Webb Pierce

TrackAlbum / Single
That's Me Without YouThe Wondering Boy
The Last WaltzDecca 9-28594
I Haven't Got The HeartDecca 9-28594
More And MoreWebb Pierce
You're Not Mine AnymoreWebb Pierce
In The Jailhouse NowWebb Pierce
Teenage BoogieDecca 9-30045
I Ain't NeverWebb With A Beat
Drifting Texas SandWalking The Streets
Memory #1Memory #1

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Webb Pierce photo

 

Contributor: Calvin Rydbom

Webb Pierce is somewhat a forgotten superstar in the history of country music. And I do mean a superstar. He charted thirteen No.1 singles on the American Country charts. Twenty-five Top 5 singles, forty-four top 10s, and seventy top 40s. Forty-four Top 10 singles, that’s a lot of hits for someone who has essentially become a footnote in the history of country music. And while I do admit he does sometimes come off as a bit dated, you can’t overlook how he tapped into what America wanted to listen to in the 1950s and 1960s.

But regardless of the reason he is clearly neglected when the history of country music is discussed. Why? He did quit the Grand Ole Opry over a dispute on commissions and booking. His very flamboyant lifestyle and, frankly, his hard drinking, did not endear him to a lot of country music fans in the 1960s. His career was more or less over by 1971 even though he recorded for another decade without having any real airplay or chart success. He died in 1991 and wasn’t inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame until 2001. Whatever the reason, a man with forty-three top 10 singles between 1951-1964, with a last one coming in 1967, wasn’t deemed as deserving of induction to the Country Music Hall of Fame until a decade after his death. And I really get the sense his exclusion was a bit purposeful, or could you read the comment about his abrasive personality on his page at the Country Music Hall of Fame’s website differently? But for me this Honky Tonk man, who had more number 1 singles in the 1950s than any other country music act, deserves a little credit for his work. Which at times could be very, very good.

A lot of people love some of his early singles, most noticeably That Heart Belongs To Me and Wondering, but I have to say I don’t completely agree with them. In fact, I only included two his thirteen No.1 singles on my list. So this list and his chart success aren’t exactly in line with each other. I suppose I especially dislike that a lot of his early songs sound exactly alike for the first three to four seconds. Hits for sure, but I don’t think he was producing anything really spectacular in those years, even given his amazing chart success. On some level he had to find a style of music that matched his nasally, high pitched and off-key delivery. Or he had to grow into his voice. I’m really not sure which one it is.

I think he really started to hit his stride in 1953, but with eight top 10 singles by then it’s hard to argue otherwise. For me though That’s Me Without You, The Last Waltz and I Haven’t Got The Heart stand out. The first of the three starts with the little fiddle intro that had started pretty much every song up ˈtil that point. His voice had lowered a little and his singing didn’t seem so hurried. His early hits were straight out honky tonk where he seemed to be racing the listener to the end of the song. That’s Me Without You seems to have some texture to it other than go, go, go. It’s a very simple lyrical song where Pierce just sings a list of all the things that shouldn’t be alone, like him and the girl he loves.

The Last Waltz has the same fiddle intro, but I decided to overlook it because otherwise I like the song. It’s about the last dance he is going to have with the woman he loves before she gets married to another man, and she looks at him as just a friend. I Haven’t Got The Heart is the first song on my list that Pierce had a hand in writing, getting co-writer credit. The song actually starts with a piano intro as opposed to the traditional fiddle of seemingly all the early Pierce songs. It’s an odd little song about a guy thinking about how his wife would be better off starting a new life without him, but he can’t bring himself to tell her he doesn’t love her any more. The song’s sentiments strike me as especially odd because he admits a fair amount of philandering within the song. It’s another good reason to set her free, but he just isn’t willing to do so? To give up the security? I don’t know, it’s just different lyrically.

More And More, from 1954, had sole writing credit for Pierce. His vocals matured quite a bit as well, as he holds some of his notes and isn’t simply doing a honky tonk bar song. It’s a fairly traditional she done him wrong song as more and more he says he is forgetting about her. It also has what passes for a guitar solo in it. Which hadn’t really shown up much in his earlier tunes. It was also the first of his songs to make a dent in the mainstream charts and not just the country, peaking at #22 and was his biggest hit outside the country charts.

You’re Not Mine Anymore is the third consecutive song on my personal list he had a hand in writing. It brings back the fiddle that had been pulled back a bit in the previous few songs. Somehow in my head I connect it a little to I Haven’t Got The Heart as it’s about a guy that made some mistakes that lost him the woman he now hopes changes her mind, realizing she is still in love with him.

In The Jailhouse Now is one of the few standards Pierce recorded, and it is probably his 1955 rendition of this Jimmie Rodgers credited song – that goes back a lot earlier than Rodgers – he is most remembered for today. Although in 1982 he and Willie Nelson recorded a version of it that was also released as Pierce’s last single. The original though was a monster hit for Pierce, spending twenty one weeks at No.1 on the country charts.

Teenage Boogie from 1956 suggests a bit that if Pierce had shown up a few years later he might have been more at home as a Sun Records artists and an early rock n roller than, at least at that point, an establishment country star. I say at least at this point as it wasn’t much more than a year later that he quit the Grand Ole Opry, something no sane country music star would have done, over a dispute with him refusing to pay commissions on his bookings. And although he stayed popular into the mid 1960s, he had thirteen number one records before the spring of 1957, and not a single one afterwards.

He still had a lot of hits left though, including a couple more songs that peaked at No.2 including 1959’s I Ain’t Never. It might just be my favorite Pierce song as it continues the slight rockabilly sound that appeared in Teenage Boogie. It swings a little and suggests his career could have taken a different direction than it did. A odd little side story about the tune is his co-writer, Mel Tillis, had a pretty good country hit with it in 1972.

Drifting Texas Sand takes a little bit of explaining. Look for the song he recorded around 1959; there is a much earlier version, but the deeper voice and smarter inflection of his mid years really do it a lot more justice. In many ways when he stopped being a chartbusting superstar he actually was a better performer.

He somewhat sounded a bit like an older statesman by the time he recorded the last song on my list, Memory #1. Some of the best piano that ever appeared in one of his songs (which aren’t really known for their blistering playing) shows up here, and he had really matured as a performer by 1964.

Which makes it even more odd that from 1964-1982 there were only two more times his records made it into the top ten, and one of those was in a duet with Kitty Wells, who ironically enough was also about to see her hit making days end.

 

Webb Pierce photo 2

 

Webb Pierce photo 3

Still, he had a devoted fan base that was perhaps drawn to his flamboyant personality. The Nudie Suits, the fact he had Nudie Cohen line a couple Cadillacs he owned with Silver Dollars and the $30,000 swimming pool he had built at his home in the shape of a guitar made him oddly endearing. In the early 1970s he made his home a tourist attraction of sorts where he regularly had shows and charged admission. The attendance peaked at around 3,000 people a week causing his neighbors, led by fellow country singer Ray Stevens, to sue him to stop the shows.

He lived until 1991, releasing singles as late as 1982, but was unable to have anything even resembling a hit during the last twenty years of his life.

I discussed Webb Pierce with a friend of mind who is a devotee of 1950s country music and he felt one issue was the man was very much a singles artist, releasing albums when he had enough to fill one. Which is borne out by the fact that with all the hits he only had one album break the top 10.

But seriously, forty-four Top 10 singles has to amount to something, doesn’t it?

 

 

Webb Pierce (1921-1991)

 

Country Music Hall of Fame: Webb Pierce

Webb Pierce discography on 45cat

Webb Pierce album & CD discography

Webb Pierce biography (iTunes)

 

The Akron Sound cover

Calvin Rydbom’s latest book is “The Akron Sound: The Heyday Of The Midwest’s Punk Capital” published this year by The History Press. He is the vice-president and archivist of the “Akron Sound” Museum and vice-president of freelance archiving firm Pursue Posterity. He has published a number of music-related articles and was elected to the Society of American Archivists steering committee on recorded sound before being promoted to website liaison. Some of Calvin’s other toppermosts are on the Dead Boys, Rubber City Rebels and Tin Huey all from Ohio. He has also written about many non-Ohio musicians for this website including Billie Holiday, Gene Clark and Nanci Griffith.

TopperPost #716

2 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    May 4, 2018

    Thanks for this fine piece on a very underrated artist. I would have to have ‘There Stands The Glass’ in my Top Ten though. First heard it through Ted Hawkins’ cover version, but Webb’s is the definitive one. On a side point, only recently discovered this cover of ‘That’s Me Without You’ by Lefty Frizzell.

  2. William Anderson
    May 12, 2018

    I am a big fan of Webb Pierce and am pleased to see an article hopefully introducing a largely forgotten great of Country’s evolution. My personal favourite is The Violet And the Rose but unfortunately it was removed from YouTube recently so is a bit more difficult to find. Well worth the effort though. Great to see the Cross Country album cover which shows a man who was not afraid to live it up. Confirmed also by one of the original, and grandest, guitar shaped pools which he allegedly encouraged fans to visit, all the more, because it upset his neighbours so much.

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