WALKER, WILLIAM MARVIN [BILLY]

Chris Lehman

Billy Walker
“The Tall Texan” Billy Walker enjoyed a long career in country music and used his success to help further the careers of many other musicians as well. Courtesy of Dragon Street Records, Inc.

WALKER, WILLIAM MARVIN [BILLY] (1929–2006). William Marvin Walker, guitar player and singer, known as “The Tall Texan” because of his physical stature, was born on January 14, 1929, in Ralls, Texas, a ranching community located thirty miles east of Lubbock. After his mother’s death when Billy was only four, his father, unable to care for eight children, placed young Billy and two of his brothers in an orphanage. When Billy was eleven they went to live with their father after he had remarried. As a child Walker was inspired to become a musician after hearing fellow Texan Gene Autry play. In 1942 Walker’s family moved to Clovis, New Mexico, where in 1944 the fifteen-year-old won a music contest, earning him an opportunity to play on local radio station KICA. Eventually Walker became a regular host on KICA radio and remained with the station until his graduation from high school in 1946. At that point he formed a country band that toured throughout the Southwest. Walker soon caught the attention of promoters in Dallas who asked him to appear on the popular Big D Jamboree radio program on KRLD in 1949.

Upon joining the Big D Jamboree, Walker was given the stage name “The Traveling Texan.” The show’s promoters also created a fictional identity for Walker as a mysterious crooner who wore a mask similar to the Lone Ranger as a way to keep his identity hidden from his wealthy parents. This fictional stage character proved popular with audiences, and Walker kept it as part of his performance during the early years of his career. Ironically he was eventually unmasked after a passerby mistakenly thought that Walker was a bank robber and called the police.

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Early on in his career Walker befriended Hank Williams. In the early 1950s the two were hired to promote a health tonic on the Hadacol Caravan tour. They sold what they advertised as a “healing tonic,” which Walker later admitted derived its “curative” powers primarily from alcohol. Walker recorded for Capitol Records from 1949 to 1951, and in 1951 he began a longtime association with Columbia. He joined the famed Louisiana Hayride on KWKH in Shreveport and later began performing in the Ozark Jubilee out of Springfield, Missouri. In 1954 he charted his first hit, “Thank You For Calling.” He also received awards from BMI and Cash Box. While touring in Memphis that same year, Walker met a young musician named Elvis Presley who had been added to the Hayride at the last minute. Walker was so impressed with the musician’s charisma and youthful energy that he asked Presley to join him on the Hayride. Together, Walker, Presley, and Tillman Franks toured West Texas in 1955.

Walker’s popularity grew, and in 1960 he was invited to join Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. While working on the Opry, Walker met and befriended a young Willie Nelson who had moved from Texas to Nashville to try and build a career in the music business. Walker was the first to record Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away,” and he passed Nelson’s song “Crazy” to Patsy Cline. In 1962 Walker released the first of several Top 10 hits—“Charlie’s Shoes,” which he followed with “Willie the Weeper.” On March 5, 1963, he narrowly escaped the tragic plane crash that claimed several lives, including Patsy Cline, when friend Hawkshaw Hawkins took his place on the private plane. Walker instead had used Hawkins’s commercial airline ticket to return to Nashville.

He continued to produce hit songs from the 1960s to the 1980s, including “Cross the Brazos at Waco” (1964), “A Million to One” (1966), and “Sing Me a Love Song to Baby” (1972). During his career Walker counted sixty-five records on the country charts, including thirty-two Top 10 hits and six Number 1 hits. He toured extensively throughout the United States and Europe, had a syndicated television show in the 1970s, and was an active member of the Grand Ole Opry for nearly fifty years. He also had his own Tall Texan label.

Billy Walker had four daughters by his first wife Sylvia Smith. On May 21, 2006, the seventy-seven-year old Walker, along with his second wife, Bettie Crook, and his band were returning home to Nashville from a show in Alabama. Their van overturned on the Hank Williams Highway (Interstate 65) and killed Walker, his wife, and two band members. He was buried in Spring Hill Cemetery in Nashville. Billy Walker left behind an impressive legacy which included several chart-topping hits and a long record of helping along other musicians. In 2001 he was inducted into the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame. Walker is also honored in the West Texas Music Hall of Fame.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Billy Walker, The Tall Texan (http://www.billywalker.com), accessed September 1, 2015. The Independent (London), May 23, 2006. Colin Larkin, ed., The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music (Chester, Connecticut: New England Publishing Associates, 1992). Irwin Stambler and Grelun Landon, Encyclopedia of Folk, Country and Western Music (New York: St. Martin, 1969). Billy Walker, Cross the Brazos at Waco, Bear Family Records, 1993.

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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Handbook of Texas Online, Chris Lehman, "Walker, William Marvin [Billy]," accessed April 19, 2018, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fwaby.

Uploaded on March 17, 2015. Modified on November 1, 2015. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.