Born Webb Michael Pierce, 8 August 1921, West Monroe, Louisiana
In terms of country chart statistics, Webb Pierce was the most successful country artist of the 1950s. Thirteen of his records topped the Billboard country charts during that decade, more than any of his illustrious contemporaries. Yet he never scored a major pop hit, like Marty Robbins, Johnny Horton and several others. Pierce grew up with the music of Jimmie Rodgers, Gene Autry, the western swing bands of Texas and Oklahoma and the Cajun bands of his native state. He first sang professionally on KMLB Radio in Monroe but after a brief army stint in the early days of World War II he moved to Shreveport with his new wife Betty Jane Lewis. She was also a singer and in 1949 they were both signed by 4 Star Records, but their partnership dissolved after their divorce a year later. His career really kicked off when he joined the Louisiana Hayride in April 1950. Soon he was the hottest act on that big show, with a band that included future stars Faron Young, Floyd Cramer and Tillman Franks. Together with the latter, Pierce set up his own publishing company, Ark-La-Tex Publishing, and also (briefly) his own label, Pacemaker Records.
In 1951 Webb moved up to Decca for an affiliation that would last 23 years. The first two Decca singles failed to chart but then came “Wondering”, a Cajun-flavoured song from 1937. It went to the top position on the country charts in March 1952 and stayed there for four weeks. The song became the inspiration for the new name of his band, the Wondering Boys. His next two chart entries also made number one, “That Heart Belongs To Me” and “Back Street Affair” (both 1952). On the strength of these hits he joined the Grand Ole Opry and moved to Nashville with his second wife. Pierce closely allied himself with Opry manager Jim Denny, with whom he launched another publishing company in 1953, Cedarwood Music, which would develop into one of the mightiest Nashville publishing houses.
“It’s Been So Long” and “There Stands the Glass”, his two # 1 hits of 1953, established him as the biggest honky tonk star in the wake of Hank Williams’s death. The hits kept flowing (three more chart toppers in 1954), especially in 1955, when Pierce reigned for an astounding 46 weeks, on the strength of three records : the Jimmie Rodgers song “In the Jailhouse Now” (# 1 for 21 weeks!), “I Don’t Care” (12 weeks) and “Love, Love, Love” (13 weeks). By mid-decade Pierce’s concert fee had risen to almost $ 1,250 per show and advance orders for his new singles often reached 200,000 copies.
Initially the rock ’n' roll explosion of 1956 hurt his sales only slightly, but like many other country singers, he made a few adjustments. The fiddle and the steel guitar disappeared from most of his records and Pierce also tried his hand at the new rockabilly sound, with “Teenage Boogie” (# 10 country, late 1956). This was in fact a reworking of his 1951 recording “Hayride Boogie” for the Pacemaker label. One of his most enduring numbers, “Honky Tonk Song”, reached number one in May 1957 ; it would be his last chart topper. Next came Webb’s first crossover hit, a cover of the Everly Brothers smash “Bye Bye Love” (# 73 pop, # 7 country). But he wouldn’t return to the pop charts for another two years, with “I Ain’t Never”, his biggest pop hit (# 24, # 2 country)*. Like the similar sounding follow-up “No Love Have I” (# 54 pop, # 4 country) it was written by Mel Tillis, one of Cedarwood’s main writers, who would later also achieve success as a singer. In 1963 Tillis and Pierce would score a # 25 country hit with their duet “How Come Your Dog Don’t Bite Nobody But Me”, in the style of the two 1959 hits mentioned above. On several Mel Tillis compositions (for instance “I Ain’t Never” but also “Bop-A-Lena” by Ronnie Self), Pierce is listed as the co-writer. However, according to Dave Penny, Webb Pierce never wrote a single lyric or a note of music in his life. He often refused to record songs unless he could first secure “a piece of the action”.
Pierce scored three further (minor) pop hits in 1960 and then disappeared from the pop charts for good, though he continued to have country hits throughout the 1960s. The 1970s were less successful and he began to capture the public interest more for his customized cars, his flamboyant suits and his guitar shaped swimming pool. After leaving Decca/MCA in 1974, he recorded unsuccessfully for Shelby Singleton’s Plantation label until 1981. His 96th and last chart entry came in 1982, a duet version of “In the Jailhouse Now” with Willie Nelson (# 72), on Columbia.
Webb Pierce died of pancreatic cancer on February 24, 1991. He wasn't inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame until 2001, surprisingly late. The reason was probably that he had snubbed the Grand Ole Opry in 1956 (after Jim Denny was fired), feeling that he had outgrown the limits of the Opry and could do full-paid concerts on Saturday nights instead of working the Opry for union scale wages.
* According to some sources, “More And More” reached # 22 on the pop charts in 1954, but I could find no evidence of this in either Billboard or Cash Box.
More info : http://www.oldies.com/artist-biography/Webb-Pierce.html
Discography / sessionography :
Acknowledgements : Edward Morris, Ronnie Pugh, Adam Komorowski.
Dik, October 2015
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