Red Foley: From the Opry to the Ozarks

The fame of Clyde Julian “Red” Foley (1910-1968) is magnified for us through the lens of Elvis Aaron Presley. Foley’s 1935 song “Old Shep” (released 1941) was a favorite of Elvis’s; he’d sung it since childhood, and recorded it in 1956. And Foley’s huge 1951 gospel hit “Peace in the Valley” (penned by Georgia Tom Dorsey) became a Presley show-stopper, as well. Other hits for Foley include the patriotic “Smoke on the Water” (1944, not the same as the Deep Purple song), and “Chattanooga Shoe Shine Boy” (1949), and numerous duets with the likes of Ernest Tubb, Kitty Wells, The Andrews Sisters, Lawrence Welk, and others.

Foley grew up on a family farm in Blue Lick, Kentucky, where his family also ran a general store. He played numerous musical instruments and was already winning regional talent contests by the time he was 17. He was only 20 when he made his radio debut on National Barn Dance. He would remain a staple of broadcast media for the rest of his life. He was on the National Barn Dance for years; in 1941 he co-hosted Avalon Time with Red Skelton on NBC radio, becoming the first country artist to emcee on a national program. From 1946 through 1954, Foley hosted and played on NBC’s regular broadcast of the Grand Old Opry, sponsored by Prince Albert tobacco.

In 1941 Foley appeared in the Tex Ritter western The Pioneers, although (unlike Ritter) he was not fated to be one of the big screen’s favored singing cowboys. He did however, make a dent in television. He was the original host of the variety show Ozark Jubilee out of Springfield, Missouri in 1955, and was a regular on the sitcom version of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1962-63) with Fess Parker. In 1953 Foley’s daughter Shirley married Pat Boone, so Foley was destined to appear on Boone’s variety show in the late ’50s. He was also on The Tonight Show with Jack Paar, The Dinah Shore Chevy Show, and The Joey Bishop Show (his final TV appearance).

Foley had a heavy live performance schedule, including shows with the Opry, and lots of state fairs. He died at the young age of 58 following a couple of shows in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The cause that’s given is “respiratory failure”, which I’m going to guess (since he was such a young man) was related to his chronic alcoholism. (Hank Williams was another severe alcoholic country music singer. As it happens, Hank Williams Jr. was was with Foley the night he died.)

If only Foley had lived just a little bit longer — he’d have been a natural for Hee Haw! Speaking of which — today is also the birthday of Stringbean!

To learn out more about show business history (including radio and tv variety) consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.