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Country Legend Pee Wee King Dies

Opry star and "Tennessee Waltz" scribe dies at 86

March 8, 2000 12:00 AM ET

Country music legend Pee Wee King died in a Louisville, Ky., hospital Tuesday; he had suffered a massive heart attack in late February and had been convalescing ever since. King, who turned eighty-six last month, is best known as the co-writer of the classic "Tennessee Waltz," which Al Gore has sung on his current presidential campaign trail.

King was one of Nashville's more unlikely successes. He wasn't a son of the South who hit big in Music City, but instead the son of a polka player from Milwaukee. Born Julius Frank Kuczynski on February 18, 1914, in Milwaukee, Wis., he played accordion and fiddle in his father's band before being tapped by promoter Joe Frank to play accordion with Gene Autry and his Range Riders on a Chicago radio show.

"His life is the fulfillment of the American Dream," said King biographer Wade Hall. "His family was of Polish, Austrian and German descent, but he was able to reinvent himself as a rural American. As a bandleader he had to play a music that pleased the people. When he came south he had to adapt to play for that audience."

In 1934, Autry took King with him to Louisville to do additional radio work before he split for Hollywood, leaving King to fend for himself.

King formed his own band, the Golden West Cowboys, and by 1937 they left Louisville and landed a slot on the Grand Ole Opry. The band blurred country subgenres into an immensely popular mix of western swing, cowboy songs, country and pop, helping to usher in a broader palate of instruments, including the accordion, drums and electric instruments. The Golden West Cowboys also served as something of a training camp for future country crooners like Eddy Arnold, Cowboy Copas and Ernest Tubb, whom King brought to Nashville.

After ten years on the Opry, King moved his band back to Louisville where he performed on local television. In 1948 King hit paydirt with the legendary "Tennessee Waltz," which he co-wrote with vocalist Redd Stewart. King's own recording of the country classic rose as high as #3 on the country singles charts, and went on to become a huge pop success for Patti Page three years later. The song was the catalyst in a string of Top ten hits for King. In 1951 the band landed their biggest hit, "Slow Poke," which occupied the top slot on the charts for nearly four months and even crossed over to the top of the pop charts for several weeks.

Though the run of hits dried up by the mid-Fifties, King continued to perform and record with the Golden West Cowboys until 1969, when he retired from the creative side of music. He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriter's Hall of Fame in 1970 and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1974.

"He helped to make country music the music of America," Hall said. "Pee Wee did as much as anyone to make country music the melting pot of many traditions: waltzes, polka, ballads, jazz, blues, pop, western swing, cowboy songs. He helped put country music in the mainstream of America."

King is survived by his wife, Lydia, and four children.

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