Redd Stewart left a hefty foot-print on the sands of fame, thanks to his vocals for Pee Wee King's Golden West Cowboys, as well as co-author, with King, of some of the most enduring songs of the last century. Sadly, Redd passed away in August 2003 at the age of 80, but his family are striving to keep his name alive - and rightly so!
Born Henry Ellis Stewart in Ashland City, Tennessee on May 27, 1923, he was fortunate to have musical parents. When he was still a kid, the family moved to Louisville, Kentucky. It was here where he developed his musical skills, learning play the banjo, piano, fiddle and guitar. Such was his passion for music that he dropped out of junior high in the seventh grade to pursue a career with some local bands like the Prairie Riders. In the mid-30's he tried his hand at song-writing after he was commissioned to write a song for a local car dealer's commercial.
1937 was to be a massive year for the shaping of his life, thanks to a gig at radio WHAS. Country singer Pee Wee King was on the bill and he signed Redd to his Golden West Cowboys. Whilst King fronted the band, he left the vocal duties to others. At this time, his singer was none other than future Hall of Famer, Eddy Arnold.
In the aftermath of Pearl Harbour, Redd was drafted and was sent to serve in the South Pacific, where he attained the rank of sergeant. It was here that Redd wrote his first smash, the morbid "A Soldier's Last Letter". Ernest Tubb recorded it in 1944, and the single spent over half a year in the country charts, including four weeks at number one, as well as hitting the pop Top 20. He was therefore an eager man when he returned from his tour of duty. Eddy Arnold had gone solo so when Redd hooked back up with Pee Wee King, it was now as the lead singer.
In 1946 he married Frances Jean Grimes and the following year he made his debut on the highly acclaimed Grand Ole Opry. He also signed a lifetime exclusive song-writing contract with Acuff-Rose Publications, a prestigious job that saw him start to work hard at his song-writing. He was almost immediately rewarded when he and Pee Wee wrote "Bonaparte's Retreat," a classic anthem that has withstood the tests of time and still continues to pick up covers.
1947 also saw him return to his hometown of Louisville when King and the Cowboys took up residency at the city WAVE radio station. By the years end they'd started working for the station's TV company, kicking off their own television show which was to run for the next ten years.
"Tennessee Waltz" was to be their finest moment. King recalled to Country Music Closeup, that they were listening to Bill Monroe's "Kentucky Waltz" one Friday night in 1946 when Redd suggested they should write a waltz about Tennessee. They'd been using a song called "No Name Waltz" as their theme, so Redd started to write some lyrics on the back of a matchbook cover. The tune took nearly two years before they were happy with the final version. With Redd on vocals, Pee Wee King hit the country Top 3 and achieved cross over success, climbing into the Top 30 of the Pop charts. When the song was re-issued in 1951 it again made the Top 10. Other hit versions, in 1948, were by Cowboy Copas (Top 3) and Roy Acuff (Top 15). Further hits for King came via "Tennessee Tears" and "Tennessee Polka" and in 1950 they hit the Top 10 with their composition, "Bonaparte's Retreat". The song started out as an old fiddle tune and had been done as early as 1920 by old-timey hillbilly artist Gid Tanner. Redd and Pee Wee gave the song new life with a slight rearrangement of the melody and a set of lyrics and the song has now gone on to be a country music standard.
The following year they returned to the top, when the King-Stewart song "Slow Poke," hit number 1 on the Pop charts as well as number ??? on the country charts. It turned into a banner year for the duo when Patti Page took "The Tennessee Waltz" to the top of the charts around the world, selling in excess of six million copies. Their songs continued to rack up hits for others as well, both on the country and pop charts, most notably Jo Stafford who scored with the beautiful "You Belong to Me". Now recording as Pee Wee King & his Band, further hits came through "Silver and Gold", "Busybody", "Changing Partners", "Bimbo" and their final hit together "Backward, Turn Backward."
They were honoured on February 17, 1965, when "Tennessee Waltz" was officially proclaimed by Governor Frank Clement as the Tennessee state song, a proud moment for the duo. In 1959 Redd released a solo album "Redd Stewart Sings Favorite Old Time Tunes" for the Audio Lab label. In 1972 he was inducted as a charter member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Following from complications from injuries he sustained from a fall at his home a decade before, Redd Stewart died on 2 August 2003 at Baptist Hospital East in Louisville, KY. He was 80 years old and he left behind a body of work that has and will stand the test of time. His best songs are timeless classics that will continue to be covered - songs like You Belong To Me and Tennessee Waltz just don't get written every day.
His legacy seems set to continue as his son Billy and other family members strive to bring him the recognition he deserves. A new web-site has been set-up at www.reddtsewart.com and there are also plans to release all his work on CD, together with an archive of lyrics, photos etc.
EP of Cover Versions
You Belong To Me - Gene Vincent
The beginning of December 1957 saw Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps cut four sessions at the Capitol Tower in LA. The tracks ranged from the flat out rock 'n' roll of Brand New Beat and I Got A Baby to the lovely ballads, Keep It A Secret and You Belong To Me. No one in the rock 'n' roll era could sing a ballad like Gene Vincent - he possessed a truly beautiful voice, laden with youthful innocence, completely at odds with his eccentric manner. His version of You Belong To Me is stunning, one of my wife's favourite songs. And great as Gene is (and believe me, he is great here!), the band are equally great. Johnny Meeks is typically sublime, showing touch and feel to go with his wild rocking sound and Dickie Harrell, Bobby Jones and Max Lipscomb are spot-on, unobtrusive but never letting the song drag. And to round it off, the Clapper Boys, the much missed Paul Peek and the mad Bubba Facenda, add an extra dimension on backing vocals, giving the song a semi-doo-wop sound. Brilliant song, fantastic version. The only one that gets anywhere near as good as this is Jerry Lee Lewis. He does a particularly fine version live at the Palamino in California.
A Soldier's Last Letter" - Ernest Tubb and Johnny Cash
When Ernest Tubb cut this in 1944 in the Decca Studios out in Los Angeles, it became his second hit and first number 1. He gave it a straight reading in his best bit of earnest Ernest. A classic of the genre, it was inspired and sad as only good country music can be. I've also got a great version from a live 1965 show. But my favourite version has to be the duet he did with Johnny Cash for the ET and Friends - Stars Across Texas album. Ernest and Johnny trade verses and Johnny talks in his authoritive way as Ernest wails in the back.
Tennessee Waltz - Sam Cooke
From the Copa album. "Patty Page did this a few years ago but she wouldn't recognize it now". Indeed she wouldn't. This is a groovy soulful version with Sam pleading for all his worth. Whilst his new uptown sound didn't work for parts of the show, it certainly did here. The song was also been a part of Jerry Lee Lewis' vast repetoire, with a live version existing from as far back as 1962.
Bonaparte's Retreat - Hardrock Gunter
Country singer Hardrock Gunter did a great accordion driven version in 1961 for the brilliantly named Gee Gee LP, "Hardrock Gunter and his Town and Country music play Popcorn Dancing for the social set". Marvellous. With clarinet and piano to the fore as well as some Chet/Merle style country picking it's a real beauty. Incidentally, the album also includes a cover of Tennessee Waltz. They were both on the EP from the same time called, "Hardrock Gunter and his Thunderbirds play Country's Greatest Hits". He was a lover of a great country song, but not so bothered with a snappy title! Britain's finest rockabilly, Darrel Higham cut the definitive modern version with three quarters of the Barnshakers and his beloved Gretsch. Taken from their first (but hopefully not last) album, High Class Baby, Darrel vocals and the bands sympathetic backing are spot on. Then there's Darrel's guitar work - his picking on the solo is as wonderful as ever. Billy Grammer had a pretty good version on Monument. Issued as the follow-up to the wonderful Gotta Travel On, that climbed into the top 50 of the pop charts thanks to some fine playing from Chet Atkins and Floyd Cramer.
Page posted February, 2003
Redd Stewart's Official Web Site