Born August 8, 1921, in West Monroe, LA; died of pancreatic cancer, February 24, 1991, in Nashville, TN; son of Florine and Webb Mite Pierce; married Betty Jane Lewis, 1942 (divorced, 1950); married Audrey Grisham, 1952; children: Debbie Lynn, Michael Webb. Military/Wartime Service: U.S. Army, c. 1942-44, became sergeant.
One of country music's most passionate vocalists, Webb Pierce inherited the reins of the honky-tonk legacy after the death of legend Hank Williams in 1953. Considered one of the most distinctive stylists of the electrified country sound of the early 1950s and the embodiment of the rhinestone-encrusted crooning cowboy, Pierce was noted for his high, nasal voice, his hound-dog whine, and the uncluttered instrumental arrangements of such classics as "Back Street Affair" and "There Stands the Glass."
One of the few performers to land recordings on the country music charts during four successive decades, Pierce boasted a twangy tenor that would influence a generation of country artists, including Mel Tillis, Faron Young, and Willie Nelson. Experiencing a decline after the smooth, pop-based Nashville Sound gained mass favor in the 1960s, Pierce continued to epitomize the raw enthusiasm and lack of city-bred sophistication characteristic of his era. His guitar-shaped swimming pool, colorful suits, and outlandishly outfitted automobiles were popular with tourists and notorious among native Nashvillians throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
Pierce was born August 8, 1921, in West Monroe, Louisiana. The stepson of a farmer (his biological father died three months after he was born), he spent his childhood in the fields and didn't pick up a guitar until age 12. While his family was not musical, Pierce was inspired by his mother's collection of country music recordings. He worked hard at his guitar technique and, by the age of 16, was playing local gigs and hosting his own radio show, Songs by Webb Pierce. After a stint as a regular performer on Monroe's KMLB radio and a three-year turn in the U.S. Army, he moved to Shreveport, Louisiana, in 1944.
Securing a job at Sears Roebuck Company, Pierce began an early-morning show on KTBS called Webb Pierce with Betty Jane, the Singing Sweetheart, on which the young man and his bride performed mostly gospel numbers. A year after the popular Louisiana Hayride radio show began airing on KWKH in 1948, Pierce was asked aboard. His early band, the Southern Valley Boys, numbered several musicians who would later achieve fame, among them Floyd Cramer, Tillman Franks, Jimmy Day, and Faron Young. Still working as a floor manager for Sears while courting fame on the Louisiana Hayride, Pierce also recorded several singles on the Four Star label in 1949.
Pierce signed a deal with Decca Records in 1951 and was soon hard at work recording such singles as "Wondering," "That Heart Belongs to Me," and "Back Street Affair," all of which would reach Number One on the Billboard charts. Needless to say, this increase in popularity changed Pierce's career track; he quickly tendered his resignation at Sears and moved to Nashville with longtime friend Red Sovine. There, Pierce topped the charts with two more songs and joined the Grand Ole Opry.
In 1954 Pierce recorded "Slowly," now considered a classic country love song. It spent a record 36 weeks at Number One, in part due to the innovative work of pedal steel soloist Bud Isaacs. "There Stands the Glass," recorded the same year, showcased Pierce's nasal vibrato, a vocal style that would be an inspiration to later singers like Willie Nelson. "Webb had the most unique way of phrasing," friend Max Powell told Chicago Sun-Times contributor David Hoekstra. "He knew how to pull one word out of a line and tear your heart out with it. His phrasing was excellent."
Between 1951, when "Wondering," his first record to hit the charts, zoomed to Number One, and 1955, Pierce scored a total of 11 Number One singles, including that year's "In the Jailhouse Now," "I Don't Care," and "Love, Love, Love." He would chart with a dozen Number One records out of a total of 55 Top Ten hits during his long career.
One of Pierce's many talents was his innate sense of what made a good country song; he spent a great deal of time looking for top-notch material. Even after a tune had been recorded, he would play it for a live audience to see if their reaction was favorable before it was released. His perfectionism was no less exacting in the studio. The recording of "There Stands the Glass," still considered the country drinking song, was a typical case: it was cut four times before Pierce felt it worthy of release.
Like many popular artists of the period, Pierce also took advantage of new recording technology and later remade his early Decca hits in stereo, adding the background vocals that had become all the rage by the late 1950s. He knew what his fans wanted; in 1958, when an average order for most records was 100 copies, a Webb Pierce recording was stocked in upwards of 1,000. Still, the original hit versions best showcase the reason for Pierce's phenomenal popularity. His unique sound, achieved through fiddle and electric guitar played in unison and backed by pedal steel, along with Pierce's high tenor voice, had gained him the bulk of his loyal following in those initial years with Decca.
Very early in his career Pierce became heavily involved in the business side of country music, demonstrating a clear head for marketing and finance not shared by many of his contemporaries. As he noted in an interview with Country Music's Patrick Carr: "I went into the business just hoping that one more hit would come up, and looking way ahead as to what I'd do when it was over. You see, I was still very young, but I had that knowledge, that business training I got through Sears & Roebuck, so I never woke up broke, owing the government ... millions." While on the Louisiana Hayride in 1950, Pierce developed a partnership in both the Pacemaker recording studio and the Ark-La-Tex music publishing company with then-Hayride director Horace Logan.
Establishing a good working relationship with country radio from the start was another area in which Pierce's investment of energy received maximum return; he was a constant fixture at annual disc jockey conventions, and his consistent wooing of prominent disc jockeys made sure that his music was played--and played a lot. He was savvy to invest in the publishing rights to many of the songs he made into hits, thereby reaping double rewards from his successes on the charts (he already received a percentage of revenues from each record sold). The influential Cedarwood Publishing company, which Pierce co-founded with former Grand Ole Opry manager Jim Denny in 1953, represented such songwriting talent as Danny Dill, Red Sovine, Mel Tillis, Marijohn Wilkin, John D. Loudermilk, and Wayne Walker. At one time Pierce held financial assets that included a record company, five radio stations, several publishing companies, a grocery store, a restaurant, and an auditorium.
The Gibson Guitar Company's Les Paul electric guitar was changing the traditional country acoustic sound in the late 1940s, and by the early 1950s, the rock and roll influences generated by a young man named Elvis Presley were beginning to shake the foundations of country music. Rockabilly, the fusion of country music and this new electrified sound, gained momentum in the mid-1950s, and its energy was quick to capture Pierce's interest. He wooed the new teen audience with ballads like "I Don't Care" and "Love, Love, Love" and also began to incorporate a yearning vibrato to his vocal style, though he retained his southern inflection.
"Teenage Boogie" was one such attempt to capture this new market, and it was characteristic of Pierce's later songs in its use of rockabilly guitar licks. Recorded three times before Pierce felt he had gotten it right, the instrumental backup bore the mark of Nashville's finest: Hank "Sugarfoot" Garland on lead guitar, Sonny Burnette on pedal steel, Buddy Harman on drums, and the Jordannaires contributing backup vocals to the final session in August of 1956, that was released by Decca. A moderate crossover hit at the time, this remains one of Pierce's most collectible recordings.
In 1956 Pierce and Sovine collaborated on the top-selling duets "Why Baby, Why" and "Little Rosa," and Pierce continued to court the rockabilly market with songs like "Teenage Boogie." Near the end of the decade, he released a cover version of the Everly Brothers' "Bye Bye, Love," but this 1957 remake did not enjoy nearly the success of the original. This was a precursor of things to come. By 1958, despite the wealth of good material coming from a young songwriter named Mel Tillis with which Pierce would continue to top the charts throughout the 1960s--songs like "Crazy Wild Desire," "Sands of Gold," and "Those Wonderful Years" would all make the Top Ten in the early years of the decade--Pierce's career as a country musician had peaked.
During the 1960s Pierce remained one of the most popular country singers in the nation, carried along on his successes of the previous decade. He toured the United States and Canada and appeared on several television shows, as well as on the Opry stage. But by the late 1960s, Pierce had begun to lose popularity on the country charts, as the slick "Nashville Sound" pumped out of Chet Atkins's RCA studios began to win over country music listeners. Pierce's last Top Ten hit would be "Fool, Fool, Fool," which charted in 1967.
Constantly flaunting his wealth for the enjoyment of his fans, in the early 1960s Pierce became the first Nashville resident to construct a guitar-shaped swimming pool in the backyard of his suburban residence. It proved to be a $40,000 home improvement project that angered his Oak Hill, Tennessee, neighbors when their quiet city became the second-biggest stopping point for the thousands of tour buses that travelled to Nashville each year. While Pierce took advantage of the situation, spending many hours by the pool autographing albums for his fans, his neighbors were angered to the point of litigation. Pierce lost these law suits, the buses were prohibited, and he was resigned to building another such pool near his offices on Music Row.
In 1962 Pierce decided it was time for some new wheels and invested the incredible amount of $20,000 in the first of what would be a pair of the fanciest cars ever seen driving the streets of Nashville. Loaded with ornamental rifles, studded with over 1,000 silver dollars, and upholstered in hand-tooled leather, the cream-colored Pontiac Bonneville's interior was designed by Nudie Cohen, a North Hollywood tailor famous for a heavy hand with the glitz in stagewear known as "Nudie suits."
Even though most of his time was now spent basking in the adoration of his loyal fans, Pierce was not through with music. Chalking up several smaller successes on the charts throughout the early 1970s, Pierce made Billboard's rankings one last time in 1982, when a revival of his 1955 hit "In the Jailhouse Now," sung with Willie Nelson, made it to Number 72. Still, Pierce's characteristically country voice would not harmonize well with an industry bent on courting a pop audience with crossover hits, and he eventually withdrew from the recording studio altogether. During his later years, Pierce was frequently hospitalized with heart problems; in 1990 he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died a year later, at the age of 69, in Nashville.
Despite the prolific and incredibly popular nature of his recording history, Pierce has been largely ignored by Nashville and is not even represented in the Country Music Hall of Fame. While his flashy lifestyle was indeed an embarrassment to a Nashville society trying to glean an aura of "respectability" and escape country music's "just off the farm" image, more significant perhaps is the fact that Pierce attempted to remain in the public eye too long after his heyday, becoming almost a caricature of himself. But during the 1950s, more than any other star, Pierce embodied the hard-driving honky-tonk music that helped country music survive into the rock 'n' roll era. "Maybe the flamboyance hurt him," admitted his friend Max Powell. "[But] that's what the public loves. He wasn't doing flamboyance for the people connected with the Country Music Association. He was doing it for his fans--and that's what an artist should do."
by Pamela L. Shelton
Webb Pierce's Career
Began hosting radio show Songs by Webb Pierce, KMLB, Monroe, LA, c. 1940; co-host, Webb Pierce, with Betty Jane the Singing Sweetheart, KTBS, Shreveport, LA, 1944-48; performed on Louisiana Hayride, KWKH, Shreveport, c. 1949- 52; signed with Four Star label, 1949; co-founded Pacemaker Records, 1950; signed with Decca, 1951; scored first Number One hit, "Wondering," 1952; guest starred at Grand Ole Opry, Nashville, TN, 1952; member of Grand Ole Opry cast, 1953-55, 1956-57; co-founder, Cedarwood Publishing, Nashville, 1953; signed with Plantation Records, 1977. Appeared on television programs, including Dick Clark's Swinging Country, The Lloyd Thaxton Show, both 1966, and The Ozark Jubilee; hosted weekly show on ABC-TV; appeared in television pilot Western Musketeers. Appeared in film Buffalo Guns.
Webb Pierce's Awards
Named Number One folksinger by Ranch and Farm magazine, Number One singer by the American Juke Box Operators, and most played artist of the year by Billboard, all 1953; named Number One male country vocalist, Cash Box magazine, 1953-56 and 1961; inducted into Country and Western Hall of Fame, 1956; master achievement award, Reunion of Professional Entertainers (ROPE), 1989.
- Selective Works
- Wondering Boy, Decca, 1958.
- Webb with a Beat, Decca, 1960.
- I've Got a New Heartache, Decca, 1963.
- Country Music Time, Decca, 1965.
- Webb Pierce: The Wondering Boy, 1951-58, Bear Family, 1990.
- King of the Honky Tonk, Country Music Foundation, 1994.
- I Ain't Never, Charly.
- Cross Country, Decca.
- Biracree, Tom, The Country Music Almanac, Prentice Hall, 1993.
- Cackett, Alan, Harmony Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, Crown, 1994.
- Encyclopedia of Folk, Country & Western Music, edited by Grelun Landon and Irwin Stambler, St. Martin's, 1983.
- Periodicals Billboard, March 9, 1991.
- Chicago Sun-Times, October 28, 1990.
- Country Music, June 1986; May/June 1991; September/October 1994; March/April 1995.
- Country Music Review, November/December 1964.
- Nashville Banner, February 25, 1991.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from liner notes by Otto Kitsinger to Webb Pierce: The Wondering Boy, 1951-1958, Bear Family Records, 1990.