Forgotten Artists: Webb Pierce (1921-1991)
Most of the artists I’ve written about in this series, with the obvious exception of Charley Pride, have been artists of merit who never became huge stars.
This is not the case with Webb Pierce. For a five year period (1952-1957), Webb Pierce was the dominant artist in the genre, charting 39 songs during those years with 13 of those songs reaching No. 1 for a total of 113 weeks, a total exceeded to this day only by Eddy Arnold.
Unlike the smooth Eddy Arnold, whose vocals (and personality) had appeal across many segments of society, Webb Pierce was a country music performer with one core style. You either liked Pierce or you hated him, but you could not ignore him. He sang in a high nasal tenor that will never come back into vogue in mainstream country music (although the style remains viable in bluegrass), but he selected great songs and could sell even the most maudlin lyric. He was one of the first stars to wear “Nudie Suits,” the colorful rhinestone-studded western wear that became de rigueur for country stars for the next 35 years. His song “Slowly” was the first country hit to feature the pedal steel guitar as played by then-band member Bud Isaacs. Then there was the famous guitar shaped swimming pool.
Like many performers of his era, years were subtracted from his real age to make him seem younger to the fan base. Most articles written about Pierce during the 1950s-1970s gave his date of birth as July 8, 1926, an error which was not corrected until the 1980s. He never penned an autobiography, and I’ve never seen a full biography of him, so biographical information remains sketchy. It is known that he had his own radio show on KMLB in 1938 and served in the Army for three years during WWII before moving to Shreveport, Louisiana in 1944, where he supported himself for some years as a shoe salesman at the local Sears store.
Pierce’s first recordings were on the Four Star label in 1949. By 1950 he was appearing at the Louisiana Hayride–a serious competitor to the Opry during the ’40s and ’50s–where he quickly became a featured performer. Pierce and Hayride founder Horace Logan formed Pacemaker Records as a vehicle to issue his records. None of these records became national hits, but they sold well enough that Decca inked Pierce to a contract in 1951.
The third Decca single, “Wondering,” established Pierce as a major star. It reached No. 1 for four weeks and stayed on the charts for 27 weeks. The song also provided Pierce with the nickname “The Wondering Boy,” which stayed with him throughout his career. The next two singles, “That Heart Belongs to Me” and “Backstreet Affair,” also reached No. 1 for multiple weeks. This was followed by four more top ten records and the eight week No. 1 “It’s Been So Long” (the flip side “I’m Walking the Dog” reached No. 9).
For many artists, a record that reached No. 1 for eight weeks would be a career record, but Pierce was just getting started. Released on October 24, 1952, “There Stands the Glass” was one of six double sided hits (with the “B” side reaching top ten status) to reach No. 1 for ten or more weeks.
A recent CMT poll of Greatest Drinking Songs had “There Stands the Glass” at No. 11, but they are wrong–it is the ultimate drinking song, the ultimate expression of the angst that accompanies those who are trying to forget:
There stands the glass that will ease all my pain
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
“There Stands the Glass” was followed by “Slowly” (No. 1 for 17 weeks), “Even Thou” (No. 1 for only 2 weeks), “More and More” (No. 1 for 10 weeks), “In the Jailhouse Now” (21 weeks at the top), “I Don’t Care” (12 weeks at No. 1) and “Love, Love, Love” (13 weeks at the top).
Pierce moved to the Grand Old Opry in 1955, but soon departed because of the requirement that members had to perform twenty-six Saturdays annually to maintain membership. For Pierce, who was commanding thousands of dollars for his personal appearances, this meant losing considerable income. Since he became a star without the Opry’s help, Pierce correctly figured that the monetary loss would not be offset by the prestige of continued Opry membership. Unfortunately, he burned many bridges when he left the Opry.
The onslaught of Rock and Roll in 1955-1956 destroyed many country music careers and put a damper on many other careers. According to Billboard, Pierce’s last No. 1 record was “Honky Tonk Song” in mid-1957, but Pierce adapted and survived. He added drums to his records and picked more up-tempo material, including songs from younger writers such as Wayne Walker and Mel Tillis. He continued to chart top ten records for another decade (other charts had three of his records reach No. 1 from 1959-1967). His record of “Bye Bye Love,” recorded at the same time as the Everly Brothers version, was a top ten hit and the Mel Tillis penned “I Ain’t Never” stayed at No. 2 for nine weeks. It was kept out of the top spot by Stonewall Jackson’s “Waterloo” and The Browns “The Three Bells.”
Pierce continued to record for Decca from 1967 to 1972, then for Plantation for two years where he had a minor hit with “The Good Lord Giveth (and Uncle Sam Taketh Away),” a song which deserved a better fate than missing the top forty. After 1976, Pierce–having invested wisely in real estate and music publishing–retired from performing (he had been semi-retired for years already). He would record only twice more.
In 1982, Willie Nelson was able to drag Webb into the recording studio for a duet album, which puzzled some since Webb wasn’t one of Willie’s former label mates or Texas compadres, but the recordings make clear the strong influence Pierce had on Willie’s pinched vibrato and vocal phrasing.
In 1985 Pierce got together with two old Louisiana buddies, Jerry Lee Lewis and Faron Young, and Florida songwriter Mel Tillis, to record an album called Four Legends. All of the songs on the collection were old Webb Pierce hits.
He died on February 24, 1991 of a heart attack, but would likely have died soon of cancer anyway. The old guard of the Nashville establishment shamefully denied him entry into the Country Music Hall of Fame until ten years after his death. He should have been inducted around 1977.
According to Billboard, Webb Pierce was the No. 1 country artist of the 1950s and the No. 7 artist of the 1960s. He charted 96 songs, 80 of which reached the Top 40, and 54 of which reached the Top Ten. His thirteen number one records stayed there for a cumulative total of 113 weeks–second only to Eddy Arnold. His 1955 recording of the old Jimmie Rodgers song “In the Jailhouse Now” is the third ranking county single of all time with 21 weeks at No. 1 and 34 weeks in the Top Ten.
Amusingly, Carl Smith, a Columbia recording artist (and 4th most popular country artist of the 1950s), recorded an album titled There Stands The Glass in 1964 in which he recorded twelve of Webb’s hits and never mentioned him on the album cover (which has several paragraphs of liner notes) or the record label (except on the songwriter credits of several songs)!
Much of Webb’s recorded output has been unavailable for years. Most of the albums on vinyl are typical Nashville product–one or two hit singles, some covers of other artists’ hits and some filler. If you like the songs listed on the album cover, you’ll probably like the album.
There are now quite a few CDs available of Webb’s pre-1958 output (European copyrights expire in 50 years so in Europe those recordings can be released without paying royalties), but very little of the post 1958 recordings are available.
- 20th Century Masters – The Millennium Collection: The Best of Webb — a budget collection, digitally re-mastered. Only 12 songs but they are the biggies in their original versions.
- Webb Pierce – Greatest Hits: Finest Performances — these are re-makes recorded for Plantation during the middle 1970s. They are not bad, but they lack the sparkle of the original recordings and Pierce’s voice had dropped in the interim.
- King of the Honky-Tonk: From the Original Master Tapes — released by the Country Music Foundation in 2000, this was the first effort to get the original Decca hits back in print. Eighteen hits, great sound and a useful booklet.
- A Proper Introduction to Webb Pierce: Groovie Boogie Woogie Boy — British reissue label, 28 tracks, mostly pre-Decca material, some with overdubs. Worth owning.
- The Wandering Boy (1951-1958) [BOX SET] — The Holy Grail for Webb Pierce fans — a deluxe Bear Family boxed set — four CDs, 114 tracks with great sound and an interesting, but somewhat disjointed booklet. Covers all of Webb’s recordings through 1958 with a few alternate takes of songs such as “Slowly” where you can see the Pierce style developing.
And don’t forget Caught in the Webb, a tribute album released in 2002. Produced and organized by Gail Davies, featuring 21 of Webb’s hits performed by guests, including: Dale Watson, The Jordanaires, Mandy Barnett, Charley Pride, Rosie Flores, George Jones, Dwight Yoakam, Emmylou Harris, Robbie Fulks, Joy Lynn White, Allison Moorer, Matt King, Crystal Gayle, Del McCoury Band, Lionel Cartwright, Guy Clark, Gail Davies, Willie Nelson, BR549, Billy Walker, Kevin Welch, Trent Summar, Pam Tillis, Deborah Pierce (Webb’s daughter) and the Carol Lee Singers. Proceeds of this album benefited the Minnie Pearl Cancer Research Center.
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