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Fred Kirby
Born:  July 19, 1910
Died:  April 22, 1996
WBT Carolina Hayride
WLS National Barn Dance
WLW Boone County Jamboree
KMOX St. Louis, MO
WBT Charlotte, NC
WFBC Greenville, SC
WFIL Philadelphia, PA
WIP Philadelphia, PA
WJJD Chicago, IL
WLS Chicago, IL
WLW Cincinnati, OH
WWNC Asheville, NC
WIS Columbia, SC (1927)

About The Artist

Charlotte, North Carolina native Fred Austin Kirby had a long career in country music, mostly based in his home city. Nonetheless, he made occasional forays into other radio outlets in major cities.

1920's and 1930's

Despite his long association with Charlotte, Fred actually made his radio debut at WIS Columbia, South Carolina in 1927 when he just wanted to see the inside of a radio station and ended up being given a regular program. Rural Radio's version of his beginning says he wandered into a radio station with a guitar in hand. He was seen by Charles Crutchfield who was then an apprentice at the station and asked him to sing a tune. Radio Mirror provided further lore to his beginnings in the December 1943 issue. They wrote, "It was a hot July afternoon in 1929 when a boy and a man strolled purposefully down the main street in Columbia, South Carolina. The boy was Fred Kirby, tow-headed, tanned and lanky; the man, Fred's Uncle Bob. Under Fred's arm was a guitar. They were holding "try-outs" that day up at the radio station "studio" in the hotel annex, and Uncle Bob thought Fred's singing would sound mighty good over the radio." The article mentions Mr. Crutchfield and noted that after he told Fred, "Go ahead and sing, son." It only took half a song to get him a regular program each week. Then the fan letters began to pour in.

It was his Uncle Bob who taught him a few songs and the guitar chords he would need to accompany himself. Fred was said to have then told of his early experiences. Just before going on the air, the announcer or control operator would tell him, "Fred, just keep on singing. I'm going down for a sandwich." But Fred related he thought sometimes those sandwiches turned into full course meals. That meant singing every song he knew back then and perhaps starting over. His programs could run from 15 to 40 minutes, a bit haphazard compared to the later structured form of programming. Ten years later, Charles was the Program Director at WBT and welcomed Fred, at the age of 19, to WBT and Charlotte where he spent a decade.

Promo Ad - Fred Kirby - Charlotte News - 1931 Promo Ad - Fred Kirby - Charlotte Observer - 1932
Promo Ad - Fred Kirby - New Cotton CLub - 1934 Promo Ad - Fred Kirby - On Stage - Burlington NC - 1935

Sometimes he sang solo and also did frequent duets with Bob Phillips. Sentimental country material and Jimmie Rodgers songs initially dominated his repertoire, but from the mid thirties western-themed songs and cowboy images gained steadily in his favored songs. In fact, the WBT Memories web site shows the cover of a song folio proclaiming Fred as "Now America's Blue Yodeler."

Early Radio Station Promotional Pictures in Newspapers

Fred Kirby - Radio PR Photo - Charlotte News - 1936 Fred Kirby - Radio PR Photo - Charlotte Observer - 1937
Fred Kirby, Don White - Radio PR Photo - Journal-Herald Dayton OH - 1940 Fred Kirby - WLS Family Album 1941

But the initial association with WBT was coming to an end and the beginning of Fred's journey to other stations began in 1936. A short newspaper article indicated that he had moved to WFBC in Greenville, South Carolina in September 1936.

In 1938, research shows he was working at radio station WWNC in Asheville, NC and had formed a group called The Smiling Cowboys. Even doing personal appearances in Charlotte, articles would call Fred the "Smiling Cowboy."

In September 1939, Kirby and White left Charlotte for WLW Cincinnati. Fred was coined the "Friendly Philosopher" at WLW. During their stay at WLW, they were part of WLW's Boone County Jamboree program. Fred had a regular 15-minute program in the early morning over WLW. Fred and Don remained at the station until 1941 when they departed for WLS Chicago.

Radio logs published in the Chicago Tribune show that Fred had a program over at WLS in late 1940. By mid 1941, he was entertaining audiences over the air on WJJD.

Fred Kirby Family - 1946

Fred soon left there for St. Louis (KMOX?). By that time World War II was underway and Fred soon gained attention for his work with War Bond Drives which continued after he returned to WBT in 1943.

Fred initially entered a studio of the American Record Corporation in 1932, but none of his four numbers were released. In February 1936 when Bluebird scheduled sessions in Charlotte, that would change dramatically.

He did solo numbers, duets with Phillips and Don White, and a few numbers with veteran recording star Cliff Carlisle. Some, but not all, were western flavored such as "That Good Old Utah Trail," "Night Time on the Prairie," and "My Old Saddle Horse is Missing." Moving to Decca in 1938, the pattern continued, mostly with a band called Fred Kirby's Carolina Boys which included Don White and fiddler Tiny Dodson who also recorded with his own Circle B Boys. One number was with Cliff Carlisle.

Fred Kirby - Shriner's Hospital Visit - 1946 Fred Kirby - Victory Cowboy - 1944 - WBT

Fred Kirby - Cowboy Music World - 1946

Atomic Power

During the conflict Kirby was also honored for his efforts promoting and encouraging War Bond sales which won him the sobriquet "The Victory Cowboy." In fact, it was on Saturday, March 20, 1943 when Thomas H. Dysart, then chairman of the War Bonds Sales Organization declared him the "Victory Cowboy" when a proclamation was read over the radio airwaves by Col. F. F. Christine.

His work on "the Home Front" provided him not only with the nickname "Victory Cowboy" but received special citations from Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morganthau. Arlie Kinkade told National Hillbilly News readers that Fred had "yodeled in more than $5,000,000 worth of bonds in bond sale drives" in the June 1946 issue.

His greatest acclaim came from a song penned and recorded at the end of World War II, "Atomic Power" which was widely covered by numerous artists and inspired several other songs about atomic bombs.

Floy Case wrote of how Fred came to write the tune. She prefaced Fred's tune by noting that songs came to be written in many different ways. "Some were the results of a long, diligent effort. Some were the rephrasing, a new twist on an old song or powem. But she then says, some are like a flash of lightning, a bolt out of the blue - like the searing flash of an - Atom bomb!" That's how Fred's song, "Atomic Power" came to be written.

Like many in that era after the atomic bombs were dropped, many were wondering what this meant for the future due to this immense power being unleashed. It captured Fred's mind at the time, reading about it in the morning paper, reading about it in the evening paper. He felt the victims of the bomb and the people of the world were "crying and screamin in terror, with their arms outstretched to Heaven, begging for mercy."

This was on Fred's mind one morning when he was helping his wife with the dishes after breakfast and the kids had gone off to school. The idea hit him right then and he shouted, "ATOMIC POWER! ATOMIC POWER!" His wife kind of looked at him with a questioning eye and asked him, "What in the world are you shouting about Fred?" Fred told Mildred, "It's a new song hit, honey, and I'm going right on down to the studio to work it out!"

He left the house and went to the WBT studios and within 45 minutes or so, the song, "Atomic Power" was down on paper. Fred recorded the song. Others covered the hit as well with some variations on the lyrics. The lyrics below are from the version recorded by Fred Kirby.

Atomic Power
Written by Fred Kirby (1946)

Oh this world is at a tremble with its strength and mighty power
They're sending up to heaven to get the brimstone fire
Take warning my dear brother, be careful how you plan
You're working with the mighty power of God's own holy hand

Refrain:
Atomic power, atomic power
Was given by the mighty hand of God
Atomic power, atomic power
It was given by the mighty hand of God

You remember two great cities in a foreign distant land
Were scorched from off the face of earth, Like power of Japan
Be careful my dear brother, don't take away the joy
But use it for the good of man and never to destroy

Refrain

Hiroshima, Nagasaki paid a big price for their sins
When scorched from the face of earth their battles could not win
But on that day of judgment when comes a greater power
We will not know the minute and we will not know the hour

Refrain

By that time he was back recording with the Sonora label. Artists for the bigger companies such as Red Foley on Decca and the Buchanan Brothers on RCA soon did cover versions of his song which sold quite well.

Other war themed songs included "My War Torn Heart" about a soldier abandoned by his girl during his military service and "When It's Reveille Time in Heaven," a tribute to fallen soldiers which was revived by Mac Wiseman during the Korean War and made into a bluegrass classic. Also during his Sonora days Fred was part of a WBT group known as the Carolina Playboys who recorded numerous sides with no individual names attached (see separate entry).

Fred wrote more than a few songs. Here is a list of what has been found thus far (the year noted is from the publication where the song was found):

  • It Makes Never No Mind (1941)
  • An Old Fashioned Cabin (1941)
  • Every Day Is Mother's Day To Me (1941)
  • From The Wild And Wooly West (1941)
  • Little Sweetheart Of The Trail (1941)
  • The Devil and Mr. Hitler (1942)
  • God Made This Country (1943)
  • Little Darling, Let Me Pin A Rose On You (1945)
  • Keep A Little Sunshine In Your Smile (1945)
  • When It's Reveille Time In Heaven (1946)
  • Atomic Power (1946)
  • Heartaches And Flowers (1949)
  • When That Love Bug Bites You (He'll Keep Knawin' Growin' Gnawin') (1951)
  • When That Hell Bomb Falls (1951)
  • She's My Red Hot Potato (1951)
  • The Old Country Preacher (1951)
  • Lonesome Mountain Trail (co-writers: Fred Kirby, Chuck Lattiman, Carrie Kirby, Muriel Mays) (1939)
In the November-December 1945 issue of Cowboy Music World, it listed those who were part of the "American Songwriters' Hall of Fame (Writers of over 100 songs) Western and Hillbilly Division." Fred Kirby was a member of the group that had written 100 or more songs.

Promotion of "Atomic Power"

Fred Kirby - Atomic Power Promo - Sonora Ad - Charlotte Observer - 1946 Fred (Atomic Power) Kirby - Promo Ad - 1946
Promo Ad - Atomic Power - Fred Kirby - Billboard - May 1946 Promo Ad - Atomic Power - Billboard - September 1946
Promo Ad Fred Kirby - Atomic Power and Carolina Hayride - December 1946 Promo Ad Fred Kirby - Atomic Power - January 1947 - WBT

Kirby's work with Sonora ended in 1947, but he continued on with WBT on such shows as the "Carolina Hayride" and "Carolina Calling." In 1948 four of his unreleased Sonora masters were sold to MGM. While none were hits "Jukebox Jackson from Jacksonville" proved to be an exciting song with a catchy title.

In 1950 and 1951, he recorded several numbers for Columbia, one of which "When that Hell Bomb Falls" warned of disastrous results that would happen if the hydrogen bomb were ever dropped.

In 1951, he also appeared in a musical motion picture "Kentucky Jubilee." The film was directed by Ron Ormond. He was also co-writer with Maurice Tombragel. The 'star' of this movie was Jerry Colonna. Other stars featured were Jean Porter and James Ellison. Musicians such as Fred Kirby, Claude Casey, Les (Carrot Top) Anderson, Slim Andrews, The McQuaig Twins and The Broome Brothers were provided the entertainment.

The Singing Cowboy and The Little Cowpokes

Promo Ad Fred Kirby - Junior Rancho - 1952 Promo Ad Fred Kirby - Tiny Town - January 1964
Promo Ad Fred Kirby - Cowboy Clothes for Kids - Greenville SC - 1957 Promo Ad Fred Kirby - Tiny Town - August 1951

By 1951, Fred Kirby's career was changing focus as WBTV went on the air and Fred, while continuing to sing country songs, started a Saturday children's TV program, He had earlier done a radio program "Cowboy Roundup Time," but "Fred Kirby's Junior Rancho" quickly captured the attention of the Carolina Piedmont's boys and girls.

Besides kids, others on the show included his horse Calico and sidekick "Uncle Jim" Patterson. After some years both the horse and Uncle Jim passed on so the show changed format. As more network children shows took over the better time slots "Fred Kirby's Cartoon Carnival" was moved to 7:30 A M, It was still going in October 1985 when Fred and many other Charlotte radio and recording pioneers (Claude Casey, Briarhoppers, Tennessee Ramblers, et al.) gave concerts on an arts-funded program "The Charlotte Country Music Story."

One of the things that has stumped our research is trying to document a song and recording Fred did around the end of 1956. A newspaper article noted Fred wrote a song about the children he visited in the hospitals. "Help, I pray. Your little ones and let them walk again." Those were the words of a prayer in song that was writteny for and dedicated to crippled children the world over by Fred Kirby. He was backed on the recording by the Harvesters Quartet and was to have made its premier before an audience of Shriners around the end of 1956. The original manuscript from of Fred's composition was to be presented to the Shriners' Imperial Potentate Gerald D. Crary by Joseph F. Bryan, president of the Jefferson Standard Broadcasting Co. The song while meant for all crippled children, drew inspiration for Fred from the patients at the Shriners Hospital in Greenville, SC. Fred was to send an autographed copy to each child in that hospital which Fred frequently visited. The Jefferson Standard Broadcasting Company made 5,000 cpies of the song and was to be sent to other Shrine hospitals around the country and Hawaii.

In January of 1964, Channel 3 in Charlotte dropped "Romper Room" and replaced it with Fred Kirby's "Tinytown" with Uncle Jim (Jim Patterson) as Fred's sidekick.

In 1959, he also began playing regularly at the Tweetsie Railroad, a mountain tourist attraction in Blowing Rock, North Carolina. So enduring was his popularity that when he became confined to a wheelchair in old age, a group called "Friends of Fred Kirby" built an incline so he could still ascend the stage.

The impact Fred made with the younger set continued through the years. In 1982, Kays Gary, columnist for the Charlotte Observer, told of a 4 and a half year old, Amy Hope Laughter, who really wanted to win the "Miss Little Charlotee" title but not for the reasons one might think. She wanted the prizes. She told Kays, "I want to blow kisses in the Carrousel parade and meet Fred Kirby, that's why." She did win and appeared on the Fred Kirby show on WBTV.

On July 7, 1990, they honored Fred ("Everybody's Favorite Cowboy") at Tweetsie Railroad, "where the good times roll all the time." As part of the celebration, attendees received $2.00 off park admission if they could show an old picture taken with Fred.

The Tweetsie Railroad connection seemed to pass on from generation to generation. By 1982, Fred had been with Tweetsie for 22 years. But seemed to take on a new role as Ambassador At Large. Fred noted that over 25 years, he had seen many children who would now come back with husband and wife and children of their own. An example was Doug Faulkner. He visited Tweetsie when he was just four years old and has a picture with Fred Kirby to show for it. But at the age of 20, he was a junior at college and worked as a marshal at Tweetsie Railroad.

Sometime in this period he made his last recording, a single on the local Dixie label, seemingly unrelated to the other two Dixie labels. For at least a dozen years after his death, his birthday was still honored at Tweetsie.

Fred continued at Tweetsie at least through 1989, and perhaps later, but age began to catch up with the venerable entertainer. In 1993, he moved to a retirement center and passed away at age 85 in 1996, fondly remembered by thousands of children in the Carolina Piedmont. Two compact discs of his early recordings were released in England and Germany respectively.

Fred Kirby - Tweetsie Railroad - 1990

Fred was first married the former Mildred Joyner. They had three daughters, Patricia, Dianne, and Evon. They were divorced on February 24, 1958. She was born November 27, 1910; died November 4, 1975.

Fred then married Mary Burke Durrence on April 26, 1958. He was 47, she was 30. They were married 38 years at the time of Fred's death in 1996. She was born July 25, 1927; died June 21, 2012.

Columnist Kays Gary wrote of the annual Carrousel Parade in Charlotte:

The Carrousel Parade, Fred Kirby, Santa Claus.

Today (November 25, 1982) marks the 36th year of a Charlotte Thanksgiving tradition keyed on the above billing.

A Carrousel without Kirby is like the Thanksgiving feast without a turkey, which is not, on second thought, to imply that Kirby is a turkey. ,,, Kirby is genuine, a symbol of love for children and life itself. He is changeless, the logo of our innocence and best intents.

But we hold to the premise that Fred and Calico will canter down Tryon Street for Thanksgivings without end.

And so, wherever you are today, lift a toast to Kirby and let your laughter ring for his reminder that life has been good and tomorrow's promise is better.

"You Just Can't Feel Bad When You're Around Him"
(The title of an article by Lew Powell in June of 1975)

Fred Kirby - Song Folio - 1946

Credits & Sources

  • Hillbilly-Music.com would like to express its thanks to Ivan M. Tribe, author of Mountaineer Jamboree — Country Music in West Virginia and other books that can be found on Amazon.com and numerous articles in other publications for providing us with information about this artist.
  • Fred Kirby, singer of familiar songs...; March 25, 1943; Naborhood Link News; St. Louis, MO
  • Fred Kirby, singer of familiar songs...; March 25, 1943; Naborhood Link News; St. Louis, MO
  • Microphonics; September 20, 1936; Greenville News; Greenville, SC
  • Facing The Music; Ken Alden; December 1943; Radio Mirror (The Magazine of Radio Romances; Macfadden Publications, Inc. Dunellen, NJ
  • Save The Judy Garland Show; Harriet Doar; January 19, 1964; The Charlotte Observer; Charlotte, NC
  • Marshal Fred Kirby Rides Again (Ad); July 6, 1990; The Charlotte Observer; Charlotte, NC
  • On Telephones, Tots, Triplets - City Side; Kays Gary; February 2, 1982; The Charlotte Observer; Charlotte, NC
  • Fred Kirby Pens Song For Crippled Children; November 30, 1956; The Charlotte Observer, Charlotte, NC
  • Kids' Hero Fred Kirby Plays Ambassador At Large; Joel Blackwell; June 27, 1982; The Charlotte Observer; Charlotte, NC
  • Kirby, Calico Back On Street; Kays Gary; November 25, 1982; The Charlotte Observer; Charlotte, NC

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Buy this Book
WBT Briarhoppers
Eight Decades of a Bluegrass Band Made For Radio
By Tom Warlick and Lucky Warlick
McFarland
2007
215 Pages
ISBN:  0-786-43144-X
 

Printer Friendly Version

Recordings (78rpm/45rpm)

 
Bluebird
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  6325 A In the Shade of the Old Pine Tree
  6325 B I?m Lonesome, Sad and Blue
  6367 A Roll On, Roll On (w/ Bob Phillips)
  6367 B When It's Roundup Time in Heaven (w/ Bob Phillips)
  6419 A Lonesome Lullaby
  6419 B I'm a Gold Diggin' Papa
  6459 A Play that Waltz Again (with Don White)
  6459 B Not Fred Kirby, but Don White solo
  6540 A My Old Saddle Horse Is Missing (w/ Don White)
  6540 B That Good Old Utah Trail (w/ Cliff Carlisle)
  6597 A My Man
  6597 B My Heavenly Sweetheart
  6763 A Wagon Train Keep Rollin? Along
  6763 B Song of the Golden West
  7009 A Get Along Old Paint
  7009 B Where the Longhorn Cattle Roam
  7056 A My Carolina Sweetheart (w/ Bob Phillips)
  7056 B My Darling Nell (w/ Bob Phillips)
  7164 A Night Time on the Prairie
  7164 B Answer to Home on the Range
  7190 A Hello My Baby
  7190 B I?ve Got a Red Hot Mama
  7261 A My Mother Comes from Ireland
  7261 B My Sweet Mother on the Range
  7310 A I'm Roughest and Toughest
  7310 B Underneath Texas Moonlight
 
Columbia
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  20740 A When The Hell Bomb Falls
  20740 B Old Country Preacher
  20764 A My Zig Zaggin' Baby
  20764 B My Red Hot Potato
  21009 A Lost
  21009 B Out Of My Mind
  21056 A My Soul Is Not For Sale
  21056 B When It's Reveille Time In Heaven
  21066 A When The Devil Sends His Calling Card
  21066 B Crossroads To Eternity
 
Conqueror
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  8098 A When It's Roundup Time In Texas (w/Cliff Carlisle)
  8098 B Roll On Blue Moon (w/Cliff Carlisle)
 
Decca
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  46083 A Precious Jesus I'll Be There
  46083 B Find My Precious Home
  5548 A Cathedral In The Pines
  5548 B Every Day Is Mothers Day
  5557 A You're The Only Star In My Blue Heaven
  5557 B Calling Ole Faithful
  5576 A Birmingham Jail
  5576 B Columbus Stockade Blues
  5594 A God's Love Will Shine
  5594 B Precious Jesus, I?ll Be There
  5611 A My Carolina Home
  5611 B Prayer Meetin' Time in the Mountains
  5680 A Life's Railway to Heaven
  5680 B Find My Precious Home
  5708 A Bury Me Beneath the Roses
  5708 B Deep Sea Blues
 
Dixie
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  1102 A Indian Fightin' Man
  1102 B Pretty Little Tweetside
 
Gotham
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  G-404 B Wreck Of The Old 97 (w/WBT Briarhoppers)
  G-404 B After All These Years (w/WBT Briarhoppers)
  G-801 A Casey Jones (w/WBT Briarhoppers)
  G-801 A Deep In The Bottom Of The Sea (w/WBT Briarhoppers)
 
MGM
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  10353 A God Made This Country
  10353 B That Almighty Dollar
  10474 A Jukebox Jackson from Jacksonville
  10474 B My Little Dog Loves Your Little Dog
 
Montgomery Ward
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  4853 A I'm Lonesome Sad And Blue
  4853 B In The Shade Of The Old Pine Tree
  4854 A My Old Fashioned Sweetheart
  4854 B Cottage By The Wayside
  4855 A Lonesome Lullaby
  4855 B My Little Texas Town
  7182 A Where The Longhorn Cattle Roam
  7182 B Get Along Old Paint
  7183 A Wagon Train Keep Rollin' Along
  7183 B Song Of The Golden West
  7364 A Night Time On The Prairie
  7364 B Home - Answer To Home On The Range
 
Sonora
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  1113 A Please Don't Take My Baby
  1113 B Hang Your Head In Shame
  3038 A The Wreck of the Old '97
  3038 B Deep in the Bottom of the Sea
  3040 A Casey Jones (w/The Mountaineers)
  3040 A Casey Jones
  3040 B It's The Beginning Of The End (w/The Mountaineers)
  3040 B It's the Beginning of the End
  7001 A When It's Reveille Time in Heaven
  7001 B Somewhere a Heart Is Breaking
  7008 A Atomic Power
  7008 B Honey Be My Honey Bee
  7009 A My War Torn Heart
  7009 B I've Been a Fool too Often and too Long
  7023 A That's How Much I Love You
  7023 B After All These Years
  7037 A Boogie Woogie Farmer
  7037 B My Little Boy Blue
  7040 A Two Double X
  7040 B Ages and Ages Ago
  7043 A Down Right Lonely, Down Right Blue
  7043 B I Can't Tell a Lie to My Heart
  7045 A You'll Never Take Away My Dreams
  7045 B The Chapel in the Hills
  7046 A Welcome Back to My Heart
  7046 B The Leaf of Love


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