Legendary “Tennessee Waltz” Makes News Again

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• September 16, 2013

tennessee waltz11U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander donated the priceless original manuscript of “The Tennessee Waltz” to the University of Tennessee during ceremonies on Friday, Sept. 13. The donation occurred during the dedication of the Natalie L. Haslam Music Center at U.T. “The Tennessee Waltz” is one of the state’s official state songs. It has sold more than 10 million records, been recorded by an estimated 500 artists, was the last song to sell a million copies of sheet music and is said to be the most popular composition in the history of country music.

“I made the presentation a surprise to the Haslam family,” said Alexander. “They invited me to come to the dedication to play ‘The Tennessee Waltz,’” added the noted pianist. “They didn’t know anything about the manuscript.”

During the festivities, Alexander invited Haslam to sit on his piano bench while he serenaded her with the famous melody. The Senator acquired the document via the efforts of his son, Curb Records Director of Publishing Drew Alexander. “Drew was my ‘Henry Kissinger ‘ in all the negotiations,” said Senator Alexander.

“This song is known all over the world,” reported Governor Bill Haslam, who is Natalie’s stepson. “When I was in Japan, they could easily play and sing it to me.”

“The Tennessee Waltz” was originally popularized by Pee Wee King & His Golden West Cowboys. It was written by King and the band’s lead singer, Redd Stewart. King and Stewart co-wrote the song en route to Nashville from a concert in late 1946. As soon as they got home, Stewart wrote out the sheet music of their composition. They presented it the next day to their publisher, Fred Rose. He suggested a change in the lyric of the song’s bridge. Stewart crossed out the original lyric and penciled in Rose’s, “I remember the night and the ‘Tennessee Waltz,’ and this change is clearly shown on the manuscript.

The Golden West Cowboys version of the song became a big country hit in 1947. Patti Page recorded her arrangement of the song  in 1950. It became a massive pop success, remaining at No. 1 for 13 weeks and spawning dozens of other pop versions. Page’s “The Tennessee Waltz” is believed to be the largest selling disc by a female artist in history. It was voted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998.

Fred’s son Wesley Rose framed the song’s original manuscript and displayed it in the Acuff-Rose office on Franklin Road for many years. “The Tennessee Waltz” became an official state song in 1965. King and Stewart (as well as Fred Rose) were inaugural inductees into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970.

After Acuff-Rose was sold to Opryland USA in 1985, Redd Stewart requested that his original lead sheet be returned to him. He died in 2003, just one week after the passing of his wife, Darlene Collins Stewart. Darlene and her sister Joyce performed for 20 years as The Collins Sisters with The Golden West Cowboys.

Joyce Collins Bell acquired “The Tennessee Waltz” manuscript as the executor of the Stewart estate. Lamar and Honey Alexander purchased the 67-year-old document from her and the family with the financial assistance of Colleen and Ted Welch, Denise and Steve Smith and Ashley and Lew Connor.

“The right home for the songwriters’ original manuscript of the state song that has become the most popular song in the history of country music is the Natalie L. Haslam Music Center at our state university,” said Senator Alexander.

“This is where country music was born in East Tennessee,” said Governor Haslam. “To have this song that we have all loved for so long where it should be, not locked in a closet somewhere, I’m thrilled to death.”

Both men are East Tennesseans. Haslam is the ex mayor of Chattanooga. Alexander is a native of Maryville. He is a former president of U.T., governor of Tennessee (1979-1987) and U.S. Secretary of Education.

U.T. Chancellor Jimmy G. Cheek said that the manuscript will be prominently displayed. The university’s school of music has more than 350 students.

The dedication can been seen below, as well as Alexander’s piano rendition of “The Tennessee Waltz.”

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Robert K. Oermann is a longtime contributor to MusicRow. He is a respected music critic, author and historian.

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