Buddy Killen, a key figure in the development of the Nashville music industry, died Wednesday morning (Nov. 1) at his Nashville home following a battle with liver and pancreatic cancer.
Killen, 73, enjoyed success as a songwriter, record producer and musician, but his greatest commercial achievements were in music publishing. He began working at Tree Publishing in 1954 at a salary of $35 per week and eventually purchased the company and sold it to Sony Music in 1989 for a reported $40 million.
William D. Killen was born in Lexington, Ala., and moved to Nashville in 1951 and began playing bass for Jamup & Honey, a comedy act that frequently appeared on the Grand Ole Opry. After working with other acts on the WWVA Jamboree in Wheeling, W.Va., Killen returned to Nashville and was hired by Tree Publishing founder Jack Stapp in 1954 to oversee songwriters and pitch their songs to recording artists. One of Killen’s early triumphs came in 1956 when Elvis Presley recorded “Heartbreak Hotel,” a song composed by Tree writer Mae Boren Axton.
In 1957, Stapp bought Tree from company co-founder Lou Cowan and partner Harry Fleishman. After completing the purchase, he gave Killen 30 percent of the business and the title of vice president. The same year, Killen was at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in downtown Nashville when he loaned $5 to an aspiring songwriter — Roger Miller — and offered to listen to some of his songs. After Killen signed him to the publishing company, several of Miller’s early songs became hits in 1958, including Ray Price’s “Invitation to the Blues” and Jim Reeves’ “Billy Bayou.” While writing for Tree, Miller became a country superstar in the mid ’60s with hits such as “Dang Me” and “King of the Road.”
At Tree, Killen’s main focus was on signing songwriters and acquiring other publishing companies, but he also formed Dial Records in 1965 to release rhythm and blues records made by Texas-born singer-songwriter Joe Tex. After scoring a major hit with “Hold What You’ve Got,” Tex’s success continued through the ’70s with such soul classics as “Show Me,” “Skinny Legs and All” and “I Gotcha.” Killen co-wrote Tex’s last national hit, 1977’s “Ain’t Gonna Bump No More (With No Big Fat Woman).” Tex, who died of a heart attack in 1982, is one of the final nominees under consideration for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007.
Killen’s other songwriting credits include “Forever” (a 1960 pop hit for the Little Dippers remade a few years later by steel guitarist Pete Drake) and “I May Never Get to Heaven” (Conway Twitty’s 1979 hit co-written by Killen and Bill Anderson). His songs were also recorded by Anderson, Reeves, Ronnie McDowell, Al Hirt and many others.
Killen became president of Tree Publishing in 1974 after Stapp became the company’s chief executive officer. When Stapp died in 1980, Killen exercised an agreement the two had made years earlier and purchased the company. After selling the publishing company to Sony Music in 1989, Killen formed a new business, Killen Music Group, in 1990. In 1997, he established KMG Records. Killen Music Group’s publishing division has had several songs recorded by OutKast, including music for their feature film, Idlewild.
Killen was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 1985. He published his autobiography By the Seat of My Pants, co-written with Tom Carter, in 1994 and released his own album, Mixed Emotions, in 2000. Most recently, Killen collaborated with Alabama-based writer Edie Hand to publish a new book, A Country Music Christmas: Songs, Memories, Family Photographs and Recipes From America’s Favorite Country and Gospel Stars. A book release party was scheduled for Thursday (Nov. 2) at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville.
Funeral details are pending, but a memorial service is planned at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.