Although he’s seldom remembered today, Red Foley was one of the most talented, influential and well-liked performers to ever work in the field of country music. A major force in the rise of the Grand Ole Opry to national prominence, he helped guide the show through some of its most successful years. In addition, he was the first major country star to record regularly in Nashville — producing an incredible string of hits, including the first million-selling country hit recorded in Nashville and the first million-selling gospel record. His smooth, baritone voice and natural rhythm enabled him to move effortlessly from heartfelt ballads to hot hillbilly boogies to the most sincere and moving gospel songs. Along the way, he forged a unique musical style that would help pave the way for the emergence of rock ’n’ roll.
In today’s modern recording world where artists routinely take months or even years to complete albums and the recording costs run can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars, it’s easy to forget that some of the most innovative and influential recordings of the 20th Century were often laid down in just a few hours with no overdubs, no digital manipulation, and no caterer — just raw talent and craftsmanship. Fifty years ago this week, Red Foley spent a little over three days in the studio and produced eight Top 10 hits including “Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy,” the first million-selling country record recorded in Nashville. That Foley was able to perform such a feat is a testament to not only his talent, but to the musicians and producers who worked with him.
Born Clyde Julian Foley in Blue Lick, Ky., on June 17, 1910, Foley grew up in nearby Berea, Ky. From an early age he held a fascination with music — encouraged by the easy access to musical instruments his father stocked in the general store the Foleys operated. Local country musicians, both white and black, along with more formal music, influenced the young boy. Recognizing their son’s talent, the Foleys enrolled him in voice lessons at a young age. But despite the formal voice training and precise diction that Foley learned, he was still a small-town country boy and never lost the easy-going style that comes with that background.
In 1930, the tall, redheaded Foley joined the WLS Barn Dance in Chicago as a member of the string band, The Cumberland Ridge Runners. Gradually, Foley began to move more and more into the spotlight as a solo artist. By 1937 Foley had gained enough of a reputation that he was able to leave Chicago and help found the Renfro Valley Barn Dance radio show in Cincinnati (the show would later move to an area just outside Berea, Ky.) before returning to WLS in 1940.
Foley signed with Decca Records in 1941 and recorded one of his most famous songs, “Old Shep.” By the spring of 1946 Foley was well known as a singer and an unflappable emcee. He was a hot commodity in the country field and the person the William Esty Agency — producers of the NBC-broadcast Prince Albert Show portion of the Grand Ole Opry — wanted as host, a position left open by Roy Acuff’s departure over money disputes.
Although there was some initial resentment of the “outsider,” Foley quickly won the skeptics over with his easy-going style. The move to Nashville also turned out to be good for Foley in more ways than just his radio appearances.
Before his move to the future Music City, Foley’s records had drifted more and more toward the pop mainstream — light, Western swing or cowboy numbers that were firmly in Gene Autry territory — including one session in 1944 with the Lawrence Welk Orchestra. But the move to Nashville brought him back to his Southern roots and opened new avenues.
“Red recorded ’Tennessee Saturday Night’ with Zeke Turner playing that great boogie lick,” renowned sessionman Harold Bradley says. “That was the first record where he had that style. I guess with the move to Nashville, a lot of things happened. Decca producer Paul Cohen found better songs. He found the musicians, he found the studio, something just started going in the right direction.”
The right direction indeed — recording in his new surroundings Foley, his band and Paul Cohen produced a series of records that mixed elements from pop and R&B while remaining undeniably hillbilly. “Tennessee Saturday Night,” recorded at Foley’s first session in August 1947 at the newly opened Castle Recording Studio, would spend 40 weeks on Billboard’s Country Singles Chart, reaching No. 1.
Shortly after coming to Nashville, Foley had assembled a band consisting of Zeke Turner on lead guitar, Louis Innis on rhythm guitar, Ernie Newton on bass, Jerry Byrd on steel guitar and Tommy Jackson on fiddle. Known as the “Cumberland Valley Boys,” the band backed Foley on the Opry, his morning radio show on WSM, in live appearances and on records. They quickly gained such a reputation that they effectively became Nashville’s first group of “sessionmen.” In fact, the group was so hot that in November of 1948, all of them except Newton were lured away by an offer from radio station WLW in Cincinnati and the prospect of playing on the greater number of recording sessions held there at the time.
In a measure of Foley’s prestige, he simply assembled another band of equal or greater talent. Though they were all young players — the team of Grady Martin on lead guitar, Zeb Turner (Zeke’s brother) on rhythm guitar, Billy Robinson on steel guitar, along with Ernie Newton on bass — made for a powerful combination on records and in live appearances. Between their radio work and the growing number of recording sessions held in Nashville, the members of the band found themselves in great demand.
“We were like the WSM staff band,” Billy Robinson recalls. “Every time a new guy would come to town we’d work with them. We worked with George Morgan, Hank Snow, Webb Pierce and Carl Smith — recording with them until they got their own bands.”
In slightly less than a year, Zeb Turner left the band, Robinson recalls. “Jimmy Selph took over after Zeb left. Zeb was kind of a lead guitar player as was Grady Martin, but Grady was the better player. So he got all the leads and Zeb played rhythm. When Jimmy took over, he played rhythm and sang some with Foley.”
With this basic lineup, augmented occasionally by other musicians, Foley would record some of his best-selling and most important records — continuing the style pioneered by the Cumberland Valley Boys. On Nov. 7, 1949, Foley began three days of historic sessions that would yield a total of eight Top 10 hits and many other classic recordings. The first day, Foley recorded five songs including two Top 10 hits — “I Gotta Have My Baby Back” and “Careless Kisses” — and what would become one of the biggest records of his career.
“Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy” was a playful boogie composed by legendary songwriter and music publisher Fred Rose. In one of those notorious under-the-board song publishing deals, Rose signed over the writer’s credit to Opry managers Harry Stone and Jack Stapp — reportedly as a trade-off for their agreement to sign a young singer by the name of Hank Williams to the Opry. But Rose, being the smart businessman, retained the publishing through his company, Acuff-Rose Publishing. It would be a good deal for all concerned.
Originally titled “Boogie Woogie Shoe Shine Boy,” the song’s title was changed at the last minute to capitalize on the string of Volunteer State-related hits Foley had been having. (In the previous two years, “Tennessee Saturday Night,” “Tennessee Border,” “Tennessee Polka” and “Sunday Down in Tennessee,” had all been Top 10 hits.) Although Paul Cohen was still officially producer on the sessions, Owen Bradley had been assuming more control — working out arrangements and playing piano or organ as needed. Bradley had a definite sound in mind for “Chattanoogie.”
“My brother had a dance band, and I was working with them,” Harold Bradley remembers. “There was a drummer named Farris Coursey. Owen and him were boyhood friends, and I lived next door to Farris. Owen came up to us in the hallway (at WSM) and said, ’We’re going to do this song about a shoe shine boy — see if you can come up with a sound like a rag popping.’ We got to the session, and Farris came up with playing his thigh. Actually, he bruised one thigh and ended up on the other one.”
Aaron Shelton, one of the recording engineers and owners of Castle, also recalled the unique percussion section. “It took quite a long time to get a take to our satisfaction. Farris Coursey almost wore his leg out, beating on it to make the shoe shine noise.”
“Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy” is an example of the proto-“Nashville Sound” at its finest. On the foundation of Farris Coursey’s thigh slapping, Owen Bradley’s austere but dead-on arrangement serves as the perfect showcase for Foley’s vocal performance. The reserved but precise interplay of Grady Martin’s and Billy Robinson’s solos give the song a hipness that still sounds fresh 50 years later. The song’s incredible success would lead to many cover versions — from Frank Sinatra to Bing Crosby. But a comparison of Crosby’s version to Foley’s demonstrates it really is “the singer not the song.” Foley is often compared to Crosby as a vocalist, but while “Der Bingle’s” “Shoe Shine Boy” may be smooth — Red’s swings.
The next day’s session concentrated on religious material for Decca Record’s new “Faith” series. The Faith series was to feature many popular artists performing religious songs, and the Decca executives wanted to include the label’s two main country stars, Red Foley and Ernest Tubb. Foley was no stranger to sacred material, having included many numbers in his live show for years. His performances on the Prince Albert Show always included at least at least one gospel song — a practice that had earned Foley a tremendous following not just with whites but also with blacks.
Foley began the session recording with The Jordanaires on backing vocals. The gospel quartet had only recently joined the Opry, and this was some of their earliest session work. “Just A Closer Walk With Thee,” a Top 10 hit in July of 1950, and “When God Dips His Love In My Heart” were just two of the classic gospel songs Foley and The Jordanaires recorded that day. After spending most of the afternoon and evening recording, Foley finished the session’s gospel material with the recitation “Steal Away.” Performing the number with his eyes closed, the intensity of Foley’s performance reportedly left producer Paul Cohen, Ernest Tubb and Foley’s wife, Eva, in tears. The number would also become a Top 10 hit in May of 1950.
Despite the lateness of the hour, the session continued with Foley switching from the sacred to the secular. Foley and Ernest Tubb laid down the first two of what would become a series of playful and very successful duets. “Tennessee Border No. 2” and “Don’t Be Ashamed of Your Age” would both be Top 10 hits in Janaury of 1950.
Foley took the ninth of November 1949 off from the studio but returned just after midnight for an early morning session on the 10th, this time with a slightly different band. Hank Garland had gained a reputation as one of the hottest guitarists in Nashville, beginning with his spectacular debut on the Opry in 1945 at age of 15. After signing as a solo artist with Decca in the summer of 1949, Garland recorded “Sugarfoot Rag,” a hot, self-composed instrumental, in late August. Now Garland, just one day short of his 19th birthday, joined Foley to re-record the tune, with added lyrics written by Vaughn Horton. The resulting session yielded a swinging, sophisticated, hillbilly number that spotlighted both Foley’s unique vocal style and Garland’s impressive guitar playing.
“Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy,” backed with “Sugarfoot Rag,” was released on January 23, 1950. “Chattanoogie” debuted on Billboard’s Country Singles chart the same week of its release and quickly shot to No. 1, spending 13 weeks at the top. It soon became apparent that the record wasn’t just selling to the usual country crowd when it crossed over to the Pop chart and ended up spending eight weeks in the top spot.
“Sugarfoot Rag” proved to be more than just a B-side along for the ride. The song entered the country charts in its own right just four weeks after “Chattanoogie’s” debut. The song quickly rose, spending 20 weeks on the chart and reaching No. 4. It also crossed over to the pop charts, attaining No. 24.
While Foley had been a steady hit maker for over five years, no one expected the incredible success of “Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy” and “Sugarfoot Rag.” It was a success that would not only affect Foley but also the members of his band.
“I was only 19 at the time, and I was on top of the world,” Billy Robinson recalls. “After ’Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy’ hit I was paid $50 a week not to record with anyone else. Looking back, I guess it was a mistake, but it seemed like a good deal at the time. Grady Martin didn’t take the deal, and he made a lot of money recording for other people.”
Because of the Prince Albert Show and his other radio commitments, Foley did little touring during this time period, but the success of the single pulled him onto the road for a number of appearances. “We did a big show in Chattanooga, and a local boy was picked to be the official ’Shoe Shine Boy,'” Robinson says. “It was an incredible show.”
The success of “Sugarfoot Rag” also raised Hank Garland’s stock in the music scene. It would forever after be known as his signature tune, a fact that both Foley and Grady Martin respected. “Red would get Hank Garland to play ’Sugarfoot Rag’ when he did it on the Opry because Grady wouldn’t do it,” Robinson recalls. “It wasn’t that Grady couldn’t play the part, but it was Hank’s tune.”
Foley would go on to record many more hit records including “(There’ll Be) Peace In the Valley (For Me)” — the first million selling gospel record. He also would record several more hit duets with Ernest Tubb and later begin a series of successful duets with Kitty Wells. In 1954 Foley left Nashville for Springfield, Mo., where he hosted the Ozark Jubilee, the first network country music program, on ABC Television — a program that would help jumpstart the careers of many artists including Porter Wagoner, Brenda Lee and Billy Walker.
But along with the success, a series of tragedies haunted Foley through his life. Beginning with his first wife’s death in 1933 from childbirth, he would endure bad times along with the good. His second wife, Eva, would bear him three daughters, but she struggled with a heart condition and mental instability that would eventually lead to her taking her own life in 1951. Foley never completely recovered from Eva’s death and blamed himself since his own unfaithfulness had been tied to her suicide. Gradually, he began to drink more and more — a condition that was not helped when the IRS targeted him for tax evasion in the late ’50s. He would later be acquitted of all charges, but the fight left him broke and broken. After his election to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1967, Foley attempted to turn himself around. Shortly before his death he attempted to quit drinking and was determined to find the peace he had lost. He would pass away from congestive heart failure in his hotel room in Fort Wayne, Ind., on September 19, 1968, after performing that evening. “Peace in the Valley” was the last song Red Foley would ever sing.
Red Foley left behind a legacy of incredibly innovative and influential recordings. While many other country artists would move in the direction of pop or borrow from the blues, Foley’s best recordings were a perfect mix of these elements while firmly remaining country — the sum being greater than the parts. In the mid-50s Elvis Presley, along with many other young rockers, would re-configure Red’s mixture of country, pop, and R&B into his own style. But when Presley turned his hand to gospel music, he would follow Foley’s lead almost exactly.
Tragically, few people remember Red Foley today or recognize the influence he had on other, more well-remembered singers. But the beauty of recordings is that as long as they exist, a performer is never truly dead, and their music and life can never truly be forgotten — but are merely waiting for rediscovery.