Speeches & Floor Statements
Posted on January 23, 2013
Patti Page died on New Year's Day this year. She was 85 years old. The Senate has not been in session for most of the time since then. I wanted to come to the floor to pay a Tennessean's tribute to Patti Page. Patti Page is best known for our State song, the "Tennessee Waltz." A few years ago, in 2007, when I met her for the first time, she told me the story of the "Tennessee Waltz." I knew some of it, but she completed the rest of it.
In 1946, a couple of Tennesseans, Pee Wee King and Redd Stewart, were driving from Memphis to Nashville. That was before the interstate highways. It took a pretty good amount of time to drive that distance. I don't know whether or not they were drinking a beer on the way from Memphis to Nashville but they were relaxed, and one of them said to the other, “Why is it Kentucky and Missouri have a waltz and Tennessee doesn't have a waltz?” So on the way from Memphis to Nashville they took out a penny matchbox, which is one of these big boxes with wooden matches in it, dumped out the matches on the floorboards of the car, and on the back of the penny matchbox, between Memphis and Nashville, in 1946, Pee Wee King and Redd Stewart wrote the "Tennessee Waltz." They sang it around a few places. Pee Wee King sang it at the Grand Ole Opry. Nobody paid much attention to it. Cowboy Copas sang it. They sang it on Red Foley's show in Missouri. Nothing much happened to the "Tennessee Waltz" until 1950, and this is the story Patti Page told me. Mercury Records in New York had a new song they were sure was going to be a big hit. It was called "Boogie Woogie Santa Claus." I don't know whether it was a follow up to "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," but the executives in New York were sure it was going to be a big hit so they wanted the hottest young female singer in America to record "Boogie Woogie Santa Claus" so they hired Patti Page. She flew to New York, recorded it for Mercury Records, and then in those days you always had to put a record on the back of the main record. You had to pick a song. It would be the "B" side. Just as a throw away, they put on the back of it the song by Pee Wee King and Redd Stewart, the "Tennessee Waltz."
We know the rest of the story. The "Tennessee Waltz" sold about a million copies. Nobody ever heard of the "Boogie Woogie Santa Claus" except those who bought the "Tennessee Waltz." Mike Kerr, who runs Kerr Records in Nashville, told me it was the best-selling record ever by a female artist. Patti Page eventually sold 100 million records. She was the top selling female artist in record sales in history.
Growing up I heard her songs, "Mockingbird Hill," "I Went to Your Wedding," "Old Cape Cod." In 1952 she had a song called "Doggie in the Window." It sounds like a silly little song, but it sold a lot of records and a great many Americans remember it. When I was governor of Tennessee I would travel to Japan, recruiting industry. In the evenings I would go to a restaurant bar with friends, and to my astonishment, all of my Japanese friends, many of whom did not know much English, could sing every word of the "Tennessee Waltz." When I inquired about it, it was because it was introduced during the time of the American occupation of Japan in 1950 or so, and according to them, the Asian music doesn't have the same kind of standard that American music has. We get a phrase or a theme in our minds and we never forget it, such as the "Tennessee Waltz." So the "Tennessee Waltz" became a song that most Japanese men of that age knew, remembered, and could sing from memory.
I met Patti Page for the first time 6 years ago. It was 2007. She was about 79 or 80 years of age at the time. She told me the story of the recording of the "Tennessee Waltz" for Mercury Records. It turned out it was her last recording session. Mike Kerr, the owner of Kerr Records, had invited her to come to Nashville and record an album, "Best Of Patti Page." He had invited me to come play the piano while she sang the "Tennessee Waltz," which I did. It was a real thrill and she was very patient to put up with an amateur piano player for her very special song. She told me then it wasn't the first time she had performed with a Tennessee Governor. In 1950 she had performed with Tennessee Governor Gordon Browning at a Memphis theater. This was when she was all the rage, the "Tennessee Waltz" was all the rage, and the Governor wanted to sing it with her.
I asked how it went. She said, "Well, to tell you the truth, the Governor wasn't a very good singer."
I don't know what she said to others about my piano playing, but I think that was probably about as harsh a verdict as Patti Page ever rendered of any other person.
According to the New York Times obituary, Patti Page once said, “I don't think I've stepped on anyone along the way. If I have, I didn't mean to.” Well, Patti Page is gone now, but her music is not. And whenever we Tennesseans hear our State song, the “Tennessee Waltz," played, or whenever we sing it, we will remember the voice of Patti Page.