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When Patti Page took her pop version of this song to the top of the charts in late 1950 making it the unquestioned biggest hit of the year, it was only natural that everyone under the sun in the music kingdom would try and cover it to get a few spins riding her coattails.

But while many of them sold well nothing could topple Page’s version, as her performance sounded so genuine and heartfelt any other attempt was bound to fall short.

The one version however which – at least in its own market – managed to compete with Page was THIS unlikely take on it by a smirking rock act whose biggest claim to fame was singing about getting drunk all night.

All of which shows that sometimes the public has a sense of humor when it comes to what they choose to give their heart and money to.


Introduced To My Loved One
It really is hard to believe just how popular Page’s version of Tennessee Waltz was at the tail end of 1950.

It topped the pop listings of course, and maybe not surprisingly considering its origins it also did quite well in the country market too, but the shock was that Patti Page of all people – a chirpy blonde born Clara Ann Fowler in Oklahoma – ruled the R&B Charts from coast to coast in the early weeks of 1951.

Chances are this was something of a novelty record in Black America, not in that it was being mocked and laughed at, but rather that it was SO huge that people just had to check it out for themselves… sort of a “Hey, have you heard this song yet?” kind of deal and since it cost just a nickel to hear in a jukebox and was on virtually every jukebox in every neighborhood in the country, it was inevitable that it did so well before the novelty wore off.

Or should I say before the black community had something of their own to choose in its place once Stick McGhee’s Tennessee Waltz Blues threw its hat into the ring.

Its success may not have been quite as shocking as Page’s brief flurry of spins in this realm had been, but to be honest it wasn’t that far behind when it came to unlikely outcomes.

A Rock Act Stole My Song From Me
There’s no doubt that the storyline of the song – as sappy, sentimental and manipulative as it was – played a major factor in the popularity of most of these records.

People are suckers for weepy stories about love and loss, especially when the narrator has done nothing wrong to cause the split and is left devastated by the outcome that resulted when your best friend swept your loved one off their feet after a single innocuous dance.

Yeah, I know, it’s kind of lame but Patti Page certainly sold her heartbreak well and the other renditions all chose to try and match her, whether it was Kenny Gardner singing on Guy Lombardo’s rendition, or Mary Ford’s flexing her stellar pipes alongside husband Les Paul or Ace Harris fronting Erskine Hawkins band (the other big seller in the black community).

We also saw Jo Stafford, The Fontane Sisters and Milt Larkin all try their hand at warbling the ballad in their best dejected manner. Larkin’s rock version of Tennessee Waltz was particularly bad, its one redeeming factor was a strong sax solo which prompted us to suggest they’d have been better off cutting it as an instrumental.

Well, surprise, surprise, because that’s just what Stick McGhee wound up doing with Tennessee Waltz Blues, heading into the studio around the time Larkin’s botched version came out back in November as he and his band proceeded to lay down a surprisingly solid take on the song which did away with the story and vocals entirely and focused on the most enduring aspect of the tune – the melody itself.

Old Friends I Happened To See
Even without any vocals here this instrumental take will surely still have you singing the lyrics in your head simply because they’ve become so indelible it’s almost impossible NOT to hear them playing in your mind any time you hear that melody, but McGhee does his best to make sure you’re focusing on him, not ghostly words taken from somewhere else.

There’s three main components to their arrangement, McGhee’s electric guitar which takes the opening and then adds its prickly vibe throughout; Harry Van Walls’s piano which is mostly adding melodic fills as his left hand keeps the rhythm intact; and a saxophone which is the real focal point of Tennessee Waltz Blues, caressing the melody in a warm pleasant tone.

The session information reveals nothing but chances are it was Frank “Floorshow” Culley who was Atlantic’s top saxophonist and a solo star in his own right. Whoever it is contrasts the harsher sounds of McGhee’s guitar, which is chopping away nicely behind him, with a really soulful tone on the sax, pulling at the melodic threads with a lazy insistence.

This is the genius of the arrangement and really shows how you can let the audience’s subconscious mind work to your advantage. Everybody in America knew the story of how this couple were broken apart by fate and yet whereas the vocal versions of the song all focused on the abruptness of the split during that dance, McGhee’s instrumental – thanks to the way the sax comes at the melody in a more detached manner – gives the impression that he’s thinking back to these events from a distance, still sad over the memory but since enough time has passed he’s no longer broken up over it.

Tinged with melancholia this offers a different enough perspective to be appreciated by the cynics among us who felt the original plot was rather trite.


I Lost My Little Darlin’ The Night They Were Playing
Once again though what should come across in all this is just how powerfully this song connected with people – in all renditions – at the time.

Nobody it seemed had much hope for the song, Page’s version was originally just the B-side to a Christmas record before taking off like a meteor. So too was McGhee’s Tennessee Waltz Blues the planned B-side, just a way to get a recognizable title on their latest single, but slowly it began getting the lion’s share of the attention, first breaking in South Carolina in mid-March and then spreading outward. It cracked the national charts the last week of the month and by mid-April it was gaining strength, topping the charts in Oakland, appearing all over the South… six months after Page first was heard singing this!

Meanwhile the pop community was trying in their usual desperate fashion to extend the shelf life of the idea, if not the song itself, by coming up with shameful rip-offs like The Shenandoah Waltz by Tommy Tucker and Lawrence Cook’s The Nickelodeon Waltz while Tennessee Ernie Ford even stooped so low as to turn his back on his namesake to sing The Kentucky Waltz.

They failed, as you might expect.

But McGhee’s surprising success – on a song where he doesn’t even open his mouth – allowed him to keep his career prospects afloat just at the time when Atlantic Records, built in large part on the back of his original smash hit, was getting big enough where they might’ve had cause to drop him from the ranks.

I Remember The Night And The Tennessee Waltz
Every era invariably has a record or two that defines it and Patti Page’s single was undoubtedly the one which made the biggest and most lasting impression for 1950/51 and it remains the song for which she’ll forever be known.

Stick McGhee’s Tennessee Waltz Blues, though a #2 hit in its own right, winds up being little more than a footnote in that larger story as well as a footnote in his own career oddly enough, but it’s hardly insignificant in either one.

He may have just been an unlikely beneficiary of a song that wouldn’t quit but it was exceedingly well done all the same and showed the musical skill and creative instincts of the band and the viability of rock ‘n’ roll as a genre.

Yeah, it’s still just a instrumental rendering of a song that will forever be defined elsewhere, but considering how many sax players were swiping songs from other realms and falling short, the fact the McGhee and company were able to walk away with something to be genuinely proud of here is pretty special all the same.


(Visit the Artist page of Stick McGhee for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)

Spontaneous Lunacy has reviewed other versions of this song you may be interested in:
Milt Larkin & His X-Rays (November, 1950)