Despite all the success of country music over the past 30 years, the classic song "Walk On By," recorded in 1961 by Mercury's Leroy Van Dyke, has been named the biggest all-time country hit by Billboard magazine in its 100th anniversary issue (November 1, 1994). Based on sales, radio airplay and amount of time on the country charts, Van Dyke's "Walk On By" was designated the #1 recording for the period of October 20, 1958, through June 25, 1994.
"It's kind of a shock, but kind of nice," says Van Dyke, who still performs more than 100 concerts annually in the United States, Canada and overseas, covering an average of 100,000 miles per year. "I've been at this for over 38 years, and when your main concern is getting to the next show, you're too busy to stop and think that maybe you're making history."
Leroy's longevity, his amazing staying power as a performer, is attributable to several factors: the timeless, wide appeal of"Walk On By" and other titles in his recorded repertoire, his professionalism both on and off stage, his unexcelled business integrity and his policy of giving fans at live performances what they want to hear.
The top 20 Billboard listing includes other great performers Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves, Marty Robbins, Ray Price, Ferlin Husky, George Jones, Buck Owens, Bill Anderson and others. Van Dyke is the only artist among the group who has maintained a full-time touring schedule since the late 1950's. "I'm the only one on the list," he says with a laugh, "who's never ever disbanded, never slowed down, never quit or died."
Although uncertain as to exact numbers, Van Dyke estimates sales of "Walk On By" at more than 3,000,000 copies; recorded before the advent of gold or platinum records, it has not been certified. It continues to be immensely popular on record and in concert worldwide. "One reason for its success," Leroy says, "is that it strikes a responsive chord in listeners. You can call it a classic triangle or cheatin' song if you wish, but it's also true that anyone, anywhere, any age, can identify with 'Walk On By,' particularly if family or society thinks that person should love a certain person, but his or her heart belongs to someone else."
"Walk On By" is not a "period" song, but has as much mass appeal today, and will have tomorrow, as it did when it rocketed to the top of the charts in 1961 and 1962. Many contemporary country stars know and perform the song, and every country band, worldwide, knows and plays it.
However, the song almost missed being a hit . . . twice. First, Van Dyke and his session leader, Jerry Kennedy (later a producer for Jerry Lee Lewis, The Statler Brothers and others), went to the Nashville office of Lowery Music to search for material, but could find nothing they liked. Lowery's Gary Walker said he had one other song, but wouldn't play it for them because it still needed work.
"I badgered him until he did," recalls Van Dyke, "but the voice on the demo record was having trouble carrying a tune, and it sounded like it was recorded in a garage on a Webcor wire recorder. I was almost ready to say 'no' when it got to the chorus: 'Just walk on by, wait on the corner.' I said, 'That's it. I want it.' " The song (written by Kendall Hayes) didn't have a second verse, so Walker wrote one that night while Van Dyke rearranged the chorus and touched up the first verse.
Recorded in Nashville with producer Shelby Singleton, Hank "Sugarfoot" Garland was responsible for the song's signature guitar sound. Among others on the session were Hargus "Pig" Robbins on piano; Buddy Killen on bass; Kennedy, Harold Bradley and Kelso Herston on guitars; Willie Ackerman on drums; and Margie Singleton as featured background singer. The unique combination of material and personnel in the studio that day undoubtedly was magic. On a sad note, the recording engineer, Mort Thomasson, died on October 1994, just days before the momentous announcement of the place in history occupied by "Walk On By."
When Mercury Records decided to promote the other side of the single, "My World Is Cavin In," Van Dyke kept telling them, "You need to flip it over," but not until there were rumors that Conway Twitty had also cut the song did Mercury push "Walk On By." On September 25, 1961, it went to #1, where it remained for an incredible 19 weeks, and some music historians report that it stayed in the charts 42 weeks! One of the first major crossover hits, it was #5 on the pop chart. In addition, "Walk On By" was nominated for a Grammy for Best Country Western Recording.
Leroy's 1956 hit, "Auctioneer," which he wrote, has also been a million-seller as well as Top 10 country and Top 20 pop, and is a timeless country standard. "You're lucky if you have one song people remember," says Van Dyke. "I've been lucky enough to have two."
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