Springfield author pens biography about famous country singer Red Foley

Saturday, July 2, 2011 | 4:32 p.m. CDT

SPRINGFIELD — Red Foley, star of the first nationally broadcast television show to originate in Springfield, was called "a giant influence during the formative years of contemporary country music" when he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

But those who recall Foley's years in Springfield as host of the "Ozark Jubilee" remember more his kindness, humility and generosity.

So said local author Reta Spears-Stewart, who realized there had never been a biography written about Foley and set out to write one.

"Troubles, Faith and Peace in the Valley: The Red Foley Story" was published in December and follows his successes — he sold more than 25 million records during his career — in spite of many personal and professional trials that seemed to plague him.

His 1951 hit "(There'll Be) Peace In The Valley (For Me)" was the first gospel record to sell a million copies, and Foley charted simultaneous hits in country, pop and gospel.

Fate almost destroyed him when the "Jubilee" was at a high point, but his strong Christian faith carried him through, Spears-Stewart said.

When the author wrote an earlier book "Remembering the Ozark Jubilee" and followed it with a series on the show for now-defunct Springfield Magazine, Spears-Stewart said she "interviewed practically everybody who was on the show ... the producer and people backstage. ... Everybody I talked to had something good to say about Red, (and) the more I heard about him the more I thought that his story needed to be told."

She then began to focus on Foley and researched the music industry throughout the years of his career.

Because the singer died in 1968, she couldn't interview him in person, but she spoke with everyone she could about him and his personality.

She recalled hearing again and again how compassionate he was, often helping people, but asking them not to tell where the help came from. Spears-Stewart said she admired Foley for many qualities that reminded her of her father.

"He never met a stranger ... had a fantastic sense of humor... didn't try to hide his feelings... and didn't think he was anything special at all ... humble almost to a fault... and creative. Once he was your friend, he was your friend no matter what."

So many people who were part of Foley's life influenced him in some way just as he contributed to their lives, she said.

"Red's story is not just his story. It's the story of all the people who knew him, were related to him or worked with him," she said.

"Of course he had his problems with alcohol and the courts, ... and some people recalled some of that, but the majority of the stories were extremely positive," she said.

Gary Ellison, who was the caller for the Wagon Wheelers, a high school square dance group that alternated on the "Jubilee" with L.D. Keller's college-age Promenaders, recalled that various "Jubilee" groups traveled around the country during the summer to perform at state and county fairs, then returned for the Saturday night show.

On one such trip, as the group he was with rested between performances at the East Texas State Fair, a man came to the door and asked if Foley could say hello to his disabled daughter. The father explained the girl was a big fan and watched the show faithfully.

"Foley had been somewhere out West performing and flew in ... was just exhausted... and stretched out on a bench in front of some lockers like you'd see in a locker room,"  Ellison said. "Foley's eyes opened as he heard this. He got up from his rest, put on his suit jacket, straightened his tie and went out in that auditorium, sat and talked to that young lady for about 30 minutes."

Ellison said Foley was one of the kindest people he ever came across.

"The thing that sticks out in my mind about him is his daily kindness down at the Jewell (Theatre) when we'd be rehearsing," Ellison said. "We were just the square dancers on the show, but he treated us like we were just as important as the big-name stars that were there. He would go out of his way to be nice to us kids and thank us for what we had done."

Author/historian Wayne Glenn of Nixa said he never saw the show in person, but as a youngster of about 7 when it started, he was impressed by it on TV. "I never saw Foley or interviewed him, and to my knowledge Foley was never really interviewed," Glenn said. "Here's something that's interesting ... and this is so true of a lot of the older legends ... you will see interviews that were done in magazines of that time."

He explained, "Those '50s magazines could be purchased at drug stores. They would sometimes quote people, but that stuff was from publicity people."

Ellison vividly remembers a performance at the Texas State Fair on a stage on the 50-yard line in front of about 40,000 people.

"When he sang 'Just a Closer Walk with Thee' and 'Peace In The Valley' at the end you could absolutely hear a pin drop in that place," Ellison said. "He had this marvelous rich voice unlike many of the country singers of the day which were a little on the twangy side. ... He could handle inspirational songs unlike anyone I have ever seen before. I learned that night the power of gospel music over a crowd."

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