Buddy Killen: 1932 to 2006
Buddy Killen, who passed away November 1 at age 73, belongs on the short list of those who most transformed country music from an amalgam of regional styles into a nationally recognized and Nashville-centered genre. Killen got very, very rich on country music, and he repaid the debt by launching the careers of many of modern country music’s key figures.
Born in northern Alabama, William D. “Buddy” Killen grew up the son of a preacher and cafe owner in what he described as dire poverty — indeed, a sister died, he wrote in his autobiography By The Seat Of My Pants, of “economic malnutrition.” In 1951, upon graduation from high school, Killen was set to join the military when a last-minute offer to play bass for Autry Inman sent him to Nashville. There he bounced between the bands of Ray Price and Jim Reeves, the black-faced comedy duo Jamup & Honey, Webb Pierce, Hank Williams, Eddy Arnold, and others.
In 1953, Killen connected with Jack Stapp, who had just started Tree Publishing. Killen’s big break in the song copyright game came when he brought to Tree a song co-written by Mae Axton called “Heartbreak Hotel”, the number that was about to lead Elvis Presley to national stardom.
That windfall led Stapp, in 1957, to make Killen a full partner in Tree, and he quickly set about assembling what in retrospect reads like a who’s who of Nashville tunesmiths, including Roger Miller, Bill Anderson, Bobby Braddock, Dolly Parton, Hank Cochran and Harlan Howard. By the mid-’60s, Tree had passed Acuff-Rose and Cedarwood as Nashville’s top publisher.
As Tree grew, Killen’s responsibilities grew. He became president of the company in 1974 and, after Stapp’s death in 1980, its sole owner. Still, through much of his career, Killen continued to play on and produce sessions; he famously performed both roles for George Jones’ 1959 recording of “White Lightning”.
He also was a successful songwriter in his own right. His “Forever” became a 1960 top-10 pop hit for the Little Dippers, a group that included Killen and Darrell McCall, and Buck Owens topped the country charts in 1966 with Killen’s “Open Up Your Heart”. Killen started Dial Records for the specific purpose of recording country-soul shouter Joe Tex.
In 1989, Killen sold Tree Publishing to Sony Music for a reported $40 million.