I LOVE A PARADE! And brass bands with shiny instruments gleaming in the sun! One red faced plump kid struggling to keep marching and blowing his gigantic tuba! Sweet memories of Macy's Thanksgiving Day, the Tournament of Roses. and just local Fourth of July! High school brass bands are still highly competitive but somehow they don't liven up a parade they way they used to. They play songs I seldom recognize and have fallen back to whatever that little marching ditty they play is by the time they get to where I am. Ok I'm OLD but I like the lively marches that lift your spirits and make your feet want to move! (Well, plus a little Hawaii Five-O and Wipeout!) So all that got me to thinking about the man who really knew how to write a great brass band song!
John Phillip Sousa was born November 6, 1854 in Washington, D.C. near the Marine barracks. His father Antonio Sousa was a musician in the Marine Band. Young John went to grammar school in Washington and studied music at a private conservatory of music operated by John Esputa, Jr. He learned to play piano and most of the orchestral instruments but his first love was the violin. He became so proficient on the violin that at age 13 he was offered a job with a circus band. His father would have none of that and enlisted him as an apprentice musician in the Marine Band. There he remained until he was 20. He also studied music theory and composition with George F. Benkert, a well-known Washington orchestra leader and teacher.
After being discharged from the Marines, he played the violin, conducted, and toured with several traveling theater orchestras. He decided to move to Philadelphia in 1876 where he worked as a composer, arranger, and proofreader for publishing houses. He joined an operetta company that was producing a musical called OUR FLIRTATION. He wrote the incidental music and the march for that show.
Sousa got married in December of 1879 to Jane van Middlesworth Bellis. They went on to have three children John Phillip, Jr., Jane, and Helen. On October 1, 1880, he became the 17th leader of the Marine Band in Washington. This was his first experience conducting a military band and his approach was much different than that of his predecessors. He replaced much of the music in their library and changed the instrumentation to suit his needs. Sousa conducted strict rehearsals and soon shaped his musicians into the country's finest military band. The band's fame spread and soon they were attracting large audiences. He led the band under five presidents from Rutherford B. Hayes to Benjamin Harrison. He played at the Inaugural Balls of James A. Garfield in 1881 and Benjamin Harrison in 1889. During that time he wrote he wrote such songs as THE GLADIATOR MARCH, SEMPER FIDELIS (which became the official March of the United States Marine Corps), and THE THUNDERER. In 1893 he wrote THE LIBERTY BELL MARCH which was later used as the credits theme for MONTY PYTHON'S FLYING CIRCUS TV show! His composition THE WASHINGTON POST MARCH became the most popular tune in America and Europe thus earning him the title the MARCH KING. Under his leadership, the Marine Band made it's first recordings. Columbia Phonograph Company produced 60 cylinders of recordings of the Marine Band conducted by Sousa making them some of the first recording "stars".
The Liberty Bell March
Sousa left the military in 1892 because he wanted to pursue a more lucrative career as the leader of his own band. He conducted a farewell concert at the White House on July 30, 1892 and was discharged from the Marine Corps the next day. He organized his own Sousa Band which toured from 1892 until 1931. They performed 15, 623 concerts in America and around the world. He aided in the development of a new tuba like instrument that came to be know as the Sousaphone.
Despite his earlier recording with the Marine Band, Sousa had a very low opinion of the emerging recording industry. He called it 'canned music" and bragged "I have never been in the gramophone company's office in my life." His Sousa Band made numerous recordings but never with him conducting. He wrote to a Congressional hearing in 1902:
"These talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country. When I was a boy ...in front of every house in the summer evenings, you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or old songs. Today you hear these infernal machines going night and day. We will not have a vocal cord left. The vocal chord will be eliminated by a process of evolution, as was the tail of man when he came from the ape."
Not wanting to get into an evolution debate, I will just pause to wonder what he would say if he could hear the kind of stuff recording companies call "music" theses days. I'm sure he would have the same opinion I do about the thing called auto-tune and music "stars" who are so untalented even auto-tune can't keep them on pitch. (No I won't try to embarrass anyone by naming names!)
During that time, he continued to compose marches among them being my personal favorite. Whenever I hear a band playing this song I can't help but want to jump to my feet, wave the flag, and join the parade! Or maybe jump on a brightly colored Carousel horse and plunge forward into the breach!
Stars and Stripes Forever
He had many interests and talents outside of composing and directing. He wrote a novel called THE FIFTH STRING, a book titled PIPETOWN SANDY, and a story named THE TRANSIT OF VENUS. He also wrote a booklet A MANUAL FOR TRUMPET AND DRUM published by the Ludwig drum company. An early version of the trumpet solo to SEMPER FIDELIS was printed in the book. He was one of the greats of trapshooting and is in the Trapshooting Hall of Fame. He started the first national trapshooting organization and wrote many articles about the subject. He competed regularly representing the US Navy usually against the US Army registering over 35,000 targets during his shooting career.
The other night I was watching PBS's HISTORY DETECTIVES (you can watch this episode on the HISTORY DETECTIVES website) and learned something I had never even imagined. This lady had a handwritten sheet music of THE STAR SPANGLED BANNER that had been given to her grandfather by his music teacher, a man named Arnold Gantvoort. At the top of the page was written five names: Arnold Gantvoort, William Earhart, Walter Damrosh, Theodore Sonneck. and JOHN PHILLIP SOUSA. The lady investigator from the show traced the history of the document and found something very interesting (at least to a history buff and Sousa fan like me)! Francis Scott Key didn't know anything about music and had written just a poem during the War of 1812. People began singing the words to the tune of an old British drinking song. In fact, at least two tunes were used over the years. Fast forward to 1917. There was a push in Washington to make THE STAR SPANGLED BANNER the National Anthem of the United States (though Congress didn't actually vote on it until 1931). A committee was set up consisting of two music educators, two famous composers and conductors, and the head of the Library of Congress Music Division. These five men, which included Sousa, wrote the arrangement we sing today! They had a hard time deciding where to go with it (and left the note written in pencil on the manuscript) but they are responsible for the high note on the word FREEEEE!
That same year, the United States entered World War I. Although he was already 62, the mandatory retirement age for Naval officers, Sousa was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the United States Naval Reserve. During the war, he led the Navy Band at the Great Lakes Naval Station near Chicago. He did not need the money so most of his salary was donated to the Sailor's and Marines' Relief Fund. For his service he was given the World War I Victory Medal and elected as a Veteran Companion of the Military Order of Foreign Wars. He was discharged from active duty in November of 1918. He went back to conducting his own band and never returned to active duty even though he was promoted to lieutenant commander in the early 1920s. He continued to wear his naval uniform for many of his concerts and public appearances.
Sousa received many awards and honors during his lifetime and continued to do so in later years. He was given the palms of the Order of Public Instruction of Portugal and received the Royal Victorian Medal from King Edward VII. A ship was named for him during World War II, the Liberty ship SS John Phillip Sousa. The Marine Band continues to use that ship's bell in their concerts. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame for Great Americans in 1976 and the Classical Music Hall of Fame in 1998. The band hall for the Marine Band is dedicated to him as the JOHN PHILLIP SOUSA BAND HALL. In 1987, Congress named THE STARS AND STRIPES FOREVER as the National March of the United States. The man even has a star on the HOLLYWOOD WALK OF FAME!
John Phillip Sousa died of heart failure at the age of 77 on March 6, 1932 in his room at the Abraham Lincoln Hotel in Reading, Pennsylvania. The previous day he had conducted a rehearsal of STARS AND STRIPES FOREVER with the Ringgold Band. He is buried along with his family in Washington, D.C.'s Congressional Cemetery. His legacy is kept alive by The John Phillip Sousa Foundation. The Foundation provides scholarships and awards to outstanding young marching band students who show musicianship, dependability, loyalty, and cooperation.
And so my children, now you know why that crusty old band teacher INSISTS you learn at least a few of this old dead guy's songs. He was the MARCH KING (but so much more) and always will be!
To say I was a picker when picking wasn't cool would be an understatement although I have never been blessed with enough money or space to indulge my tendency. Even as a teenager I was always on the lookout for just the right piece to add to my growing collection. Daddy came home from work one day with the object of my latest search in the trunk of his car. The antique Victrola had been refinished but it was in working order and it only cost $8.00. It even had a stack of records inside. That's how I discovered a whole new genre of music that had never caught my attention before. (I think that was during my folk singing days.) There were a couple of Bessie Smith records. She was famous enough even I had heard of her. I knew who Ethel Waters was. She was the sweet older lady who sang HIS EYE IS ON THE SPARROW at the Billy Graham Crusades. But as I played those 78s, I began to notice the piano player on all the records was the same guy and there were some very fancy runs there. His name was listed on the labels so I did some research to find out he was the grandfather of one of THE MOD SQUAD!
Clarence Williams was born October 8, 1893 or October 6. 1898 (depending upon which source you believe) in Plaquemine, Louisiana (on the outskirts of New Orleans) of Choctaw and Creole heritage. He performed at his family's hotel and sang in the streets until he left home at the age of twelve to join Billy Kersand's Minstrel Show as a singer. He soon became the Master of Ceremonies for the troupe. Upon returning to New Orleans, he began the first of several businesses he would own, a suit cleaning service for the many stylish piano professors in that town. He began playing piano in the honkytonks of Storyville and soon became a well known entertainer. He was a great businessman who worked as an arranger and managed entertainment at the local African American vaudeville theater as well as several saloons and dance halls around Rampart Street and clubs in Storyville.
He started a publishing business with Armand Piron, writer of I WISH I COULD SHIMMY LIKE MY SISTER KATE, and wrote his first money making song BROWNSKIN, WHO YOU FOR?. He received $1,600.00 for the song. According to him, that was the most anyone in New Orleans had ever received for a song. They formed a vaudeville act with Piron on violin and Williams on piano and vocals. The duo became acquainted with W. C. Handy who helped them get some of their compositions in Memphis music stores. Williams was never a humble man and claimed to be the first writer to use the word "jazz" on his sheet music. His business card called him "The Originator of Jazz and Boogie Woogie".
BROWNSKIN WHO YOU FOR?
He moved to Chicago in 1920 and opened a very successful music store which soon grew into three music stores. He jumped on the new-found popularity of female black singers and made quite a profit from selling recordings of them. He married blues singer Eva Taylor, one of the first females blues singers ever heard on the radio. They began writing songs together including the hit MAY WE MEET AGAIN a tribute to Florence Mills one of the most popular black stage entertainers of the time. Clarence sold his Chicago stores in 1923 and moved to New York. He opened offices in the Gaiety Theater and became one of the primary pianists on scores of blues records made in New York during the 1920s. He supervised African-American recordings (the 800 Race Series) for the New York office of Okeh Records and recruited many of the artists who performed on that label. He also recorded on Columbia and other record labels with studio bands. He took Bessie Smith to Columbia to make her first recordings. He accompanied Smith on many of those recordings (that's how I came to notice him) and took credit for writing such hits as BABY, WON'T YOU PLEASE COME HOME? and T'AIN'T NOBODY'S BIZNESS IF I DO. The origins of some of these songs remain in doubt because Williams was known for putting his name on songs he hadn't written entirely on his own. He was also less than honest with the singer who thought she had signed a contract with Columbia records. In reality, the contract named him as her manager and he was pocketing half of her recording fee. She soon figured it out and her boyfriend payed him a visit demanding she be released from the contract and be allowed to sign directly with Columbia. (I can picture that guy making him an offer he couldn't refuse!)
BABY, WON'T YOU PLEASE COME HOME
While he (like other agents) was known for taking advantage of new artists, he also helped launch or furthered the careers of many other successful stars including Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong. During the 20s and 30s, he was a very prolific producer organizing at least two sessions a month for other artists and recording over 300 songs under his own name on different labels. His name appears as writer or co-writer on numerous songs including some by other composers. It was common practice during that time to purchase songs written by others and put the purchasers name on the final product. Admittedly, Williams did that on many occasions. He is even credited with writing Hank Williams' 1947 hit MY BUCKETS GOT A HOLE IN IT. In 1927, he decided to try musical theater. He wrote the book, music, and produced the show BOTTOMLAND. His wife Eva was cast in the lead role. The show was not a critical success. His New York publishing company continued to prosper until 1943 when he sold its catalog over over 2000 songs to Decca for $50,000. That doesn't sound like much by today's standards but then it was quite a lot. He tried to retire but soon bought a used goods store. He continued to write songs until he lost his sight after being hit by a cab in 1956.
Clarence Williams passed away on November 6, 1965 and was buried in Saint Charles Cemetery in Farmingdale on Long Island. He was the father of singer-actress Irene Williams and the grandfather of MOD SQUAD actor Clarence Williams III. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970. He may have sometimes been quite a "rascal" but he was a prolific writer, a shrewd businessman and he had magic fingers!
My family once rented a house right in the middle of somebody's farm. Just the house and access to the well. Not even the out buildings (except for the outhouse) were part of the deal. My six year old self paid attention to the fact that I was supposed to stay in the yard and go nowhere else -- when my Momma was looking that is. One day when she WASN'T looking I found a most miraculous thing. Somebody had cut a sapling about five feet long and about an inch and a half in diameter, peeled the bark off, and trimmed one end to a sharp point. I never found out who or why but I was convinced it had been left there just for me! The remainder of that summer (when I could escape from the watchful eyes of my Momma) was spent swinging out of a nearby tree spear in hand and fantasizing that I was SHEENA QUEEN OF THE JUNGLE!
SHEENA was introduced in 1937 as the first female comic book heroine with her own title (even before WONDER WOMAN who came along in 1941). I was just learning to read so I hadn't seen those old comic books. We had gotten a shiny black television bought by making payments out of a little book in 1956. I was all set to watch when this female version of TARZAN was made into a 26 episode TV series. SHEENA was tall, she was beautiful, and she could kick butt! She had a boyfriend named Bob who was supposed to be a Great White Hunter. Bob was played by a handsome actor named Chris Drake but he was about as useless as a Ken doll. He was constantly getting into quicksand or about to be eaten by a wild mechanical alligator or about to be killed by evil poachers or about to have his head shrunk by uncivilized tribesmen requiring the jungle savvy Sheena to swing in (usually accompanied by her chimpanzee Chim) and save him just in the nick of time!
Elizabeth "Irish" McCalla was born December 25, 1928 in Pawnee City, Nebraska. She was one of eight children born to Lloyd and Nettie McCalla. The family moved quite a few times but returned to Pawnee City where Irish graduated from high school. At age 17 she moved to Santa Monica, California on her own. She first worked as a waitress and later at an aircraft assembly factory where she made 80 cents a day. A photographer she happened to meet asked her if she would model for pictures as Miss Navy Day. She agreed and on October 27, 1948 she joined dignitaries in welcoming the aircraft carrier Boxer and the Navy's largest amphibian plane the Carolina Mars to Santa Monica. Thus began her modeling career. Irish soon came to the attention of painter Arturo Vargas king of the pin-ups, who painted her as one of his Vargus Girls. She posed nude for the December page in a Vargus Calendar.
In 1956, Irish was cast to bring SHEENA to life on TV after the preferred actress, Anita Ekberg, changed her mind about taking the part. She always told people that she didn't know how to act but they liked the way she threw a spear. SHEENA was an unusual show for the time when most women were portrayed as housewives not female superheroes. At 5' 9 1/2" tall, it was impossible to find a lookalike female stunt double so she did her own vine swinging and tree climbing until she miscalculated and smashed into a tree injuring her knee. After that, the producer hired male stuntmen wearing blond wigs to do the vine swinging. She was paid $365 per week plus thousands for personal appearances.
After the series ended, Irish took acting lessons and starred in some B movies including SHE DEMONS (1958), THE BEAT GENERATION (1959), FIVE GATES TO HELL (1959), FIVE BOLD WOMEN (1960), and HANDS OF A STRANGER (1962). She did some guest appearances on various TV shows of the era but seemed to be typecast as SHEENA and had a hard time getting notable roles. SHEENA was short lived on TV but was shown around the world in reruns for years. The 1984 movie remake (starring Tanya Roberts) was not nearly as successful. Irish was in demand for personal appearances (which she sat out for 15 years) at superhero conventions. She could still fit into her leopard skin mini dress and pose for pictures as recent as 1996.
Irish McCalla was married three times. First to insurance salesman Patrick McIntyre (1951-1957) who was the father of her two sons and second to English actor Patric Horgan (1958-1969). In 1982, she married Chuck Rowland a national sales manager for an auto glass firm and moved with him to Prescott, Arizona. Though they separated in 1989, she remained in Arizona.
Painting had always been her primary interest. She had her first painting in an Omaha museum at age 14. After a bout with cancer in 1970, she decided to concentrate professionally on her painting. She painted western scenes, seascapes, and Native Americans in oil. Many of them were converted to prints and collector plates.
She painted more than 1,000 paintings and issued eight collector plates. Her work was displayed in
the Western White House, the Los Angeles Museum of Arts and Sciences, and the Cowgirl Hall of Fame. She was president of McCalla Enterprises, Inc. which she formed with her sister to market her art and a member of Women Artists of the American West. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for her role as SHEENA.
Irish McCalla passed away on February 1, 2002 in a nursing home in Tucson from complications from a stroke and her fourth brain tumor. She was survived by her two sons, two grand daughters, two brothers, three sisters and a whole generation of vine swinging, spear throwing little girls who were convinced they COULD because of SHEENA!
My friend has a great voice but she sometimes doesn't know exactly what to do with it. She doesn't hit high notes so she tries to sing alto with the church choir. She doesn't read music so she mostly sings lead in her own range. There is nothing wrong with that if she is singing alone but in the choir arrangements it actually needs to BE alto notes. I have been trying to teach her but I am very rusty since my high school chorus teacher found out I COULD sing high notes and switched me to soprano. Who could help her learn from the best? My Aunt Becca who sang flawless alto and taught me when I was a kid? In Heaven's choir. Our neighbor Hazel who was a classic old-time loud country alto? In Heaven's choir. Family friend Phyllis who sounded as good as the best of the professionals? Also in Heaven's choir. My friend Bettie who has a very soft sweet alto voice? Lives too far away. I told her to search thrift stores for old gospel albums that featured the best alto singer (in my humble opinion) EVER and try to analyze how she was singing.
Last month I told you I would write abut the famous wife of former Governor Jimmie Davis. I feel inadequate to do so. There are so many people still around who sang with her, worked with her, and knew her so very much better than I. Then I remembered that most of the people reading this column are newer fans and have never had the pleasure of hearing the people I grew up loving. Let me introduce them to one of my all-time favorite gospel music ladies. Effie Juanita Carter was born on February 15, 1917 in the Clay County town of Shannon, Texas. Her parents D. P. and Carrie Carter met at a shaped-note singing school, married, and had nine children. The family worked hard but struggled to make ends meet. In 1935, Effie became very sick with pneumonia. In order to pay for her medicine, D. P. "Dad" formed a family group and got them a job singing on a radio show on KFYO in Lubbock as the Carter Quartet. As soon as she recovered, Effie known as Anna to the radio audience (though she had a sister named Anna) joined the group. The group now consisted of Dad, brother Ernest known as "Jim", sister Rose, and Anna. Sounds a little confusing but everybody had to have "professional" radio names. They soon moved to WBAP in Ft. Worth one of the most powerful stations in the state. They took the name of the western band they replaced and became THE CHUCK WAGON GANG. In those days the show was mostly country songs and old western songs with a gospel song or two thrown in. This show was very popular with the listeners especially the gospel songs. The CHUCK WAGON GANG could be heard on that show five days a week for the next fifteen years with only a few disruptions during World War II. In 1936, Art Satherley began recording them on American Record Company labels and later on Columbia. They remained at Columbia for 39 years and sold more than 40 million albums. The first two recordings included secular songs but the gospel music was so popular with their audience they soon began performing gospel music exclusively.
The CHUCK WAGON GANG began touring outside of Texas in the late 1940s. They were surprised to find they had a rather large fan base across the other states they visited due in part to the Rev. J. Bazzal Mull, a Baptist minister and broadcaster who sold thousands of their records through the mail. The CHUCK WAGON GANG had a pure stripped down style that showcased their true harmonies. Dad played mandolin on the secular recordings. Otherwise, Jim's acoustic guitar was their only accompaniment until 1954 when he was replaced by younger brother Roy and they added Anna's husband Howard Gordon playing electric guitar. Dad Carter retired in 1956 and was replaced by another son Eddie. Eddie only traveled with them for a short time. In 1957, the first non-family member, Pat McKeehan, joined the group. During the 1960s, THE CHUCK WAGON GANG appeared on TV and sang on the Grand Ole Opry, the Louisiana Hayride, Florida Gator Bowl, the Hollywood Bowl, and Carnegie Hall. They appeared in a movie called SING A SONG FOR HEAVEN'S SAKE. Rose retired in 1966. Howard Gordon died in 1967. Anna kept the group going with her daughter Vickie, son Greg (the object of my never mentioned crush. There was another son William but I never knew him.), and Jim Black. She married Jimmie Davis late in 1968 and sang with her new husband's trio. Siblings Roy and Ruth Ellen Carter revised THE CHUCK WAGON GANG and continued to record through the 1980s. They were MUSIC CITY NEWS' Gospel Group of the Year five times during the late 1980s. They were inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1999. They are also in the Smithsonian Institution's classic American recordings. Though there have been several personnel changes over the years, THE CHUCK WAGON GANG is still recording and touring. They are keeping the traditional music alive by singing and playing in the same style as the original Carter family. I truly commend them for that though I really lost interest after Anna moved on. She was what made their sound and appeal for me.
Grand Ole Gospel Reunion 1989
Anna Carter Gordon Davis passed away on March 5, 2004 at the age of 87. She was beautiful and she was sweet. She had a voice the likes of which we will never hear again this side of Heaven.
We decided it was time. Everything had moved from the Ryman to the brand new Opry House at Opryland the year before and a man we knew had been nominated for a song he had written. 1975 would be the perfect year for the hillbillies to dress up in their finest and attend the GOSPEL MUSIC ASSOCIATION DOVE AWARDS. I ordered the tickets well in advance so we would get the best of the seats we could afford. The whole thing was pretty exciting to us (Daddy, Momma, and me) but we were trying to act like we belonged there and everyone we were seeing was no big deal. The usher showed us our seats and imagine my surprise to find I was elbow to elbow with a stately older gentleman and his lovely wife who weren't merely nice folks to sit beside. Both were music legends I had loved my entire life! Shucks! My Daddy had listened to them most of his life! During the evening I found them both to be very friendly and down-to-earth people. I won't say too much about the wife in this column (even though she has always been one of my idols, tried to sing like her and even had a secret crush on one of her sons) because she is a story all her own. Most people younger than my generation haven't had the pleasure of hearing the velvet voiced gentleman sing hymns on every TV show on the air like I did. Keep in mind as you read this, he was from a different time and a place that was much different in those days. James Houston Davis was born on September 11, 1899 -- maybe. Nobody really knows for sure exactly what year. He was one of eleven children born to Sarah Elizabeth Works and Samuel Jones Davis in the then town of Beech Springs in northern Louisiana. His family was very poor and so large that they couldn't even remember what year when young Jimmie was old enough to ask. He never really knew for sure himself though the census records in 1900 attest that he was born in 1899.
He was the embodiment of the clique' "I was just a poor sharecropper's son" but he graduated from Beech Springs High School, , Soule Business College, received a bachelor's degree in history from the Baptist affiliated Louisiana College and a master's degree from Louisiana State University. His master's thesis in 1927 was called COMPARATIVE INTELLIGENCE OF WHITES, BLACKS, AND MULATTOES. During the late 1920s, he taught history and yodeling at the Dodd College for Girls in Shreveport.
Jimmie stayed at Dodd College for a year before taking a job as court clerk in Shreveport. While working there during most of the 1930s, he became interested in politics as well as music. Though he could neither read nor write music, he began to write his own songs and went to Memphis to make some trial recordings. He married Alverna Adams who played classical music on the piano. She helped him put his music on paper. He had some success with songs like "Nobody's Darling But Mine" (thought that was an old cowboy song didn't you?) and "It Makes No Difference Now". Other top singers of the period including Bing Crosby, Gene Autry, Guy Lombardo, and the Andrews Sisters also recorded his songs. We remember his country and gospel songs but some of his early work was bluesy and raunchy like "Red Nightgown Blues" which some of his later opponents tried to use to discredit him. He wrote and recorded "There's a Gold Mine in the Sky" in 1938. That same year, Davis was elected as Shreveport's public safety commissioner making him head of the police and fire departments.
On February 4, 1940 recorded a song he had just finished writing called "You are My Sunshine". (I know some people say it was an old folk song but Jimmie Davis always insisted he had written it and he was given credit for doing so.) It became an immediate hit. So did the versions of the song recorded by Bing Crosby and Gene Autry. Over the next 60 years that song would be recorded by more than 350 artists, sell millions of records, and be translated into 30 languages.
In 1942 he was elected to the Louisiana Public Service Commission but left two years later to begin his first term as governor. Jimmie Davis' run for governor did not sit well with the remnants of the Huey Long machine who wanted to continue the power they had held for twenty years. His opponents tried to convince voters he wouldn't make the governorship his first priority and he was likely to just leave for Hollywood at any time. They played his songs that were considered to have raunchy lyrics but the crowds would just start dancing and ignore the words. He won easily. During his first term in office 1944-1948, he did set an absentee record by going out to Hollywood to play in B westerns as the singing sidekick of cowboy hero Charles Staret. He also continued to write and record songs like "Is It Too Late Now" and "There's a Chill on the Hill Tonight". His hit song "There's a New Moon Over My Shoulder" was released in 1945. He often sang at campaign stops and was known as the Singing Governor. The major accomplishment of his first term in office was to see to it that all drivers of automobiles in the state of Louisiana were required to have a license. To show how important it was, Governor Davis received the first driver's license ever issued in the state.
He was not allowed by law to succeed himself as governor so he continued to concentrate on his music and his business interests in Shreveport. His music had made him rich but he bought 450 acres of land just in case things went bad and he had to resort to farming.
Davis rejoined the political scene to run for a second term as governor of Louisiana in the 1959 - 1960 campaign. He once donned a white cowboy hat and rode his horse Sunshine up the steps of the Louisiana State Capitol to sing the praises of his legislative agenda. With a pledge to fight for continued segregation in public education, he won the Democratic nomination over a
crowded field and easily defeated the Republican candidate Francis Grevemberg in the general election. He signed segregation bills that basically gave local schools boards the power to determine which schools stayed open and which would be closed due to Federal Court orders to admit black children. This was part of the theory of "interposition" which insisted the states could interpose themselves between federal law and the people who found the law to be too burdensome. In spite of the rhetoric, desegregation was handled smoothly so that there was no violence and no closed schools during the transition. Some of the major issues during his second term included his veto of right-to-work legislation and getting the taxpayers to pay for a new 12 bedroom 18 bathroom Governor's Mansion. It was said he got the Legislature to approve the million dollar expenditure by threatening pet projects in their districts. There were some major accomplishments during this term including keeping taxes down, taking steps to preserve forests from rapid depletion, building hospitals, repairing and creating roads, raising teachers' salaries, and setting up the state's first civil service system. He built the Sunshine Bridge and the Toledo Bend Reservoir even though these were not popular projects at the time. He coordinated the pay periods of state employees who often had not been receiving their paychecks on time. After leaving office for the second time, Jimmie Davis continued to sing mostly at churches and did guest spots on various TV shows. He recorded several southern gospel albums and served as president of the Gospel Music Association in 1967. His admirers were disappointed in 1968 when a bill to make "You Are My Sunshine" the Louisiana state song was vetoed because the song didn't mention Louisiana in the lyrics. The song later shared the honors as state song with "Give Me Louisiana" by Doralice Fontane who mentioned Louisiana repeatedly. Jimmie's wife Alverna Davis passed away in 1967. Two years later he married the also widowed Effie Juanita (Anna) Carter Gordon. (Now you know why I said the wife deserved a column all to herself!) Davis ran for governor of Louisiana again in 1971. The Democratic gubernatorial primary was crowded with new political prospects. He finished in fourth place with 11.8 percent of the vote. His days as a politician were over.
During his career Jimmie Davis received many awards and honors. The Jimmie Davis Bridge atop the Red River was named in his honor during his second term as governor. Jimmie Davis State Park is located on Caney Lake. A replica of the Davis homestead and the Peckerwood Hill Store that served his community (which is no longer there) was erected at the site of the Jimmie Davis Tabernacle
in Jackson Parrish. Davis was inducted into the Delta Music Museum Hall
of Fame, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall
of Fame, the Southern Gospel Music Hall of Fame, and the Louisiana
Music Hall of Fame. He was among the first thirteen inductees into the
Louisiana Political Museum and Hall of Fame in Winnfield.
My favorite gospel song by Jimmie Davis
Jimmie Davis lived 101 years and 55 days departing this life on November 5, 2000. The statesman, actor, singer, songwriter wanted to be remembered as "someone who scattered a little sunshine along his path".
These days there are so many awards shows on TV it makes your head spin. There are awards for this, that, and whatever. Celebrities from all walks of life dressed up to see and be seen. The most recent (as I write this) was the ACM (Academy of COUNTRY Music) awards show. I heard they gave a very stirring tribute to ROCK music. I wouldn't know I gave up watching years ago. My ears can't suffer through three hours of loud rock or rap or whatever mish-mash that stuff they call "country" music these days just to hear a couple of songs from real country singers.
Record companies have so many ways to promote artists now with social media and pre-sales. It is nothing for a "project" ( for the sake of all my older readers I will continue to call them records) to be released at Platinum (one million copies) level. In the early days of recording and into the late 1950s it was a very big deal for a singer to move 500,000 copies of their record. How very much they wanted that shiny GOLD record for their wall! Gold records were given to the artists by their own record companies to publicize their sales achievements. Later the awards were presented by the Recording Industry Association of American (RIAA) like they still are today. More facts and figures would get you into quicksand so let me tell you about the very first COUNTRY music SUPERSTAR!
Marion Try (called Try) Slaughter II was born in Jefferson, Texas on April 6, 1883. His father Robert Slaughter was a rancher. His grandfather was a Ku Klux Klan member and a well-know bully. He learned to ride, shoot, and play the harmonica at an early age. When he was ten, his father was killed by his mother's brother because of a bitter feud over the way Robert mistreated his wife. A couple of years later, Try and his mother moved to Dallas where he studied at the Dallas Conservatory of Music and worked to support himself and his mother. He married Sadie Lee Moore in 1902. They soon had a son and a daughter. The family moved to New York City in 1910. Try worked in a piano warehouse and took occasional singing jobs. He made an attempt to record for Edison Records but was rejected.
When he got his first principle part in an opera touring company he needed a name that would look good on the program. He took the names of two Texas towns where he had worked as a cowboy. That's how he became the person we know as VERNON DALHART. He toured all over the US and Canada singing in English, French, or Italian as the opera required. He left the Century Opera Company to play in the Hippodrome's version of H.M.S. Pinafore. This was his most outstanding stage success. He soon made another attempt to record but it was shelved and forgotten. When his opera tour ended in January 1915, Vernon again tested for Edison and was rejected but his name did appear in the EDISON DIAMOND DISC CATALOG. His first record finally came out in December of 1916 on Columbia not Edison. From 1916 until 1923, he made over 400 recordings of light classical music and early dance band vocals for several different record labels. In 1924, he heard a recording of THE WRECK OF THE SOUTHERN OLD 97 a ballad about the derailment of fast mail train No. 97 near Danville, Virginia in 1903. He talked the Edison company into letting him record it. In August of that year, Victor records asked him to record that song for Victor and put an old folk song he had gotten from his cousin on the reverse side.
The B- side of that record was THE PRISONER'S SONG. That song was the number one song for twelve weeks in 1925-26. It became such a runaway hit, that Vernon decided to sing country songs almost exclusively. He recorded that song 18 times and it was issued on 53 labels in the US and also in Canada. That record (78) went on to sell SEVEN million copies which was a HUGE number for the 1920s! This was the first "southern" song to become a national hit. It also alerted the record companies to the market that was available for country music and caused them to seek out other country artists like Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family.
The Wreck of the Old 97
The Prisoner's Song
Sadly, the stock market crashed in 1929 and Edison Records went out of business. Many singers tried to make a living by doing personal appearances. Vernon Dalhart did no personal appearances but within two years he had a radio show with a female singing partner Adelyne Hood. After two months they left the show and headed for England. They made eight recordings there with four being released. One song THE RUNAWAY TRAIN later became the theme for a British radio show and was popular enough to be re-released in the 1940s. When they came back to the states they made a few more recordings but no big hits for the duo. Vernon signed an exclusive contract with RCA-Victor in 1938. The records didn't sell well and one THE LAVENDER COWBOY ( a song about a cowboy with two chest hairs indicating he wasn't "manly") was barred from the airwaves. When war came he worked a security job in Bridgeport, Connecticut. After the war, he tried teaching, singing and voice placing without much luck.
Vernon Dalhart died of a heart attack on September 15, 1948 without achieving his former success. He is buried in Bridgeport's Mountain Grove Cemetery as TRY SLAUGHTER, SR APRIL 6, 1883 - SEPTEMBER 15, 1948. THE PRISONER'S SONG was awarded a gold disc by the RIAA for selling seven million copies. (The first COUNTRY song to qualify) Vernon Dalhart was inducted into the Nashville Songwriter's Hall of Fame in 1970. In 1981, he was finally inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. THE PRISONER'S SONG was placed in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998. It was the biggest selling non-holiday song for the first 70 years of recorded music. Vernon Dalhart has been largely overlooked for his role as an early pioneer who paved the way for other "southern" recording artists. He was indeed the the FIRST COUNTRY MUSIC SUPERSTAR!
In the summer of 1976, I was in an
outdoor drama called BY WAY OF THE VALLEY about the early settlers
and famous historical figures who lived in Elizabethtown and Hardin
County Kentucky. Among my fellow cast members was a tall, handsome,
dark skinned man with smiling eyes. He was always helping some of
the less experienced actors with their makeup, their costumes, and
assisting the director with whatever was needed. Rumor had it that
he was a famous TV star and was living in the area because he was
married to someone from Elizabethtown at the time. He didn't look
familiar to me but he was nice so I liked working with him. I
later researched his television career and discovered I had not been paying attention.
Gonzalez Fernandez was born in Los Angeles, California on July 13,
1930. His mother, a Yaqui, died when Abel was born. His father was
a Native American from Mexico. Abel attended Belmont High School
in Los Angeles until the age of 16 when he enlisted in the United
States Army. He became a paratrooper and started boxing. He won the
Middleweight Boxing Champ of the Asiatic Forces.
discharged from the Army in 1950, he began boxing professionally. He won the Los Angeles Times Golden Gloves Tournament and was runner-up in the national Golden Gloves event held in Chicago. He boxed professionally as a light heavyweight until he grew tired of participating in the sport in 1953. After putting three men in the hospital, he had gotten to the point where he feared hurting opponents so he dropped out of boxing to try acting. In spite of that, he was inducted into the California Boxing Hall of Fame in October 2013. Abel's acting debut was in a Robert Mitchum film called SECOND CHANCES in 1953. He had a scene that included a fierce boxing match with the star under the blazing Mexican sun. Mitchum later wrote that Abel knocked him out three times during the filming. In the Humphrey Bogart classic boxing movie THE HARDER THEY FALL, he played Chief Firebird a Native American boxer who is hesitant to throw a fight. His other movie credits include ALASKA SEAS opposite Robert Ryan (1954), FORT YUMA (1955), MANY RIVERS TO CROSS with Robert Taylor (1955), THE TIJUANA STORY with James Darren (1957), PORK CHOP HILL with Gregory Peck (1959), APACHE UPRISING (1965), DEAD HEAT ON A MERRY-GO-ROUND (1966), MADIGAN (1968), and QUICKSILVER (1986). One game I have played ever since I realized just who he really was is trying to spot Abel in one of his many television roles. It isn't always that easy because he might be covered in warpaint and feathers or he might be playing a totally unexpected part. If you would like to play along, some of the places to look would be guest roles on old shows like DANIEL BOONE, THE ADVENTURES OF RIN TIN TIN, BONANZA, TIME TUNNEL, GUNSMOKE, BATMAN, THE VIRGINIAN, TALES OF WELLS FARGO, HAVE GUN -- WILL TRAVEL, or MARCUS WELBY, M. D.. You might spot him on WAGON TRAIN where I saw him recently. He played an Indian (nobody said Native American in those days) who stuck both hands into the fire because he had just touched a baby with smallpox. It is possible that you might remember his role as Airman Abel Featherstone in the NBC series STEVE CANYON a live-action show based on the comic strip. Abel's most memorable role was that of Native American federal agent William Youngfellow on the 1959 - 1963 ABC television series THE UNTOUCHABLES. Set in the 1930s, Youngfellow was one of the Prohibition agents working with Elliot Ness played by Robert Stack. The character of Youngfellow was based on Native American Federal Agent William Jennings Gardner, who was a member of the real-life Untouchables squad. The Desilu Productions show aired 80 episodes some of which you can watch on YouTube. Click on the video below to watch an outstanding episode featuring Abel as Youngfellow.
Abel spent his later years producing theatrical shows for disadvantaged children.
Abel Fernandez passed away on May 3, 2016 from lung cancer at a hospital in Whittier, California. He was 85 years old. I just read a tiny paragraph noting his passing. No big deal about it like some stars. Paul Peterson (Jeff Stone on the DONNA REED SHOW) was the only other person I saw mention it. Paul wrote how the sound stages for the DONNA REED SHOW and THE UNTOUCHABLES were next to each other and he would go over whenever he got a break. He told about how nice Able was and the sound advice he gave him about his acting career. I never worked with Abel or even saw him again (except on TV) after that summer but I greatly mourned his passing. I was very happy to know he remained the man Paul and I once knew -- a kind-heart man who was always willing to pass along what he had learned to younger actors.
BY WAY OF THE VALLEY CAST PHOTO 1976
Abel is the tall guy in the almost center back and I am the woman with all the dark hair right in front of him.
When Mr. Nashville mentioned he was looking for writers for a new website he was developing I
raised my hand like an excited child. Pick me! Pick me! I started to get cold feet when I realized
it had been years since I had been out in the land of celebrities. Most of the names I don't even
recognize anymore. Larry started giving me ideas for subjects my column could be about. He
suggested I write about music legends. I know plenty of those. He suggested maybe I could even
write about TV stars of the 80s and whatever became of them. The 80s????? WHOA! If he
thinks the 80s is the “olden days” I sure DO have something to contribute! I really didn't think I
was that old but I remember when people actually had to have talent in order to become a
celebrity. Actors could act, singers could sing, and musicians actually played instruments. True
LEGENDS the likes of which probably will never be again!
My first subject readily came to mind and why he was worthy to be included started immediately
forming into my first article. Then four famous people who influenced me greatly over the years
passed away in the space of a month. I decided I needed to tell you about a couple of them right
away. I will get back to the first guy later.
John Allan Seay, Jr. was born in Gulfport, Mississippi on July 15, 1940. His father's job forced
the family to travel quite a bit so he got his schooling in Georgia and Florida. He quit school
during his senior year to join the LOUISIANA HAYRIDE in 1957. He won a talent contest at
the Georgia Jubilee at Eastpoint, Georgia beating out of all people Bill Anderson. His prize was
$50.00. This turned out to be a major break. He was offered a recording contract and the
privilege of appearing on the LOUISIANA HAYRIDE and the GRAND OLE OPRY. His first hit
on the country charts was “Frankie's Man Johnny” in 1959. He scored again in 1960 with
“Nobody's Darling But Mine”. After that, he left the music business behind for a while. He
moved to the Hollywood area and became a cowboy working on a ranch belonging to the fatherin-law of actor Ben Johnson. He loved ranch work but hadn't gotten the music out of his blood.
He went back to Nashville and began recording again in 1964. “My Baby walks All Over Me”
and “My Old Faded Rose” were country hits. It was about then that I discovered Johnny Seay. I
was a young girl in the teenybopper stage and he was a gorgeous young man with thick curly hair
and a deep rich voice. I still have my copy of the issue of COUNTRY SONG ROUNDUP with the
two page story about him. A lot drooling on my part I can tell you!
In 1966 Johnny recorded a song called “Day For Decision”. At this time the country was in
turmoil with student unrest and protests of the war in Vietnam. This song was a very patriotic
call back to respect for the flag and the country. The record went gold (a HUGE deal back then)
and earned a Grammy nomination. You can find this song on You Tube if you would like to hear
1967 brought an opportunity to co-star in a movie called “What Am I Bid?” with Leroy Van
Dyke, Tex Ritter, Al Hirt, and Faron Young. Johnny had several more hits among them “Willie's
Drunk and Nellie's Dying” a song written about his neighbors when he lived outside Nashville.
He became disillusioned with the music business after realizing he could have hit after hit and
still not make any money. He left the music business behind and went to Texas to work as a
cowboy on the Miller Ranch for a couple years. He had a career on the railroad first as a
conductor and retiring as a steam locomotive engineer. He became a pilot and was Commander
for the 131st Air Search and Rescue Squadron, U. S. Air Force Auxiliary and Civil Air Patrol. He
became an artist, sculptor, and engraver of fine guns. Most of all he enjoyed flying crop duster
I became Facebook friends with Johnny in 2011. He was still very active and handsome at age
70. It's amazing how people who have never met can find many things in common and hit it right
off like longtime buddies! For five years we talked often about things we both had on our minds:
the state of the country, the 2nd Amendment, music, growing older, family, tragedy, wavering
faith, miracles, and finding faith again, his joyous love for flying. He never failed to offer words
of encouragement when I was having difficulties in my own life.
Johnny died doing what he loved. On May 14, 2016 he was dusting a field near the town of West,
TX when his plane hit a cable from a cellphone tower and he was ejected from the plane. The
news reached me late that night via a Facebook post from a mutual friend. I was devastated like
I had lost a brother!
Johnny Seay lived a life of adventure and satisfaction. He left behind his beloved wife Star, nine
children, nineteen grandchildren, two great grandchildren, and many, many friends. I was
honored to be one of them.