Webb Pierce Biography

8 August 1921, near West Monroe, Louisiana, USA, d. 24 February 1991, Nashville, Tennessee, USA. His father died when Pierce was only three months old, his mother remarried and he was raised on a farm seven miles from Monroe. Although no one in the family performed music, his mother had a collection of country records which, together with Gene Autry films, were his first country music influences. He learned to play guitar and when he was 15, he was given his own weekly radio show on KMLB Monroe. During World War II he served in the army, married Betty Jane Lewis in 1942 and after his discharge, they relocated from Monroe to Shreveport where, in 1945, he found employment in the men’s department of the Sears Roebuck store. In 1947, he and his wife appeared on an early morning KTBS show as ‘Webb Pierce with Betty Jane, the Singing Sweetheart’. He also sang at many local venues and developed the style that became so readily identifiable and was later described as ‘a wailing whiskey-voiced tenor that rang out every drop of emotion’. He recorded for 4 Star in 1949 and soon afterwards moved to KWKH, where he became a member of The Louisiana Hayride on its inception that year. In 1950, he and Betty Jane were divorced and Pierce began building his solo career. He founded Pacemaker Records and a publishing company with Horace Logan, the director of The Louisiana Hayride. His recording of ‘Drifting Texas Sands’, labelled as ‘Tillman Franks and the Rainbow Valley Boys’, owing to Pierce still being under contract to 4 Star, attracted attention. His growing popularity brought him to the notice of Decca Records and in March 1951 he made his first recordings for that label. His third Decca release, ‘Wondering’, a song from the 30s by Joe Werner and the Riverside Ramblers, began a phenomenal success when, in March 1952, it spent four weeks at number 1 in the US country charts and gave Pierce his nickname of ‘The Wondering Boy’. Two more number 1s, ‘That Heart Belongs To Me’ (a self-penned song) and ‘Back Street Affair’, followed - all three remaining charted in excess of 20 weeks. (The latter song also led to Kitty Wells’ second chart hit with the ‘answer’ version, ‘Paying For That Back Street Affair’, early in 1953.) In November 1952 he married again, this time to Audrey Grisham, and finally gave up his job at Sears Roebuck. He left The Louisiana Hayride and replaced Hank Williams on the Grand Ole Opry. During his days at Shreveport his band included such future stars as Goldie Hill, Floyd Cramer, Jimmy Day, the Wilburn Brothers and Faron Young. He remained a member of the Grand Ole Opry roster until 1955, leaving because of his heavy touring commitments, but he rejoined briefly in 1956 before a disagreement with the management caused him to leave once again. The problem concerned the fact that Pierce was having to turn down lucrative Saturday concerts elsewhere to return to Nashville to meet his Grand Ole Opry commitments, for which he received only the standard fee. Pierce’s chart successes during the 50s and 60s totalled 88 country hits. Further number 1 singles included ‘It’s Been So Long’, ‘There Stands The Glass’, ‘Even Tho’, ‘More And More’, ‘I Don’t Care’, ‘Love, Love, Love’ and a duet with Red Sovine of George Jones’ song ‘Why Baby Why’. Arguably his best-remembered number 1 hits are his version of the old Jimmie Rodgers song ‘In The Jailhouse Now’, which held the top spot for 21 weeks, and his co-written ‘Slowly’, which remained there for 17, both songs charting for more than 35 weeks. The recording of ‘Slowly’ is unique because of Bud Isaacs’ electric pedal steel guitar, which created a style that was copied by most other country bands. He also had nine US pop chart hits, the biggest being ‘More And More’, which reached number 22 in 1954. Pierce recorded rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll numbers, having Top 10 country chart success with the first recorded version of ‘Teenage Boogie’ and with the Everly Brothers’ ‘Bye Bye Love’, but his vocal version of ‘Raunchy’ failed to chart.

In the mid-50s Pierce and Grand Ole Opry manager, Jim Denny, formed Cedarwood Music, which handled other artists’ songs as well as Pierce’s own, and also bought three radio stations. When Denny died in 1963, Pierce retained the radio stations and left the publishing company to his late partner’s family (he later acquired two more stations but eventually sold all five for a sum reputed to be almost $3 million). He toured extensively and appeared in the moviesBuffalo Guns (his co-stars being Marty Robbins and Carl Smith), Music City USA, Second Fiddle To A Steel Guitar andRoad To Nashville. During his career, dressed in rhinestone-studded suits, he became known as one of the most flamboyant singers of his era. During the 60s he had two Pontiac cars fancily studded with silver dollars, large cattle horns mounted as a decoration on the radiator, ornamental pistols and rifles and even leather seats that resembled saddles. Later, his expensive Oak Hill, Nashville home, with its guitar-shaped swimming pool, attracted so many tourist buses to the usually quiet area that he had problems with his neighbours, particularly Ray Stevens. Pierce totally ignored suggestions that he was bringing country music into disrepute, maintaining that the fans had paid for his pool and were therefore entitled to see it. After heated court proceedings he was forced to erect a sign warning fans to stay away. His comment on Stevens, who had been the organizer of the objectors, was: ‘That’s what he gets for livin’ across the street from a star’. Johnny Cash mentions the event in his song ‘Let There Be Country’, when he sings: ‘Pierce invites the tourists in and Ray keeps them away’.

After ‘Honky Tonk Song’ in 1957, Pierce never gained another number 1 record but he did add eight further country hits during the 70s on Decca and Plantation. When the Columbia Records duet version of ‘In The Jailhouse Now’, which he recorded with Willie Nelson, charted in 1982 to register his 97th and last country hit, it gave him the distinction of having charted records in four decades. In the early 80s he sold his Oak Hill home and retired to the Brentwood area of Nashville. He retired from touring but made special appearances when it pleased him, and, reflecting on his career, he said, ‘I’ve been blessed with so much. I guess it turned out the way I wanted it’. In 1985, he made a goodtime album with his friends Jerry Lee Lewis, Mel Tillis and Faron Young, but contractual problems led to it being withdrawn shortly after issue. Asked about recording again in 1986, he commented, ‘Hell, I might get a hit and then everybody would be botherin’ me again’.

Late in the 80s Pierce’s health began to fail. He survived open-heart surgery, but early in 1990 it was diagnosed that he was suffering from cancer. He underwent several operations but finally died in Nashville on 24 February 1991. He had been nominated for membership of the Country Music Hall Of Fame in August 1990: most authorities expected that he would be elected but sadly it was not to be. The honour was finally bestowed in October 2001. Pierce was, without any doubt, one of country music’s most successful and popular honky-tonk singers.

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

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