Buddy Killen

Music publisher and songwriter


William Doyce Killen (Buddy Killen), music publisher and songwriter: born Florence, Alabama 13 November 1932; married 1952 June Webb (two daughters; marriage dissolved), 1986 Carolyn Nelson (one stepson); died Nashville, Tennessee 1 November 2006.

Fortunately, the music publisher Buddy Killen had a sense of humour. In 1957 he turned down Jimmie Driftwood's composition "Battle of New Orleans", only to see it become an international hit for another publisher. The next time he saw Driftwood, he bent over and said, "Kick me."

He had a long history of discovering hit songwriters, including Harlan Howard, Curly Putnam and Bobby Braddock, but, although Killen first produced a record for Dolly Parton when she was 15, he considered that he had found her too early and let her go again a few years later in 1964.

Killen first went to Nashville as a musician, in 1950, aged 18. He joined the radio show Grand Ole Opry, playing double-bass, and from time to time worked on the road with Hank Williams, Cowboy Copas and Jim Reeves. In 1953, the manager of the radio station, Jack Stapp, asked him to work at his new publishing company, Tree Music. He would assess would-be songwriters and offer potential hits to performers.

In 1956 he was captivated when a schoolteacher, Mae Boren Axton showed him a song, "Heartbreak Hotel", which he considered suitable for Elvis Presley. It established Tree Music as a major player and a grateful Stapp made Killen an executive vice-president.

When the songwriter Roger Miller first came to Nashville, Killen gave him $25 a week to write for Tree. His first success was with "Half a Mind" for Ernest Tubb in 1958, and Miller came to fame with such songs as "King of the Road" (1965). "Buddy had to jump-start Roger a lot to get him to write," Bill Anderson, another Tree writer, recalled:

Roger would come in with four lines of a song and it would be something fabulous, but Buddy would have to chain him to the table to make him finish it.

In 1960, Killen wrote the US Top Ten hit "Forever" for the Little Dippers (an offshoot of the Anita Kerr Singers), and his compositions would include several country hits: "Open Up Your Heart" (for Buck Owens, 1966), "I Can't Wait Any Longer" (Bill Anderson, 1978), "I May Never Get to Heaven" (Conway Twitty, 1979), "Watchin' the Girls Go By" (Ronnie McDowell, 1981) and "All Tied Up" (Ronnie McDowell, 1986).

In 1964, Stapp and Killen were so impressed with a young rhythm and blues singer, Joe Tex, that they started a record label, Dial, so they could market, produce and publish his product. They had success with "Hold What You've Got" (loosely based on the hymn "Holy, Holy, Holy"), "A Sweet Woman Like You" and "I Gotcha". "Joe knows what girls like to hear and he writes the sweet things they enjoy hearing," Killen commented. In 1977, he wrote and produced Joe Tex's disco novelty "Ain't Gonna Bump No More (With No Big Fat Woman)".

Following Stapp's death in 1980, Killen became the sole owner of Tree. In 1989 he sold it to Sony for $30m and it is now Sony/ATV Music Publishing Nashville, with around 40,000 copyrights. Killen also had interests in restaurants, a travel agency and banking, and supported several charities.

In recent years, he had developed the Killen Music Group, which published the rap duo OutKast, including the soundtrack to their recent film Idlewild (2006).

Spencer Leigh

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