King, Pee Wee
Pee Wee King
Country bandleader, songwriter
Although he may always be best remembered for one song, Pee Wee King’s lasting contributions to country music ranged from innovative instrumentation to flashy fashions on stage. The co-writer of “The Tennessee Waltz,” one of the most popular country songs of all time, King’s career as musician, bandleader, and songwriter spanned from the 1930s into the 1960s, a period that saw country music grow in sophistication and popularity. King’s innovations played a key role in that transformation. From introducing new instruments to the stage of the Grand Ole Opry to pioneering country music on television, King made a mark that ultimately earned him a spot in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
King had an unusual background for a country star of his time. Born Julius Frank Anthony Kuczynski on February 18, 1914, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, King grew up immersed in polka and waltz music. Even after his family moved to rural Abrams, Wisconsin, his father continued to lead a polka band. When King later became a country star, he was one of the first who had not grown up in the Southern or Southwestern United States. He first performed with his father’s band, playing polkas first on concertina and fiddle, and later taking up the accordion. Giving himself the same last name as Wayne King, a popular radio bandleader of the time, Frankie King formed a band of his own and began appearing on radio in Racine, Wisconsin. After finishing high school in 1932, his King’s Jesters performed throughout Wisconsin, Michigan, and Illinois, playing a mix of square dance, country, and western music.
Western music became the focus of King’s repertoire after Gene Autry invited the band to back him up on his radio show for WLS in Chicago. Autry called King “Pee Wee” partly because of his height—five foot six or seven, depending on the source—but also for the more practical reason of distinguishing him from three other Franks in the band. In 1934 Autry moved to WHAS radio in Louisville, Kentucky, and took King with him. Autry didn’t stay there long, though, getting the call from Hollywood, where he would go on to become famous as “The Singing Cowboy” of the movies. King turned down the offer to go with Autry, though, and made his home in Louisville for the rest of his life.
At first, King joined up with a local band, Frankie More’s Log Cabin Boys, but he soon decided to form his own group, the Golden West Cowboys, in 1936. That same year he married Lydia Frank. Her father became the band’s manager, and in 1937, he got them onto the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, the top venue for a country and western act. By this time, King had become enamored with the new western swing sound, which combined jazz elements with western music.
For the Record…
Born Julius Frank Anthony Kuczynski on February 18, 1914, in Milwaukee, WI; died on March 7, 2000; married Lydia Frank, 1936; four children.
Formed own band, called himself Frankie King, and played at Racine, WI, radio station while still in high school; joined Gene Autry and received nickname “Pee Wee,” 1934; formed the Golden West Cowboys, 1936; joined Grand Ole Opry, 1937; signed first recording contract, started his first television show, co-wrote “Tennessee Waltz,” 1946; single “Slow Poke” reached number one on country and pop charts, 1951; The Pee Wee King Show appeared, on national network television, 1955; retired from performing, 1969.
Awards: Named Country Band of the Year by Billboard and Cashbox magazines, 1950-55; inducted into Country Music Hall of Fame, 1974.
This style had not hit Nashville yet, so when King and his band took the Opry stage, they gave the audience sights and sounds they had never seen or heard before. A bandleader who played accordion was unusual enough, but some of the instruments in King’s band had never been associated with country music.
Over King’s ten years at the Opry, his band introduced horns, drums, electric guitars, and electric steel guitars to the stage. King also changed the look of Nashville stars. When he first came to Nashville, the typical Opry performer wore clothes more associated with the farm than the stage. Although King was no cowboy, he wore clothes by Nudie, a Hollywood designer of flashy rodeo clothes and movie cowboy wardrobes. King’s fashion style went on to become the Nashville norm.
During his time at the Opry, King also kept busy touring the country, always coming back to Nashville for the Saturday night extravaganza and national radio broadcast. The touring helped make King one of the most popular country acts around, even though he didn’t have a recording contract. ARC records refused to sign his band because the label already had Bob Wills and evidently thought one swing band was enough. But King always thought of his group as a dance band anyway, so the live performances seemed appropriate. King’s ability to judge talent and his willingness to give young performers a shot also made his band innovative. Country Music Hall of Fame members Ernest Tubbs and Eddy Arnold performed with King early in their careers.
When King finally received a recording contract in 1946, he turned out to be as prolific in the studio as on the road. He remained active on vinyl through 1959, recording and releasing hundreds of songs. At the same time, he left the Grand Ole Opry for television, once again trying innovations that the Nashville establishment didn’t see much future in. He soon had live television shows in three different cities at the same time: Louisville, Cincinnati, and Chicago. While he took advantage of the new medium, King’s relatively new recording career also flourished. In 1946, he and his singer, Redd Stewart, wrote a song that would come to be popular around the world. King’s band had been using a tune written by Stewart called the “No Name Waltz” as their theme when King decided that they should have a Tennessee waltz in their repertoire, much as popular country performer Bill Monroe had “Kentucky Waltz” for his theme. While riding between gigs in the luggage truck, King and Stewart wrote the words that changed “No Name Waltz” into “Tennessee Waltz.”
They didn’t record the song until 1947, and when they released it, King and his band had a top ten country hit. Patti Page’s version of the song, released in 1950, became the most successful country song in pop chart history. In fact, Page’s success with “Tennessee Waltz” opened the doors for numerous pop singers to find success with their versions of country songs. With the general public becoming more receptive to country music, King himself had a huge crossover hit in 1951 with his song “Slow Poke,” which hit number one on both country and pop charts.
King’s other hits included “Silver and Gold” released in 1952, and “Bimbo” released in 1954, again with Stewart performing the vocals. Not only did the records increase King’s popularity, but his exhaustive television work also helped him reach larger audiences. From 1950 through 1955, King’s band repeatedly earned recognition as the best country band from Billboard and Cashbox magazines. They had reached such heights that in 1955 The Pee Wee King Show made it to prime time network television, appearing on ABC.
The work load of recording in the studio while performing four television shows, along with new competition from rock and roll for the public’s attention, led King to disband his group in 1959. He then gave up television in 1962. King kept performing, though, joining Minnie Pearl’s Roadshow and taking his long-time vocalist Stewart, with him. Even after Pearl left the traveling show in 1963, King kept the band touring until 1968. He also made occasional forays into the recording studio. His occasional releases could still become hits, such as “Bonaparte’s Retreat” in 1964. The song reached the top ten on the country charts, even though he had first written it in the 1940s.
King retired from performing in 1969, having written or co-written more than 400 songs. He remained active, though, in the industry side of the music that he had had such a large impact on. He produced tours for country acts, mostly on the county fair circuit. King also served on the Country Music Association Board of Directors and the board of the Country Music Foundation. By this time, King had clearly established his legacy. When he had first arrived at the Grand Ole Opry, the popular opinion held that hillbillies performed country music while cowboys played western. Neither label applied to King, who drew on his polka and dance background to produce a unique and appealing country sound.
In the New York Times, Francis Davis wrote,” The band’s musicianship was top-notch, and every so often … there would be an unexpected chord change that took this supposed hillbilly combo to the doorstep of jazz.” He also noted that vocalist Stewart “had a touch of the pop crooner, despite his twang.” King’s combination of all these elements helped country music cross into the pop charts, which in turn helped pave the way for the pop music world to accept rockabilly. Even his own songs went through this kind of transformation. The 1951 song “You Belong to Me,” written by King, Stewart, and Chilton Price, became a number one country hit for Jo Stafford; ten years later the Duprees’ doo-wop cover of the song became a major pop hit.
King’s health began to fail in the 1990s, and he died on March 7, 2000, having done much to shape the look and sound of country music. His pioneering work earned him several honors, including induction into the Nashville Songwriters’ International Hall of Fame, as well as the Country Music Hall of Fame. Although the “Tennessee Waltz” will probably always stand out at his greatest achievement, it was but one remarkable achievement in an influential career. By bringing electric guitars and drums to Nashville, wearing rhinestone cowboy suits on stage, crafting pop hits from country sounds, and having country music’s first success on television, King repeatedly blazed a trail for other country performers to follow.
Pee Wee King, RCA Victor, 1954.
Waltzes, RCA Victor, 1955.
Swing West, RCA Victor, 1956.
Country Bam Dance, Camden, 1965.
Ballroom King, Detour, 1982.
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Pee Wee King and His Golden West Cowboys (6-CD box set), Bear Family, 1995.
Pee Wee King’s Country Hoedown (live radio performances), Bloodshot, 1999.
Kingsbury, Paul, editor, The Encyclopedia of Country Music, Oxford University Press, 1998.
Larkin, Colin, editor, The Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Muze, 1998.
McCloud, Barry, editor, Definitive Country, Perigee, 1995.
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Billboard, March 18, 2000, p. 6.
New York Times, January 23, 2000, p. 2-40; March 10, 2000, p. B9.
"King, Pee Wee." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 23, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/king-pee-wee
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