Pete Pike “Cold grey dawn“
One night in the 1950s, Pete Pike was picking bluegrass with Bill Emerson and Buzz Busby in a club of Washington, D.C. When they finished a Bill Monroe song, “I Hear A Sweet Voice Calling”, Emerson turned to Pete and said, “I never heard anyone sing that song that good before. I’ve got chill bumps.”
Pete Pike was one of the early greats of hillbilly, country-western, twangy folk, bluegrass – whatever you want to call it. This old music was emerging after WWII (…) and Pete Pike was one of the first performers to bring the songs to the clubs and shows of the Washington, D.C., area. Two hit records, “I Can See An Angel Walking” and “Little Bitty Teardrops” earned Billboard’s Five Star Pick Hit designation.(…)
Pete Pike was born on a tenant farm November 30th, 1929, in Amelia, Va. When he was three, his father bought Pete’s grandfather seventy-acre farm nearby, and that’s where he grew up, raising cattle and farming gain and tobacco. (…)
Although Pete’s father played the guitar, autoharp, and French harp, he was too busy farming to teach music to Pete and his young brother Frank. But around 1940, he gave his sons their own half-acre of tobacco to tend and after harvest, with profits in hand, Pete bought a Gibson guitar and Frank bought a Gibson mandolin. Pete had already learned to play the basics of guitar with a Sears, Roebuck and C°, guitar and an Ernest Tubb songbook. His main ambition was to sing.
His inspiration were groups such as the Carter Family, The Delmore Brothers, Roy Acuff, and of course Bill Monroe. ”I first heard Bill and Charlie Monroe,” he recalls, “on a battery-powered radio from a station out of Greensboro, North Carolina.” When asked to define what made those early songs unique, Pete explains: “Sitting on the front porch with nothing to do but play. Hillbilly was going west with an old fiddle and a banjo. The songs are stories of the land and they have remained.”
The Pike boys formed a local band in the ‘40s, about the time Pete met his life-long friend and banjo partner, Buck Austin.(…) They began playing in the local Amelia Theater and soon Pete and Frank’s dad let them play with him and his brother Cephas Pike, the Virginia State Champion Fiddle Player at the time. It wasn’t long before the boys were playing for “a lot of dances” in and around the eastern Virginia area.
In 1947, Pete and the band left Amelia and the pace of their lives began to pick up. They played a weekly radio show on WKLV in Blackstone, Va. It was so successful the station manager brought in a big star, Little Jimmy Dickens, and started an annual outdoor event – The Virginia Folk Music Association.(…)
Pete and Buck decided to go to Washington to play with Roy Clark at the Camden Tavern. These were the years of hard training, four hours a night, six days a week. In the summer of 1949, Pete worked at Jo-Del’s Bar and Grill for what was to be the last time with Roy, as well as with a bass player named Curley Irvin. (…) Pete now decided to move into doing shows. Figuring they had “nothing to lose”, he called Bill Monroe one night after his last act on the Grand Ole Opry stage in Nashville. Monroe couldn’t use them, but suggested they contact WWVA in Wheeling, W.Va. They headed there, went on the air, sang a duet, and did the show until 1952. “We were doing what we really wanted to do,” says Pete.
Pete then went in the army, got married in 1952, and was honourably discharged from the service in 1954. When he arrived back in Washington, D.C., Curley told him there was a boy named Buzz Busby from Eros, La., who “played pretty good mandolin”. “I called him up,” recalls Pete, “and I guess you could say we kind of worked out.” Over the next ten years and again in 1976 and 1985, the two would record countless records, producing some of the classics of the early bluegrass era. (…)
It was time for a hit record, and, in 1954, Pete released a pop song written by Ben Adelman’s wife and arranged by Pete, “I Can See An Angel Walking”. Adelman owned the Adelman Studios on Cedar Street in Washington (…) Patsy Cline had also recorded it, but more in a pop style. “Real smooth, kinda uppity. I did it countrified,” says Pete. Kicking off the song on Pete’s version was fiddle player Scotty Stoneman, who would go on to play on almost all of Pete’s recordings.(…) Pike had records on Four Star, Coral.
“I can see an angel”
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WRC-TV Channel 4 in Washington approached Pete for a hillbilly, five-day-a-week show. The station’s program director had noticed the huge crowds showing up for hillbilly and Grand Ole Opry stars events in the area. He’d also been tipped off that Pete and Buzz had won four prizes at the National Championship Country Music Event in Warrenton, Va., that summer.
The two hillbillies scrambled (“We’d never had a full band before!”) to add a few more members: Lee Cole on bass, Don Stover on five-string banjo, and Johnny Hall on the fiddle. They came up with a name, Pete Pike and Buzz Busby and the Bayou Boys. They also got some new outfits, the western getups that were the sartorial style of the early days of black-and-white television. (…)
All this was happening as Elvis Presley released Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon Of Kentucky” in July of 1954. A music milestone, Pete feels the hit prompted the eventual separation of what was all one music into the different styles of bluegrass, country-western swing, and rock-and-roll. (…)
“I’m walking alone”
Throughout the 1950s Pete and Busby continued to play among the more than fifty clubs in the Washington, D.C. area to an audience of what Pete describes as “weekly workers who came to relax and let their hair down.”(…) In the summer of 1958, the band rented Watermelon Park in Berryville, Va., and booked groups like the Stanley Brothers and a pre-“White Lightning” George Jones. ”He started off by showing up one week late,” laughs Pete. “Even then, he was ‘no-show Jones.’”(…)
Before signing with Rebel Records in late 1959, Pete, Busby, and various other artists together recorded a string of songs, primarily at the Adelman Studios, for Four Star and Starday. A partial list: “I’m Walking Alone/Don’t Take Her Love For Granted”(1955); “Just Between Us Two/No Peace Of Mind”(1957); “Lost, Lonesome Wind/I Don’t Mind/All Because Of My Jealous Heart” (1957); “Banjo Whiz/Windy Strings/Don’t Come Running Back To Me”(1958); “I’ll Always Wonder Why/Cotton Dice/Making Love To A Stranger/Cold Grey Dawn” (1960). Audio-Lab (the King subsidiary reissue label) had an album of earlier Pike’s songs in 1960, which is, as any other Audio-Lab LP, very hard to find, “Ballooning To The Top”. He then stayed with Rebel until 1963 (even having an album issued, “Pete Pike Sings Bluegrass”, which I have been unable to find, neither to know the songs included).
Like many artists, Pike tried his hand at running his own record company, VRC (Virginia Recording Company) in 1967/68. Later on, he had records on MRC, Stop and Music City. From 1978 to 1996 he went in the timber business or diner restaurant. Last come-back was a CD, “Rolling Again” in 2006, a mix-up of new and older 50s songs (Copper Creek label), shortly before his death (cancer) on May 27.
“Don’t let stars get in your eyes” (4 Star origin)