"You KNOW you're a character!" The thirty-five year old over the hill beauty queen looked down her botched rhinoplasty at her forty year old size 20 drama student. Her silicone C cups heaved because she had just hurled the worst insult she could imagine and fully expected the subject of her snobbery to slap her right in her spackled face. I thought about all the marvelous, talented character actors I had loved through the years. All the side kicks and scene stealers -- actors who were cute little urchins, pesky teens, the fat friend, the old curmudgeon. The beauty queen was pretty much washed up but age, weight, or even a crooked nose meant nothing to a CHARACTER because they had real TALENT! That meant I had talent! "THANK YOU!" I said out loud. She's probably still glaring.
One of my all-time favorite character actors was born February 2, 1903 in Mound City, Missouri. Benjamin Franklin McGrath, who was of Irish and Native American ancestry, started working in rodeos at an early age. He soon became a jockey at midwest racetracks and then in Mexico. He was working in Mexico when the racetrack went broke so he hopped a northbound train. The story goes that a movie producer saw him jump from the train and encouraged him to enter film stunt work.
He began his on camera stunt career at age 16 as a stunt double for stars including Stan Laurel, Buster Keaton, Warner Baxter, and J. Carroll Naish. His small 5'8" frame allowed him to double for female stars like Gene Tierney.
In 1932 Frank got his first small speaking role as well as doing stuntwork in the movie THE RAINBOW TRAIL based on the Zane Grey novel of the same name. The part was uncredited but his acting career was launched. After that came WESTERN UNION, SUNDOWN JIM, and HELDORADO. He worked on Gene Kelly's 1948 version of THE THREE MUSKETEERS. Also in 1948, he and his longtime friend Terry Wilson became part of John Wayne's stunt crew. Frank played the bugler in two gigantic John Ford films starring John Wayne. In FORT APACHE, he appeared in fifty-one scenes with stars John Wayne and Henry Fonda. He appeared on camera one hundred and twelve times in SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON. Only John Wayne himself had more scenes in that movie. At age fifty-three and recently recovering from a broken back, he performed performed three separate fall and drag scenes for the 1956 John Wayne movie THE SEARCHERS.
Frank moved to the small screen to play ranch foreman John Pike in the 'Quicksand" episode of the first hour long TV western CHEYENNE starring Clint Walker. He had an uncredited role as a stagecoach driver in the Henry Fonda picture THE TIN STAR.
In 1957 after forty years in the business, Frank was getting ready to retire. His friend Ward Bond, with whom had worked in FORT APACHE among other movies, convinced him and Terry Wilson to join the cast of a new TV show that was being put together called WAGON TRAIN. He played the irascible cook Charlie Wooster and Wilson was cast as Bill Hawks. These roles brought them both the fame they had never achieved before. They became popular guest stars at rodeos and fairs across the United State and Canada.
Ward Bond passed away in November of 1960. The show continued with new wagon master, Chris Hale, played by John McIntire. Frank appeared in all 272 episodes during WAGON TRAIN's eight year run.
After the show ended, he made nine appearances as Uncle Lucius in ABC's comedy spinoff of the movie TAMMY. Debbie Watson reprised the Debbie Reynolds role of TAMMY and Denver Pyle played her grandfather. That lasted for two seasons after which he made guest appearances on TV westerns such as a stagecoach driver on THE VIRGINIAN and a would be outlaw on THE BIG VALLEY.
He returned to movies to play Ned Martin in GUNFIGHT IN ABILENE and Ballard Weeks in Glenn Ford's THE LAST CHALLENGE. He teamed up with John Wayne and Terry Wilson again when he played the bartender in THE WAR WAGON. All three movies were released in 1967. His very last movie role was Mr. Remington in THE SHAKIEST GUN IN THE WEST starring Don Knotts and again featuring his friend Terry Wilson. Frank McGrath had a heart attack on May 13, 1967 and sadly passed away. He was survived by his wife the former Libby Quay Buschlen, a native of Canada, and his stepson Quay. He is interred at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California. Friends say that in real life he was pretty much like the ornery little Charlie Wooster character he played on TV. He was known to consume large quantities of Seagrams gin and bitters. He loved to start fights then duck out to leave his friends to finish them. In spite of that, Frank McGrath was one of the most respected stuntmen in Hollywood. He worked hard, he played hard, and was known for getting the job done.
WARD BOND, FRANK MCGRATH, AND TERRY WILSON CAR COMMERCIAL
COMMIES, THE INVISIBLE BEAR, AND A SINGING SNOWMAN
MERRY CHRISTMAS! Yes, I said Merry CHRISTmas! Celebrating was pretty simple when I was a kid. Christmas was Jesus' birthday so we all got gifts keeping in mind THE GREATEST GIFT OF ALL. Now everyone has a different idea. Some Bible scholars think Jesus was born in the spring. Some use a whole long trail of Biblical events and Jewish feasts to prove the birth of Jesus was actually in September during Sukkot (Feast of the Tabernacles) and it's pagan anyway so we shouldn't celebrate at all. Just last week I read something written by another Bible scholar who used the exact same argument to prove that our Christmas customs are not as pagan as first thought and the date of December 25 is actually pretty close to Jesus' real birthday. No matter which side of the argument you fall on, (I'm still on HAPPY BIRTHDAY JESUS, the colored lights are pretty, and I do like presents!) it is almost a surety that sometime during the holiday season you sit in front of your TV long enough to watch the story about a certain little misfit reindeer as told by Sam the Snowman. Sam, though an animated children's character, was voiced by an already famous Academy Award winning actor/singer.
Burl Icle Ivanhoe Ives was born in Hunt City Township in Jasper County, Illinois on June 14, 1909. His father Frank was a tenant farmer and later a contractor for the county. His mother Dellie loved singing so her six children were surrounded by music at an early age. Burl, the youngest, started his professional career at age four when his uncle overheard him in the garden singing with his mother. He was invited by his uncle to sing at the Old Soldier's Reunion in Hunt City. He delivered a rendition of the old folk song BARBARA ALLEN that greatly impressed his uncle and the audience. From then on he was asked to perform at various places around the area. He was paid twenty-five cents per performance and used the money to help his family. He soon learned to accompany himself on guitar and banjo.
As a kid he joined the Lone Scouts of America, a group that tried to teach self-reliance and respect through studying the American Indian tradition. In 1924, the group was incorporated into the Boy Scouts of America. Ives continued to support the Boy Scouts throughout his life.
Burl went to high school in Hunt City where he played on the football team. He had an idea of becoming a football coach so he enrolled in Illinois State Teacher's College where he also played football. But life takes abrupt turns sometimes. One day in his junior year, he was sitting in class listening to what must have been a very boring lecture on Beowulf. It struck him that he was learning absolutely nothing of value. He walked out of class slamming the door so hard the glass shattered. Sixty years later the school named a building after him.
He traveled the country in search of jobs playing music wherever he could. This earned him the nickname of "The Wayfaring Stranger" which he used for his shows, and later albums and autobiographies. He often supported himself by working on riverboats and doing odd jobs. He was jailed in Mona, Utah for vagrancy and singing a song called FOGGY DEW which the authorities considered too bawdy. His travels took him to Indiana where, in 1931, he began performing on WBOW radio in Terre Haute. He enrolled in Indiana Teacher's College to finish his education. He also took voice lessons from Madame Clara Lyon in Terre Haute.
He went to New York in 1937 where he attended the Juilliard School and New York University School of music. He sang in Greenwich Village clubs and acted in small stock theater companies while continuing his voice and acting lessons. In 1938, he landed a small role in the Broadway show THE BOYS FROM SYRACUSE. He appeared on the CBS radio broadcast FORECAST which led to getting his own radio show n 1940. He called the show THE WAYFARING STRANGER because of his old nickname. He made popular many of the old folk songs like LAVENDER BLUE, FOGGY, FOGGY DEW, BLUE TAIL FLY, and BIG ROCK CANDY MOUNTAIN. He performed on Broadway again in HEAVENLY EXPRESS and at the prestigious club VILLAGE VANGUARD in Greenwich Village. During this time, he became friends with Eddie Albert. The two later roomed together after going to Hollywood.
BIG ROCK CANDY MOUNTAIN
Ives was associated with the Almanac Singers a folk singing group that at various times also included Woody Guthrie, Will Geer, Millard Lampell, and Pete Seeger. They were active in the American Peace Mobilization an antiwar group opposing Franklin Roosevelt's pro-allied stance and America's entry into World War II. Their songs included GET OUT AND STAY OUT OF WAR and FRANKLIN, OH FRANKLIN. When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, that same group reorganized into the American People's Mobilization changing their stance in favor of the US entering the war. Songs recorded during that time included DEAR MR. PRESIDENT and RUEBEN JAMES after the name of a US destroyer sunk by the Germans though at that time the US had not entered the war. He was drafted into the army in early 1942 and sent to Camp Dix and then on to Camp Upton. There he joined the cast of Irving Berlin's THIS IS THE ARMY a musical aimed at boosting troop morale. He was promoted to the rank of corporal but when the show went to Hollywood, he was transferred to the Army Air Force. He made some recordings for the United States Office of War Information and hosted a radio show called G. I. JIVE which played to the troops overseas. He was discharged in September of 1943 for medical reasons.
After returning to civilian life, he continued his singing and acting career. He hosted a CBS radio show for about a year before returning to Broadway. He was given a Donaldson Award for his performance in SING OUT SWEET LAND a Broadway folk music revue. He made some recordings including MULE TRAIN and GHOST RIDERS IN THE SKY. In 1945, he married screenwriter Helen Peck Ehrich, from whom he was later divorced. They adopted a son named Alexander. Burl Ives was noted for his liberal political views. He was a member of Hollywood Fights back, a movement by entertainers to protest the actions of the House Unamerican Activities Committee which had been set up in the late 1940s to identify communists in the entertainment industry. He was noted as being a member of a left wing group and blacklisted by the Government. In 1952, he went before the committee and convinced them he was not a communist. But a lot of his folk singing friends accused him of naming names of others who did have communist ties. Pete Seeger in particular was angry that he had sold out his friends and political beliefs to save his own career. They didn't speak to each other until forty-one years later when they sang BLUE TAIL FLY together on stage at a benefit concert in New York City.
He made his screen debut in the film adaptation of the Will James horse story SMOKY playing the character named Willie. This was followed by appearances in GREEN GRASS OF WYOMING, STATION WEST, and SO DEAR TO MY HEART a Walt Disney family film. SO DEAR TO MY HEART was his breakthrough film role and the song LAVENDER BLUE was his first big hit song. His popularity as a singer grew as well due to the rising attention to folk songs after WWII. He starred with Audie Murphy in HIGH SIERRA and appeared on Broadway in shows such as SHE STOOPS TO CONQUER, SHOW BOAT, AND PAINT YOUR WAGON. He put together four books during that time and recorded more than 120 songs for a six album collection called HISTORICAL AMERICA IN SONG released by Encyclopedia Britannica. He recorded hits with songs like THE COWBOY'S LAMENT, HUSH LITTLE BABY, JOHN HENRY, NOAH FOUND GRACE IN THE EYES OF THE LORD, ON TOP OF OLD SMOKY, and SWEET BETSY FROM PIKE.
NOAH FOUND GRACE IN THE EYES OF THE LORD
In 1955, he played Big Daddy in Tennessee Williams' play CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF which was arguably his most famous role. His film career picked up considerably during the next few years. He had a supporting role in EAST OF EDEN and a minor part in THE POWER AND THE PRICE. He made an uncredited appearance as himself in A FACE IN THE CROWD. The pinnacle of his film career came in 1958 when he repeated his role of Big Daddy in Richard Brooks' screen version of CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF with Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman. His next role was in THE BIG COUNTRY, a story about a man who is forced to kill his own son. His performance was so impressive he received an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for that role. He followed that by starring in DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS, WIND ACROSS THE EVERGLADES, and DAY OF THE OUTLAW.
During the late fifties and early sixties, he did some comedies, children's movies and recordings, and guest starred on several TV shows. One of my personal favorite guest appearances was on an episode of DANIEL BOONE. He played a wandering shaman named Prater Beasley who traveled around with a 3,000 year old invisible bear named Mr. Dobbs. This bear was supposed to have been acquainted with Old Testament Biblical characters and possessed the wisdom of the ages. Pretty insane sounding but he did solve whatever problem the people of Boonesborough were facing at the moment.
Now back to Christmas! In 1964 Burl Ives was picked to be the voice of Sam the Snowman to narrate the animated movie RUDOLPH THE RED NOSED REINDEER. Two of his own songs HOLLY JOLLY CHRISTMAS and SILVER AND GOLD were featured in the film. RUDOLPH became an instant beloved Christmas classic which still delights children and adults 53 years later!
He continued to work in TV and movie roles throughout the seventies. He starred in two TV series OK CRACKERBY which was a story about the richest man in the world and THE BOLD ONES:THE LAWYERS. He appeared in PINOCCHIO and ROOTS among other shows. With the legendary Owen Bradley as his producer, he recorded some country hits such as A LITTLE BITTY TEAR, FUNNY WAY OF LAUGHING, AND CALL ME MISTER IN-BETWEEN. He recorded one last major album PAYIN' MY DUES AGAIN before devoting himself to children's and religious music. He was the voice of Sam the Eagle when the AMERICA SINGS attraction was added to Tomorrowland in Disneyland. He was in the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's campaign THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND......KEEP IT CLEAN with their fictional spokesperson Johnny Horizon.
He and Helen divorced in 1971 and she received custody of their adopted son. He married Dorothy Koster Paul in London two months later. She brought him three step-children. Upon reaching the age of 70 in 1979, he retired with his new family to Washington State.
He didn't use the term "retirement" to totally stop working. He continued in TV commercials as the spokesperson for Luzianne tea. He appeared a science-fiction movie named EARTHBOUND and also in WHITE DOG a racial drama. He did many benefits for Indian reservations, peace academies, environmental groups, arts foundations, children's hospitals, and the Boy Scouts. In 1984, he provided narration for the Star Wars telemovie CARAVAN OF COURAGE: AN EWOK ADVENTURE. The characters spoke only Ewokese so the narration had to explain the plot in the opening scenes and continue throughout the drama about a brother and sister who had to rescue their parents from a giant monster. His last movie was TWO MOON JUNCTION, an erotic thriller in 1988. His last recording was THE MAGIC BALLADEER in 1993. Burl Ives received many honors and awards for his varied career. Among them were his Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, University of Pennsylvania Glee Club Award of Merit, a laureate of the Lincoln Academy of Illinois, and several Grammy Awards. He was the inspiration for the comic book drawings of Green Lantern's archenemy, the evil Hector Hammond. He was associated with the Boy Scouts of America throughout his life. He often performed at their quadrennial Boy Scout Jamboree including the one in 1981 where he appeared with the Oak Ridge Boys. The Boy Scouts highest honor, the Silver Buffalo Award, was given to Ives and the certificate for that honor is in the Scouting Museum in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. He was most proud of being born into a family of Masons. He became a member of the George M. Todd Chapter of DeMolay in Charlestown, Illinois in 1927 and remained involved from then on. He attained the level of 33rd Degree Mason. He received the DeMolay Legion of Honor in 1986 and was inducted into the DeMolay Hall of Fame on June 24, 1994. He had always been a heavy smoker and was often photographed with his pipe. He was diagnosed with mouth cancer in the summer of 1994. After several unsuccessful surgeries, he decided against further treatment. He passed away at his home in Anacortes, Washington on April 14, 1995 at the age of 85 and was buried in the Mound Cemetery in Hunt City Township, Illinois. His music will never go away. I heard him singing one of his Christmas songs in the background of one of the shows I was watching on TV last night. Burl Ives and his unique voice followed that outcast reindeer and they both went "right down in history".
Archie and Edith Bunker began each show with a loud off-key rendition of a song about the things of the past that were lost to them forever. Each generation can name a certain band or entertainer that can be recalled as providing the soundtrack of their young lives. Archie and Edith lamented the loss of an era where they learned to swing (and probably fell in love) to the music of a man who in four short years had more number one hits than Elvis or the Beatles.
Alton Glenn Miller was born on March 1, 1904 in Clarinda, Iowa. His paternal grandparents
were part of the westward movement shortly after the Civil War having moved to Iowa when their son Elmer was three. Elmer grew up there and married a local girl Mattie Lou Cavender who became a respected teacher. In 1906 the Millers sold their home in Clarinda and moved to Nebraska to homestead 640 acres under the Kincaid Act of 1904. The future bandleader lived with his father, mother, and older brother in a sod house on the flatlands. His mother started a school there called Happy Hollow. The family moved to North Platte, Nebraska where two more children were born. By 1917 they had moved to Grant City, Missouri where Glenn went to grade school. There he met a businessman named John Mosbarger who was the director of a community band He wanted Glenn and his older brother Deane to join the band. Glenn had an old trombone but Mr. Mosberger bought him a new one so he would have something nice to play in the band. Glenn worked for Mr. Mosberger to pay him back. In 1918, the Millers moved to Morgan, Colorado where Glenn enrolled in high school. He decided he might like to play football and at the end of the season was chosen as "the best left end in Colorado" by the Colorado High School Sports Association. During that time, Glenn became very interested in a new musical sound called Dance Band Music. He and some classmates formed their own band. He was so excited about his music he missed his own graduation to go to Laramie, Wyoming to play. His mother accepted his diploma for him.
By graduation, he had decided to be a professional musician. His first professional contract was with a Dixieland group named Senter's Sentapeeds. Soon an opportunity opened up for him to play in the Holly Moyer Orchestra in Boulder which gave him enough money to attend the University of Colorado where he joined the Sigma Nu Fraternity. Glenn was so busy going to auditions and playing gigs he failed three out of his five classes. He gave up on college to become a full-time musician. He studied the Schillinger technique with Joseph Schillinger under whose tutelage he composed what came to be his signature song MOONLIGHT SERENADE.
He toured with several bands during 1926 and wound up in Los Angeles where he landed a good spot in Ben Pollack's Orchestra. He was the main trombone soloist until Jack Teagarden was hired in 1928. Glenn found his solos being cut more and more. He realized his future might be in writing and arranging music. He had a songbook published in Chicago in 1928 called GLENN MILLER'S 125 JAZZ BREAKS FOR TROMBONE. He wrote a song ROOM 1411 with his roommate Benny Goodman which was released as a Brunswick 78 credited to Bennie Goodman's Boys. When the Pollack tour reached New York City, Glenn sent for his college sweetheart Helen Burger and the two were married. During the late 20s and early 30s, he worked as a freelance trombonist with several bands. He arranged and played on sessions with the Dorsey Brothers including THE SPELL OF THE BLUES, LET'S DO IT, AND MY KINDA LOVE all with vocals by Bing Crosby. He was hired by Red McKenzie to play on HELLO, LOLA and IF I COULD BE WITH YOU ONE HOUR TONIGHT which are now considered to be jazz classics. He played in the pit bands of two Broadway shows STRIKE UP THE BAND and GIRL CRAZY. He composed the songs ANNIE'S COUSIN FANNY, DESE DEM DOSE, HARLEM CHAPEL CHIMES, and TOMORROW'S ANOTHER DAY for the Dorsey Brothers Band. In 1935, he put together an American band for British bandleader Ray Noble. He made his first movie appearance as part of the Ray Noble Orchestra in the Paramount Pictures release of THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1936, starring Bing Crosby, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Ethel Merman, Jack Oakie, and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. The movie also featured Dorothy Dandrige and the Nicholas Brothers who would star with Miller again in two Twentieth Century Fox pictures in 1941 and 1942. Finally, in 1937 Glenn realized his dream of forming his own band. Failing to distinguish himself from other bands of the era, he soon ran into financial troubles and had to disband. Very discouraged, he returned to New York to figure out what to do next. He understood that he would have to develop a unique sound. He decided to make the clarinet play a melodic line with the tenor saxophone holding the same note while three other saxophones harmonized within a single octave. He hired a saxophonist named Wilbur Schwartz and put him on lead clarinet. Wilbur's tone and way of playing brought a sound that was hard for others to imitate. This time when Glenn put together his own band the outcome was much different. The Miller Band began recording on Bluebird Records in 1938. A prominent East Coast businessman, Cy Shribman, started financing the band giving them much needed help. In the summer of 1939, the band was asked to play the summer season at the famous Glen Island Casino in New Rochelle, New York. It was said they attracted 1800 people, the largest opening night crowd ever at the prestigious casino. The popularity grew rapidly and they performed at Meadowbrook, New Jersey that same year. Both places had frequent radio broadcasts so the Glenn Miller Orchestra soon developed a nationwide following. In the fall of 1939, they began a series of radio broadcasts sponsored by Chesterfield cigarettes which increased their popularity even more. They were in constant demand for recording sessions. The Glenn Miller Orchestra appeared in a film SUN VALLEY SERENADE with Milton Berle and Dorothy Dandridge. The film featured the Nicholas Brothers in a show stopping version of CHATTANOOGA CHOO CHOO. Their next movie appearance was in ORCHESTRA WIVES with Jackie Gleason playing as the group's bassist.
CHATTANOOGA CHOO CHOO
from SUN VALLEY SERENADE
Glenn Miller seemed to have a fix on what kind of music would please his listeners. He was panned by jazz critics for endless rehearsals and being too polished. They thought he was so perfect he took away any feeling from the performance. They accused him of being too commercial by using novelty instrumentals and vocal numbers. They said Glenn Miller had no personality on or off stage. His audiences loved him however and so did his musical peers such as Louis Armstrong, Mel Torme, and Frank Sinatra.
IN THE MOOD
Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941 and the United States was dragged into an already raging World War II. At the height of his civilian career, Glenn Miller was too old to be drafted but he decided to join the war effort. He volunteered for the Navy but was told they didn't want him. In August of 1942, he wrote to Army Brigadier General Charles Young in an effort to convince him the Army needed him to be in charge of a modernized Army band that could "put a little more spring in the step and a little more joy in the hearts" of the fighting men. His offer was accepted. Glenn played his last civilian concert in Passaic, New Jersey on September 27, 1942. The program ended with an emotional MOONLIGHT SERENADE.
Glenn reported for duty on October 8, 1942. He was given the rank of Captain in the Army Specialists Corp but was soon transferred to the Army Air Forces where he gained the rank of Major. He spent the next year and a half arranging music, putting together and directing his own 50 member band. He modernized military music sometimes clashing with the old guard that didn't want anything changed. He raised millions of dollars in War Bond drives. He appeared on weekly I SUSTAIN THE WINGS radio broadcasts to attract new Air Corp recruits. He was on a mission to boost morale and bring a touch of home to the troops.
But he wanted to do more. In the summer of 1944, he gained permission to take his band to England where he gave 800 performances. The group was headquartered at 25 Sloane Street in an area under
constant barrage from German V-1 buzz bombs. He became concerned and
made arrangements for them to move to new quarters in Bedford, England
on July 2, 1944. The very next day a bomb landed in front of their old
quarters and killed 100 people.
He recorded a series of propaganda recordings at Abbey Road Studios. (Yeah THAT Abbey Road!) Some of the songs were sung in German by Johnny Desmond and Glenn Miller spoke in German about the war effort denouncing fascist oppression in Europe. The Glenn Miller Army Air Force Band stayed busy entertaining the troops at the bases and performing radio broadcasts. They made a recording with singer Dinah Shore (not released for more than fifty years later) also done at Abbey Road. These were the last recordings made by the band while being led by Miller. Even though he was in the military and working tirelessly, Glenn and his wife Helen were able to adopt two children, Steven in 1943 and Jonnie in 1944. A tour of other European cities was scheduled late in 1944. Their last performance in England was at Milton Ernest Hall near Bedford on the night of December 14, 1944. Glenn Miller HATED airplanes but early on the morning of December 15, 1944, he decided to fly to Paris to make arrangements to bring his band there for a Christmas Eve broadcast. It was cold and snowing but Glenn and his traveling companion, Lt. Col. Norman Baessell, along with the pilot, John Morgan. boarded the single-engine plane and took off from RAF Tinwood Farm in Clapham near Bedford heading for Paris. Their plane disappeared over the English Channel and was never heard from again.
ENGLISH RADIO TRIBUTE
No trace of the plane or the men have ever been found Over the years different theories have been put forth as to what might have happened. The first story I ever heard was they had been shot down or captured by the Germans. For a long time there was the story their plane had been hit accidentally by a bomb jettisoned by Allied planes returning from an aborted bombing raid over Germany. This idea was discredited by the log of a plane spotter who had reportedly seen them heading on a course that would keep them out of the area where bombs were jettisoned. I watched a TV documentary that outlined the current determination that the fault may have actually been the plane itself. The plane was a UC-64 Norseman, USAAF Serial Number 44-70285. That type of aircraft had been known to have a faulty carburetor that could ice up in cold weather and had a history of causing crashes in other aircraft. It is thought the cold snowy weather combined with the faulty plane part caused the aircraft to go down into the water. Just like Amelia Earhart, what happened to Glenn Miller and the two other men became another of history's great mysteries. The orchestra performed the Christmas Eve concert without him but were soon decommissioned and sent back to the United States. In 1946, his estate authorized an official Glenn Miller "ghost band" under the direction of Tex Beneke who had been a part of Glenn's civilian band. The band was immensely popular playing to large audiences around the country. Soon what started as The Glenn Miller Orchestra Under The Direction of Tex Beneke became the Tex Beneke Orchestra. The Miller estate parted ways with Beneke in 1950. There are many archives and tributes to the late bandleader. His daughter Jonnie purchased the home in which he was born and it is now part of the Glen Miller Birthplace Museum. His name is on the "Wall of the Missing" at the Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial in England. A headstone was erected for him in Arlington National Cemetery. A monument was also placed for him in Grove Street Cemetery in New Haven, Connecticut near the campus of Yale University. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. For his military service he was awarded the Bronze Star, American Campaign Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal, and Marksmanship Badge with Carbine and Rife Bars. Three of his recordings, MOONLIGHT SERENADE, CHATTANOOGA CHOO CHOO, and, IN THE MOOD were placed in the Grammy Hall of Fame. Jimmy Stewart portrayed him onscreen in THE GLENN MILLER STORY. Glenn Miller pioneered a unique musical style through hard work and perseverance. At the height of his career he joined the United States Army Air Corps, modernizing military bands and boosting the morale of Allied fighting men. Having given the supreme sacrifice for his country, he is remembered as a great American Patriot. He was a man who achieved many things in forty short years. He loved trout fishing, playing baseball, sleep, money and reading the Bible. I will end this with his favorite quote which happened to be from another great bandleader Duke Ellington. IT DON'T MEAN A THING IF IT AIN'T GOT THAT SWING!
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".