The Man From Wolverton Mountain--Claude King: 1923-2013

Saturday, 09 March 2013 06:03 AM Written by 

Some call Claude King, a kid born on a farm outside of Shreveport, Louisiana in 1923 and died at his Shreveport home Friday morning at 90 (he reached that milestone on February 5), a one-hit wonder. That wasn't quite the case. The veteran Louisiana country singer, had a brief flurry of fame and one big crossover hit, "Wolverton Mountain" in 1962. "Crossover" describes early country hits that "crossed over" to the Pop charts.

King, who for years shaved a decade off his age, started on Shreveport's Louisiana Hayride, the Opry-like stage and radio show that launched Hank Williams, Elvis Presley and his pal Johnny Horton, who'd scored big in 1959 with "The Battle of New Orleans" and "North to Alaska," both crossover hits. King, frustrated by his lack of success, quit music in the late 50's, but Horton's tragic death in a 1960 car crash brought him back when Horton's manager Tillman Franks, took King to Don Law, the Columbia Records country producer who produced Horton and noted the King's vocal similarities.

He had two country Top Tens right out of the gate in 1961: Big River Big Man" and the "Comancheros," the latter written for a John Wayne western but never used in the actual film. 

A Hayride performer turned struggling Nashville songwriter gave King a tune he'd written. Merle Kilgore was an Oklahoma native whose mother, her maiden name Clowers, hailed from Arkansas. Kilgore wrote a fictionalized song about his uncle Clifton Clowers, who lived on an Arkansas farm near Woolverton Mountain. Alive when the song hit, the father of two daughters lived in the area until 1994 and died at age 102.  There's a bit more info here from a distant relative.

The song "Wolverton Mountain" (slight spelling change), fictionalized Clifton as a nasty, reclusive mountain man with one hot daughter he'd protect from lascivious men to the point of murder, alerted by "the bears and the birds," making Clowers an animal whisperer.   Depending on who you believe, King tweaked the song a bit and recorded it (King and Kilgore shared writer credit). Law shaped the record according to the "Nashville Sound" production formula aimed at getting a country song to pop success: no fiddles, no steel guitar, but the Anita Kerr Singers tempering King's unabashed vocal twang as h sang "her tender lips-were sweeter than HAW-nee,". This was the result.

"Wolverton" was so big that King showed up on American Bandstand and other teen-oriented dance shows. Newspaper stories were written about Clowers (still alive at the time) and his real-life daughter.

It didn't hurt Kilgore a bit. While he had only a few minor hits as a singer, his writing evolved to the point that another song he co-wrote with June Carter (not yet married to Johnny Cash), "Love's Ring of Fire," became Cash's 1963 crossover megahit "Ring of Fire." Kilgore would go on to manage Hank Williams Jr. through his greatest years of stardom in the 1980s.

"Wolverton" sparked an "answer" song, "(I'm The Girl On) Wolverton Mountain" a minor hit sung by pioneer female rockabilly Jo-Ann Campbell. Answer songs were popular from the 1920's to the 1960's. They involved song with a similar melody with lyrics "answering" the sentiments of a big hit. Kitty Wells' classic "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" "answered" Hank Thompson's 1952 hit "The Wild Side of Life."

This is Campbell's response.

King's career eventually fell off. He had 30 charted singles but only a couple more were Top Ten. He'd record for Columbia (including a very nice tribute album to Johnny Horton) until 1973, but with no successes and eventually retired, making only rare appearances like this salute to King in February of 2007, when he just turned 84. Looking robust, age or faulty audio (or both) may have affected his singing voice a bit. The guitarist in the ballcap: Louisiana-born, world-renowned rock guitar hero James Burton, who made history working for Bob Luman, Rick Nelson, Elvis Presley and John Denver.  Like King, Burton started on the Hayride.

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