BY LAURENT D’ENTREMONT
Many Annapolis Valley readers will remember Doc Williams, who died January 31 at 96 years of age.
He made his farewell tour throughout the Maritimes in 1998, at 84 years of age, one of the last old-time country music entertainers.
Performers in those days were unlike the current crop of singers, who appear to spring up overnight and who all sing in the same voice and style, or so it seems. Fifty years ago, you could count the well-known country artists, who numbered little more than a dozen, and who all sang on radio in their own distinctive style.
There was no mistaking Wilf Carter when he belted out “Blue Canadian Rockies;” the same could be said about Hank Snow, with his “Sweet Texas Blue Bonnet Queen.” Some of the others were Gene Autry, who sang “Back in The Saddle Again;” Ole Lee Moore gained fame and made lots of fans with “The Cat Came Back,” and who could forget Hal Lone Pine, when he toured the Maritimes with his brand new song, “Prince Edward Island is Heaven to me?” Doris Day was not country, but she was a big hit with her popular “Que, Sera, Sera.”
And then there was Doc Williams, who recorded for Quality records and toured Nova Scotia many times with his wife, Chickie, and The Border Riders.
Most of the following information was taken from the bimonthly publication “Country Music Trails Less Traveled,” by Jay Taylor of North Carolina. According to Taylor, Doc Williams was born Andrew J. Smik near Cleveland Ohio in 1914. Being of Czechoslovakian stock, he was listening to music at an early age performed by his father, who played tunes from the “old country” on the fiddle.
A few years later, Doc was introduced to country music on a crystal radio set he had built himself. One of the early country music performers he admired very much was Montana Slim (Wilf Carter); he also loved the music of Jimmy Rodgers and the Carter Family of West Virginia, among others.
After quitting high school, Smik went to work in the coal mines. This was not for him and, when his grandmother bought him a guitar as a gift, he formed a band with his brother, Cy, on the fiddle. The first band was called the Mississippi Clowns, followed by the Kansas Clodhoppers, the Allegheny Ramblers and the Cherokee Hillbillies until 1937, when they settled on the name of Doc Williams and the Border Riders.
“Doc” was bestowed on him because he was always preaching healthy eating and clean living. Williams practiced what he preached and stayed away from booze and the other substances that have ruined the lives and careers of others in the same business.
In 1939, he married Jessie Wanda Crupe, and she has been known as “Chickie Williams” ever since. In 1946, after their three daughters were born, Chickie recorded “Beyond the Sunset” (Should you go first and I remain). It became a big hit, and “the girl with the golden voice” stayed with the Border Riders until health problems forced her to retire in her senior years.
Doc Williams joined the world’s original Jamboree in 1937, and they broadcast loud and clear when the Wheeling West Virginia radio station WWVA went to 50,000 watts in 1941. That was the reason Doc Williams, Lee Moore and a host of others were better known in Nova Scotia than they were in their own United States: many Maritimers tuned in. The artists knew where their fans were and toured Nova Scotia many times. Some of their greatest hits were “Silver Bells,” “My Old Brown Coat And Me,” “Beyond The Sunset,” “Three Wishes” and “Merry Maiden Polka.” Unlike many country/ folk singers of that period, the Doc Williams band recorded some instrumentals as well.
In the late 1960s, Doc Williams, while playing at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto with a young singer from the Maritimes, asked the tall and slim young man what he would charge to play on an upcoming Maritime tour with them. They agreed on a price and, years later, Doc Williams joked, “I don’t think that anybody ever hired Stompin’ Tom Connors for $100 a night after that tour.” He was likely right on that one.
The Doc Williams show came to Yarmouth in the early1970s, where I had the pleasure of talking with Docand bought some of his records. In those days, they traveled in a big red bus with sharp bold letters, WWVA on the front and Doc Williams and The Border Riders written on the sides, and, like Wilf Carter, Lee Moore, Doris Day and Hal Lone Pine; Doc and Chickie Williams and the Border Riders can be counted among some of my all-time favorites.