Webb Pierce, who died 20 years ago today, had more number one hits than any other country artist of the 1950s. Here are 20 things you may not know about the flamboyant singer’s life and career.
1. Webb Pierce was born in West Monroe, Louisiana in 1921. Until the 1980s, his birth year was routinely listed as 1926 to make him seem younger than he was.
2. His early heroes included Gene Autry and Jimmie Rodgers. He started playing guitar at age 12.
3. By age 15, he had his own 15-minute radio show on Monroe’s KMLB-AM.
4. He joined the Army in 1942 and served for 3 years. After being discharged, he worked at Sears Roebuck in Shreveport, Louisiana, and, in 1947, he also began performing with his wife, Betty Jane Lewis.
5. His big break came in 1949, when California-based 4 Star Records signed both him and his wife to recording contracts. The catch? They were signed as individual performers. His career took off while his wife, performing as Betty Jane and Her Boyfriends, failed to find an audience. She was dropped by the record label and the couple divorced in 1950.
6. In 1951, Pierce left 4 Star Records and signed with Decca. He also took the business-savvy step of forming his own publishing company – a practice few artists engaged in at the time – in order to reap more money for his songwriting efforts. At the peak of his popularity, Pierce owned a record company, five radio stations, and several publishing companies – not to mention a grocery store and a restaurant.
7. In 1952, Pierce scored his first #1 hit with the single “Wondering.” It stayed on the charts for 27 weeks.
8. He moved to Nashville and married Audrey Grisham. In 1953, after the death of Hank Williams, The Grand Ole Opry invited Pierce to be part of the show. His appearances there would soon make him the most popular country singer in the nation.
9. Between 1951 and 1955, Pierce landed 11 number one hits. Among them were “There Stands the Glass,” considered one of the greatest country drinking songs (no mean feat), and “Slowly,” one of the first country singles to feature pedal steel guitar. Over the span of his career, he landed 96 songs on the Billboard Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart.
10. He also appeared in the films Buffalo Guns, Music City USA, Second Fiddle to a Steel Guitar, and Road to Nashville.
11. Webb built a $40,000 guitar-shaped swimming pool at his home in Oak Hill, Tennessee. When Nashville tour buses started making regular stops there, he charged an entrance fee and signed autographs, a practice that eventually caused angry neighbors to successfully sue him, ending the parade of 3,000 visitors per week.
12. One of those angry neighbors was Ray Stevens, Grammy-winning novelty songwriter of 1962’s “Ahab the Arab” and current Tea Party activist.
13. Webb Pierce’s other ostentatious touches included twin Pontiac Bonnevilles decorated with more than 1,000 silver dollars (now a top attraction at the Country Music Hall of Fame). He also became famous for his flamboyant rhinestone-studded suits designed by Hollywood tailor Nudie Cohn.
14. Some charged that Pierce’s wealth came largely on the backs of his songwriters as he insisted on being credited as a co-writer on any song he performed whether he’d actually helped shape the material or not. Never one to miss a potential revenue opportunity, he was also known for hastily recording his own versions of popular hits.
15. Pierce left The Grand Ole Opry in 1957 because their contract stipulated he had to appear at the Opry at least 26 weeks out of the year and pay commissions on his outside bookings.
16. In 1958, Webb Pierce reacted to the growing popularity of rock 'n' roll by releasing a rockabilly record under the name Shady Walls.
17. The rise of the slick “Nashville Sound” was one trend Webb was never able to adapt to, and his 1960s recordings failed to reach the heights he’d seen in the '50s, though he continued to be a popular touring act for many years.
18. In 1982, he charted for the last time, performing “In the Jailhouse Now” with Willie Nelson. Upon seeing the crowds lined up for a Nelson show, he told the singer, “I can’t believe there’s thousands of kids out there waiting to see some hippie who can’t stay in tune.”
19. Late in life, Webb Pierce battled alcoholism and saw his reputation diminish. He would not be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame until nearly a decade after his February 24, 1991 death from cancer.
20. In 2001, country greats including George Jones, Emmylou Harris, Charley Pride, Willie Nelson and Dwight Yoakam performed on a Webb Pierce tribute album to raise money for cancer research.