Pierce, 80, went on to own several record companies and produce the first recordings of stars such as George Jones and Willie Nelson. He also was the first to market country music overseas and helped found the Country Music Association.
Not bad for someone who in the beginning "didn't think much of cowboy music," he says.
The son of a King Street machine shop owner, Pierce (then Don Picht--he changed his name after the Army because he says no one could pronounce or spell it) grew up in Seattle. After receiving his bachelor's in economics from the UW in 1939, he sold insurance until he was drafted into the Army. He planned to return to Seattle and the insurance business after being discharged but went to California instead while his wife stayed with his parents in Wallingford.
When a Los Angeles friend offered him the chance to invest in a record label, he bit. He put $12,000--which came from the sale of his dad's shop--into Four Star Records. That company floundered, so he went to work selling country music records. "I helped teach radio stations how to play a country music format," he says.
After leaving Four Star, he invested $333 in fledgling Starday Records with two others in 1952. Under his leadership, Starday released the first recordings by George Jones, Roger Miller, Dottie West, Jimmy Dean and Willie Nelson. Pierce and country music were on their way. By 1970, the label had the largest catalog of country music in the world.
"When I started in the business," Pierce says, "country music was struggling. Elvis Presley was big, rock music was starting, and there wasn't much room for it. But our efforts worked."
And how. When he sold Starday in 1970, his $333 investment was worth $5 million. He had relocated to the Nashville area by then to build and run recording studios, a pressing plant and a warehouse. He also set up publishing companies to handle the licensing and copyrights. He owned the rights to such songs as "Please Release Me, Let Me Go," "Walking After Midnight," and "Don't Let Stars Get in Your Eyes."
After selling his music business, Pierce went into land development, mostly because he came to own much of the real estate surrounding Nashville. But his ties with the music industry remain strong as ever. He started a celebrity golf tournament, presents the Golden Eagle Award at the Country Music Association's award shows and has a hand in getting people into the Country Music Hall of Fame, such as Dolly Parton and Jimmy Dean.
"It was quite a ride," he says from his home in Hendersonville, Tenn., a Nashville suburb. "I had no idea things would turn out like that."
Especially as a kid growing up poor in Seattle. He had every intention of following his father as a machinist, "but I had no talent for it. So my dad sent me to school at the UW. I loved it."
Always a hard worker, he put himself through school by caddying at local golf courses, usually making 75 cents a round. While attending the UW, he also was on the golf team, playing at No. 3. His big thrill came at the 1936 Seattle Open, when he caddied for then-Masters champion Horton Smith. Besides being in awe, he also was paid $15 for four rounds.--Jon Marmor
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