The Underappreciated Career of Folk Singer Joy King

In Inside the Vault, Music Stories by Eric Dawsonleave a COMMENT

Last week, Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound archivist Bradley Reeves and I paid a visit to Joy King at her South Knoxville home, which her family built in the 1860s. King is part of a prominent Knoxville family whose roots in the area go back to the 18th century, when her French ancestors settled here. Her uncle I.C. King has a park named after him in South Knoxville. The much-admired Knox County superintendent and school reformer Mildred Doyle was a cousin. Her grandfather was a politician, her father a lawyer, and her mother a concert pianist.

But Joy chose a more unconventional path. She went into show business, and for more than five decades entertained audiences with folk and country music, as well as her amazing yodeling. Reeves and I agree that Joy King has one of the finest voices Knoxville ever produced.

We paid her a visit in part to interview her, but we also had something for her: a recording from a part of her career that she had all but forgotten.

King’s grandmother recognized her talent as a child and asked Joy to sing at various club meetings and luncheons at which she spoke. She remembers her grandmother encouraging her to ask for money: “If you want to be in show biz, you need to learn how to make money at it.”

At 17, King started performing at the Tennessee Barn Dance and Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round. Impressed with her voice, Chet Atkins tried to persuade her to move to Nashville and cut records, but WNOX’s Lowell Blanchard convinced her to finish school. She studied music at the University of Tennessee with David Van Vactor, then the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra’s music director, and her voice teacher was the revered Mrs. Bruce Leslie, who also taught Mary Costa. After graduation King headed to Dallas, where she played with the Big D Jamboree. There she recorded “How Should I Your True Love Know,” surely one of—if not the only—record based on a Shakespeare passage to feature yodeling. For a time she worked as a singer and straight woman for comedian and musician Panhandle Pete at Ghost Town in the Sky in Maggie Valley, N.C.

In 1964, at the age of 26, King learned that she had a following at the Hootenanny Coffee House in Miami and temporarily settled there. It seems to have been typical of folk coffee houses of the 1960s, but what makes it more than a footnote in that history is that it served as a sort of home base for Vince Martin and Fred Neil, popular folk singers who had cut an album for Elektra around the time of King’s arrival. Neil, of course, would go on to wider success, especially after writing the hit “Everybody’s Talking,” famously covered by Harry Nilsson and featured in the film Midnight Cowboy.

Fred Berney ran a recording studio down the street from the Hootenanny and recorded live performances at the coffee house to be aired on the FM radio station WEDR. Several months ago I came across a few of these recordings online, including an unaired one that features her and Neil together.

The two performed together frequently at the time and were apparently audience favorites, based on the emcee’s introduction: “Ladies and gentlemen, Ms. Joy King and Mr. Freddy Neil. Nothing more need be said.” Their performance is a jovial and casual affair, with lots of chatter and jokes, and it probably couldn’t have been aired without heavy editing. Neil makes several asides on the loose nature of the performance, and at one point King is surprised to find the tape rolling.

When they sing, though, it’s pure professionalism. King and Neil duet on a romp through “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” then Neil’s unmistakable guitar accompanies her on a sublime reading of the bluegrass standard “Ruby (Are You Mad at Your Man).” The audience is rapturous after “Tennessee Yodel Polka,” a song showcasing King’s marvelous yodeling skills.

We played this recording back for King without telling her where and when it was recorded. It took her a few minutes to place it. Looking off in the distance, she asked, “Who’s that singing with me?” Moments later she exclaimed, “That’s Freddy! Old Fred. We had great times together. All we did was act silly. I’d forgotten all about that. We opened up a coffeehouse ourselves in Miami. We just fell in love with each other.”

In 1965 Fred Berney produced a small-budget film co-written by Hootenanny owner Carl Yale, which was shot in and around the coffeehouse. Hootenanny a Go Go, aka Once Upon a Coffee House, was barely screened outside of the Miami area, but it has become something of a cult classic, featured in The Onion A.V. Club’s Films That Time Forgot series in 2012. Neither King nor Neil is featured in the film, which can be viewed online, but some of the other Hootenanny regulars, like Vince Martin, are, and you can get a highly fictionalized, very skewed idea of what that scene might have been like.

By the time the movie was made, King had returned to Knoxville, where she opened up her own popular coffeehouse. She would continue traveling, performing, and recording for the next few decades.

To be continued. 

Inside the Vault features discoveries from the Knox County Public Library’s Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound, a collection of film, video, music, and other media from around East Tennessee. Visit TAMIS’s Facebook page to hear Joy King recordings.

Eric Dawson is Audio-Visual Archivist with the Knox County Public Library's Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound, and with Inside the Vault combs the archive for nuggets of lost Knoxville music and film history to share with us. He's also a longtime local music journalist, former A&E editor of the Knoxville Voice and a board member of the nonprofit performance venue Pilot Light.

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