PEE WEE KING
Born Julius Frank Anthony Kuczynski, 18 February 1914, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
As a songwriter, bandleader, recording artist and television entertainer, Pee Wee King broke new ground in country music and he helped to bring waltzes, polkas and cowboy songs into mainstream country during ten productive years at the Gran Ole Opry (1937-1947). He wrote or co-wrote more than 400 songs, the best known of which are "Tennessee Waltz", "Bonaparte's Retreat", "You Belong To Me" and "Slow Poke".
Born into a working-class Polish-German family in 1914, Frank Kuczynski grew up in the polka-and-waltz culture of Wisconsin. His musical debut occurred at the age of fifteen, when he played the accordion in his father's polka band. In 1930 he changed his name to King and formed his own high school band. His introduction to country music came in 1934 when he joined Gene Autry's band in Louisville as an accordionist. It was Autry who dubbed Frankie King 'Pee Wee' and it stuck. When Autry left to launch his film career, King stayed in Louisville and formed a Western Swing band, the Golden West Cowboys. This group joined the cast of the Gran Ole Opry in June 1937. Pee Wee helped introduce an array of new instruments and sounds (and costumes!) to the Opry stage, including the trumpet, drums and the electric guitar. His nattily attired Golden West Cowboys generally produced a smooth and danceable sound during their heyday in the 1940s. Though they remained at the Opry throughout the war, getting on record proved tricky. In 1946, King managed to sell the masters of two songs to Bullet Records and had one release on that label before he was signed to RCA by Steve Sholes. Pee Wee would stay with the company for 12 years and had some 65 singles released on RCA (and five LP's) between January 1947 and October 1958.
The recorded repertoire of PeeWee and his Golden West Cowboys reflected variety similar to their stage show, heavy on upbeat fare and novelties, with ballads and waltzes thrown in. King was not a great vocalist ; he left most of the singing to his fiddle player, Redd Stewart. Eddy Arnold (1938-1943) and Cowboy Copas (1945-1947) were also lead vocalists in PeeWee's band, but this was before the group started recording. It was with Redd Stewart that King co-wrote the four songs mentioned above. "Tennessee Waltz" (sung by Stewart) was Pee Wee's first hit, peaking at # 3 on the country charts in 1948. But when it was covered by Patti Page in 1950, it became a pop standard. Page's version topped the pop charts for no less than 13 weeks in late 1950/early 1951 and there were six other charting versions in 1951, as well as two in 1959 (Bobby Comstock, Jerry Fuller). "Tennessee Waltz" became an official Tennessee state song in 1965.
Between 1948 and 1954, King scored ten Top 15 hits on the country charts, the biggest success being "Slow Poke" (1951). It topped the country lists for fifteen weeks and the pop charts for three weeks, making Pee Wee one of the first country musicians to cross over successfully into the pop field. Pop covers of King's "Bonaparte's Retreat" provided Kay Starr and Gene Krupa with Top 10 hits. "You Belong To Me", which King didn't record with his own group (at least not during his RCA tenure), became another huge crossover hit , in Jo Stafford's version (#1 pop for 12 weeks in 1952).
King had left the Opry in 1947 to host his own radio and TV shows. His business sense told him that television would fast become a stronger medium than radio. He soon had TV shows in three different cities at the same time : Cincinnati, Louisville and Chicago. By 1955 the Pee Wee King Show made it to prime time network television, appearing on ABC for two years. Like all country acts, King had a tough time adjusting to the competition of rock 'n' roll. A cover of "Blue Suede Shoes", with Walter Hayes as the lead singer, stayed too close to Western swing to impress teenage record buyers. Pee Wee altered the Cowboys into a leaner group to reflect the new style and recruited a new lead singer, Dick Glasser. Younger, more attuned to rock, Glasser proved his worth with his compositions "Ballroom Baby" and "Catty Town", clearly aimed at younger listeners. Floyd Cramer boogies away on those tunes and on "Hoot Scoot", recorded at the same May 1956 session. The later RCA recordings featured primarily members of the Nashville A-Team and only a handful of Cowboys. But Pee Wee's accordion was always there.
After RCA, King recorded for a number of smaller labels (Todd, Jaro, Top Rank, Landa, Starday, Cuca), without much success. He gave up television in 1962, but continued to tour with the Golden West Cowboys until the group was disbanded in 1969. After that, King and Stewart worked with pickup musicians or house bands at each venue. In 1974 King became the 23rd member of the Country Music Hall of Fame. He continued to perform until the early 1990s. His autobiography, "Hell-Bent For Music" (still in print), was published by the University Press of Kentucky in 1996, four years before Pee Wee died in Louisville of a heart attack.
More info :
Discography : http://countrydiscography.blogspot.com/search/label/King%20Pee%20Wee
CD's : The 6-CD Bear Family box-set "Pee Wee King And His Golden West Cowboys" (BCD 15727, 1994), covering the 1946-1958 period, may be a bit too much for you, but Bear Family has also released a single CD with mostly uptempo numbers : "Blue Suede Shoes" (BCD 16190, 2005), in the 'Gonna Shake This Shack' series. 30 RCA tracks from 1948-1958. Annotated by Rich Kienzle.
Acknowledgements : Rich Kienzle, Wade Hall (entry for King in the 1998 Encyclopedia Of Country Music).
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