I’ve always been a train buff, and since I’m also a fan of big-band music it stands to reason that one of my favorite songs of all time would be Glenn Miller’s “Chattanooga Choo-Choo.” I especially like the long version, which includes a ‘jive’ reprise. That performance, which features an 18 year-old Dorothy Dandridge and the Nicholas Brothers (one of whom she’d marry a year later), is available below as an excerpt from the the 1941 film, Sun Valley Serenade.
But even though Miller’s version was #1 on the charts in 1941 and also won the recording industry’s first-ever gold record, it wasn’t the only game in town. Lots of other bands performed the song, which was a popular piece both during and after World War II — and later a suspiciously similar song would become a hit for a country music star.
Clyde Julian ‘Red’ Foley came out of Kentucky during the Depression, determined to make it in music. A talented guitarist and singer, he began building his fame by winning talent contests and making radio appearances in the Chicago area. Before long he became a regular on the popular radio show, National Barn Dance, and over the next several years became an audience favorite.
By the time World War II started, Foley had become established enough to co-host his own radio show (with young comedian Red Skeleton) and had even shown up in a Western movie with his buddy, Tex Ritter. However, he still hadn’t hit the big time in record sales. That would change in 1944, when his “Smoke on the Water” rocketed up to number one on the charts, where it would remain for 13 consecutive weeks.
In the post-war years, Foley confirmed his country music stardom with a series of hits that he recorded with his own band, the Cumberland Valley Boys. Some of the most popular included “New Jolie Blonde (New Pretty Blond),” and “Tennessee Saturday Night,” but in 1950 he recorded the song I mentioned earlier, and it became one of his best-known.
“Chattanoogie Shoeshine Boy” certainly owed a lot to the original big-band hit, but was apparently different enough to sidestep any legal difficulties. It was recorded by a number of singers — even Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra — but it was Foley’s version that hit the top of the charts and stayed there for three months.
However, not everything was working out well. The singer’s wife committed suicide the following year — reportedly due to his infidelity — and even though he continued to churn out hits for the rest of the decade, he began spending more time with his family (including daughter Shirley, who would later become Mrs. Pat Boone).
He continued working well into the Sixties, but died in 1968 — just a year after his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame.