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Cindy Walker, 87; Wrote Hundreds of Songs Recorded by an Array of Artists

Obituaries

March 29, 2006|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Cindy Walker, the prolific Texas songwriter who in every decade from the 1940s to the '80s turned out country and pop hits, including "You Don't Know Me," "In the Misty Moonlight" and "Cherokee Maiden," has died. She was 87.

Walker, called the dean of Texas songwriters, died of natural causes Thursday at a hospital in Mexia, Texas, where she had lived most of her life.

Known for her romantic, sentimental, Western-flavored works, she wrote more than 500 recorded songs for an array of artists. Among them were Gene Autry ("Blue Canadian Rockies"), Roy Orbison ("Dream Baby [How Long Must I Dream]"), Bob Wills ("Cherokee Maiden," "Bubbles in My Beer"), Eddy Arnold, Ray Charles ("You Don't Know Me"), the Ames Brothers ("China Doll"), Hank Snow ("The Gold Rush Is Over") and Jim Reeves ("Distant Drums," "This Is It").

She also wrote "Barstool Cowboy From Old Barstow" for Spike Jones and the City Slickers.

Over the years, Walker, who typed her lyrics on a pink-trimmed manual typewriter, saw her songs recorded by artists as varied as Bette Midler and Michael Buble. By the late 1980s, "You Don't Know Me," one of her best-known songs, had been recorded by more than 75 singers, including Arnold, Elvis Presley, Jerry Vale and Mickey Gilley.

This month, Willie Nelson, a fellow Texan, released "You Don't Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker," a tribute album of her songs.

"I loved her dearly and will miss her. And I'm glad that the music came out while she could still enjoy it," Nelson said in a statement.

"Cindy Walker has never written a bad song in her life," Fred Foster, Orbison's producer, told the Austin American-Statesman in 2004. "She's just this incredible bundle of talent and energy."

The best tunes, Walker believed, "are songs with a face."

"You recognize them," she told the Associated Press in 1988. "You know them. It's like a person. They have a face that's outstanding. Other songs don't have a face; you just hear them, that's all. The really good ones are few and far between."

Walker, who was frequently described as the greatest living songwriter of country music, was a charter member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970. She was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1997.

"Songwriting is all I ever did love," she recently told the New York Times.

The daughter of a cotton broker, Walker was born July 20, 1918, on her grandparents' farm near Mart, Texas.

Her mother, Oree, was a pianist and the daughter of F.L. Eiland, who wrote hymns such as "Hold to God's Unchanging Hand."

Inspired by newspaper accounts of the Dust Bowl, Walker wrote her first song, "Dusty Skies," when she was 12.

In late 1940, the 22-year-old Walker accompanied her parents on a business trip to Los Angeles. They were driving down Sunset Boulevard, when she spotted the Crosby Building and asked her father to stop the car.

"I had decided that if I ever got to Hollywood, I was going to try to show Bing Crosby a song I had written for him called 'Lone Star Trail,' " she recalled in a 1988 interview with the Chicago Tribune. "My father said, 'You're crazy, girl,' but he stopped the car."

Walker grabbed her song-filled briefcase and went inside. A few minutes later, she ran back to the car to get her mother to play the piano for her: Crosby's brother, Larry, had agreed to listen to the song.

With her mother accompanying her, Walker sang "Lone Star Trail." Larry Crosby told her that Bing was looking for a Western song to record and might like it. The next day, she accompanied herself on the guitar and sang it for Bing at Paramount Studios, where he was making a movie.

Bing Crosby, who called her "Sis," liked the song, and the unknown songwriter from Texas made her first sale.

"I'm a natural-born song plugger," Walker said in a 2004 interview. "I'm not intimidated by anyone."

To help her career, her family stayed in Hollywood, and other song sales quickly followed.

Country great Wills was an early fan, recording five of her songs, including "Dusty Skies" and "Cherokee Maiden" in 1941. He also commissioned her to write all of the songs for the string of Western films he was contracted to make. In all, Wills recorded more than 50 of her works.

Walker also had a brief career as a solo artist.

When she made a demonstration record of "Lone Star Trail" for Crosby at Decca Records, company executives offered her a contract. She recorded for Decca until 1947, having reached No. 5 on the country charts in 1944 for her cover version of the standard "When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again."

In 1954, Walker and her then-widowed mother returned to Texas to be near relatives.

The three-bedroom house in Mexia where Walker lived more than 50 years was conspicuously devoid of her many awards; she said she kept them under the bed.

"I'm interested more in the last songs I write," she told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1997.

Walker continued to wake up most mornings at 5:30, pour a cup of black coffee and head upstairs to her small studio.

"Do you want to hear my new song?" she asked an American-Statesman reporter in February 2004. "I just got it back from my demo guys in Fort Worth, and I think it's a real good 'un."

When it was finished playing, Walker asked, "Do I still have a hit in me?" Then she laughed heartily.

Despite her effervescent personality, Walker shunned the limelight.

She lived with her mother until she died in 1991 and said in a 2004 interview that "I miss Mama every day."

Although it has often been reported that she never married, Walker said in her recent interview with the New York Times that she had once had "a very short-lived marriage."

She is survived by three nieces.

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