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Hell-Bent For Music

Hell-Bent For Music: The Life of Pee Wee King

Wade Hall
Copyright Date: 1996
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Hell-Bent For Music
    Book Description:

    Pee Wee King's birth on February 18, 1914, into a Milwaukee working-class Polish family named Kuczynski was hardly an indicator that he would grow up to become a pioneer and superstar of country and western music. Certainly no one in the Polish-German community of his youth could have foreseen his influence on the direction of American popular music or his enduring fame on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. Even Pee Wee King himself is incredulous at the unlikely twists and turns of his life and career.

    Pee Wee King is best remembered today as the co-writer of the most popular country music song of all time,The Tennessee Waltz. He is just as important, however, for his vital role in expanding the horizons, and the market potential, of country and western music. He took the polka and waltz rhythms of his youth, mixed them with the sounds of the big bands of the thirties and forties, and flavored it all with the balladry and moods of the Western cowboy. He combined this new sound with folk and country traditions rooted in places like Louisville, Knoxville, and Nashville. The result was a smooth, listenable, danceable, up-to-date sound that has become the most popular form of music in the United States.

    Recipient of numerous awards, including induction into both the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Country Music Hall of Fame, Pee Wee King has been one of the most important figures in country music for over sixty years. Told in King's own voice and words, this biography, based on many hours of taped conversations, is the first account of King's incredible life and career. Featuring a star-studded cast of characters from the history of music -- Eddy Arnold, Minnie Pearl, Roy Acuff, Hank Williams, Gene Autry, Patti Page, and many others -- this memorable book is a must-read for any fan of country music.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5954-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. The View from 501 Country Lane
    (pp. 1-5)

    HELLO, HELLO, HELLO. Friends and neighbors, I’m Pee Wee King, and that used to be our theme song way back in 1935, when I was one of the Log Cabin Boys and we sang on WHAS radio right here in Louisville, Kentucky. But a lot of time has passed since then—some sixty years, in fact—and I’m in the basement study of my home on Country Lane, within arm’s reach of my books, sheet music, recordings, songbooks, souvenir programs, old copies ofVariety, and all the other bits and pieces of my life and career as a country and...

  5. The Country of the North
    (pp. 6-28)

    IN MANY WAYS, MY LIFE has been a good example of the American Dream. I’ll tell you why. To begin, I was born on February 18, 1914, when my parents were living on South Fifth Street on the southside of Milwaukee. It’s an area that is now almost completely commercial. Like most children of my generation, I was born at home, though I think my mother had a doctor with her. I was the oldest of four children born to John and Helen (Mielczarek) Kuczynski in a home where Polish was the common language. My parents were both born in...

  6. The Wide Open Country of Gene Autry
    (pp. 29-36)

    BY 1933 MY BAND AND I were playing dates all around Milwaukee and southern Wisconsin and over as far west as Madison and up to Oshkosh, Appleton, and Green Bay. But we were one of many bands like us, and I was just one of many bandleaders. Then my lucky break came. A politician in Racine heard one of our shows and liked us. He contacted me and said he wanted to help us get on their local radio station WJRN. “You are Polish boys,” he said, “and there are a lot of Polish department stores and grocery stores and...

  7. The Country to the South
    (pp. 37-45)

    GENE AUTRY HELPED GIVE ME a sense of what I wanted to do musically, but Joe Frank showed me how to do it. After I left the tour with Gene, I never expected to hear from any of them again. But I did. A few weeks after Mr. Frank brought Gene down to Louisville to sing on WHAS radio and to wait for his Hollywood contract to come through, Mr. Frank called me and said, “How about you and the drummer coming down here? I can put you both to work.” I said, “I don’t think the drummer can come,...

  8. In the Hillbilly Country
    (pp. 46-52)

    WE WENT DOWN TO KNOXVILLE because Mr. Frank got a phone call from Joe Pearson, the station manager for WNOX, a new CBS station, inviting us to come. “There’s room down here for a guy like Pee Wee King and the Log Cabin Boys,” he said. “I’ve got the perfect setup for all of you. Come on down.” It was perfect timing. The Log Cabin Boys were splitting up. Frankie Moore had left for Wheeling and organized a new band with Cousin Emmy, who was a big barn dance star at that time. Freddie was going to California to become...

  9. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  10. The Country of the Golden West Cowboys
    (pp. 53-71)

    IN THE FALL OF 1936 while we were still in Knoxville, Mr. Frank decided to disband the Log Cabin Boys. He said, “Pee Wee, I want to organize a new band, and I want you to lead it. You keep saying you want your own band again, and here’s your chance.” I said, “Yes sir, it sounds good to me. I want my own band.” He said, “Get some of your friends to come down from Wisconsin to join you, but make sure they don’t talk like you, with ‘deeses’ and ‘dems’ and ‘doses.’” I said, “Don’t worry. I know...

  11. Music Country USA
    (pp. 72-91)

    WHEN I WAS GETTING STARTED in the 1920s and 1930s, barn dances were the rage in country and western music. They were usually Saturday night country shows that were not only called barn dances but sported names like hayrides, jamborees, shindigs, and fiddlers’ conventions. One of the biggest and best known was the “National Barn Dance” on Chicago’s WLS, which originated in the “hayloft” of the Eighth Street Theatre. It started around 1924 and by the mid-1930s had featured some of the best early country music talents, including Pat Buttram, from Winston County, Alabama, who did backwoods humor; Kentucky’s Lily...

  12. Country Friends
    (pp. 92-116)

    I’VE WORKED WITH DOZENS OF STARS, from Rudy Vallee to Judy Canova to Perry Como, but most of my friends have performed on the Opry, either as regulars or guests. I’ll begin with one of the younger stars and one of the best, Randy Travis, whose wife, Olivia, discovered him when he worked in a nightclub she owned in North Carolina. She became his manager and brought him to Nashville because she said, “Whatever happens in country music happens in Nashville. That’s where we’ve got to go.” When they arrived, he supported himself while he was trying to break into...

  13. Country Roads
    (pp. 117-141)

    IN MY DAY—and it’s not much different today—if you wanted to make a living as a musician, you had to take your show to where the people were—across town or on the road. You couldn’t make it on records alone. In fact, your records wouldn’t sell unless you did live shows. You couldn’t support yourself on radio work because most radio stations paid very little, or nothing. Furthermore, people liked to see their favorite country stars in person, and they would gladly pay twenty-five or fifty cents for the privilege. Since most of the fans couldn’t go...

  14. “The Tennessee Waltz” and Other Country Sounds
    (pp. 142-156)

    ALONG ABOUT 1950 HANK WILLIAMS and I were talking backstage at a show in Montgomery, Alabama, and he said, “Pee Wee, I believe one of us is gonna have a pop record before long.” He was right. Soon Tony Bennett had made “Cold, Cold Heart” into a pop hit, and Patti Page had taken “The Tennessee Waltz” to the top of the pop charts. Then other pop singers—Kay Starr, Margaret Whiting, and others—were taking country songs to huge audiences. Of course, there had been some crossing over from one music field to another for a long time. One...

  15. The Country of the Air
    (pp. 157-173)

    YOUNG ENTERTAINERS TODAY have some advantages we old-timers didn’t have. They have television. But we did have radio. And we had 50,000-watt stations scattered all over the country. That’s what Mr. Frank was always looking for—a centrally located 50,000-watt-clear-channel radio station—because he knew that was the best way to make his entertainers into stars. A well-located station could reach a potential audience of millions, especially at night. WLW in Cincinnati, KDKA in Pittsburgh, KMOX in St. Louis, WJR in Detroit, WGY in Schenectady, KMBC in Kansas City, KRLD in Dallas, WMC in Memphis, KFWB in Hollywood, XERF in...

  16. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  17. Country Shows
    (pp. 174-189)

    THE SHOW IS THE THING. It’s what the people come to see and hear. It’s where all your talent and training and experience and inspiration and determination come together for one purpose—to entertain an audience. Your success or failure is determined by the show. So what have I learned about what makes a good show?

    To begin with, you have to develop a stage image or personality, something that sets you off from everybody else. That means not only what you do as an entertainer, what kinds of songs you play and sing, but how you package yourself. You...

  18. Country Ventures
    (pp. 190-210)

    I’VE NEVER BEEN CONTENT to put all my eggs in one basket. As a country and western musician, I’ve put money into a lot of music-related ventures, guessing that I’d make a big profit on my investments. Unfortunately, I usually guessed wrong. First, let’s go to the movies.…

    I’ve had good luck and bad luck in my love affair with the movies. I made a movie one time calledCountry-Western Hoedownthat cost me a lot of money. But I’ll hold the bad news till later. First, the good news about my movies that somebody else paid for. I believe...

  19. Joe L. Frank and Other Country Gentlemen
    (pp. 211-218)

    I HAVE TRIED TO THANK Mr. Joe Frank on every page of these memories, but now I want to be more direct. Meeting him made everything good happen to me. From him I got the two best things in my life, my career and my wife. He had a more natural right to being in country music than I did. He was born in 1900 on the Alabama-Tennessee border at a little place called Sand Springs, near Ardmore, Alabama, and raised on a cotton farm. One time I went down to his home community and met several of his relatives,...

  20. The Country Hearth
    (pp. 219-240)

    I COULD NOT HAVE HAD MY CAREER without Joe Frank’s stepdaughter, Lydia, who became my wife on December 23, 1936. Since then, she has been my wife, the mother of our four children, my friend, my partner, and my biggest booster. She was in show business long before I met her, and she knew what it meant to marry a professional musician. She knew of the strains on relationships and how hard it is for marriages to last. Show business is unstable, and so are the marriages of show business people. If the guy doesn’t make it, the marriage is...

  21. Index
    (pp. 241-254)