Billy Walker

'Grand Ole Opry' singer
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The Independent Online

Billy Walker had over 60 records on the US country charts and worked with Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson and Patsy Cline.

His first job was in 1949 as the Travelling Texan on the Big D Jamboree, a radio show broadcast from a concert hall in Dallas. The producer told him to wear a mask and pretend that his parents were rich and did not want him singing country music. He was told never to enter without wearing his mask - one cab driver informed the police that somebody was about to rob the place. When the gimmick had run its course, Walker was unmasked and the audience shouted, "Billy who?"

Walker was born in 1929, into a family of 12 children on a farm in Texas. After seeing a Gene Autry film on his 13th birthday, he determined to become a singer, learning to play a cheap guitar. He appeared on local radio and, following the Big D Jamboree, his next job was promoting a health tonic on the touring Hadacol Caravan with the country star Hank Williams. Walker told me in 1991,

It was 18 per cent alcohol, so anyone who bought it was soon feeling good. I became good friends with Hank Williams and I sang "Anything Your Heart Desires" at his wedding to Billie Jean. I had a tour booked with him for February 1953 but he died on New Year's Day.

In 1954, Walker secured his first country hit with "Thank You For Calling" and he and Slim Whitman were booked to play the Overton Park Shell in Memphis:

The promoter Bob Neal had added Elvis Presley to the show and he told me he was so nervous that he couldn't keep from shaking. He used that in his act and he was dynamite from the word go. I asked him to come on the Louisiana Hayride and he did several Saturday nights with us.

In 1960, Walker became a regular on the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville and this time he was to boost Willie Nelson's career:

Willie told me that nobody in Fort Worth was buying songs so he had come to Nashville. He was living in an old Buick, so I put him in my house and took him round the publishing companies.

Walker recognised the potential of "Funny How Time Slips Away" and, although he intended to follow the hit single with "Crazy", he allowed Nelson to give the song to Patsy Cline.

Walker topped the US country charts with "Charlie's Shoes" (1962) and had several more big records including "Cross the Brazos at Waco" (1964), "A Million and One" (1966) and a revival of Gene Autry's hit "Ramona" (1968). He released numerous albums, sometimes three a year, and often recorded gospel collections including How Big is God (1969) and How Great Thou Art (1981). He also recorded duets with Barbara Fairchild. Even when the hit records stopped, he kept on touring and appearing at the Opry. He said,

I sang some beautiful ballads like "Funny How Time Slips Away". They are so good that they will never go out of fashion.

In 1989, Walker was furious that he was only allowed 25 minutes at the Wembley Country Music Festival and continued to perform after his allotted time, causing the promoter Mervyn Conn to switch off his microphone. He eventually left the stage and some time later, when the compere announced a "surprise guest", the audience called for Billy Walker. Boxcar Willie defused the situation by saying, "There are no egos in country music", and asking Walker to join him.

When I interviewed Walker at Southport Theatre in 1991, I found him scolding a 13-year-old girl for performing an encore the previous night in Blackpool. "You may not have heard of me," he said, "but I am the star of this show and I am the only one who does encores."

Walker met his first wife, a waitress, Sylvia Smith (known as "Boots"), when he had a nose-bleed in a night-club, and they lived at his ranch, Walker's Acres, in Hendersonville and raised four daughters. His second wife, Bettie Crook, managed his career and died with him in a road accident.

Spencer Leigh