Born on 8 August 1921, near West Monroe, Louisiana, 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 radio in 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 Sweethearts’. 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’.
Just how Webb Pierce got to record for 4 Star is not known, but one person definitely involved was Pappy Daily, at the time 4 Star distributor for Houston, Texas. He 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. There were to be three sessions for Webb Pierce on 4 Star, the initial being held on August 9th 1949 at KWKH radio station in Shreveport, Louisiana. His first release was « Heebie Jeebie Blues » (# 1357, later reissued on # 1601), a self penned number and a fine Honky tonk ditty. The flipside « Sweetheart You Know I Love You So » was co-written by Tex Grimsley, a noted ‘Louisiana Hayride’ fiddle player who was to have discs later on Pacemaker. « Heebie Jeebie Blues » had been reported as being very popular in the Shreveport area. From the same session came also « High Geared Daddy » (4 Star 1413, reissued in 1951 on # 1601), a fine medium-to-fast Bopper on which Buddy Attaway is called in on lead guitar.
Among Shot Jackson on steel, there was the ubiquitous Tillman Franks on string bass. Two songs, « The Darkest Hour Is Just Before Dawn » (4 Star 1600) and « I’m Happy You Hurt Me » (# 1629) were held over and released two or three years later, when Pierce was already signed by Decca.
At his second session held circa January 1950, Pierce cut « Groovie Boogie Woogie Boy », written by Red Sovine, who had come down to Shreveport at the same time as Pierce in 1945-1949, as vocalist for Harmie Smith orchestra (Pierce at times fronted this combo). Lyrically the song is quite unique, being a kind of tribute to a local Shreveport disc-jockey. The second song cut was « New Panhandle Rag », the old Western swing favorite, paired with « Groovie… » (4 Star 1447). A nice song too, which Pierce was later to re-cut for Decca in 1957 (issued on the LP DL 4110).
The third session, cut circa June 24th, 1950, saw eight tracks recorded (a sign of the popularity of Pierce, and good previous record sales), among them only 2 singles were released in 1950, the remaining 4 songs being once more held over for future releases, either on 4 Star, either on budget Lps (e.g. Hilltop and King, in the early ’60s, alas with instrumental overdubs) ; they were « It’s All Between The Lines/Jinx In Love » (published first on a King LP 648), « Jilted Love / Lucy Lee » (4 Star 1629). Pierce had two more 4 Star discs with « Georgia Rag/I Saw Your Face In The Moon » (an old Odis Elder song cut for ARC) (# 1417), and « I’ve Loved You Forever It Seems/Hawaïan Echoes » (# 1517, issued 1951). All these tracks were gathered on the German Cattle LP 8105 « The unalderated early Webb Pierce Takes » in 1985, recently reissued on a bootleg CD.
On to the Pacemaker label now : this was a joint venture between Pierce, the real force behind the label, and Horace Logan of the ‘Louisiana Hayride’, which issued 16 records between late 1950 and March 1951, just at the same time Pierce was signed by Decca and ceased operation as record producer. Webb Pierce placed some Pacemaker masters with Gotham in Philadelphia (among them the first Faron Young and Claude King sides), together with other material that was never released on Pacemaker itself. But Pierce never leased his own recordings to Gotham. All Pacemaker masters were recorded in the KWKH radio station studio in Shreveport, La.
On the six Pacemaker releases on which Pierce is featured, only the last two are actually credited to Webb Pierce and the Southern Valley Boys ; the other four were issued under other names, Tillman Franks (bass player, also being the manager of Pierce) or Shot Jackson, certainly because Pierce was still under contract with 4 Star when he did begin recording on his own label.
First 8 Pacemaker sides were recorded circa September 1950 and issued under the name of TILLMAN FRANKS & His Rainbow Boys on Pacemaker 1003, « You Scared The Love Right Out Of Me », later re-cut for Decca at his first March 7th, 1951 session. The flipside was of course « Drifting Texas Sand » (billed as « arranged by Webb Pierce ») : it had been around for a long time, recorded as « Texas Sand » by the Tune Wranglers in 1936 ( Bluebird 6513, later reissued on Victor). Their fine rendition had a particularly fine slap-bass part by Charlie Kellogg. Bill Boyd also recorded it during the ’40s. Pierce was to re-cut « Sand » (in a very similar, almost note-for-note fashion. Shot Jackson on steel is more aggressive on Decca) on his first Decca session the following year (# 46322).
More sides on Pacemaker 1004 do feature Pierce under the name of SHOT JACKSON & His Dixie Dew Boys : « I Need You Like A Hole In The Head/I’m Watching The Stars » (a heartfelt ballad that Webb was able to fit from above the average). The remaining sides from this first session did appear on the Krazy Kat « Webb Pierce : The Unavailable Sides, 1950-1951) CD 16, although some do feature him only as rhythm guitar player, e.g. « Steelin’ The Mood » by Shot Jackson (Pacemaker 1009), a revamp of the old Glen Miller’s « In The Mood ».
A second Webb Pierce Pacemaker session took place circa September/October 1950. The same nucleus band was used : Shot Jackson on steel, Tillman Franks on bass. BUDDY ATTAWAY, who played on nearly all Pacemaker sides, is uncredited on the label (and wrongly on the writer’s credit); he handles a vocal duet with Pierce leading for the old traditional « I’m Sitting On Top Of The World » (first cut by the Mississipi Sheiks in 1930, then by Milton Brown – 1934 – and the Shelton Brothers in 1935; Decca 5190), paired with Roy Acuff‘s « Freight Train Blues» (from 1936, Vocalion 04466) on Pacemaker 1006. Both are superbly bluesy interpretations with Tex Grimsley splendid fiddle on side A. An harmonica player called »Rip Jackson » (related to Shot?) as shown on the label, joins the band too. Of course on the B side, both fiddle and harmonica are removed, and this time Buddy Attaway does the harmonizing behind Webb’s lead vocal, on a fresh, shuffling Hillbilly bop. Not much is known about Buddy Attaway, except that he was a classy guitar player, who had his own moments (« Why Should I » on Imperial, sung both in English and French!). Buddy died in the late ’80s.
On the second TILLMAN FRANKS session (January 1951), Webb Pierce did cut the old Jimmie Rodgers‘ song « California Blues » (Blue Yodel # 4) (Pacemaker 1011) , with a highly distinctive vocal well-suited to this number he was later to re-cut (in a more aggressive way) in 1951 at his first Decca session (# 46332) on March 7th, 1951. On this first version, the sparse backing of two guitars, steel and bass retain the sound from his earlier 4 Star sides. Shot Jackson has real brilliant licks on steel. The flipside was the highly acclaimed « Hayride Boogie », a strong shuffler with a call/response format. Obviously this tune, undoubtly inspired by « Louisiana Hayride » Saturday live shows, was the first version to the song Pierce is still today highly revered by Rockabilly fans for : the belter « Teenage Boogie » cut in August 1956 (Decca 30045).
Then undoubtly released from his 4 Star contract, Webb Pierce issued two Pacemaker discs, first 1012 : « Have You Ever Had The Feeling », a steel guitar instrumental on which he added lyrics. The melody was based on Leon McAuliffe‘s « Blue Bonnet Rag » from 1940. He re-cut it as « Sneakin’ All Around » on Vocalion (Decca LPs) 3766 in 1954. Flipside was « I Got Religion On A Saturday Night », a sacred reworking of Ted Daffan‘s « I’ve Got Five Dollars And It’s Saturday Night » (Columbia 20679, released January 1950). Pierce was quick to cover it ! The final Pierce Pacemaker record offers « In The Jailhouse/The Last Waltz » (# 1015). Indeed, the former was to become his second hit on Decca in 1954 as « In The Jailhouse Now » (# 29391).
About his 4 Star days, Pierce dismissed his records, complaining in a 1984 interview : « I never got paid for them, so I don’t consider I ever recorded them. » A sad and bitter assessment, considering how good these records were, cut by a very young aspiring-to-fame Honky tonk singer. It’s amazing how he adapted old songs from the Thirties in his early days, even returning to them later in his Decca fame days. And how he re-cut on Decca several of his early career’s songs.
Early 1951, Pierce was signed by Decca and entered Castle studio in Nashville, Tn. on March 7th, with a couple of his Lousiana fellows Buddy Attaway and Shot Jackson. Additional musicians were the Wilburn Brothers Teddy (probably string bass) and Doyle (on rhythm guitar), the fiddler being the ubiquitous Tommy Jackson (Tillman Franks refused to go to Nashville, and did prefer stay in in Shreveport). Webb re-cut 3 of his recent Pacemaker sides : « California Blues/You Scared The Love Right Out Of Me » (Decca 46332) and « Drifting Texas Sand » paired with the original « If Crying Would Make You Care » (# 46322). Both records were issued within a matter of weeks, although they were nothing but a bust. So Pierce had to wait for his second recording session in August 1951, backed this time by the cream of Nashville musicians, to get a a huge success with the ballad « Wondering » (# 46364) : a song originally cut by Joe Werner and the Riverside Ramblers (better known as the Hackberry Ramblers; they had released it in 1937: Bluebird 6926), which 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’. That same session saw a real fast belter, « I’m Gonna See My Baby » coupled with the fine, full of emotion mid-tempo ballad « You Know I’m Still In Love With You » (# 46385).
Two more number 1s, « That Heart Belongs To Me» (a self-penned song) and « Back Street Affair » (a song about adultery), 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 (piano), Jimmy Day (steel), the Wilburn Brothers. 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 »:
There stands the glass
That will settle my brain, it’s my first one today
There stands the glass that will hide all my fears
That will drown all my tears, brother I’m on my way
« Even Tho », « More And More », « I Don’t Care », « Love, Love, Love » and a duet with Red Sovine of George Jones’ 1955 song « Why Baby Why » : ironically, the latter was intended as a duet between Jones and Sonny Burns, but, because of the failure of Burns, Jones had to double his voice. Arguably his best-remembered number 1 hits are his version of the old Jimmie Rodgers‘ song « In The Jailhouse Now » (earlier recorded on Pacemaker), which held the top spot for 21 weeks, and his co-written « Slowly » which remained there for 17 weeks, 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. Webb Pierce 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 movies Buffalo Guns (his co-stars being Marty Robbins and Carl Smith), Music City USA, Second Fiddle To A Steel Guitar and Road 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.
Biographical notes: mainly taken from Phillip J. Tricker and Rick Kienzle notes from KK and BF CDs. Additional information from various sources on the net. Most pictures lent by the infatigable Tony Biggs of England, and Udo Frank from Germany. Many, many thanks to them, this article would have been impossible to set up without them!
Recording data from Praguefrank (for the full Webb Pierce discography, see the category “Discographies”). About the quality of the article: the original page make-up could not be kept pristine when I uploaded this article on my server, I think due to the many pictures. Sorry for inconvenience.