Clyde Julian Foley (June 17, 1910?September 19, 1968), better known as Red Foley, was an American singer, musician, and radio and TV personality who made a major contribution to the growth of country music after World War II. For more than two decades, he was one of the biggest stars of the genre, selling more than 25 million records. His 1951 hit, "Peace in the Valley," was the first million-selling gospel record. A Grand Ole Opry veteran, Foley also hosted the first popular country music series on network television, Ozark Jubilee. He is a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, which called him "one of the most versatile and moving performers of all time" and "a giant influence during the formative years of contemporary Country music."
Clyde Foley was born June 17, 1910 on a 24-acre farm in Blue Lick, Kentucky, grew up in nearby Berea, and gained the nickname "Red" for his hair color. He was born into a musical family; and by the time he was nine, was giving impromptu concerts at his father's general store, playing French harp, piano, banjo, trombone, harmonica and guitar. At 17 he won first prize in a statewide talent show. He graduated from Berea High School, and later worked as a $2-a-show usher and singer at a theater in Covington, Kentucky.
In 1930, as a freshman at Georgetown College, Foley was chosen by a talent scout from Chicago's WLS-AM to sing with producer John Lair's Cumberland Ridge Runners, the house band on National Barn Dance. His first single, "Life Is Good Enough For Me/Lonesome Cowboy," was released in June 1933 on the Melotone label. In 1937 he returned to Kentucky with Lair to help establish the Renfro Valley Barn Dance stage and radio show near Mt. Vernon in 1939, performing everything from ballads to boogie-woogie to blues.
Foley c. 1942
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 seven-year stint with National Barn Dance.
In 1941, the same year he made his only film appearance (portraying himself) with Tex Ritter in the Western, The Pioneers, Foley signed a lifetime contract with Decca Records. He also released "Old Shep" in 1941, a song he wrote with Arthur Willis in 1933 about a dog he owned as a boy (in reality, his German shepherd, poisoned by a neighbor, was named Hoover). The song, later recorded by many artists including Hank Snow and Elvis Presley, became a country classic. His patriotic 1944 single, "Smoke On The Water," topped the charts for 13 consecutive weeks, and on January 17, 1945, he was the first country performer to record in Nashville, Tennessee. During the session at WSM-AM's Studio B, he recorded "Tennessee Saturday Night," "Blues In The Heart" and "Tennessee Border." He soon became known for such songs as "The Death Of Floyd Collins" and "The Sinking Of The Titanic." He moved to Nashville in 1946 and was briefly a member of the Brown's Ferry Four, recording "Jesus Hold My Hand" and "I'll Meet You in the Morning."
Mr. Country Music
In April 1946, Foley signed on to emcee and perform on The Prince Albert Show, the segment of the Grand Ole Opry carried on NBC Radio. During the next eight years he established himself as one of the most respected and versatile performers in country music. He acted as master of ceremonies, the straight man for Opry comedians Rod Brasfield and Minnie Pearl, and proved himself a vocalist who could handle all types of material. His popularity was credited with establishing the Opry as America's top country music radio show.
Foley began recording with his backing group, the Cumberland Valley Boys, in 1947. He recorded seven top five hits with the group between 1947 and 1949, including a number one single, "New Pretty Blonde (New Jolie Blonde)," and "Tennessee Saturday Night," a chart-topper in 1948. In 1950, he had three million-sellers: "Just A Closer Walk With Thee," "Steal Away" (recorded by Hank Williams as "The Funeral"), and a solo version of the song that became his trademark, "Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy." Featuring guitarist Grady Martin, it stayed at number one on Billboard's country chart for 13 weeks and hit the pop chart as well.
In 1951, Foley's second wife, Judy Martin, took her own life. To devote more time to his family in Nashville, he cut back on performing but continued to release hits in a variety of styles, including rockabilly and rhythm and blues. His 1951 hit, "(There'll Be) Peace In The Valley (For Me)" backed by the Sunshine Boys quartet, was the first gospel music record to sell one million copies. He also released his first LP that year, Souvenir Album (Decca DL-5303).
Foley's manager was Jim McConnell and "Dub" Albritton was his personal appearances manager. He toured Europe in the early 1950s with Little Jimmy Dickens, Minnie Pearl and Hank Williams. From 1951?1961, he hosted The Red Foley Show on Saturday afternoons (on NBC Radio until switching to ABC Radio in 1954), sponsored by Dow Chemical. On November 21, 1953, he was one of the first eight singers named to The Billboard magazine's Honor Roll of Country and Western artists, awarded for for Outstanding Achievement in the country and Western field, "named by the disk jockeys of America as an all-time great of country & western music." In 1955, an official act of the Oklahoma Legislature honored him as the artist who has "contributed with humility and reverence more than any other person to perpetuate the music so deeply embedded in the hearts of the American people."
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 made the pop charts. Other hits included "Sugarfoot Rag," "Cincinnati Dancing Pig" and "Birmingham Bounce," which stayed at number one for 14 weeks. Foley's success with the song prompted 21 cover versions. "One by One," a duet with Kitty Wells, hit number one in 1954 and stayed on the charts for 41 weeks. He also recorded with Ernest Tubb (with whom he maintained an on-air fictitious "feud"), the Dixie Dons, the Andrews Sisters, the Anita Kerr Singers, Rosetta Tharpe, Evelyn Knight and the Lawrence Welk Orchestra. Known by then as Mr. Country Music and America's Favorite Country Gentleman, critics dubbed him the "barnyard Bing Crosby."
In his personal life, Foley struggled with alcohol, which according to Maxine Brown, "was a well-kept secret among all the entertainers because we loved him so much."
Foley in Springfield, Missouri c. 1956
After several years in virtual retirement, Foley moved to Springfield, Missouri in July 1954 after music executive Si Siman convinced him to host Ozark Jubilee on ABC-TV and radio. The popular show ran for nearly six years and further cemented Foley's national fame, but was canceled partly because of federal income tax evasion charges pending against him during 1960. His first trial that fall ended with a hung jury, but on April 23, 1961 he was quickly acquitted. From 1954 to 1955, he recorded a number of transcriptions for RadiOzark Enterprises in Springfield with his band of Tommy Jackson on fiddle, Grady Martin on guitar, steel guitarist Bud Isaacs, guitarist Jimmy Selph and Bob Moore on bass. In 1956, he appeared on ABC's Masquerade Party as Little Red Riding Hood.
In the summer of 1961, Foley appeared twice on NBC-TV's Five Star Jubilee and made 58 appearances at 22 state fairs with Boob Brasfield. He moved to Los Angeles, California, and from 1962?63 played Fess Parker's Uncle Cooter on Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, an ABC-TV sitcom. In 1963, he returned to Nashville and performed and toured with the Grand Ole Opry.
Foley was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1967 (the first Kentuckian and one of only six then-living inductees), which honored him as "one of the most versatile and moving performers of all time" and "a giant influence during the formative years of contemporary Country music and today a timeless legend."
On September 19, 1968, Foley appeared in two Opry performances in Fort Wayne, Indiana that included Billy Walker and 20-year-old Hank Williams, Jr.. Before the second show, according to Walker, Foley came to his dressing room and Walker shared his faith in Christ: " said, 'Do you think God could ever forgive a sinner like me?' He began to tell me all the rotten things he had done in his life and I looked him in the face and said, 'Red, if God can forgive me, He can forgive you.' I prayed with Red, he went out and the last song he sang was "Peace In The Valley." He came over to side of the stage and said, 'Billy, I?ve never sung that song and feel the way I do tonight.'"
Foley suffered respiratory failure that night and died in his sleep, prompting Williams, son of his long-time friend Hank, Sr., to write and record (as Luke the Drifter, Jr.) "I Was With Red Foley (The Night He Passed Away)." According to the song, which charted that November, his last words were, "I?m awful tired now, Hank, I?ve got to go to bed." Foley had sung "Peace In The Valley" at Hank, Sr.'s funeral. He was interred in Woodlawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Nashville.
Foley had an older brother, Clarence "Cotton" Foley (May 8, 1909?January 1973), who performed with him on Renfro Valley Barn Dance.
After his first wife, Axie Pauline Cox, died giving birth to their daughter Betty, Foley married Eva Alaine Overstake on August 9, 1933. Known 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. Their daughters were Shirley Lee (Boone), Julie Ann (Hurt) and Jenny Lou . On November 17, 1951 Overstake committed suicide after learning of Foley's relationship with entertainer Sally Sweet, who became his third wife.
Betty Foley's son is country music performer Clyde Foley Cummins. Shirley Lee married actor-singer Pat Boone in 1953. Their daughters are Cheryl Lynn, Linda Lee, Laura Gene and country and Christian music singer Deborah Ann.
Foley has two stars on Hollywood Walk of Fame: one for his recording career at 6225 Hollywood Blvd., and one for his television career at 6300 Hollywood Blvd. On June 10, 2003, a Kentucky State historical marker (# 2114) was placed at Foley's boyhood home in Berea.
In 2002, he was inducted into the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame, where his corncob pipe is on display. In 2006, his 1951 version of "Peace in the Valley" was entered into the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry.
In 1970, Berea College established the Red Foley Memorial Music Award. Initiated by his long-time friend and colleague Si Siman, the annual award is presented to talented Berea College students in recognition of their musical contributions to the campus community. It is intended to promote the music associated with Foley?s career, such as folk, country, bluegrass, gospel and popular music.
A dance to Foley's song, "The Salty Dog Rag," has been traditional at Dartmouth College since 1972, where it is taught to freshman during orientation.
Foley Middle School, named for the singer, opened in Berea in 1978. The public school educates southern Madison County students in the 6th, 7th and 8th grades.