Thursday, February 18, 2021

THROWBACK THURSDAY: The Greatest Polish-American Country Star

 

Pee Wee King performing in front of Wisconsin's largest cactus  

Not all country stars come from the South. Hell, Hank Snow, who was born and raised in Nova Scotia,  knew a lot more about squid jigging than cotton picking, could have told you that.

Similarly Julius Frank Anthony Kuczynski -- born 107 years ago today -- wasn't a native son of Old Dixie. He was a Polish kid from Wisconsin, the son of polka musician. His first musical gig was in his dad's polka band.

But he went on to fame and glory in country music under the name Pee Wee King. His best known song, written with his musical partner Redd Stewart, was that beautiful "Tennessee Waltz." (I can't help but wonder whether the song would have become as famous if he's called it "Wisconsin Waltz.")

From his biography on the Country Music Hall of Fame website:

He changed his name to King (after the then-popular polka performer Wayne King) and formed his own high school band, Frankie King & the King’s Jesters. In 1933 young Frankie King joined the Badger State Barn Dance and soon had his own radio show on WJRN in Racine.

King’s lucky break came in the spring of 1934, when he met promoter J. L. Frank. He moved with Frank to Louisville in 1934 to back up Gene Autry for a time,  joined Frankie More’s Log Cabin Boys as accordionist on WHAS radio, and in 1936 married Frank’s stepdaughter Lydia.

In 1936 King was in Knoxville performing on WNOX. In 1937 he formed the Golden West Cowboys and moved to Nashville to begin a ten-year run on WSM’s Grand Ole Opry, with the exception of 1940, when he worked primarily out of Louisville. In 1941–42 he and his band were featured with the Camel Caravan, a WSM touring company that presented some 175 shows at military installations in the United States and Central America.  At various times his band included Eddy Arnold, Redd Stewart, Ernest Tubb, Cowboy Copas, and Minnie Pearl.

After joining the Grand Ole Opry in June 1937, King helped introduce an array of new instruments and sounds to that program’s stage, including the trumpet, drums, and the electric guitar. In addition, he dressed his band members in spiffy western outfits designed by Hollywood tailor Nudie Cohn. His nattily attired Golden West Cowboys generally produced a smooth and danceable sound during their heyday in the 1940s; in the 1950s they even branched out briefly into mild rockabilly.

Here are a few of Pee Wee's performances, starting with his hit, "Slow Poke."

Here's his version of the country classic "Bonaparte's Retreat." (Click link for more on that song.)

Finally here are two of King's best known songs, "Tennessee Waltz" and "You Belong to Me" with Redd Stewart on vocals.

Pee Wee died in 2000 at the age of 86. The accordion fell out of favor in country music. But there was real power in his music.

Happy Birthday, Mr.  Kuczynski!

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