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Webb Pierce; Top-Selling Country Singer

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Webb Pierce, one of the most successful country singers of all time, whose nasal tenor voice became known to millions of fans in the 1950s, died Sunday in Nashville.

Cash Box magazine rated him the No. 1 male country artist from 1952 to 1956 and again in 1961-63 because of such enduring hits as “In the Jailhouse Now.”

Max Powell, a family spokesman, said Pierce had been in and out of hospitals since last March with pancreatic cancer.

He died at 65 at his home in Nashville after having part of his colon removed in 1984 and undergoing open heart surgery in 1987.

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Last year Pierce--ranked No. 7 in the recent book “Top Country Singles: 1944-1988"--was a finalist for the Country Music Hall of Fame but lost out to Tennessee Ernie Ford.

Until his health began to fail, Pierce could be seen tooling around Nashville in a car decorated with 1,000 silver dollars or swimming in his $75,000 guitar-shaped pool.

Besides “In the Jailhouse Now” in 1955, his other hit records included “Wondering,” “Love Love Love,” “I Don’t Care,” “Teen-age Boogie,” “Honky Tonk Song,” “Tupelo County Jail” and “Bye Bye Love,” later a hit by the Everly Brothers.

Born and raised in Louisiana, he became a popular figure in his home state through appearances on a Monroe radio station. In the early 1950s he joined the “Louisiana Hayride” show, appearing with such future country stars as Floyd Cramer, Faron Young and Jimmy Day. In 1952 he recorded his first hit, “Back Street Affair,” followed the next year by “It’s Been So Long” and “There Stands the Glass.”

In 1953 he was named the No. 1 folk singer by Ranch and Farm magazine and given a similar honor by the Juke Box Operators association.

He moved to Nashville and became a regular on the “Grand Ole Opry” while continuing to crank out such recording successes as “Slowly,” “You’re Not Mine Anymore” and “Sparkling Brown Eyes.”

He toured the United States and Canada and was a featured singer and guitarist on Red Foley’s “Jubilee U.S.A.”

Pierce’s Decca albums often reached gold and through the 1960s his collections sometimes surpassed the sales of his singles. One exception was “Luziana” in 1968.

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But his recording career quickly peaked and his last hits, “Merry-Go-Round World” and “Road Show,” came in the early 1970s.

“I always tried to sing what the people wanted and give them an emotional outlet,” Pierce said in a 1978 interview. “I was different; everyone else sang on an even keel and I sang way up there on a high pitch.

“John Denver copied my style to the T,” he said. “When his first record came out, everybody told me they liked ‘my’ record. He sounds just like me.”


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