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.
“He’s best known as a songwriter with more than 400 songs to his credit, but perhaps what is overlooked is that Pee Wee was a real innovator,” says Kyle Young, Director of the Country Music Hall of Fame. “He was really on the edge in so many areas. He joined the Grand Ole Opry in ’37, and what one saw during a Pee Wee King performance on the Opry was probably something they had not seen up until that time — elaborate costumes and a pretty large stage show. He also used interesting and innovative instrumentation, incorporating trumpet, drums and electric guitar. He was the one of the first country artists to cross over to pop in 1951 with ‘Slow Poke.’ He also helped pioneer country on TV with a show in Louisville in the late ’40s and later with his show on ABC for six years.”
Pee Wee King was born Julius Frank Anthony Kuczynski in 1914 in Wisconsin. The son of a Polish polka bandleader, he mastered the accordion early in life. In high school, he changed his name to King (after the then popular polka performer Wayne King). In the mid-1930s, King and promoter J. L. Frank formed the Golden West Cowboys, a pillar of the Grand Ole Opry from 1937 to 1947. During those years, the band boosted such Opry talents as Eddy Arnold and Cowboy Copas. In 1947 King moved the group to Louisville, Ky., where he remained enormously popular on television for a decade.
With band member Redd Stewart, King wrote “Tennessee Waltz,” an American classic, one of King’s biggest hits and a contribution that helped him win Hall of Fame membership in 1974.
Patti Page’s 1950 version of “Tennessee Waltz” was No. 1 on the pop charts and within six months sold almost 5 million copies. It became an official Tennessee state song in 1955.
His own recording career includes more than 20 albums and 157 singles, most of them issued during his 17-year association with RCA Victor.
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.
Country.com will post a complete career retrospective on Pee Wee King soon.