Country Music Hall of Fame member Frank “Pee Wee” King, co-writer of the classic song “Tennessee Waltz,” died Tuesday afternoon at age 86.
King suffered a heart attack on Feb. 28 and was hospitalized in Louisville, Ky., until the time of his death.
No less a personage than Gene Autry once referred to Pee Wee King as “one of the all-time greats in the music world.” But unlike so many of his fellow members of the Country Music Hall of Fame, Pee Wee King was not known as a guitar player or even as a singer. His instrument was an ungainly one — the accordion, and he played it so well that he inspired dozens of country bands to add it to their acts in the 1940s and 1950s. But he was also a bandleader par excellence whose work often pushed the envelope of older country music. He was a gifted songwriter (over 400 titles to his credit), a creative promoter, a finder of new talent, an explorer of new media, and, best of all, a consummate professional. In his heyday, Pee Wee King took country music uptown and didn’t ask whether or not it was ready to go. Bill C. Malone, the dean of country historians, has said, “Pee Wee King had one of the most important and influential careers in country music. His personal story virtually sums up a major slice of country music history from 1937 to the 1960s.”
Pee Wee never picked cotton, never hopped a freight train, never worked as a song plugger in Nashville. He was born Frank Kuczynski on Feb. 18, 1914, in Milwaukee and raised in the middle of the rich dairy country near Abrams, Wisc. His Polish-American father led a local polka band, and by the time he was 15, young Frank had gotten his first accordion. Soon he had formed his own outfit and was busy playing polkas and cowboy music over area radio stations. Singer Gene Autry, then appearing over WLS Chicago, heard the band and hired them to be his backup group. It was Autry who dubbed his new bandleader “Pee Wee,” in deference to the fact that, at 5 feet six inches, he was the smallest member of the band and also to distinguish him from other “Franks” in the band. The “King” part was Pee Wee’s own choice and was borrowed from a then-popular radio bandleader named Wayne King, whose signature song was “The Waltz You Saved For Me.” In later years, Pee Wee had his name changed legally to Pee Wee King.
In 1934 Autry and Pee Wee moved to WHAS in Louisville, but Autry soon left to go to Hollywood to start his film career. Though Pee Wee would later be invited to appear in a number of Autry pictures, he decided to stay in radio for the time being. He worked for a time with Frankie More’s Log Cabin Boys, travelling around Kentucky and playing at dances and in tobacco barns. Soon Pee Wee decided to organize his own band, “I called them The Golden West Cowboys,” he recalled. “There was a duet act on WLS then called The Girls of the Golden West, and I had a terrific crush on them.” This first band included fiddler Abner Sims, singer Little Texas Daisy, guitarist Curly Rhodes and a young Tennessee boy who had been playing fiddle in a local band, Redd Stewart. In 1935 Pee Wee also met a girl named Lydia Frank who had been singing over Louisville radio. Her father, Joe L. Frank, was a nationally known promoter who had handled Autry and radio acts like Fibber McGee and Molly. Pee Wee liked Frank but liked his daughter even more, and in 1936 he married her. He also gained the services of Frank as the band’s new manager.
It was through Frank that The Golden West Cowboys came to the Grand Ole Opry stage in June 1937. Pee Wee was very much enthralled with some of the new swing bands on the air — especially Bob Wills, Louise Massey and the Westerners and Clayton McMichen’s Georgia Wildcats — and he began to incorporate their new sounds into his music. The fans loved it, but the conservative Opry managers were nervous: Pee Wee wanted to bring on electric guitars, he wanted to use drums, and he wanted to use “chase” music to play people off and on stage. He was one of the first Opry members to carry a musician’s union card and one of the first to have special costumes designed for his band. While the Opry in the late ’30s was a far cry from the overalls and feed sacks of the show in the 20s, Pee Wee added a new sense of professionalism to the show. The band soon became a triple-A farm club for aspiring singers: in St. Louis’ Kiel Auditorium, Pee Wee met young Eddy Arnold, who jumped at the chance to join the Cowboys. “He didn’t even know how much we were going to pay him,” Pee Wee laughed. Later singers included yodeler Becky Barfield, Tommy Sosebee, Milton Estes and Cowboy Copas. The Cowboys were also the first to back Minnie Pearl on recordings, and toured with her as well.
During the war years, Pee Wee won thousands of new fans with his coast-to-coast tours of military bases as part of The Camel Caravan. In the early 1940s the troupe travelled from Rhode Island to the Panama Canal Zone, putting on great shows and tossing out packs of Camel cigarettes to grateful G.I.’s. During this time, band member Redd Stewart began playing an instrumental he had worked up called “The No Name Waltz,” and the band began using it as a theme. Then one night in 1946, as he and Redd were riding in the luggage truck on their way to a date, they began jotting down some words to the tune on the back of a matchbook cover. “We had been listening to Bill Monroe’s ’Kentucky Waltz,’ which was a big hit at that time,” Pee Wee recalled. “We decided, ’Why not have a Tennessee Waltz?'” After Nashville music publisher Fred Rose touched it up, the band took it into the RCA Victor studio in Chicago and, in December 1947, with Redd doing the vocals, made the first recording. When pop singer Patti Page recorded it in 1950, it became the biggest country crossover song in history.
Surprisingly, Pee Wee never had a large number of hit records himself; he saw his group primarily as a radio and personal appearance band. In the ’30s Art Satherley of ARC records refused to sign him because the label had Bob Wills; thus the Cowboys did not get onto disc until 1946, when they cut some sides for the Nashville independent label Bullet — and by this time the band had been headliners for 10 years. Indeed, Pee Wee’s only real sustained period of record making lasted from 1947 to 1959, when he worked with RCA Victor. He made hundreds of sides, from fiddle tunes to pop ballads like “You Belong to Me,” but recorded only 11 chart hits. By far the biggest was “Slow Poke,” which reached No. 1 in 1951, followed by “Silver and Gold” in 1952 and “Changing Partners” in 1954.
In 1947, Pee Wee suddenly decided to abandon Nashville and return to Louisville. “The main reason was that I wanted television,” he explained years later. The Opry management saw no real future in TV; Pee Wee did. He hit Louisville at the dawn of the golden age of live local TV, and he soon had TV shows over WAVE in Louisville, WBBM in Chicago and WLW in Cincinnati. The shows rejuvenated the local music scene and won for the band repeated Cash Box and Billboard awards. By the early 1950s, TV was a major force in packaging and promoting, and Pee Wee was a warm, elegant father figure for millions of fans. In October 1971 Kentucky Governor Louis B. Nunn declared an official Pee Wee King Day in the state.
In later years, Pee Wee took an interest in the history of the music he had helped define, and served on the board of directors for the Country Music Hall of Fame. In 1996 he worked with local writer Wade Hall to produce his authorized biography, Hell Bent for Music (University Press of Kentucky), and in the late ’90s much of his RCA work was collected in a boxed set by Bear Family. Most recently, a collection of his 1950s radio transcriptions was released by Bloodshot Records (Pee Wee King’s Country Hoedown).
King is survived by his wife Lydia and four children.
Visitation will be from 1-4 p.m. and 6-8 p.m. CT, Thursday and Friday, March 9-10 at Pearson Funeral Home. A funeral service will take place Saturday, March 11, at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Louisville, Ky.