. He was an outstanding talent, but he had some serious issues, including a drinking problem and with the IRS. Clyde Julian Foley was born in Blue Lick, Kentucky on June 17, 1910. The following is a short biography on him.
Red Foley began his career with occasional performances as a vocalist with The Cumberland Ridge Runners on the WLS National Barn Dance in the 1930s. He hosted WLS National Barn Dance road shows in the late 1930s and early 1940s and started recording for Decca in 1941. His first big record was teh sentimental "Old Shep." He had several other big hits, including the World War II tune, "Smoke on the Water." He left WLS in 1946 to replace Roy Acuff as host of the Grand Ole Opry's Prince Albert Tobacco segment. (Acuff had quit the segment in a contract dispute.) Coming to Nashville with a band that included Chet Atkins, Foley brought the house down at his debut performance. And though some on the Opry had been upset when Prince Albert's ad agency hired an outsider, the cast quickly accepted him.
Foley had a string of hits thoughout the 1940s including "New Jole Blon" (1947), "Tennessee Saturday Night" (1948) and "Tennessee Border" (1949). In 1950, "Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy" topped both the pop and country charts; the flip side, "Sugarfoot Ray," featuring Hank Garland on guitar, sold strongly, too. He recorded a number of hit novelty duets with Ernest Tubb for Decca in the late 1940s and early 1950s. He has cut other boogie numbers like "Birmingham Bounce." His 1951 version of (There'll Be) Peace in the Valley (For Me)" quickly became a gospen standard. Adverse publicity began to dog Foley in 1952, when his wife committed suicide, allegedly over his constant philandering. Two years later, his daughter, Shirley, married Pat Boone. That same year, Foley remarried.
In 1954 Foley left the Opry to become the star of Springfield, Missouri's Ozark Jubilee, but by then his hitmaking career was on the wane. Over time, his alcoholism worsened. In the late 1950s, he found himself in trouble with the Internal Revenue Service. Though he continued performing after the Jubilee ended, including his role in the TV series, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, his career never recovered. Ralph Emery's autobiography, Memories, discusses Foley's increasing alcoholic and emotional dissipation. Inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1967, he died while on tour at a Fort Wayne, Indiana, motel in 1968. Hank Williams Jr. had been with him on the tour and later recorded "I Was With Red Foley (The Night He Passed Away."
Red took over the "Prince Albert Show" in late April 1946. Minnie Pearl remembered that time:
"Oh, he was the best-lookin thing. He'd wear a white shirt and a white jacket, sort of zipped up in front-kind of an Eisenhower jacket, you know. And a white hat, black boots, black trousers, very tight; he had a good figure. He was a snappy dresser. Red Foley was snappy-that's the only word that describes him."
Foley remembered his Opry debut: "I guess I never was more scared than I was the night I replaced Roy Acuff.....The people thought I was a Chicago slicker who had come to pass himself off as a country boy and bump Roy out of his job."
Red stayed at the Opry until 1954, when he left to go to do televison. One of the reasons that he left was because of his personal problems and when he expressed his desire to leave, the Opry management made no attempt to keep him. Not only Ralph Emery, but Bill Anderson has also written about Red and his problems. I obviously never saw Red, but I have heard him, including old Opry performances and I can tell you that nobody, and I mean nobody, could sing a tune with emotion and feeling as Red did when he sang, "Peace in the Valley." Red's period at the Opry was short, but he had a big impact on the show and helped the show achieve even greater popularity than it had prior to him coming to the show.