With the death of country legend Kitty Wells on July 16, classic country music stations have been playing her music.
Many don’t realize that her huge hit “Making Believe,” which was released in March 1955, was written by country artist Jimmy Work of Dukedom, who released it a month earlier.
Work was born in Akron, Ohio, but his family moved to Dukedom in the northern part of Weakley County when he was 2 years old. When he was older, his father bought his mother a guitar, but she never learned to play.
When Work was 7, he picked up the guitar and began playing with his mother.
“When I was a kid, I had a school teacher who would play piano. At home, I would play guitar while my mom played piano. Music was in my life at that age,” said Work, who is still active in the music business at a very youthful age of 88.
Work began writing his own songs in a one-room school house.
Two of his biggest influences at that time were Gene Autry and Roy Acuff, the latter for whose music publishing firm he would write songs such as “Blind Heart” and “That Cold, Cold Look in Your Eyes.”
With the outbreak of WWII, Work moved to Michigan, where there were more job opportunities.
It was there in Pontiac, Mich., a suburb of Detroit, where he began to pursue music in earnest.
Because of the influx of Southerners to the North, Work’s music was a great way for them to feel more at home.
With a large-enough audience, he was able to cut his first two singles on a tiny label called Trophy Records. Work played an acoustic guitar and had only a single electric guitar as backup.
“There was no studio in Detroit. There was a fellow set up in the basement with blank discs of 78 records. There was one microphone, and it had to be adjusted for every instrument and vocals,” Work said.
In the late 40s, Work cut his third single, “Tennessee Border,” for tiny record label Alben Label in Detroit. Although the record didn’t sell, a year later the song was picked up by five different artists: Red Foley, Bob Atcher, Jimmy Skinner, Tennessee Ernie Ford and Hank Williams.
The song became a hit for four of the artists.
Even though his record didn’t sell, the sales of the other five artists who had covered “Tennessee Border” prompted Decca Records to call and sign Work in 1949. That same year, he was invited to perform at the Grand Ole Opry.
“It was a great thing. What got me was the huge building. That’s where I met Hank Williams Sr. He was a good friend of mine and a good mentor. He got me connected with Rose of Acuff and Rose,” Work said.
Even though his first record with Decca didn’t sell, the label stuck by him. It was after the second record dropped and once again didn’t sell that the label dropped him.
Dot Records picked him up in 1953. It was with that label that his biggest hits, “Making Believe” and “That’s What Makes the Jukebox Play,” were in released in 1955.
In February 1955 Work’s version of “Making Believe” hit the radios, but it was overshadowed by Kitty Wells’ cover of the song that was released a month later.
“At the time [in the ‘40s and ‘50s] record labels were only releasing male artists because they didn’t think the female artists would sell. Kitty Wells was the first woman to be signed and make it big as a country music artist. I’m proud a woman made it,” Work said.
“Making Believe” is consistently on lists of all-time greatest country music songs and has been covered by many famous artists during the past 50 years, including Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Connie Francis, Ray Charles, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Ernest Tubb and Skeeter Davis.
Wells’ version hit #2 on the country charts and remained there an unprecedented 15 weeks, still a record for a song in the runner-up position on the country Billboard charts.
That same year Work rubbed elbows with one of the biggest names in music. Country music was the biggest genre in the nation at that time, but it was quickly being overshadowed by the newest trend known as Rock ‘n’ Roll and its frontrunner, Elvis Presley.
Work went on tour with Elvis when Elvis had his first recordings at Sun Records in Memphis.
“Elvis was an easygoing Southern boy. He was a good fellow and a simple guy,” Work said.
Because Work wasn’t a rockabilly artist or looking to change directions and go into Rock ‘n’ Roll, in time he was forced to give up performing music and sell real estate.
He moved back to his hometown of Dukedom and continued writing songs for Sony, Acuff and Rose, Hill & Range, United Artist, Warner Chapel Music and Bear Family Records.
He relived his glory days in 1977, when Emmylou Harris covered “Making Believe” and shot it into the Top Ten on the country charts. In 1978 die-hard, honky-tonk renegade Moe Bandy catapulted “That’s What Makes the Jukebox Play” to Number 11.
In 1986, Bear Family Records released the first LP of Jimmy Work’s songs and was followed by a double-CD set.
Now Work lives comfortably in Dukedom with his wife Ruth. He still plays the guitar and writes music for today’s artists.
“I am proud Kitty Wells covered my song. She made it possible for women today to be icons. It’s a shame we lost one so great,” said Work.
Editor’s Note: Kristy Harrelson is a communications student at the University of Tennessee at Martin.