Some performers are all flash and no substance, but in the world of country music, Pee Wee King was both.
Julius Frank Anthony Kuczynski was born on the south side of Milwaukee in 1914 to John and Helen (nee Mielczarek) Kuczysnski. His parents spoke Polish and broken English and the youngster switched easily between the two languages. He was called Frank and was taught to play violin and accordion. Dad led a polka band and young Frank joined up at age fifteen.
It was not long before he started his own band, the King's Jesters, and took the stage name Frank King, in tribute to "Waltz King" bandleader Wayne King. They played a mixture of polkas, cowboy and pop songs. In 1933 his band was a regular on the Milwaukee radio show Badger State Barn Dance. A young Gene Autry hired them as his back up band as their music turned more to the country and western side. It was Autry who nicknamed King "Pee Wee" for his five foot six inch height, as well as the fact that there were three Franks in the band.
In 1934 King and Autry performed together as regulars on a Louisville radio program. The following year Autry left for Hollywood, but King stayed in Louisville and played with the Log Cabin Boys. A year later he formed his own country band, the Golden West Cowboys. By 1937 their popularity had grown so much that they were invited to join Nashville's Grand Ole Opry, beginning a ten year run.
Traditionalists were taken aback. Not only was Pee Wee the first country and western star from a northern state, his band played country music with polka and waltz rhythms and were the first to wear rhinestone and sequined suits. They were also the first to use drums, electric guitar, accordion and horns at the Opry. King clearly believed in breaking barriers and he paved the way for acts that followed in the post World War II years.
Pee Wee was a songwriter and musician, but left the vocals to others. One of his outstanding vocalists was Eddy Arnold. King made a few appearances in western movies and for ten years form 1947-1957 he had his own television show in Louisville, broadcast nationally for two years.
It was during these years that King enjoyed his greatest success. In 1947 he co-wrote one of the most popular country songs of all time, "Tennessee Waltz," which his band took to number three on the pop charts. Patti Page released a recording of the song in 1951 and it became a huge multi-million seller. That same year, Pee Wee King and the Golden West Cowboys released "Slow Poke," which topped the charts for fourteen weeks. Other hits followed, and the band was recognized as the best in country music in the early 1950s. King was one of country's earliest crossover artists, whose appeal extended to the world of pop music.
"Tennessee Waltz" was adopted by Tennessee as its state song in 1965. King retired from performing in 1969, was elected to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970 and to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1974, where he was a director till the day he died on March 7, 2000.
King was one of the greatest innovators in the history of country music. He was largely responsible for country's acceptance into the pop music world, which paved the way for rockabilly acts such as Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley.
Later in his life, Pee Wee King Kuczynski fondly recalled the delicious Polish dishes his mother cooked including pierogi, gołąbki and kapusta. He said his Polish born grandparents did not talk much about the old country. He remembered one of them telling him, "Be glad you were born in this country." A little bit of luck, a lot of hard work, and he realized the American Dream and then some.
You can purchase Western Swing Get Together by Pee Wee King in Amazon