Wee King, 86, `Tennessee Waltz' Writer
By NEIL STRAUSS
Pee Wee King, an eclectic and innovative country music entertainer who
was a writer of the pop classic "Tennessee Waltz," died on Tuesday
at Jewish Hospital in Louisville, Ky. He was 86.
Born Julius Frank Anthony Kuczynski in Abrams, Wis., he began his musical
career in the least country way imaginable: playing accordion and concertina
in his father's polka band. In the early 1930's 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.
At the Opry he developed a reputation as an entertainer and an innovator,
the two often going hand in hand. Instead of pretending to be hillbillies,
the members of his band dressed in flamboyant outfits designed by
Nudie the Rodeo Tailor. Mr. King was also unafraid of using nontraditional
instrumentation in the band, including trumpet, drums and electric
guitar. In addition, the band added polkas and waltzes to the more
traditional country fare.
In the 1940's performers like Eddy Arnold, Cowboy Copas, Ernest Tubb and even Minnie Pearl appeared with Mr. King's band, but one of its most important members was the vocalist Redd Stewart. Mr. King wrote
at least four songs celebrating Tennessee, including "Tennessee Polka,"
"Tennessee Tears" (with Ernie Lee) and "Tennessee Tango" (with Mr.
Stewart). Then, inspired in part by Bill Monroe's "Kentucky Waltz," Mr.
King and Mr. Stewart wrote "Tennessee Waltz" in 1946 and recorded
it two years later for RCA Victor. Patti Page's 1950 recording of
the song for the Mercury label sold some three million copies, becoming
one of the best-selling singles of its time. Fifteen years later "Tennessee
Waltz" became an official song of the State of Tennessee.
In 1951 Mr. King recorded his only personal No. 1 hit, the novelty song "Slow Poke," written with Redd Stewart and Chilton Price. It became a million-record
seller for RCA Victor. The trio also wrote the 1952 hit "You
Belong to Me," which was recorded for Columbia by Jo Stafford and
sold two million copies. It was successfully revived 10 years later by the doo-wop group the Duprees.
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
In 1969 he left the Golden West Cowboys to become a director for the Country
Music Foundation. He also worked at other jobs in the country music
business. In 1974 Mr. King was inducted into the Country Music Hall
He is survived by his wife, the former Lydia Frank, of Louisville; a daughter, Marietta Wuchterl; three sons, Frank Jr., Gene C. and Larry L. King; a brother, Ervin Kuczynski; a sister, Irene Cetnarowski; six grandchildren;
and eight great-grandchildren.