Let's take a moment and remember former Grand Ole Opry star and Country Music Hall of Fame member Julius Frank Anthony Kuczynski, otherwise known as Pee Wee King. Pee Wee was born 98 years ago Sunday, on February 18, 1914 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
As the Country Music Encyclopedia states, Pee Wee King was an unlikely candidate for country music stardom. Yet as a songwriter, bandleader, recording artist, and television entertainer, he broke new ground in country music, and he helped to bring waltzes, polkas, and cowboy songs into mainstream country music during ten productive years at the Grand Ole Opry.
He grew up in Wisconsin and was exposed to the polka and waltz style of music that was popular in the day. His musical debut took place at the age of fifteen when he played accordion in his father's polka band. He changed his name to King, after popular polka performer Wayne King. Into the early 1930s, he had his own radio show in Racine, Wisconsin.
His break came when he met promoter J.L. Frank in the spring of 1934. He moved to Louisville, Kentucky in 1934 and backed up Gene Autry. He later appeared on WHAS in Louisville and in 1936 he married Frank's step-daughter Lydia. In 1937 he formed the Golden West Cowboys and moved to Nashville to begin a 10 year run on the Grand Ole Opry. In 1941-42 he and his band were featured on the Camel Caravan, a touring company that presented shows at military installations across the United States and Canada. At various times his band included Eddy Arnold, Redd Steward, Ernest Tubb, Cowboy Copas and Minnie Pearl.
After joining the Opry in 1937, he helped introduce an array of new instruments and sounds to the Opry, including the trumpet, drums, and the electric guitar. In addition, he dressed his band members in spiffy western outfits designed by the Hollywood trailer Nudie. His nattily attired Golden West Cowboys generally produced a smooth and danceable sound during their heydey in the 1940s. In the 1950s, they even branched out a bit into rockabilly.
He wrote or co-wrote over 400 songs, including some of the most popular songs in American musical history, including "Slow Poke", and "Tennessee Waltz". Patti Page's verison of the song sold 5 million copies. In 1965 it became a Tennessee state song. During his recording career he recorded more than 20 albums and had 157 singles.
He was a pioneer in television performing. In 1947, he left the Opry to move to Louisville, where he had a radio and television program. In the 1950s and 60s, his show reached into Chicago, Cincinnati and Cleveland and was on the ABC television network for 6 years. He also appeared in a number of movies.
In 1974, he was the 23rd member to be elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame. His later years were spent in retirement with his wife in Louisville and it was there that he passed away on March 7, 2000 at the age of 86. Wade Hall, with the cooperation of Pee Wee wrote a very interesting biography called, "Hell-Bent for Music", which is the life story of Pee Wee King. I have it in my library and if you can find a copy, a recommend that you read it. It is very good.
As noted above, Pee Wee was one of the early stars of the Grand Ole Opry and it was Harry Stone who brought Pee Wee to the Opry. Here is how Pee Wee remembered that 1st night:
"On the first Saturday in June of 1937 we did our first program on the Grand Ole Opry at the tabernacle on Fatherland Street, and we were invited to stay as regular members. It was a hard decision for me to make, because there was no pay at the Opry at that time. All we could do was play the broadcast and announce our dates, where in other cities they paid you for your staff programs, or commerical programs. Joe Frank drilled into mind, 'You got to remember, kid, that one broadcast on the Grand Ole Opry means twenty weeks work somewhere else.' And with that in mind, we stayed."
As as previously noted, he brought some profound changes to the Opry. As he said, "I came in with a group, an organized group, and a group that belonged to the musicians union. The Nashville local didn't want to accept our Louisville AFM cards right away, but they finally did. And others of the Opry members started becoming union members. So I guess I had something to do with getting the Opry unionized."
While it was Harry Stone who brought Pee Wee to the Opry, it was George D. Hay who pushed back at Pee Wee everytime he tried something new. Pee Wee was the first to use drums, and he was told to put them away. He was the first to bring out an electric guitar. That caused issues until Ernest Tubb arrived and after that the electric guitar was accepted. He brought out a trumpet once and told to never bring it back. His was the first group to have entrance and exit music. So many things that Pee Wee did have influenced the Opry until this day.
When Pee Wee left the Opry, it was because of televison and the delay in WSM starting a television station. Pee Wee saw what television could do well before the Opry and Nashville executives did. And even though Pee Wee left the Opry, he still toured and performed with many of the Opry's members. And he was not a stranger to the Opry. He still returned to perform on the show and in his later years, could always be counted on to return to the Opry on the annual old-timer's night reunion show.
One of the final reunion shows that Pee Wee King performed on was on April 13, 1991. In memory of Pee Wee King, here is the running order from old-timers night, Saturday April 13, 1991:
6:30: Mrs Grissoms
Grandpa Jones (host): Ball Headed End of A Broom
Bill Anderson: Still
Grandpa Jones: Dear Old Sunny South by the Sea
6:45: Country Music Hall of Fame
Bill Monroe (host): Molly & Tenbrooks/Blue Moon of Kentucky
Ricky Skaggs: Let It Be You/Honey, Open that Door
Bill Monroe: Southern Flavor
Porter Wagoner (host): Company's Coming
Jim Ed Brown: The Three Bells
Jan Howard: Heartaches by the Number
Jim & Jesse: It's A Lonesome Feeling
The Whites: He Took Your Place
Porter Wagoner: Ol' Slewfoot
7:30: Standard Candy
Jimmy Dickens (host): Country Boy
Margie Bowes: (?)
Zeke Clements: No More Smoke On the Water
Faron Young: Wine Me Up/Hello Walls
Jimmy Dickens: Another Bridge to Burn
8:00: Martha White
Roy Acuff (host): Wabash Cannonball
Pee Wee King: Tennessee Waltz
Charlie Louvin: When You Can Only Dream That Far/When I Stop Dreaming
Bill Carlisle: No Help Wanted/Elvira
Opry Square Dance Band/Stoney Mountain Cloggers: Bill Cheatham
8:30: Pops Rite
Hank Snow (host): Send Me The Pillow You Dream On
Skeeter Davis: Who's Gonna Tell Marie
Ray Pillow: That Ain't No Way to Treat My Heart
Riders In The Sky: How the Yodel Was Born
John Conlee: Common Man
Hank Snow: My Little Old Home Down In New Orleans
2nd show (artist line up only)
9:30: Dollar General
Porter Wagoner (host); Wilma Lee Cooper; Jack Greene; George Hamilton IV; The Whites
10:00: Little Debbie
Grandpa Jones (host); Stonewall Jackson; Jeannie Seely
10:15: Tennessee Pride
Roy Acuff (host); Faron Young
10:30: Pet Milk
Ricky Skaggs (host); Jeanne Pruett
10:45: BC Powder
Bill Anderson (host); Jim & Jesse; Opry Squaredance Band
Hank Snow (host); Jimmy Dickens; Justin Tubb; John Conlee
Bill Monroe (host); Mike Snider; Charlie Louvin; Riders In The Sky; Charlie Walker