An Okie from Muskogee
Wayma K “Pee Wee” Whitewing was born in the Kiamichi Mountains of Oklahoma near the community of Conser on February 11, 1934. When he was 5 the family relocated to Griffin Farm just north of Muskogee, where Pee Wee’s father raised cattle for a grocer. His dad traded a cowhide for a used radio that faded in and out and while it was difficult to get a 15-minute broadcast without interference, it enabled Pee Wee to listen to the Grand Ol’ Opry on Saturday nights and Bob Will and the Texas Playboys on KVOO out of Tulsa at noon every day, sponsored by the Playboy Flour Company.
In 1941 the Whitewing family moved to California and settled into the Santa Clara Valley in Campbell, where they worked picking cotton and fruit. Both of Pee Wee’s parents were musical, his mother Nola playing both piano and guitar, and his father Dick playing guitar and fiddle. At the age of 8 he received his first guitar and amp for Christmas and his first lesson in playing guitar chords from his mother.
By the age of 10 Pee Wee was playing steel guitar along with the church band at the Railway Avenue Pentacostal Church. He remembers a 12-year old girl in the band name Roberta Garrison playing a Rickenbacher 6-string that was chrome plated like his and being fascinated and inspired by the beautiful tone she was able to produce.
Pee Wee’s first steel guitar was given to him by Roy Honeycutt whose wife worked in the field with the Whitewing family and befriended his parents. Roy worked nights playing with Tex Randall’s band at the Sequoia Club in Sunnyvale and at Tracy Gardens in San Jose. He later went to work with Bob Wills, taking the place of Noel Boggs. Pee Wee admired Roy’s playing and considers him a tremendous influence on his early music career.
He continued to listen to Roy play with Luke Wills on the radio in Fresno after Luke had split off from Bob and formed the Luke Wills Band. He also recalls a fiddle player named Bobby Bruce who also played with Luke, whom he later ran across in Tulsa playing with Leon McCauliff while he was playing with Hank Thompson. Pee Wee regarded Leon and his group as one of the best rehearsed bands he ever heard and was engaged and intrigued by their arrangements.
Until he was 16, Pee Wee spent a lot of time in the fields, but during this time was avidly following a radio program at noon that broadcast from a station in Oakland with 3 hours of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys transcriptions played by Cactus Jack. Pee Wee’s father realized that he had musical potential and allowed him to listen to that program every day on the truck radio. Pee Wee memorized courses played by Roy, Noel, and Herb, and later that year in 1946 (at age 13) he went to work with Tex Randall and the Texans.
Tex Randall and the Texans had a daily broadcast on KEEN radio 1370 in San Jose in the old De Anza Hotel on Santa Clara Street. They played Saturday nights at Tracy Gardens and sometimes at Maple Hall in San Pablo. Pee Wee found playing music exciting and the fact that it paid more money than working in the fields certainly sweetened the appeal.
From there he went to work with the Cal Schrum show and every Saturday night they played a big show at the Civic Auditorium in downtown San Jose. The show featured weekly guest movie stars, giving Pee Wee a chance to rub elbows with folk like Smiley Burnett, Gene Autrey, Tex Ritter, and Jimmy Wakely, to name a few.
When he was only 14 and playing with Shorty Joe and the Red Rock Canyon Cowboys at Tracy Gardens on Saturdays, Pee Wee met Bobby and Larry Black, the well known and accomplished musical brothers who would become extended lifelong family. Bobby played steel, like Pee Wee, and Larry played guitar. Pee Wee admired their harmonies and the three quickly formed an inseparable bond both musically and personally. Pee Wee recalls working up the Hill Billy BeBop, written and recorded by Eddie Hill of Nashville, Tennessee, with Larry and Bobby.
Shorty Joe booked stars like Hank Williams, Tex Williams, The Maddox Brothers and Rose, and while playing with Shorty Joe Pee Wee met Joaquin Murphy, who came to Tracy Gardens with the Tex Williams Band. Pee Wee recalls Joaquin’s style as a mixture of the best jazz and best slow, sweet sounds of all times and considers him to be among his early influences as well, alongside Noel Boggs, the two of whom he believed to be the most copied steel players for many years. During this era he also met Dusty Stuart, who came to Tracy Gardens with Hank Thompson, and Roy Nichols, who played for many years with Merle Haggard. Still only 15, Pee Wee continued to meet and play with fiddle players the likes of Johnny Gimble, Keith Coleman, Bob White, and Joe Holley, all of whom worked with Bob Wills.
Pee Wee had occasion to back up Lefty Frizzell at Tracy Gardens, when Lefty had brought only his fiddle player, Abe Manuel of Lake Charles, Louisana. Abe admired Pee Wee’s playing and told him to give him a call when he finished high school. At age 17, in 1951, Pee Wee did just that, and Abe got him a job with Blackie Crawford and the Western Cherokees, backing Lefty Frizzell, Ray Price, Johnny Recter, and Danny Brown among others. When he joined this band, Pee Wee took the place of Curly Chalker, one of the best steel players of the time. Pee Wee recorded with Lefty along with Johnny Gimble on fiddle, Tony Hall on guitar, Jimmy Dennis on drums, Madge on piano, Blackie Crawford playing rhythm.
Curly had left the Western Cherokees to join Hank Thompson, and was later summoned for a stint in the armed forces, creating another space that Pee Wee would fill. Pee Wee had the opportunity of working with Curly for two months to learn the arrangements before he left for the service. Pee Wee says that to Curly, there was nothing that couldn’t be done on the steel guitar, and that this progressive attitude gave him tremendous confidence in his instrument.
Pee Wee recorded his first session with Hank Thompson in 1952, playing on songs like “Rub a Dub Dub”, “I’ll Sign My Heart Away”, “Swing Wide Your Gate of Love”, and “I’d Have Never Found Somebody New”, and later that same year recording “The Blackboard of My Heart”, “No Help Wanted”, “Yesterday’s Girl”, and others.
In 1953 Pee Wee left the band for six months, but as Curly had done before him, he spent several months working with Bobby White to teach him the arrangements. During this time another significant and influential musical friendship was formed. When Pee Wee returned to the band, they immediately recorded several albums, featuring him and Bobby White as the “twin steels” of Hank Thompson and the Brazos Valley Boys, who had embraced the big band sound. During the 1950s they made many records together, including “We’ve Gone Too Far to Turn Back now” and “New Green Light.” Pee Wee made his last recordings with Hank after Bobby White had left the band and Hank disbanded, including “Six Pack to Go”.
While on the road in 1951 and passing through Rayne, Louisiana, Pee Wee met his soul mate, Doye Ann Thibodeaux, the daughter of a famous Cajun swamp pop fiddler player, Uncle Ambrose Thibodeaux. When he returned to Oklahoma City, where he was based at the time, he sent her a bus ticket to join him there. Pee Wee and Doye were married in 1952 and from then until her untimely death in 1981, due to kidney failure from undiagnosed and untreated diabetes, they made music together. Doye was a mulit-instrumentalist, singing, arranging, and playing piano, guitar, upright bass, and drums. Several of Doye’s siblings were also professional musicians, and her brothers Alton and Merton would later comprise two members of the rhythm section of the Other Brothers, the band with which Pee Wee did session work at J. D. Miller Studios in Crowley, Louisiana.
In 1955, Pee Wee’s beloved wife Doye Ann had their first child, Wayma Ray “Bubba”, who was born with cerebral palsy. Pee Wee quit his gig with Hank then to move back to San Jose with his new family and to care for them. Over the subsequent six years they had three more children, DeMerris, Andrus, and Andre, and during this time Pee Wee formed a band with Larry and Bobby Black in San Jose that they called the West Coast All Stars. Other players included Pee Wee’s wife Doye, Hank Doust, Larry Murphy, and Steve Stefani. They played a lot of Hank Thompson instrumentals and worked their own interpretations of other big bands such as Stan Kenton’s “Opus in Chartreuse”. Pee Wee characterizes this band as “a very aggressive western swing group”, with good full sound that drew big crowds.
In 1964 Pee Wee moved his family back to Southwest Louisiana, his wife’s homeland, to raise his children in a smaller community and at a slower pace. Both his eldest son and wife were sickly, requiring intensive care, and Pee Wee worked as a barber, a cotton farmer, and a musician, before becoming an independent petroleum landman. During these years he played with the Other Brothers, his own band that included his brothers-in-law Merton Thibodeaux on keys and Alton Thibodeaux on drums and vocals, as well as George “Muscles” Belote on bass, Al Foreman on guitar, and his wife Doye and Merton’s wife Marlene on background vocals.
In 1973 his eldest son succumbed to pneumonia, dying in Doye’s arms at the home of Pee Wee’s aunt in Medford, Oregon. His first grandchild, Andie, was born a short year and a half later, and he and Doye were heavily involved in her care while their daughter DeMerris toured with Spiral Staircase, and until the time of Doye’s death in 1981.
Devastated by the loss of his eldest son and wife, and occupied with providing for his remaining family, Pee Wee did not play music from 1971 to 1991. In 1990 he remarried Rhonda Boudreaux, also from Rayne, Louisiana. It was not until Andie was 15 that she saw him set up his guitar and begin to play regularly. It was around this time that he formed a new western swing band with musicians from East and Southeast Texas, who comprised the Heart of Texas band. With Rick Jones on drums and acting as the recording engineer, Billy Mayes and then Roy Rosetta on keys, Gary Kebodeaux on bass, Larry Roberds on rhythm guitar and vocals, guest vocalist Lisa Boudreaux (his sister-in-law), and Kevin Carter on fiddle, Pee Wee recorded two western swing albums in the 1990s, “Good Western Swing Pickin’” and “On the Alamo”.
In 1994 Pee Wee founded an all-star Branson-style music show with his Heart of Texas band that was housed in the historic Rice Theater in Crowley, Louisiana. This show ran regularly for 10 years and then intermittently until the last show on November 12, 2012. It provided the stage for many up and coming Gulf Coast musicians to showcase their talents on their rise to fame.
In 1997, Pee Wee arranged a recording session in Lafayette, Louisiana with his daughter DeMerris, Glenn Guilbeau on keys, Doug Belote on drums, Robert Nash on bass, Jon Smith on tenor sax, and Harry St. Pierre on trumpet. 11 tracks were recorded but left incomplete, and the tapes were ‘lost’ for a number of years. Pee Wee and DeMerris attempted to reschedule the recording session, this time at a studio in Dallas, but just weeks before their date, DeMerris was diagnosed with stage 4 throat cancer. By the time she had gone through the course of cancer treatments and was able to sing again, Pee Wee’s ability to play had become compromised by a series of TIAs or mini-strokes and the onset of frontal lobe dementia. Both believed that opportunity to be lost. It was the resurfacing of this jazz session on obsolete ADAT tapes that would become the impetus for Pee Wee’s sole featured artist record, “Heart of Steel” (2017).