Red Foley Biography

Clyde Julian Foley, 17 June 1910, in a log cabin between Blue Lick and Berea, Kentucky, USA, d. 19 September 1968, Fort Wayne, Indiana, USA. The son of a fiddle player, Foley learned guitar as a child and was encouraged to sing by his parents. After high school, he attended Georgetown College, Kentucky, where he was discovered by a scout for the noted WLS National Barn Dance in Chicago. In 1930, he joined John Lair’s Cumberland Ridge Runners and returned to Kentucky with Lair in 1937, to help him establish the now famous Renfro Valley Barn Dance. He returned to Chicago in 1941, co-starred with Red Skelton in the network country radio showAvalon Time and signed with Decca Records. The first number he recorded was ‘Old Shep’, a song he had written in 1933, about a dog he had owned as a child (in reality, the dog, sadly poisoned by a neighbour, had been a German shepherd named Hoover). The song, later recorded by many artists including Hank Snow and Elvis Presley, has become a country classic. His first chart success came in 1944, when the patriotic wartime song ‘Smoke On The Water’ was a US pop chart number 7 and a 13-week occupant of the number 1 position in the country charts. On 17 January 1945, Foley had the distinction of making the first modern country records recorded in Nashville. In April 1946, he became a regular member of the Grand Ole Opry, replacing Roy Acuff as the star of NBC’s prestigiousPrince Albert Show. When he left Chicago for Nashville, he took with him a young guitar player called Chet Atkins, one of the many artists he helped. During the next eight years Foley established himself as one of the most respected and versatile performers in country music. He acted as master of ceremonies, the straight man forOpry comedians Rod Brasfield and Minnie Pearl, and proved himself a vocalist who could handle all types of material. In 1954, he moved to KWTO Springfield, as the host of the Ozark Jubilee, which, in 1956, became one of the first successful network television shows. Between 1944 and 1959, Foley charted 41 solo country entries of which 38 were Top 10 hits. There were six more country number 1s, including his 1950 million-selling ‘Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy’, which also topped the pop charts. Several others achieved crossover pop chart success. During this time he also had many major hit duets with various artists including Evelyn Knight, his daughter Betty Foley, Ernest Tubb, (‘Goodnight Irene’) and six with Kitty Wells, including their country number 1, ‘One By One’, which remained on the charts for 41 weeks. His performances of gospel numbers were so popular that recordings of ‘Steal Away’ (1950) (recorded by Hank Williams as ‘The Funeral’), ‘Just A Closer Walk With Thee’ (1950) and ‘Peace In The Valley’ (1951) all became million-sellers. He also recorded with the Andrews Sisters and in the late 50s, even recorded some rock ‘n’ roll recordings such as ‘Crazy Little Guitar Man’.

Although he continued to tour and appear on network television shows, Foley also moved into acting in the early 60s and co-starred with Fess Parker in the ABC-TV series Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. His daughter Shirley married one-time pop and later gospel singer Pat Boone, and some 10 years after Foley’s death, his granddaughter Debby Boone had both country and pop success. Foley never lost his love for country music and, unlike Eddy Arnold, never sought success as a pop artist, even though many of his recordings did attain pop chart status. His voice was mellow and had none of the raw or nasal style associated with many of his contemporaries; some have even likened it to Bing Crosby. His importance to the country music scene is often overlooked and little has been written about him, but he was rightfully elected to the Country Music Hall Of Fame in 1967. He was headlining a touring Opry show when, after playing the matinée and evening shows, Foley suffered a heart attack and died in his sleep on 19 September 1968. This prompted Hank Jnr., seemingly the last person to speak to him, to write and record (as Luke The Drifter Jnr.) the tribute narration ‘I Was With Red Foley (The Night He Passed Away)’, which charted in November 1968. In the song, Hank Jnr. relates that after reminiscing about the problems faced by country singers such as himself and Hank Snr., Red’s final words were: ‘I’m awful tired now, Hank, I’ve got to go to bed’.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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