That Buick was really loaded, if you can imagine it. The trunk was
packed with my accordion, Chuck's steel guitar, Bob's guitar and some
suitcases. In the back seat behind the driver a couple more suitcases
and clothes hanging on a hook. Dick's bass was tied on top with a
tarpaulin in case it rained. We sat two in the front seat and two in
the back. That Buick looked like a speedboat with its nose up and
backside down, going down the road!
We slept in the car all night while one person drove, in order to save
money. Our first stop was Davenport, Iowa, to talk to the folks at WOC.
This radio station along with WHO in Des Moines was owned
by B. J. Palmer, who started the School of Chiropractic in Davenport.
Months later I would have the opportunity to meet this gentleman.
WOC had live talent, but no openings at the time. They suggested that
I get in touch with their sister station, WHO. But first, I called
WMT in Cedar Rapids, because I remembered that Tom Owens
(no relation of course) had a band at that station. And, they had
other musicians there also. They told me that they were filled up.
So, we headed for Des Moines.
Being the leader of the band it was up to me to talk to the
Program Director, Jack Kerrigan, while the others waited
in the car. Mr. Kerrigan agreed to give us an audition since
they were losing a country family act. I was ecstatic.
I rousted up the boys and we began unpacking the instruments.
I remember that our pant legs looked like stove pipes from sleeping
in them over two nights. I don't think we smelled too bad!
Mr. Kerrigan wanted us to simulate a radio show, which we did. After
the show he asked me into his office and we talked. I could tell
he was very pleased. He hired us to begin a week later. We were
to do morning a show three days a week, and an afternoon show
Monday through Friday, and the Iowa Barn Dance Frolic every
Saturday night. That show was held in the large studio at the
station to a limited audience, during the winter months. Through
the summer it was held at the Hoyt Sherman Theatre.
Mr. Kerrigan introduced me to Cliff and Helen Carl. They were in
charge of the Barn Dance and for booking the various acts
on personal appearances. They also performed on the Saturday
WHO was a 50,000-watt station that blanketed Iowa, Minnesota,
and a greater part of South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri,
Kentucky and Illinois. Saturday nights on the Iowa Barn Dance Frolic,
we reached out to another 20 states or so. I know I got fan mail
from over 30 states. We enjoyed working at the station. They had
dressing rooms in the basement fixed up very nicely for the ladies
and gents (separate rooms of course) and we had a large practice room
that included a ping-pong table. We had many a tournament
on that table. Even the announcers played when they were not
on the air. I remember two of my favorite announcers were pretty good,
Bob Williams and Dell Donahoo. Bob and Dell were the masters of
ceremony on the Frolic every Saturday night.
Since we had a week to settle in, I took advantage of that and took
the boys down to Shenandoah and introduced them to the talent at KMA,
where I used to work. They enjoyed that a lot. We spent quite a
bit of time with my dear friend, Eddie Comer. We missed our
wives so much, but this trip helped to take our minds off
of them temporarily. Our wives and their families would
join us in about two weeks!
Finally, we got on the air at WHO and it felt real good. It was
Dusty Owens and his Rodeo Boys. Our theme song was "Cimmarron," which
we sang as a trio: Bob, Dick and I. We performed both Country and
Western songs. Our trio sang songs like, "Cool Water,"
"Tumbling Tumbleweeds," and "Detour." Bob and Dick did duets
like "There's A Hole In The Bottom Of The Sea,"
and "Froggy Went A-Courting," which was a favorite by them.
I sang most of the solos like, "A Heart Full Of Love,"
"A Petal From A Faded Rose," "Easy Rockin' Chair,"
"Baby, We're Really In Love".
Occasionally, Bob and Dick dressed
up as comics and would put on a very funny routine. They kept the audience
in stitches. They were funny to look at and fun to listen to.
Bob Cooley was "Lil Cedric" and Dick Cooley played the role of "Spec Tater."
It was a shame that Dick could only stay with us for a few months.
He had to return to Flint. Don Edwards, a local boy
from Des Moines, replaced him on the bass.
Chuck Adams was now 16 years old and was entrusted to me for
guardianship by his mother and father. He roomed with Betty
and me in our apartment in West Des Moines. Remember, I introduced
him to Tex Ferguson in Saginaw, Michigan. He had just taken
possession of a triple-neck Fender steel guitar and had gone
a long way in mastering the instrument. In short, he
was sensational. He could play any style: Roy Wiggins, Jerry Byrd,
Herb Remington, you name it. Of course, pedal steel was not
in vogue yet.
A few months after we started, in 1952, WHO hired Mary Randolph and
gave her a show of her own. Also, she was added to our show to give it
a feminine touch. Mary came to Des Moines from St. James, Missouri
and was a terrific singer, very smooth and true. Prior to coming
to WHO, Mary had work at KWTO in Springfield, Missouri. She was a
singer on that station with Porter Wagoner, Speedy Haworth, and none
other than Chet Atkins. This was before Wagoner and Atkins ended
up in Nashville. At one time, Speedy was a member of the Buckaroos
Band and played guitar on WHO. Porter and Speedy came to
Des Moines in 1952 and did a guest appearance on the
Iowa Barn Dance Frolic. Anyway, Mary and I began to include
duets on our shows like, "I'll Never Be Free, " "Rollin' In My
Sweet Baby's Arms," and "Columbus Stockade Blues." She was a
regular hit on the Iowa Barn Dance Frolic as well as on personal
appearances when she was on the show with us.
Another great female singer was Zelda Scott. Zelda's singing career
began at WHO in the Forties and lasted 19 years. The first eight years,
she spent singing on the air with Jerry Smith, the Yodeling Cowboy.
Zelda told me that she remembers when Ronald Reagan visited
the radio station in 1943 as a movie star. In the Thirties, Dutch,
as his friends called him, was a very popular sports announcer at WHO
before going to Hollywood, California to begin his acting career.
Zelda also sang duets with her sister, Fay Geisler, and when Mary joined
WHO, she was added to form the Blue Ridge Mountain Gals. They sang
beautifully together and were one of the favorites of the Frolic
in the early Fifties.
Bobby Dick became a regular at WHO in 1952, coming north
from Topeka, Kansas, where he had starred on the Kansas Roundup show
on WIBW. He was a fine singer and had a daily show on the station
besides appearing on the Frolic every Saturday night. Also, he sang
duets with Zelda Scott. I liked Bobby a lot. He was a
mild-tempered mid-westerner, who never got rattled over anything.
Just a regular guy!
If my memory serves me correctly, Bobby Dick took the place
of Skeeter Bonn after Skeeter went to WLS in Chicago. Skeeter was
at WHO when we started and was a great singer and yodeler,
and, of course, a regular on the Frolic. I ran into Skeeter
a few years later at WWVA in Wheeling, West Virginia, where I
also recorded him on Admiral Records.
One of the best comedians in the business was Jolly Joe Parish
and he worked at WHO the same time we did. I'm not sure if Joe
was out of the hills of Kentucky or Tennessee, but he was a funny man.
He was a good musician also, and played the mandolin and sang a
good country song. Joe had written some songs and wanted me
to collaborate on a couple. Together, we wrote "The Life You Want
To Live," and "Forget My Broken Heart." A few years later,
Acuff-Rose Publishing Company published them, and I recorded them
for Columbia Records. The first one hit the charts, and the second
one mustered a lot of plays from the jocks. They brought in
a few shekels, and I was glad especially for Joe.
He had six kids!
The radio station supported three bands, The Buckaroos, Cowboy Em
and his Docey- Doe Boys, and ours, The Rodeo Boys.
The leader of the Buckaroos was Cece Hunsinger, who played
accordion, Slim Hayes, played fiddle and sang solos, Red Scobee,
played the five-string banjo and bass, and Jack Lester, was their
lead guitar man, Roger Kent played trumpet and Si Reeves played clarinet. This band was on the Barn Dance for more than 10 years, and had a large repertoire of western, popular and folk tunes. Each a soloist in his own right, Reeves, Scobee and Hayes formed the Buckaroo Vocal Trio.
Originally, the bandleader was Kenny Houchins and the band
was called The Borderland Buckaroos. After Kenny left, Cece Hunsinger
became the head honcho and Slim Hayes was given a more prominent
place in the limelight as a singer. In those days, Speedy Haworth
was the lead guitarist with the Buckaroos.
Cowboy Em and the Docey-Doe Boys consisted of Norval Ulrich, lead guitar,
Roy Shaw, bass, Joe Zanotti, accordion, and Lew Martin, fiddle,
who became the comedian, Uncle Twid. They were with WHO for four years.
Cowboy Em's given name is Embert Mishler, and he did most of
the solo work which included yodeling. They featured homey ballads,
fast breakdowns and old hymns, plus square dance callin'
by Cowboy Em. Norval and Roy played the part of Clem and
Little Buford, the Country Cousins, and would bring the house down
with their pickin' and singin' of hill-billy comedy songs.
I understand that Em went on to really establish himself in the
country music business in Denver, Colorado. In fact, he was
inducted into the Colorado Country Music Hall Of Fame.
The Songfellows were another fine act. Some thought they were the
best all-around male quartet in the Midwest. Aside from their perfect
harmony on special arrangements of popular, folk tunes, ballads, and hymns,
their novelty and comedy numbers invariably would "stop the show."
They performed on WHO for many years. Stu Steelman, Ken Black,
Harris White, and Bill Fisher, were The Songfellows, and Bill Austin
played piano for them.
Lem Turner spent several years at WHO. The red-headed Barn Dance
country philosopher and sometimes country bumpkin also did some
of the emceeing. He was called the Clown Prince of Laughter.
Lem was a favorite with many folks. A lot of fun!
Two of our very favorite people were Ray and Kay Barnard, the
Banjo Kids, a brother and sister act that played only on the
Saturday night Barn Dance. I knew them when Ray was 18 and Kay 15.
Ray dressed in western shirts, jeans and a straw hat, and Kay always
wore a cute gingham dress cut from the same material as Ray's shirt and
sometimes a bonnet (their costumes were home made). They both
played a four-string banjo and sang duets, and always received a
great reception. The people loved them. They usually sang
the latest hits like, "I'm Movin" On," The Golden Rocket,"
"A Heart Full Of Love" and "Jambalaya." They always wanted
the Rodeo Boys to back them up when they sang on the
Iowa Barn Dance Frolic.
The Barnards were from a farm 10 miles southeast of
Oskaloosa, Iowa. Every chance she got, Mom Barnard would invite
some of the people from the Barn Dance to the farm for a fried
chicken dinner. It wasn't long before Dusty and the Rodeo Boys got
That was one of the best, fried chicken dinners
I have ever eaten. We all became very close friends after that.
Not just because of Mom Barnard's great cooking, but because the
whole family were such wonderful people.
I asked Ray how he stayed on top of the latest songs and this
was his answer: "We didn't have electricity yet, but our Uncle Clifford
who lived up the farm road from us did. He had the first
phonograph around. It was a Motorola and only played 78 rpms.
Mom and Dad would buy a new Hank Snow record and up to Uncle Cliff's
we would go. Since this was before I learned shorthand, Uncle Cliff
would play a line or two and we would write the words down.
That's how we kept up with the latest!"
Occasionally, the station would sell time on some major function
that would bring entertainers in of celebrity status. Such was
the case in late August 1952, at the Iowa State Fair, when the
Sons of the Pioneers were booked to do an appearance at
the Fair. Three of the six members, Lloyd Perryman, Ken Curtis
and Tommy Davis came to WHO to be on our daily show to advertise
the State Fair and their part in it. What a treat that was for us.
First, we got to hear them rehearse a couple of numbers in our
rehearsal room, and then I had the privilege to introduce them on
our show. When they cut loose on "Cool Water," I thought, that
must be how heaven is with angels singing. What volume, yet with
such close harmony, was this beautiful rendition of blended human
voices. You've heard the Sons of the Pioneers; you know
what I'm talking about. Ken Curtis was the man who created and
played the character, Festus, in "Gunsmoke" several years later.
Thinking we were going to be living in Des Moines for the rest
of our lives, Betty and I invested in a Record shop in 1952.
We enjoyed being close to the record scene, and it helped me to stay
up on the latest releases. Also, it gave Betty something to do.
She ran the shop when I wasn't there, and that was most of the time.
It gave me opportunity to add valuable records (78's at that time;
45s came out in 1954) to our collection, like a complete set of
Hank Williams and Luke the Drifter on MGM, and all of Elvis Presley's
Sun records, just to mention a few. Many of those Hank Williams
songs came in handy later in my career.
Right after we bought the record shop, Uncle Sam fired a salvo our way.
The Korean conflict was going hot and heavy, and I guess he decided
to call on Dusty Owens for some help. Anyway, I was called up to
report for induction into the Army. I was the right age and yet we
were not expecting it to happen. All kinds of things went through our
minds, mostly about my musical career. To say that I was glad to go
would be stating an untruth, since my career seemed to be going in the right
direction. Yet, I knew that many of our young boys and girls had made
great sacrifices, some with their very lives, and I should be willing
to give as well. We really had mixed emotions about the whole thing.
To put it in a word or two, we anguished over the matter.
I reported to the recruitment office, along with a hundred others,
and we began with the typical physical. They questioned me about my
previous medical history and I admitted that I had a severe case
of stomach ulcers while in high school. They noted that, and I continued
with the examination, filling out some papers along the way. I thought
of applying for Special Services, which would have enabled me to
continue with my singing and playing career, howbeit, I would be
entertaining the troops. But that bridge was never to be crossed.
At the end of the day, one of the soldier boys took me aside and
informed me that based on my previous problem with ulcers, Uncle Sam
didn't want anything to do with me. I think he said, "When we call
up the women and children, we'll probably call you!" So, I was
classified, 4F! Mixed emotions!
In 1952, I met Louise Smith. She and her sister lived in Des Moines
and became dedicated fans of the Rodeo Boys and mine. They attended
the Barn Dance Frolic every Saturday night and sometimes came down to
the radio station to watch us broadcast. Finally, Louise asked to start
a Fan Club for me, and of course I consented. Louise did an outstanding
job promoting me across the country and soliciting members. She would
see to it that articles and pictures would appear in other fan club
journals, and that my songs were played by Disc Jockeys on radio
stations all over the country. Computers were not available then, and
all communications were by regular mail and by phone. It was a
time-consuming job, but she loved doing it. She became like a loving
sister to me and I grew to love her too. When we lived in
Wheeling, West Virginia, Louise came out to see Betty and me,
and while with us she help put together all the pictures, articles and
such, into two scrapbooks. It was tedious work, because all the stuff had
been thrown together in a drawer all those years.
Sometime in 1952, I was asked to learn a song written by
Jimmy Seeley, "The Longer You Wait." It was a pretty song and had
been recorded by Jerry Smith on Mastertone Records. I sang it often
on our radio show and not too long after, the sheet music came out
with my picture on the cover. That was exciting!
I'll never forget the first time I met Smokey Smith. He was a very
talented man, who had a personality that won you over immediately.
I learned to love ole Smokey like a brother. In a sense, he was our
rival on another station, KRNT, where he was a Disc Jockey. But Smokey
was more than just a D.J., he was one of the greatest promoters I have
ever known. He always had a cigar in his hand or in his mouth, just
like you'd imagine a big promoter would have. I was impressed.
Every so often, he would bring a big package show in, usually from
Nashville, and attract thousands of people to the Shrine Auditorium in
Des Moines. He would always let me in back stage to meet the performers. Thanks to him, I met just about everybody that was well known and some that was just getting started. You have to understand, I was just 22 or 23 years old aspiring to be a Super Star myself someday, so this was really a treat for me. I kind of got the idea that Smokey was looking out for me. In addition to promoting these big shows and playing their records everyday, Smokey Smith played guitar and sang pretty darn good. In fact, many times when I wasn't on the road, I joined him at a place called the Silver Saddle in Des Moines, where we entertained the folks. Smokey was a real friend.
Along in the spring of 1952, I hired Jerry Wolfe,
a violin/fiddle player. A violinist is one who has studied music
and can read it. The violin never rests on his wrist. A fiddle
player usually does not read music, but plays by "ear." He plays with
the violin resting on his wrist (usually). Jerry could play both classical
and western swing music. He had played with Spade Cooley in California
and knew all those great arrangements to songs like, "Devil's Dream,"
and "Spadella." He taught them to us and we began playing them like
a miniature Spade Cooley western swing band. It was really neat!
Our daily show was gaining in popularity and fan mail came in faster
than ever. It was fun reading the mail. Most of the time they just
simply said they were regular listeners and enjoyed the program.
Sometimes, they complimented us on a certain song we did, and
others requested their favorite song. Occasionally, I would get a
letter that said they named their son or daughter, Dusty, after me.
Sometimes, it was a dog, goat, horse, or even a duck! No matter, I
always felt honored.
Along with the show's popularity, came more personal appearances.
We played shows and/or dances all over Iowa and into Northern Missouri
as well. We even made one appearance in Omaha, Nebraska. We did
the Iowa Barn Dance Frolic with the entire cast in Ottumwa on
November 1, l952, which was a rare thing to do. Some of the other
towns in Iowa we showed in were Centerville, Thompson, Storm Lake,
Fort Dodge, Oskaloosa, Fort Madison, Burlington, Fairfield, and Boone.
We did a big show on the fourth of July in Humboldt at the
County Fairgrounds, along with Ray and Kay, Cliff and Helen,
and the Songfellows.
One of our appearances made history in Des Moines. The Riviera
Ballroom at Riverview Park in Des Moines for years always had
big-name bands appear for dancing: Bands like the Dorseys,
Glenn Miller, Guy Lombardo, Lawrence Welk, etc.
On Wednesday, June 11, 1952, Dusty Owens and the Rodeo Boys
were booked to do the Riviera's very first "western dance."
Here is the way it was written up in the Des Moines Sunday Register:
"Docey-does and the toe-tapping rhythm of a cowboy band will set
the pace Wednesday night for the first "western dance" in the
Riviera ballroom at Riverview. Dusty Owens and his Rodeo Boys, heard
daily over Station WHO, will play for square dancing and round
dancing in western style from 8:30 to midnight. Hy Rosenberg will
be the caller for the square dances. Besides Owens, who sings
and plays accordion, the five-man band includes regular guitar,
steel guitar, fiddle and bass.
We enjoyed ourselves tremendously while at WHO in Des Moines.
The station had a celebrity fast-pitch softball team, made up of
staff writers, announcers, musicians, and anybody from the station
that thought they could play. We were called "The WHO Non-Stars,"
and we even had regular softball uniforms with that name blazoned
across the chest. We were booked, just like our shows were, to
play all-star teams from many of the towns within a hundred miles
of Des Moines. Chambers of Commerce, Junior Chambers, Elks, Lions,
etc. sponsored the event, and there were big crowds waiting
to see their favorite radio stars. We would come into their town
and play their team and sometimes just act a fool. It was all
in fun and created a great relationship between the people and
the radio station.
There was a cute, small diner right around the corner from the radio
station. It was called, Fort Junior, and was owned by a man named, George.
George became a friend with all the regulars from the station who
ate there. He served up fantastic food, anything from hamburgers to
full meals. We often ate there. I remember he had a sign on his
establishment that read, "We can seat and serve 888 people, 8 at
a time." Isn't it strange what you remember after 50 years!
Bob Williams played on the softball team and reminded me of the time
we only could find nine players to go out to play some town
(we needed 10 players to make a team). George volunteered to play
and we took him even though he didn't work at the station. We put
George in right field and the game began. Somewhere into the game the
other team got the bases loaded and their slugger hit a tremendous
blow, very high and very far, into right field. We needed George
to catch this for the third out. Well, we looked up and saw
the ball, it looked like a pea, still going out beyond the trees,
and we looked down to find George and he was running full tilt toward
us in the infield because he thought it was a pop-up! Needless to
say, George and the ball never made contact, and we went back home
having lost another game! George went back to his cooking! Oh, well,
that's why we were called "The Non-Stars."
We all loved our time spent at WHO, doing our shows on the air every
day, performing every Saturday night on the Iowa Barn Dance Frolic,
and traveling around the state and playing shows and dances
for the great country and western friends we made. Here are more
pictures taken in 1952 and the first part of 1953:
As we approached 1953, I was becoming more oriented toward
becoming a singing artist, rather than an accordionist. I had
bought a new D-28 Martin guitar shortly after arriving in Des Moines
I was writing country songs and looking more to Nashville
than to the western style of Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma. I even
bought my first real expensive suit like the Super Stars were
wearing. I figured that if I was ever to be a Super Star, I had
to start dressing like one.
Everything seemed to be going just great. Everyone was so happy
and enjoying entertaining the people on the air and on personal
appearances, and then ... we went to work one day and in our
mailboxes at the station I received two notices (not pink, but yellow).
"Dusty Owens & His Rodeo Boys" program 7:45-8:00 a.m.,
Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, is cancelled July 21 and
thereafter, with last live program Saturday, July 4, and
last recorded program Saturday, July 18.
"Dusty Owens' Rodeo Boys with Mary Randolph" 5:40-6:00 p.m.,
Monday through Friday, is cancelled July 6 and thereafter,
with last program Friday, July 3. June 29 through July 3, the
program will be ten minute duration, 5:40-5:50 p.m.
These notices came out of the blue like lightening with absolutely
no previous warning, not even a hint or rumor. We were
all dumbfounded. Later, we found out that the board had decided
to go into Television and needed to cut the budget in Radio. So they
cut everyone but the Buckaroos and the Songfellows, and we became
the victims of progress(?)
Later in life, I learned about a principle that I guess I've
always believed and lived by: "In every adversity lies the seed
of an equivalent or greater benefit." This "firing" was the best
thing that happened to Betty and me up until then, because
something much, much greater was down the road for us, but in
another city. We just didn't know it, nor could we see it,
right then. All we could do for the next few days was to hurt
Before we left Des Moines, my Fan Club President, Louise Smith
handed me a poem with tears in her eyes that she had written.
She didn't give it a title, but I will call it:
Friends must part and strangers meet
To make this life of ours complete.
Tho' you may go, we'll never forget
Dusty and the boys are the best friends yet.
Perhaps, when you go, it won't be too far;
Then we can hear you, wherever you are.
Everyone you meet is sure to be your friend,
And true friends are always true to the end.
Tho' a short time I've known you, Betty, I'd like you to know
I think you're swell, and don't want to see you go.
I'm glad I met you, and perhaps again someday
I'll have a chance to see you, should you come back this way.
Don, Bob and Charlie just can't be beat,
For better friends you'll never meet.
Wherever you go - whatever you do,
Remember your friends - they'll be thinking of you.
Dusty, it has been a pleasure, working for you;
For the honor of being your President, I thank you, too.
Anything I can do, don't hesitate to ask,
For I consider it a privilege - not a task.
If you leave Des Moines and travel far away,
I hope you will all return to see us someday.
Dusty, Bob, Charlie, and Don - your families, too,
Best of luck in the future to all of you.
After the shock of feeling betrayed wore off, we all started planning
what to do. Don Edwards lived in Des Moines, so he would just stay
and find something else to do. Bob Cooley and Chuck Adams returned to
their former homes in Flint, Michigan and played various nightspots.
Betty and I were devastated. We didn’t want to return to Flint,
that would not further my career. So, we turned to a friend for help,
Smokey Smith. I knew Smokey had a lot of connections and could
possibly help me relocate. I can still see him, sitting behind his desk
in his office at the station, leaning back, puffing on the cigar
and staring at the ceiling, in deep thought. Then, he would pick up
the phone and dial a number.
“Hey, man! Listen, I’ve got a friend in
my office by the name of Dusty Owens. He just got let go over at
WHO and he’s looking for a place to land. He’s a young,
good looking kid, and shows a lot of promise. You got an opening
for such a fellow?”
After about a half a dozen calls around the
country, it boiled down to two that sounded promising.
Horace Logan was in charge of the talent at KWKH and the Louisiana
Hayride, and he was interested but tentative. The other was
Gene Johnson in charge of the talent at WWVA and
the World’s Original Jamboree. Gene seemed more interested and
encouraged Smokey to “send the young hillbilly over to see me.”
It was almost a flip of the coin that decided it, but it turned out
that a chain of events helped Betty and I to make our decision.
I will always be grateful to Smokey for believing in me and helping
me to follow my dream.
Betty and I knew that our future was out there somewhere, so we made
our plans to go “on the road again.”
Stay Tuned, for Dusty has told us there's more to come - the WWVA years.
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