Forgotten Artists: Webb Pierce (1921-1991)

Paul W. Dennis | September 9th, 2008

Webb Pierce

Most of the artists I’ve written about in this series, with the obvious exception of Charley Pride, have been artists of merit who never became huge stars.

This is not the case with Webb Pierce. For a five year period (1952-1957), Webb Pierce was the dominant artist in the genre, charting 39 songs during those years with 13 of those songs reaching No. 1 for a total of 113 weeks, a total exceeded to this day only by Eddy Arnold.

Unlike the smooth Eddy Arnold, whose vocals (and personality) had appeal across many segments of society, Webb Pierce was a country music performer with one core style. You either liked Pierce or you hated him, but you could not ignore him. He sang in a high nasal tenor that will never come back into vogue in mainstream country music (although the style remains viable in bluegrass), but he selected great songs and could sell even the most maudlin lyric. He was one of the first stars to wear “Nudie Suits,” the colorful rhinestone-studded western wear that became de rigueur for country stars for the next 35 years. His song “Slowly” was the first country hit to feature the pedal steel guitar as played by then-band member Bud Isaacs. Then there was the famous guitar shaped swimming pool.

Like many performers of his era, years were subtracted from his real age to make him seem younger to the fan base. Most articles written about Pierce during the 1950s-1970s gave his date of birth as July 8, 1926, an error which was not corrected until the 1980s. He never penned an autobiography, and I’ve never seen a full biography of him, so biographical information remains sketchy. It is known that he had his own radio show on KMLB in 1938 and served in the Army for three years during WWII before moving to Shreveport, Louisiana in 1944, where he supported himself for some years as a shoe salesman at the local Sears store.

Webb PiercePierce’s first recordings were on the Four Star label in 1949. By 1950 he was appearing at the Louisiana Hayride–a serious competitor to the Opry during the ’40s and ’50s–where he quickly became a featured performer. Pierce and Hayride founder Horace Logan formed Pacemaker Records as a vehicle to issue his records. None of these records became national hits, but they sold well enough that Decca inked Pierce to a contract in 1951.

The third Decca single, “Wondering,” established Pierce as a major star. It reached No. 1 for four weeks and stayed on the charts for 27 weeks. The song also provided Pierce with the nickname “The Wondering Boy,” which stayed with him throughout his career. The next two singles, “That Heart Belongs to Me” and “Backstreet Affair,” also reached No. 1 for multiple weeks. This was followed by four more top ten records and the eight week No. 1 “It’s Been So Long” (the flip side “I’m Walking the Dog” reached No. 9).

For many artists, a record that reached No. 1 for eight weeks would be a career record, but Pierce was just getting started. Released on October 24, 1952, “There Stands the Glass” was one of six double sided hits (with the “B” side reaching top ten status) to reach No. 1 for ten or more weeks.

A recent CMT poll of Greatest Drinking Songs had “There Stands the Glass” at No. 11, but they are wrong–it is the ultimate drinking song, the ultimate expression of the angst that accompanies those who are trying to forget:

There stands the glass that will ease all my pain
That will settle my brain, it’s my first one today
There stands the glass that will hide all my fears
That will drown all my tears, brother I’m on my way

“There Stands the Glass” was followed by “Slowly” (No. 1 for 17 weeks), “Even Thou” (No. 1 for only 2 weeks), “More and More” (No. 1 for 10 weeks), “In the Jailhouse Now” (21 weeks at the top), “I Don’t Care” (12 weeks at No. 1) and “Love, Love, Love” (13 weeks at the top).

Pierce moved to the Grand Old Opry in 1955, but soon departed because of the requirement that members had to perform twenty-six Saturdays annually to maintain membership. For Pierce, who was commanding thousands of dollars for his personal appearances, this meant losing considerable income. Since he became a star without the Opry’s help, Pierce correctly figured that the monetary loss would not be offset by the prestige of continued Opry membership. Unfortunately, he burned many bridges when he left the Opry.

The onslaught of Rock and Roll in 1955-1956 destroyed many country music careers and put a damper on many other careers. According to Billboard, Pierce’s last No. 1 record was “Honky Tonk Song” in mid-1957, but Pierce adapted and survived. He added drums to his records and picked more up-tempo material, including songs from younger writers such as Wayne Walker and Mel Tillis. He continued to chart top ten records for another decade (other charts had three of his records reach No. 1 from 1959-1967). His record of “Bye Bye Love,” recorded at the same time as the Everly Brothers version, was a top ten hit and the Mel Tillis penned “I Ain’t Never” stayed at No. 2 for nine weeks. It was kept out of the top spot by Stonewall Jackson’s “Waterloo” and The Browns “The Three Bells.”

Pierce continued to record for Decca from 1967 to 1972, then for Plantation for two years where he had a minor hit with “The Good Lord Giveth (and Uncle Sam Taketh Away),” a song which deserved a better fate than missing the top forty. After 1976, Pierce–having invested wisely in real estate and music publishing–retired from performing (he had been semi-retired for years already). He would record only twice more.

In 1982, Willie Nelson was able to drag Webb into the recording studio for a duet album, which puzzled some since Webb wasn’t one of Willie’s former label mates or Texas compadres, but the recordings make clear the strong influence Pierce had on Willie’s pinched vibrato and vocal phrasing.

In 1985 Pierce got together with two old Louisiana buddies, Jerry Lee Lewis and Faron Young, and Florida songwriter Mel Tillis, to record an album called Four Legends. All of the songs on the collection were old Webb Pierce hits.

He died on February 24, 1991 of a heart attack, but would likely have died soon of cancer anyway. The old guard of the Nashville establishment shamefully denied him entry into the Country Music Hall of Fame until ten years after his death. He should have been inducted around 1977.

Webb PierceAccording to Billboard, Webb Pierce was the No. 1 country artist of the 1950s and the No. 7 artist of the 1960s. He charted 96 songs, 80 of which reached the Top 40, and 54 of which reached the Top Ten. His thirteen number one records stayed there for a cumulative total of 113 weeks–second only to Eddy Arnold. His 1955 recording of the old Jimmie Rodgers song “In the Jailhouse Now” is the third ranking county single of all time with 21 weeks at No. 1 and 34 weeks in the Top Ten.

Amusingly, Carl Smith, a Columbia recording artist (and 4th most popular country artist of the 1950s), recorded an album titled There Stands The Glass in 1964 in which he recorded twelve of Webb’s hits and never mentioned him on the album cover (which has several paragraphs of liner notes) or the record label (except on the songwriter credits of several songs)!

Discography

Much of Webb’s recorded output has been unavailable for years. Most of the albums on vinyl are typical Nashville product–one or two hit singles, some covers of other artists’ hits and some filler. If you like the songs listed on the album cover, you’ll probably like the album.

There are now quite a few CDs available of Webb’s pre-1958 output (European copyrights expire in 50 years so in Europe those recordings can be released without paying royalties), but very little of the post 1958 recordings are available.

  1. 20th Century Masters – The Millennium Collection: The Best of Webb — a budget collection, digitally re-mastered. Only 12 songs but they are the biggies in their original versions.
  2. Webb Pierce – Greatest Hits: Finest Performances — these are re-makes recorded for Plantation during the middle 1970s. They are not bad, but they lack the sparkle of the original recordings and Pierce’s voice had dropped in the interim.
  3. King of the Honky-Tonk: From the Original Master Tapes — released by the Country Music Foundation in 2000, this was the first effort to get the original Decca hits back in print. Eighteen hits, great sound and a useful booklet.
  4. A Proper Introduction to Webb Pierce: Groovie Boogie Woogie Boy — British reissue label, 28 tracks, mostly pre-Decca material, some with overdubs. Worth owning.
  5. The Wandering Boy (1951-1958) [BOX SET] — The Holy Grail for Webb Pierce fans — a deluxe Bear Family boxed set — four CDs, 114 tracks with great sound and an interesting, but somewhat disjointed booklet. Covers all of Webb’s recordings through 1958 with a few alternate takes of songs such as “Slowly” where you can see the Pierce style developing.

And don’t forget Caught in the Webb, a tribute album released in 2002. Produced and organized by Gail Davies, featuring 21 of Webb’s hits performed by guests, including: Dale Watson, The Jordanaires, Mandy Barnett, Charley Pride, Rosie Flores, George Jones, Dwight Yoakam, Emmylou Harris, Robbie Fulks, Joy Lynn White, Allison Moorer, Matt King, Crystal Gayle, Del McCoury Band, Lionel Cartwright, Guy Clark, Gail Davies, Willie Nelson, BR549, Billy Walker, Kevin Welch, Trent Summar, Pam Tillis, Deborah Pierce (Webb’s daughter) and the Carol Lee Singers. Proceeds of this album benefited the Minnie Pearl Cancer Research Center.

4 Pings

  1. [...] Webb Pierce [...]
  2. [...] all of music. Its position of prominence in country can be traced to this song, a No. 1 single for Webb Pierce in 1954. Bud Isaacs, who played steel for Red Foley, was hired for the “Slowly” [...]
  3. [...] In 2002, Davies received an IBMA award and a Grammy nomination for her duet with bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley. She was also nominated for an Americana award for her production on the Webb Pierce tribute album Caught In The Webb, which featured a cast of many great country stars from several generations including George Jones, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Pam Tillis, Dwight Yoakam, Charley Pride, The Del McCoury Band, Dale Watson and many more (see Forgotten Artist article on Webb Pierce). [...]
  4. [...] says Paul W. Dennis, in his “Forgotten Artist” installment about Pierce on The 9513 blog. Give it a look as you give a spin to the No. 4 gem from 1953, “That’s [...]
  1. Razor X
    September 9, 2008 at 2:42 pm

    The article says that Webb signed with Decca in 1951 and later goes on to say that he recorded for them from 1967 to 1972. What happened between the 1951 and 1967? Did he record for Decca continuously during that period?

  2. Rick
    September 9, 2008 at 8:43 pm

    Another fine article as usual Paul. Webb had such a unique voice that its amazing he had the success he did, but I guess country listeners back then liked unusual singers with a voice that could be straight from the holler. These days I consider “Taylor Swift” to be a musical fashion statement of our era that will hopefully pass quickly…..

    Its always interesting to listen to once popular artists that were perfectly suited to a certain period in time but who sound out of place in any other time frame. While Webb has the distinct sound of a “50’s country artist”, I’ve always been more drawn to the country artists whose music seemed timeless as its rose above current musical style trends, such as Merle Travis, Johnny Cash, and Merle Haggard. Younger listeners exposed to Webb Pierce these days, who were not previously familiar with his music, would likely find him an acquired taste and I don’t think many would pursue his music because of that unlike say Lefty Frizzell or Marty Robbins…

  3. C. Eric Banister
    September 10, 2008 at 7:31 am

    Just one picky correction: Bud wasn’t a member of Webb’s band; he was just called in to play on the session because they were looking for something different to kick off “Slowly.” Session leader, and Bud’s friend, Grady Martin knew Bud could do that. Bud was playing with Red Foley at the time and Webb went to the musicians union to try to force Bud to come out on the road with him to promote the record. Union Rep George Cooper told Webb, “Slavery went out in 1865. He can do whatever he wants.”

  4. Sam G.
    September 10, 2008 at 10:41 am

    I own the tribute CD that was mentioned, and I like it very much (minus the “contributions” of the Jordanaires on a few of the tracks), but I’ve never really listened to any of Webb Pierce himself. Thanks for the informative article and the songs to help further my education. Personally, I really love his voice. It’s definitely distinctive, but it’s tailor made for country music.

  5. PeggyCanard
    September 10, 2008 at 5:22 pm

    I remember Webb Pierce He had a great voice and was one of Country’s Music best singers. It was a shame that he was dead 18 years before he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Does anyone know where I can ge the record album of “The Four Legends”?

  6. 2packs4sure
    September 10, 2008 at 6:48 pm

    Webb was great. It’s a shame that none of his Decca stuff from 1959 — 1969 is available.
    Lots of awesome cuts from that era, particularly 59′ — 64′.
    I’ve been waiting for about 16 years now, ever since the Bear Family release of his 51′ — 58′ catalog. He was with Decca from 1951 -1974 I believe, straight thru.

    I’ve got it all, Albums, 45’s and 90% of the 59′ — 66′ stuff is terrific , 67′ — 70′ is much weaker, but there is still some great cuts. I put together the cleanest of it all on cd’s and it’s very good, but I want it remastered and released asap

  7. Paul W Dennis
    September 11, 2008 at 11:30 am

    The paragraph should read “continued to record for Decca from 1967-1972″

    CEB – you are correct, Isaacs was never a member of Pierce’s road band . He appeared with Pierce in the studio a few times and was reported to have played a few local dates with Pierce around Nashville (I have no first-hand knowledge of this)

    2packs4sure – you are correct – the first two cuts were from 1968 GREATEST HITS album – I sent Brady a CD with some 3 lps of Webb Pierce material including the GREATEST HITS album which I labeled as remakes. I assumed that they had access already to the original recordings. My error – mea culpa. Like you I am a huge Webb Pierce fan – I think I have every album that isn’t a gospel or Christmas album (I have one of the gospel albums) including the abominal Pierce-Channing collaboration. I dubbed the Four Legends album onto CD using a volume enhancement program but it isn’t a very well recorded album. Audifidelity had a two-fer of SWEET MEMORIES and another album from the 1960s for a while, so a little of the post-1959 material can be located with a little effort

  8. Brody Vercher
    September 11, 2008 at 11:42 am

    I fixed the sentence so that it makes sense now.

  9. luckyoldsun
    September 17, 2008 at 11:47 pm

    Webb was unquestionably the top country artist (chartwise) of the ’50s, but it’s some quirk in methodology that has him listed as No. 7 in the ’60s.

    He was out of favor by the ’60s and his records did not chart well. Webbe had zero No. 1 hits in the ’60s and Merle Haggard must have had more than half a dozen–but that Billboard chart rates Webb higher than Merle for the ’60s. Ridiculous.

  10. Paul W Dennis
    September 18, 2008 at 10:24 pm

    While Pierce was no longer the top dog in Country music by 1960, he remained near the top during the early part of the decade and was still having major hits as late as 1967 when “Fool Fool Fool” went to #1 on Record World, #3 on Cashbox and #6 on Billboard.

    Pierce didn’t have another Billboard #1 during the 1960s but he had eight top five records, seven that landed between 6-10, another nine that landed in the top 20 and 13 more tht landed somewhere in the top 40. That’s 37 top forty records which is more chart action than many artists have in a whole career

    Although not reflected in the Billboard data, two of Webb’s records hit #1 on Cashbox or Record World. Cashbox was the top competor to Billboard and was as highly regarded as Billboard during the span of Pierce’s career. A lot of country radio stations kept their own charts, but those that didn’t were as likely to use Cashbox’s charts for their countdown shows as to use
    Billboard’s charts.

  11. Jody
    September 21, 2008 at 11:14 am

    Hi, I am 60 and have an 33 1/3 For Promotional Use Only Album by Webb Pierce called NUMBER ONE HITS. On the cover he is standing by a mailbox that reads Webb Pierce wandering Acres and has a Guitar base to the mailbox. It is in Stereo and signed My Best, Webb Pierce. The Album itself is White and has no name label. NR3690 is on the record center. I cannot find anything on this record, internet, library or nothing. Can anyone help me? Thanks Jody

  12. John Maglite
    September 21, 2008 at 1:06 pm

    Jody:

    I don’t have any info on that particular record, but did find a picture of Webb with the mailbox (the same picture on your cover?) at the Heart of Texas Country Music Museum site. It’s about halfway down the right column on this page.

  13. 2packs4sure
    September 21, 2008 at 5:58 pm

    Hey Jody, that album is one of his mid 70’s albums of re recorded hits. Tons of them on ebay.

    He must have signed thousands of them. In fact he got sued by his neighbor Ray Stevens around that time because the tour buses would constantly be coming to Webb’s house to see it, the pool, and Webb, and that’s where 90% of all those signed albums come from.

  14. cliford lewis
    June 9, 2010 at 8:46 pm

    Loved the article on Webb Pierce. I am a fan from Epps, La., not too far from Shreveport. Really did not realize what all he had accomplished.
    Does anyone know where he is interred? E-mail if you do.

  15. Patricia Baumbach
    November 24, 2010 at 9:50 pm

    Where can you obtain webbs cds or tapes?

  16. Patricia Baumbach
    November 24, 2010 at 9:51 pm

    I love his music!

  17. Patricia Baumbach
    November 24, 2010 at 9:52 pm

    I listened to his music while in High School.

  18. Patricia Baumbach
    November 24, 2010 at 9:56 pm

    I thought he was the greatest country singer there ever was. I would like to find out, where I could find his records ,tapes or cd’s.

  19. Patricia Baumbach
    November 24, 2010 at 9:59 pm

    THERE STANDS THE GLASS, HE’S IN THE JAIL HOUSE NOW,

  20. dean robinson
    May 12, 2012 at 8:02 pm

    Somewhere around 1953 I had a 45 rpm record with Webb singing –I heard my mother call my name in prayer -yes mother called my name in prayer–as she knelt upon her knees beside her old bedside–I heard her call my name in prayer. I have never been able to find any account of this recording since that time. Has anyone heard it.?

  21. Tom Root
    September 5, 2012 at 5:37 pm

    In the year of his death, the televised CMA awards did not do a tribute to Webb, but did honor guitar manufacturer Leo Fender (who had also died that year). I could not understand their priorities. I wondered whether there was a strong lingering dislike for the guy in the industry, or if memories were just that short, even in the new traditionalist era.

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