HomeAnnouncementVoices of Polonia: Pee Wee King, Country Music Artist

Voices of Polonia: Pee Wee King, Country Music Artist

By Ted Rajchel | Columnist 

Julius Frank Anthony Kuczynski, (February 18, 1914—March 7, 2000), known professionally as Pee Wee King, was an American country music songwriter and recording artist best known for co-writing “The Tennessee Waltz.”  

Pee Wee King is credited with bringing the musicians union to the Grand Ole Opry. He was one of the first musicians in Nashville to carry a union card, and to have the members of his band work union. He also served on the Board of the Country Music Hall of fame.  

King was born in Abrams, Wisconsin to a Polish-American family, and lived in Abrams during his youth.  He learned to play the accordion from his father, who was a professional polka musician.  In the 1930s he toured and made cowboy movies with Gene Autry.  King joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1937 with the help of his father-in-law, J.L. Frank.

Some of his Career

In 1946, while he was the band leader of the Golden West Cowboys, King, together with the band’s vocalist, Redd Stewart, composed “The Tennessee Waltz”, inspired by “The Kentucky Waltz” by Blue Grass musician Bill Monroe.  

King and Stewart first recorded “The Tennessee Waltz” in 1948.  It went on to become a country music standard, due, mainly to the immense success of Patti Page’s version of the song.  

King wrote or co-wrote more than four hundred songs and recorded more than twenty albums and 157 singles.  His other songs included “Slow Poke” and “You Belong to Me,” both co-authored with Chilton Price and Redd Stewart. 

His songs introduced waltzes, polkas, and cowboy songs to country music.  King became one of the charter members of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970.  King was not permitted to use the drummer and trumpeter he featured in his stage shows when the band played at the Grand Ole Opry, where both instruments were banned. He ignored that ban only once, appearing at the Ryman in April, 1945 following the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  

The Opry had been cancelled, but since a number of fans showed up, management decided to have King perform his stage show for them, performing as he did outside the Opry.  He used his full band, with drums and trumpet. When confronted about it afterward, King told Opry emcee George D. Hay that he had done his stage show, as asked. 

Bob Wills had defied the Opry band on drums a year earlier during a 1944 guest appearance.  His band also introduced on stage dancing and Nudie Cohn’s customized rhinestone cowboy outfits, which later became popular with Nashville and country musicians, including Elvis Presley, to the Opry.  

He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1974.  He joined producers Randall Franks and Alan Autry for the “In the Heat of the Night” cast, CD Christmas Time, performing “Jingle Bells” with the cast released on Sonlite and MGM for one of the most popular Christmas releases of 1991 and 1992 with Southern Retailers.  

Some of His Albums

Pee Wee King made many albums.  Some of the are: Pee Wee King, RCA Victor, 1954; Waltzes, RCA Victor, 1955; Country Barn Dance, RCA Camden, 1965; Pee Wee King and his Golden West Cowboys (6- CD box set), Bear Family, 1995; Pee Wee King’s Country Hoedown  (live radio performances), Bloodshot, 1999.

Pee Wee King Broke New Ground in Music

Pee Wee King was an unlikely candidate for country music stardom.   Yet, as a songwriter, bandleader, recording artist, and television entertainer, he broke new ground in country music. He helped to bring waltzes, polkas, and cowboy songs into mainstream country music during ten productive years at the Grand Ole Opry.  Born Julius Frank Anthony Kuczynski into working class, Polish-German family,  he grew up in the polka-and-waltz culture of Wisconsin.  

His musical debut occurred at age fifteen, when he played the accordion in his father’s polka band. He changed his name to King (after the then popular performer Wayne King) and formed his own high school band, Frankie & the King’s Jesters. In 1933 young Frankie King joined The Badger State Barn Dance and soon had his own radio show on WJRN in Racine.   

King’s lucky break came in the spring of 1934, when he met promoter J.L. Frank.  He moved with Frank to Louisville in 1934 to back up Gene Autry for a time, joined Frankie More’s Long Cabin Boys as an accordionist on WHAS Radio, and in 1936 married Frank’s step-daughter, Lydia.  

In 1936 King was in Knoxville performing on WNOX. In 1937 he performed The Golden West Cowboys and moved to Nashville to begin a ten year run of WSM’s Grand Ole Opry,  with the exception of 1940, when he worked primarily out of Louisville.   In 1940-1942 he and his band were featured with Camel Caravan, a WSM touring company that presented some 175 shows at military installations in the United States and Central America—at various times.  His band included Eddy Arnold, Redd Stewart, Ernest Tubb, Cowboy Copas, and Minnie Pearl.  

After joining the Grand Ole Opry in June, 1937, King helped introduce an array of new instruments and sounds to that program’s stage, including the trumpet, drums, and the electric guitar.  In addition, he dressed his band members in spiffy western outfits designed by Hollywood tailor, Nudie Cohn.  His Golden West Cowboys generally produced a smooth and danceable sound during their heyday in the 1940s; in the 1950s they even branched out briefly into mid rockabilly. 

King wrote or co-wrote more than four hundred songs, including some of the most popular songs in American musical history, notably “Slow Poke” (a #1 pop hit for fourteen weeks in 1951) with Chilton Price and the hugely successful “Tennessee Waltz” with Redd Stewart.  Patti Page’s 1950 version of the latter song went to #1 on the pop charts and, within six months, sold almost five million copies.  It became an official Tennessee State song in 1965.  King’s own recording career included more than twenty albums and 157 singles, most of them issued during his seventeen-year association with RCA Victor.  

With the release of his recording of “Slow Poke” in 1951, he became one of the first country musicians to cross over successfully into the pop field, following precedents set by Elton Britt, Eddy Arnold, and Red Foley.  King became also a pioneer television performer when, in 1947, he returned to Louisville to work on wave radio and television.  

In the fifties and sixties he had regional and national TV shows originating from Louisville, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Chicago, including a six year run of the “Pee Wee King Show” on ABC television.  King appeared in four popular movies:  “Gold Mine in the Sky” with Gene Autry in 1938; “Flame of the West” with Johnny Mack Brown in 1945;  “Riding the Outlaw Train” in 1951; and “The Rough, Tough West” with Charles Starrett in 1952.  

In 1974 he was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame. King wrote “The Tennessee Waltz” with fellow band member Redd Stewart in 1947. The two  said they wrote it  on  an unfolded match box as they were riding in Stewart’s truck.  

While King’s recording did well, a version of the song by Patti Page became a #1 pop hit and sold 65 million copies.  It  became the state song of Tennessee in 1965.  

“I learned a lot about showmanship from him,” said country music singer Eddy Arnold, who played in King’s band, The Golden West Cowboys, in the 1940s.  King and his band appeared in several of Gene Autry’s moves.  They also appeared in westerns with Charles Starrett the Durango Kid, and, Johnny Mack Brown.  The band members were written into the script so they could perform the smooth western swing music that was their trademark.  

Pee Wee King, a eclectic and innovative country music entertainer, who was a writer of the classic “Tennessee Waltz”, died at Jewish hospital of a heart attack in Louisville, Kentucky.  He was 86 years old.  He began his musical career in the least country way imaginable: playing accordion and concertina in his father’s polka band.  

In the early 1930s he met and performed with Gene Autry before Autry became a star in Hollywood westerns. After working with Autry, he changed his name to Pee Wee King and settled in Louisville.  He formed a band, The Golden West Cowboys,  which joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1937.  In 1955 Mr. King was host of his own musical variety show for ABC television, ”The Pee Wee King Show.” He also appeared in several westerns.  Over the course of his career he wrote or co-wrote more than 400 songs.   

References: (1) Pee Wee King—Wikipedia; (2)  Pee Wee King-Country Music Hall of Fame; (3) Pee Wee King-The Way Back Machine; (4) Pee Wee King-Julius Frank Anthony Kuczynski-March 5, 2000-age 86 – Died.

Mark Ziobro
Mark Ziobrohttps://uticaphoenixnet.wpcomstaging.com
Mark is the current Managing Editor for The Utica Phoenix, and a Central New York Native.
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