Grand Ole Opry star Billy Walker, his wife and two band members were killed early Sunday morning (May 21) in a one-vehicle accident south of Montgomery, Ala.
Police said Walker, 77, was driving a 1996 Chevrolet van when he lost control of the vehicle on I-65 near Fort Deposit, Ala. Also killed in the accident were Walker’s wife Bettie, 44-year-old bassist Charles Lilly Jr. and 40-year-old guitarist Daniel Patton. Another passenger — Walker’s 21-year-old grandson, Joshua Brooks — was seriously injured in the accident.
They were returning to Tennessee after performing a Saturday night show at the Palm Lake Opry and RV Park in Foley, Ala.
Billy Marvin Walker was born in Ralls, Texas, as one of eight children and the grandson of a Methodist minister. Inspired by the music of Gene Autry, he began his professional music career in 1947 and joined the Big D Jamboree in Dallas in 1949. After working with Hank Thompson in Waco, Texas, Thompson helped Walker secure his first recording contract in 1949 with Capitol Records.
In 1952, Walker became a member of the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport, La., where he and Slim Whitman were partially responsible for Elvis Presley’s first appearance on the popular KWKH radio show. In 1955, Walker and Presley teamed up for a tour of West Texas. Walker later became a member of the Ozark Jubilee in Springfield, Mo., where he formed a strong friendship with Red Foley.
After signing with Columbia Records, he scored his first hit in 1954 with “Thank You for Calling.” Walker’s early Columbia recordings were made at a Dallas studio owned by Jim Beck, a producer responsibile for engineering hits by Ray Price, Lefty Frizzell and others.
After a a brief but unsuccessful effort at entering the rock ‘n’ roll market, Walker concentrated on playing the Texas bar circuit before moving to Nashville in 1959 and joining the Grand Ole Opry in 1960. He was one of the first artists to record one of Willie Nelson’s songs. Although the recording of “Funny How Time Slips Away” peaked at No. 23 on Billboard‘s country singles chart, it helped establish Walker’s national reputation. In 1962, Walker topped the chart with “Charlie’s Shoes,” the only No. 1 single of his career.
Walker’s smooth vocals were well-suited to Western-inspired hits including “Matamoros” and “Cross the Brazos at Waco.” After leaving Columbia in 1965, Walker signed to producer Fred Foster’s Monument Records and moved to MGM Records in 1970 and to RCA Records in 1974. He later recorded for several independent labels, including his own Tall Texan imprint.
In addition to his accomplishments as an entertainer and recording artist, Walker had a minor role in one of the most famous and tragic stories in the history of country music. After performing at a charity concert in Kansas City in 1963, Walker received an urgent phone call to return home to Nashville. Hearing of the dilemma, singer Hawkshaw Hawkins handed Walker his plane ticket and flew back to Tennessee on a private plane with several other country artists. The private plane crashed, claiming the lives of Hawkins, Patsy Cline, Cowboy Copas and pilot Randy Hughes.
In recent years, Walker continued to tour and remained a mainstay on the Grand Ole Opry. He was scheduled to perform Tuesday (May 23) on the Opry with Terri Clark, Cherryholmes, Restless Heart, Porter Wagoner and others.
Details of funeral or memorial services had not been determined late Sunday.