Grand Ole Opry legend dies

By Don McAlvay: CNJ Columnist

A Grand Ole Opry legend dies; graduated from CHS in 1947

Billy Walker died May 21 in a wreck on an Alabama interstate. He was 77.

His wife, Bettie, and two of his band members also died when a van they were riding in ran off Interstate 65 south of Montgomery and overturned. His grandson, Joshna Brooks, 21, was in a critical condition. They were returning home to Hendersonville, Tenn., which is near Nashville.

Billy Walker was born in Ralls, Texas, in 1929. He was one of eight children. At age 6 his mother died and his father had to put Billy and two brothers in an orphanage in Waco, Texas. In 1939, his father got his family back together again and moved to Portales. In 1942 the family moved to Clovis.

Singing movie cowboy Gene Autry was Billy’s hero as a teenager.

Managing to get a cheap guitar and a 25-cent instruction book, Billy taught himself to play. At 15, he made his first demo disk with the help of a classmate, Norman Petty, at Petty’s home. Imitating Gene Autry, Billy sang Autry’s theme song, “Back in the Saddle Again.”

Billy entered and won an amateur talent contest sponsored by KICA radio and was given a 15-minute spot on that station, each Saturday at 1 p.m. Billy did the show alone, just him and his guitar.

The family moved to Whiteface, Texas, but Billy hitchhiked back every Friday, spending the night with an uncle, and after the show Saturday, hitchhiked back to Whiteface.

Rumor had it that Raymond Hall, a guitar player and singer also on KICA, has taught Billy how to play the guitar.

“That’s wrong,” said Raymond. “What I taught Billy was how to tune his guitar.”

Classmate Don Williams of Clovis said Billy lived in Clovis for five years with his uncle, and had a job each morning delivering bottle milk for the Campbell Dairy. Don Williams said, “He took one side of the street and I took the other side.”

Billy graduated from Clovis High School in 1947.

During a summer break from school in 1946, Billy hitchhiked to Abilene, Texas, and got a spot on KLBT radio with two early morning shows five days a week for $15 a week.

After graduating from Clovis High, Billy found a job with Jake Miller’s Band in Lubbock and was soon a guitar player and emcee for Hank Thompson’s band.

In 1951, he began recording for Columbia and in 1952 had a hit with, “Anything Your Heart Desires.” In 1952, he joined the Louisiana Hayride.

While he was performing with Slim Whitman and others in Memphis, radio personality Bob Neal asked Billy and Slim if they’d put a young talent on their show who had a local hit, “That’s All Right, Mama.” As Billy recalls it, “Elvis Presley knocked the crowd out!” That was in 1954.

In 1955, Elvis traveled on a tour to West Texas lead by Billy with engagements at Odessa, Lubbock and other cities. At Odessa they met the young Roy Orbison.

Billy moved on to the Ozark Jubilee and in 1960 to Nashville and became a regular on the Grand Ole Opry. He performed for the first time there on Jan. 4, 1960.

Hank Thompson got Billy his first contract with Capitol Records. His No. 1 hit in April 1962 was “Charlie’s Shoes.”

He recorded into the late 1980s and as far as I was concerned, his biggest hit was “Cross the Brazos at Waco.”

His last chart records were on his own label, Tall Texan, in 1988.

Don McAlavy is Curry County’s historian. He can be contacted at:

dmcalavy@telescopelab.com