Red Foley Biography
Red Foley was one of the biggest stars in country during the post-war era, a silky-voiced singer who sold some 25 million records between 1944 and 1965 and whose popularity went far in making country music a viable mainstream commodity. In many ways Foley's life was a tragic one. In retrospect, his personal problems seem insurmountable, yet Foley's charisma and talent saw him through these troubled times; his many recordings are his finest legacy.
Clyde Julian Foley was born on June 17, 1910, in Blue Lick, KY. His father played the fiddle and encouraged his son musical ability. He grew up in nearby Berea, and was nicknamed "Red" and "Rambling Red" years later by John Lair for the color of his hair. A shy child, Red was six when his father, who ran the general store, bought him an old battered guitar. His father also sold harmonicas and Red used to practice on them to his heart’s content. By the time he was nine, he was giving impromptu concerts at his father's general store, playing piano, banjo, trombone, harmonica and guitar.
His mother was proud of Red’s vocal potential and hired a music coach but Red wasn’t happy with this arrangement so this was abandoned. Music wasn’t his only interest and he also excelled in sports, particularly basketball and track. At age 17 he was invited to Louisville to compete at the state level talent show, but having a bit of stage fright, he faltered and had to begin again three times. Eventually he sang the song so well that he charmed the audience and the judges and walked away with first prize. Red worked as a $2-a-show singer in Covington, Kentucky.
His singing successes led to receiving a scholarship to Georgetown College where he studied voice and music. While a freshman in college in 1930, he was spotted by a talent scout from Chicago's WLS radio. Although he wasn't offered a job after he auditioned, John Lair found him a spot on Lair's band the Cumberland Ridge Runners, the house band on the program National Barn Dance that featured Karl Davis, Slim Miller, Hugh Cross and Harty Taylor.
WLS-CUMBERLAND RIDGE RUNNERS 1930-1936
Foley quit school and joined WLS first appearing in March 1931. Foley played bass and sang an occassional solo for the Ridge Runners as well as briefly forming a duo with Lulu Belle as "Burrhead". One of his early favorites was "I Traced her Little Footsteps in the Snow [Footprints in the Snow]" later immortalized by Bill Monroe's rendition. His first single, "Single Life Is Good Enough For Me/Lonesome Cowboy," recorded on April 11, 1933 and backed by the Ridge Runners, was released in June 1933 on the Melotone label.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6makUywcOcA (Cumberland Ridgerunners- Foley isn't on this- play Goofus on YouTube)
This group had quite a history and saw several changes in makeup. A folio "Doc Hopkins and Karl and Harty of the Cumberland Ridgerunners" published back in 1936, details the roots of this group. Doc Hopkins, Karl and Harty all attended the infamous "Red Bud School" near Mt. Vernon, KY, which is located in the Renfro Valley area where John Lair would eventually move his famous barn dance in 1937.
Doc, Karl and Harty took to "mountain music" at an early age and could often be seen together at the Davis' barn or the Taylor's blacksmith shop playing their tunes on their guitar and mandolin. When Doc returned from the world war, the three boys formed a string band and called themselves the Krazy Kats. They had a following in central and eastern Kentucky. In 1929 they sang over radio station WHAS in Louisville, KY.
Then, in 1930, a friend of theirs, Bradley Kincaid, helped get the group on WLS in Chicago. John Lair, a program director at WLS, crafted a hilbilly image for the group. He added fiddler Slim Miller and they became the "Cumberland Ridge Runners." They wore costumes and did comic routines. Not only was John Lair was their manager and announcer on their Saturday night programs, he'd often play the 'jug' with them. John Lair would direct many of the interesting sketches of 'mountain life' that they did including the "Coon Creek Social." Karl and Harty also recorded eight songs in December 1931 as "The Renfro Valley Boys." Here are some of the excellent musicians besides Red Foley that Lair added to the group:
Homer "Slim" Miller was rated one of the best old-time fiddlers as well as being the clown of the group. He was the first addition to the group by Lair in 1931. They wrote that he usually played jokes on one of his partners or was making faces at the control room. He made Indianapolis, In his home at the time. At the time, he had a daughter named Betty. Later, he became associated with the Renfro Valley Barn Dance when John Lair persuaded him to join.
Hugh Cross, the Boy from Smoky Mountain, was reared on a mountain farm near Oliver Springs, TN. He was the tenor soloist and played both guitar and banjo for the Ridge Runners. Cross was a veteran already recording with Riley Puckett and members of the Skillet Lickers in Atlanta. He also wrote songs for the Ridge Runners. His "Daddy's Little Girls" referenced his two daughters, Katherine Doris and Coloris Lou.
Linda Parker (1912-1935) became the lead singer of the group in and was known as the "little Sunbonnet Girl" who sang the old quiet ballads of the hills like "Single Girl" and "I'll Be All Smiles Tonight." She joined the group on Feb. 25, 1933 and according to one source Lair "heard her when she was a nightclub singer who came to WLS to do a commercial." Because of her tragic death at the age of twenty-three, she was remembered for the song "Bury Me Beneath The Willow," supposedly the last song she sang on the air.
Parker was born Genevieve Elizabeth Meunich in Covington, KY, just across the river from Cincinnati, but was raised in Hammond, IN. As a teen, Parker sang for popular radio, and by the age of 20, she was struggling as a nightclub singer. John Lair discovered her at WLS recording a commerical segment and gave her the stage name Linda Parker [Some sources say it was because of her resemblance to film star Mary Pickford but that certainly wasn't the reason. Lair selected the name from 15 names he had written on the back of a script]. He groomed Parker for her new role with the Cumberland Ridge Runners teaching her a new repertoire, including such gems as "Mother's Old Sunbonnet" and "Faded Old Sunbonnet" which shaped her into "the little sunbonnet girl."
Parker made her first appearance on National Barn Dance on Feb. 25, 1932. Her song selection represented an innocent, down-home persona, and included "Single Girl" and "Who's Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Foot" along with her signature songs, "I'll Be All Smiles Tonight" and "Take Me Back to Renfro Valley." From time to time, however, she shed her girl-next-door character and cut loose on fun songs like "Wait for the Wagon" and "Gonna Raise a Ruckus."
"I would like to have sung like Linda Parker," fellow singer Lulu Belle Wiseman stated, "but I couldn't sing like her. She sang 'straight.' Actually, Linda was a nightclub singer. But they built a whole new image for her. They called her 'the sunbonnet girl.' She wore a sunbonnet with the strings hanging down and a little gingham dress."
WLS worked hard to promote Parker's image, dressing her in gingham and emphasizing her Kentucky background. In Finding Her Voice: The Saga of Women in Country Music, Mary A. Bufwack and Robert K. Oermann suggest that the station downplayed her 1932 marriage to singer Arthur Janes in order, perhaps, to maintain "her virginal sweetheart image." (In the early to mid-'30s, married women seldom retained their maiden names and rarely worked full-time.)
Parker adhered to a full schedule, traveling with the National Barn Dance troupe when not making appearances on the radio program. However, Parker's fairy tale story of success as America's singing sweetheart came to an unpredictable and sad end. Only three years after her discovery by Lair, she would be dead at the age of 23. While performing in Elkhart, IN, on August 3, 1935, Parker suffered from excruciating pain throughout the show. Although she finished, it would be her last. Parker died nine days later in Mishawaka, IN, from a perforated appendix. After WLS stated that "Bury Me Beneath the Willow" had been the last song she had performed, it became one of the most frequently requested songs on the station during 1935.
In her honor Karl and Harty reworked "Bury Me Beneath The Willow" to "We Buried Her Beneath the Willow" and the Cumberland Ridge Runners were the pall bearers at her funeral. They recorded "We Buried Her Beneath the Willow" in January 1936. Lair told the WLS audience that Linda was "buried beneath a willow in Pine Lake Cemetary located in La Porte, IN." Although Parker was not really buried under a willow, Lair dipped into the pool of sentiment creating a fitting memorial to the "little sunbonnet girl" and even resurrecting her Linda Parker personae in other programs.
Lulu Belle and Red Foley
Young Myrtle Cooper, also a native of the Carolina mountain country, had moved with her parents to Evanston, Illinois, at age 16 and in 1932, had also gotten a job at WLS, where John Lair had teamed her up with Red Foley as the song-comedy duo of Lulu Belle and Burrhead. Foley and Lulu Belle recorded on single in March 1934: "Hi, Rinctum Inktum Doodle" backed by "Going out West This Fall."
Foley’s wife, Eva, preferred that the pair not work together and eventually convinced Red and WLS to make a change. Foley had recently remarried Eva and had a young daughter Shirley. After his first wife, Axie Pauline Cox, died giving birth to their daughter Betty on February 3, 1933, Foley married Eva Alaine Overstake on August 9, 1933. Known professionally during her solo career as Judy Martin, she was one of the Three Little Maids on National Barn Dance and a sister of country music songwriter Jenny Lou Carson.
The WLS management decided to team Lulu Belle and Skyland Scotty. Their act proved not only a commercial hit on the National Barn Dance, but a romantic one as well and the pair married on December 13, 1934. In 1936, Lulu Belle won the title "Radio Queen" in a popularity poll sponsored by Radio Guide magazine, surprisingly defeating a host of Hollywood and New York-based luminaries. They remained top stars on the program until 1958 when they retired from active performing except for two years, (1938-1940) when they were at WLW Cincinnati. Scotty cut four solo efforts for Bluebird, in 1933 and Lulu Belle and Burrhead made four for Conqueror, in 1934.
Red Foley's Early Recordings
Besides his first record cut in April, 1933 backed by Cumberland Ridge Runners and the single with Lulu Belle Foley did several sessions for the Conqueror (Brunswick) label usually backed by the Ridge Runners. (Homer Slim Miller, Karl Davis, Hartford Taylor, John Lair, and Linda Parker)
Red Foley Complete Recordings to 1942: Banner/Conqueror as Rambling Red Foley (accompaniment Cumberland Ridge Runners) April 11, 1933: 1936 Floods; Be Honest With Me; Blonde Headed Girl; Chiquita; Dying Rustler; Echoes Of My Plantation Home; Going Out West This Fall; I Ain’t Lazy I’m Just Dreaming; I Don’t Care Anymore; I Got The Freight Train Blues; I Traced Her Little Footsteps In The Snow; I’ll Be Back In A year; Is It True?; I’m Looking For a Sweetheart; It Makes No Never Mind; Headin’ Back To Texas; Hi Rinkum Inktum Doodle; In my Childhood Days; Just A Little Kiss; Lone Cowboy; Mailman’s Warning; Montana Moon; Nobody; Old Shep; Ridin’ Home; Ridin’ On A Rainbow; Pals of The Saddle; Rose And A Prayer, A; Seven Long Years; Single Life Is Good Enough For Me; Someday Somewhere Sweetheart; Where The Mountains Meet The Moon; Will You Wait for Me Little Darling; Yodeling Radio Joe;
1937 WLW Cincinatti
In the fall of 1937 John Lair joined forces with Red Foley, Whitey Ford the Duke of Paducah, and Chicago advertising executive Freeman Keyes to launch the Renfro Valley Barn Dance, which broadcast from Cincinnati over WLW on Oct. 9, 1937. Foley's older brother Cotton Foley was also one of the original partners. The Renfro Valley Barn Dance was named after John and Lula Renfro, the first settlers in Lair’s Kentucky home area in Rockcastle County. They bought land in 1937 in Kentucky and began building a performance home while they broadcast on WLW Cincinatti. Lily May Ledford and the Coon Creek Girls, fiddler Slim Miller, Dolly and Millie Good, and Red Foley were some of the stars that moved with Lair to Cincinnati and he also added the Duke of Paducah and Aunt Idy (with Little Clifford) to his show. Hugh Cross came along and Merle Travis played as part of the Drifting Pioneers. Lair was trying to recreate the music found in his Kentucky homeland instead of the Western and cowboy trends that had recently become popular on the WLS Barn Dance. Foley has his own segment [Red Skeleton made his radio debut in January of 1938, on WLW's "The Red Foley Show"] and was one of the top stars on WLW.
Move to Renfro Valley Kentucky “where time stands still”
By November 1939 construction was completed and Lair moved the Renfro Valley Barn Dance Show to its final home in Renfro Valley (Lair’s home in Rockcastle County), KY. On the grounds he put in cabins, a restaurant (the lodge) with southern home-style meals, a souvenir shop, a candy kitchen, a barn for performances and a country store.
Not everyone in the Renfro Valley Barn Dance Show wanted to move to a remote area in Kentucky. Lair’s original partners Red Foley and Whitey Ford didn’t stay long. Foley's wife Eva didn't like it. "Eva hit here loud and long proclaiming that she never have any part of this damn country," said Lair. They eventually sold their interests and moved to Chicago. Another star A’nt Idy wouldn’t go at first and then only stayed a short while.
NBC's Avalon Time- Back to Chicago and the WLS barn Dance 1940-1946
In late 1939, Foley became the first country artist to host a network radio program, NBC's Avalon Time (co-hosted by Red Skelton), and he performed extensively at theaters, clubs and fairs. He then returned for another six-year stint with WLS National Barn Dance.
His film debut was the movie “ The Pioneers ” with fellow singer/actor Tex Ritter in 1941. Red signed a lifetime record contract with Decca in 1941. Soon he hit with “Old Shep,” a song he had written years earlier about his own German shepherd, Hoover, and which he had recorded earlier for ARC.
Red's first hit recording was the patriotic “Smoke on the Water” in 1944; this song spent 13 weeks at the top of the country charts and was a crossover hit reaching #7 on the POP charts. It's easy to see why this song, written during trouble times of war, struck a chord with many:
There will be a sad day comin' for the souls of all mankind
They must answer to the people, and it's troublin' their minds
Everybody who must fear them will rejoice on that great day
When the powers of dictators shall be taken all away.
CHORUS: There’ll be smoke on the water, on the land and the sea
When our Army and Navy overtakes the enemy
There’ll be smoke on the mountains, where the Heathen Gods stay
And the sun that is risin’ will go down on that day.
In 1944, Red spent 13 weeks at No.1 with Smoke On The Water, which was also a Top 10 Pop hit. The flip-side, There’s A Blue Star Shining Bright, made the Country Top 5. He started 1945 with the Top 5 double-sided hit, Hang Your Head in Shame/I’ll Never Let You Worry My Mind and completed it with the No.1, Shame On You (a Top 15 Pop hit)/At Mail Call Today (Top 3), on which Red was accompanied by Lawrence Welk and His Orchestra. In March 1945, Red was the first major performer to record in Nashville, in Studio B at WSM, and was produced by Paul Cohen. Red’s 1946 hits were the double-sided Top 5 success, Harriet/Have I Told You Lately That I Love You, on which Red was accompanied by Roy Ross & His Ramblers and which came from the movie, Over The Trail, in which he appeared.
Nashville 1946 Hosts Grande Ole Opry
In 1946, Foley signed on to emcee and perform on The Prince Albert Show, a segment of the Grand Ole Opry program broadcast on NBC after the Opry had conflicts with Roy Acuff. "I guess I was never more scared than when I replaced Roy acuff on the network part of the Opry...[the audience] thouight I was a Chicago slicker come to pass himslf off as a country boy to bump Roy out of his job. It took me about a year to get adjusted."
Foley's popularity with listeners is often credited with establishing the Opry as country's pre-eminent radio show. Beginning in 1947, he began recording with his backing band, the Cumberland Valley Boys, earning another number one single with "New Jolie Blonde (New Pretty Blonde)." With the group, he recorded seven Top Five hits between 1947 and 1949, including "Tennessee Saturday Night," a chart-topper in 1948. "Red recorded 'Tennessee Saturday Night' with Zeke Turner playing that great boogie lick," remembers Harold Bradley, a former top session man and the brother of Decca producer Owen Bradley. "That was the first record [on which] he had that style. I guess with the move to Nashville, a lot of things happened: Paul Cohen found better songs, he found the musicians, he found the studio--something just started going in the right direction."
Foley, his band, and Paul Cohen turned out a series of records that mixed elements from pop and rhythm and blues while remaining undeniably hillbilly. By the fall of 1949, the singer's regular band included Grady Martin on lead guitar, Billy Robinson on steel guitar, and Ernie Newton on bass. With this basic lineup, augmented occasionally by other musicians, Foley entered Castle Studios in the Tulane Hotel at Eighth and Church to begin the three days of historic sessions. The first day, he recorded five songs, including two Top 10 hits--"I Gotta Have My Baby Back" and "Careless Kisses"--along with what would become one of the biggest records of his career.
Red introduced Hank in his first Opry appearance on June 11, 1949. At the end of 1949, Red got together with Ernest Tubb and in 1950, their single, Tennessee Border No.2 became a Top 3 hit and its flip, Don’t Be Ashamed Of Your Age, went Top 10. Red followed these with I Gotta Have My Baby Back/Careless Kisses (both Top 10). Then he issued the song that would become his trademark tune, "Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy," which stayed in the number one position for 13 weeks. Red did an overseas tour with Hank Williams who also had a hit record, Love Sick Blues.
Death of Foley's Second Wife- 1951; Death of Hank Williams-1952; Steps down as Host of Opry
In 1951, Foley's second wife, Judy Martin (born Eva Overstake), committed suicide by an overdose of pills, reportedly over the singer's affair with entertainer Sally Sweet (who became his third wife in 1954). In order to devote the majority of his time to raising a family, he cut back considerably on his performing commitments, although he continued to release hit after hit in a variety of musical styles, including rockabilly and R&B; "(There'll Be) Peace in the Valley (For Me)," a 1951 smash, was the first record ever to sell one million copies on the gospel charts. In the same year, he also released his first LP, Red Foley Souvenir Album.
Red’s 1951-1953 hits were; 1951: My Heart Cries For You (Top 10, with Evelyn Knight), Hobo Boogie (Top 10), The Strange Little Girl (Top 10, with Ernest Tubb), (There’ll Be) Peace In The Valley (For Me) (Top 5, certified Gold) and Alabama Jubilee (Top 3 Country/Top 30 Pop, with the Nashville Dixielanders featuring Francis Craig on bones). (There’ll Be) Peace In The Valley (For Me), on which Red was accompanied by the Sunshine Boys Quartet, was the first million-selling Gospel song. In 1952, Red scored with Too Old To Cut The Mustard (Top 5, with Ernest Tubb) and Milk Bucket Boogie/Salty Dog Rag (both Top 10) and in 1953, he had Midnight (No.1), Don’t Let the Stars Get In Your Eyes (Top 10), Hot Toddy (Top 10), No Help Wanted #2 (Top 10, with Ernest Tubb), Slaves Of A Hopeless Love Affair (Top 10) and Shake A Hand (Top 10).
Then his friend and fellow recording star Hank Williams began having problems with drugs and alcohol. On August 11, 1952, Williams was fired from the Grand Ole Opry. Told not to return until he was sober, he instead rejoined the Louisiana Hayride. Williams died just months later on Jan. 1 1953. Hank and Red Foley had made a promise to each other; whichever one died first, the other had to sing 'Peace In The Valley" at the others funeral, Red followed through on his end, his voice cracking by the time he finished holding back tears.
In 1953 Foley quit his master of ceremonies role on the Prince Albert Show, although he continued to tour as an Opry act for a time. In 1954 Foley was named to host The Ozark Jubilee, a country showcase for ABC television; the show was a hit, and ran through 1960. Also in 1954, he recorded the chart-topping "One By One," the first of many duets with Kitty Wells.
After several years in virtual retirement, Foley moved to Springfield, Missouri in 1954 to host Ozark Jubilee (sometimes named Country Music Jubilee) on ABC-TV and radio. The show ran for five-and-a-half years, but was cancelled partly because of federal income tax evasion charges pending against Foley during 1960. On April 23, 1961, however, he was eventually acquitted.
After working on the 1962-1963 ABC television show Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, starring Fess Parker as Eugene Smith and featuring Foley as Eugene’s uncle Cooter, a homespun philosopher, Foley moved back to Nashville and continued to tour until his death. Foley never lost his love for country music and, unlike Eddy Arnold, never sought success as a pop artist, even though many of his recordings did attain pop chart status. His voice was mellow and had none of the raw or nasal style associated with many of his contemporaries, some have even likened it to Bing Crosby. His importance to the country music scene is often overlooked and little has been written about him but he was rightfully elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1967.
That year in 1967, Red enjoyed a return to the lower region of the chart with the Top 50 duet with Kitty Wells, Happiness Means You and the flip-side, Hello Number One, which went Top 60. At the beginning of 1968, the twosome charted with the Top 70, Living As Strangers.
A great friend of Hank Williams Sr., he was ironically headlining a touring Opry show that included the young Hank Williams, Jr., when, after playing the matinee and evening shows, Foley suffered a heart attack and died in his sleep at Fort Wayne, Indiana, USA on September 19, 1968. This prompted Hank Jr., seemingly the last person to speak to him, to write and record, as Luke The Drifter, Jr., the tribute narration I Was With Red Foley (The Night He Passed Away), which charted for him in November 1968. In the song, Hank Jr. relates, that after reminiscing about the problems faced by a country singer, such as himself and Hank Sr., Red's final words were 'I'm awful tired now, Hank, I've got to go to bed'.