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Onie Wheeler
Born:  November 10, 1921
Died:  May 26, 1984
KBIM Jonesboro, AR
KSIM Sikeston, MO
KWOC Poplar Bluff, MO
WKTM Mayfield, KY
WSM Nashville, TN
WWOK Flint, MI

About The Artist

Onie Daniel Wheeler had one of the most atypical vocal styles in country music. Many critics see him as being several years ahead of his time, but still firmly rooted in country music. A native of Senath, Missouri, Onie grew up as part of a large family. Onie learned harmonica and guitar in his youth, but never thought of it as a career until after he came out of a five-year hitch in military service (1940-1945) which included action in the Pacific. Onie told readers in Country & Western Jamboree's 1957 yearbook that he spent $5.00 for a guitar and harmonica he saw in an advertisement. He said, "I did' learn but three chords on my guitar, but the harmonica came a whole lot easier. I would take it win the fields with me and play while plowing." He won a talent contest in high school that may have planted the seed to a future in music. During time in the Army, he won a number of talent contests which undoubtedly influenced his post-war choice to try music as an occupation.

Wheeler initially worked stints at a number of small radio stations in southeast Missouri and adjacent states for a number of years. Along the way, he met and married Betty Jean Crow in 1946 and they worked as the team Onie and Betty Jean for a time.

Promo Ad - KSIM - Sikeston MO - Onie Wheeler and Blue Shadow Boys - 1948

At WWOK (Flint, Michigan) in 1950, the two recorded a single on the Agana label. Back in Missouri at WSIM Sikeston, he met three more musicians: guitarists A. J. and Doyal Nelson and drummer Ernie Thompson who would primarily be his band members for the next several years. By this time Betty Jean left the road as daughter Karen had been born in 1947 and a second daughter would soon join the family which eventually numbered three children.

While working at a club in Odessa, Texas they met Little Jimmie Dickens who suggested they go to Nashville and seek a record contract.

In Nashville, they encountered Troy Martin who helped them get a contract with OKeh records, later changed to Columbia. In exchange, Martin got part ownership of four of Onie's original songs which were recorded on August 29, 1953. "Run 'Em Off" became Onie's best known song and also made the charts for Lefty Frizzell. "Mother Prays Loud in her Sleep" became a bluegrass gospel classic for Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs as did "A Million Years in Glory" to a lesser extent which was also covered by Carl Story. In December Wheeler and associates came back to Nashville and again in May 1954 with a session that produced more songs including another original gospel classic as covered by Lester and Earl, "I Saw Mom with God Last Night."

In 1954, he was part of a special radio network broadcast of the Tennessee Barn Dance over WNOX in Knoxville, TN. The occasion was to celebrate two of the show's acts latest Columbia releases - Don Gibson ("Symptoms of Love" and "Many Times I Waited") and Carl Story ("Step It Up And Go" and "Have You Come To Say Goodbye.") Lowell Blanchard was the emcee of the show which also featured Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.

In 1955, Onie was part of a group of acts that set off on a tour of Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee. The tour was arranged and underwritten by Hank Snow and Col. Tom Parker. Hank Snow was the main headline act. Others on the tour included Faron Young, the Wilburn Brothers, Slim Whitman, Martha Carson, the Davis Sisters, Mother Maybelle Carter and the Carter Sisters, Jimmie Rodgers Snow along with Onie Wheeler. A young and upcoming star by the name of Elvis Presley was on this tour as well.

Promo Ad - 1961 - Onie Wheeler and Karen Wheeler - Oak Grove Inn - Sikeston MO Promo Ad - Epic Records - Karen Wheeler - Onie Wheeler - Billboard - Nov 1962

For a time in 1956, Onie toured as a featured vocalist and bass player with Flatt and Scruggs and had another hit with "Onie's Bop." But he generally preferred a Missouri residence which was hardly a good career choice although he toured with some of the upcoming stars of Sun Records such as Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. In fact, when his Columbia contract expired, he recorded for Sun in 1957 which produced a rockabilly classic "Jump Right Off This Jukebox" although it did little for his career at the time.

Promo Ad - Flatt and Scruggs Show with Onie Wheeler - Mamilton OH - September 1956 Promo Ad - Johnny Cash Show with Onie Wheeler - July 1957 - Owensboro KY

Onie then went back to working a day job and ran a country music park near St. Louis on weekends.

Finally, when he and Karen, now a teenager, signed a brief deal with Epic in 1962, he moved to the Nashville area. He soon went to work as a featured vocalist with the George Jones show and recorded a single for Pappy Dailey's Musicor label.

As a writer, he composed a pair of George Jones-Melba Montgomery hits "Let's Invite Them Over" and "There's a Friend in the Way." Later in the decade he joined Roy Acuff's Smokey Mountain Boys playing harmonica and doing his train whistle on railroad songs. With minor exceptions he remained a part of the Acuff band much of the rest of his life.

Promo Ad - 1961 - Onie Wheeler and Karen Wheeler - Oak Grove Inn - Sikeston MO Promo Ad - Epic Records - Karen Wheeler - Onie Wheeler - Billboard - Nov 1962
Promo Ad - 1961 - Onie Wheeler and Karen Wheeler - Oak Grove Inn - Sikeston MO On October 14, 1979, Onie was part of a 'first' in a concert at the Auditorium Theater in Chicago, IL. It was the first time that three Opry legends were appearing together at the same concert &mdahs; Roy Acuff, Hank Snow and Ernest Tubb. Onie was part of the Smokey Mountain Boys that afternoon - Howdy Forrester, Charlie Collins and Brother Oswald. Onie did his famous train whistle introduction to Acuff's "Wabash Cannonball" to open Roy's show. He also did a solo number and Roy was accompanying him on his fiddle. He also backed Howdy with his harmonican when Howdy did a solo number.

The concert was promoted as "Country Music '79" as part of the "October is Country Music Month" celebration. The show was promoted by Cal Starr and also included other performers, Kelly Foxton, Cal Starr and Joanna Houston. Ticket prices were $15, $12, $10 and $8.

During the week, he worked for Shot Jackson at Sho-Bud Guitars. Onie also bought a forty acre farm near Mt. Juliet, Tennessee.

Promo Ad - Hank Snow Grand Ole Opry show with Elvis Presley - Onie Wheeler - Orlando FL - May 1955 Promo Ad - Roy Acuff Show with Onie Wheeler - Waco TX - Feb 1975

Promo Ad - Elvis Presley - Onie Wheeler - The Browns - Tyler TX - May 1955 Promo Ad - Elvis Presley - Onie Wheeler - Abilene TX - April 1955

Bear Family CD - Onie Wheeler - 1991 Wheeler continued to make records under his own name although with little recognition until 1972 when he had a mid-level hit with "John's Been Shuckin' My Corn" on Royal American.

In the early 1980's, he recorded an LP for Brylan and another one on his own Onie label.

In early 1984, he had an aneurism and surgery, but probably went back to work too soon. On May 25, 1984, while singing with his long time friends the Nelson Brothers, he collapsed and died on the Opry stage on Jimmie Snow's Grand Ole Gospel Time. In Robert K. Oermann's obituary in the Tennessean, Grant Turner said it was probably the first time a death occurred on the Opry stage.

There was a crowd of about 1,500 - the Gospel Time show usually took place after the Opry shows. He was in the midst of singing one of his most famous compositions, "Mother Prays Loud In Her Sleep" when he was stricken and suddenly fell forward. Rev. Jimmie Snow had the Opry curtain drawn and led the audience in a prayer for Onie as we was rushed to Nashville Memorial Hospital.

Onie's obituary indicated that for a short time, Elvis was a part of Onie's band.

He was survived by wife Betty Jean, daughters Karen and Jerene, and son Daniel.

In 1991 Bear Family Records reissued his OKeh, Columbia, and Sun material including some unreleased numbers.

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.
  • WNOX World Premiere Night; December 1954; Issue No. 38; Cowboy Songs; American Folk Publications, Inc.; Derby, CT/li>
  • Folk Talent & Tunes; Bill Sachs; May 14, 1955; The Billboard; Cincinnati, OH
  • Biographies of the Stars: Onie Wheeler; January 1957; Vol. 2 No. 10; Country & Western Jamboree; Maher Publications; Chicago, IL/li>
  • He Died As He Lived: Performing On Stage; Robert K. Oemann; May 27, 1984; The Tennessean; Nashville, TN/li>
  • Onie Wheeler Dies At Age 62; June 9, 1984; The Billboard; Cincinnati, OH/li>

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Recordings (78rpm/45rpm)

Rec. No. Side Song Title
  1352 A Shackles and Chains (w/The Lonesome Ozark Cowboys and Little Jean)
  1352 B What's Wrong With My Daddy (w/The Lonesome Ozark Cowboys)
  1355 A You Shattered Many A Dream (w/The Lonesome Ozark Cowboys)
  1355 B Too Young To Marry (w/The Lonesome Ozark Cowboys)
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  122 A I Don't Believe We're Through
  122 B Pick Up The Pieces
  129 A Lucie Ann's Song
  129 B I Don't Believe We're Through
  148 A Onie's Bop
  148 B I'd Rather Scrach With the Chickens
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  21371 A She Wiggled And Giggled
  21371 B Little Mama
  21418 A That's What I Like
  21418 B My Home Is Not A Home At All
  21454 A I'm Satisfied With My Dream
  21454 B Cut It Out
  21500 A No, I Don't Guess I Will
  21500 B I Tried And I Tried
  21523 A Onie's Bop
  21523 B I Wanna Hold My Baby
  40787 A A Beggar For Your Love
  40787 B A Booger Gonna' Get You
  40911 A Going Back To The City
  40911 B Steppin' Out
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  9540 A Sandyland Farmer
  9540 B What About Tomorrow (by Karen Wheeler)
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  9003 A Just Leave Her To Me
  9003 B Water Your Flower
  9013 A Dirt Behind My Years
  9013 B Burn Another Honky Tonk Down
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  227 A Mother Prays Loud In Her Sleep
  227 B Please Don't Break His Heart
  606 A Too Hot To Handle
  606 B I Need To Go Home
  617 A You're Getting All Over Me
  617 B All Day, All Night, Always
  620 A I Saw Mother With God
  620 B Go Home
  626 A White Lightning Cherokee
  626 B My Stubborn Heart
  671 A Too Hot To Handle
  671 B I Need To Go Home
  856 A Please Don't Plant Pretty Flowers
  856 B Which-a-Way, That-a-Way
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  1096 A I'm Gonna Hang My Briches Up
  1096 B You're Too Good For Me
  1121 A Her Porch Came Up To My Knees
  1121 B Pretty Little Tomboy
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  18022 A Run'Em Off
  18022 B When We All Get There
  18026 A A Million Years In Glory (w/His Ozark Boys)
  18026 B Mother Prays Loud In Her Sleep (w/His Ozark Boys)
  18037 A Closing Time
  18037 B I'll Swear You Don't Love Me
  18058 A Would You Like To Wear A Crown
  18058 B I Saw Mother With God Last Night
Ole Windmill Records
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  1004 A Shuckin' My Way To The Hall Of Fame
  1004 B I Can't Pass An Orchard
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  OR-101 A Take Me Back To My Home Town
  OR-101 B There's No Relief In Sight
Papa Joe
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  PJ 720 A The Train To Louisville
  PJ 720 B Be Kind To The Children
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  1025 A EIO (The Sawmill Man)
  1025 B Train To Louisville
Royal American
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  76 A John's Been Shucking My Corn
  76 B Make 'Em All Go Home
  85 A Shuckin' My Way To The Hall of Fame
  85 B I Can't Pass An Orchard
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  1325 A Too Hot To Handle
  1325 B I Need To Go Home
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  767 A Mr. Free
  767 B Dancing
  785 A Playing Tricks
  785 B I Closed My Book Last Night
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  315 A Jump Right Out Of This Juke Box
  315 B Tell 'Em Off
United Artists
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  716 A Wanted For Roberry
  716 B Who Put Out The Fire
  753 A Stubborn Heart
  753 B Who Wrote That Song
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  EP-208 A Go Home
  EP-208 A Mother Prays Loud In Her Sleep
  EP-208 B I Saw Mother With God Last Night
  EP-208 B Please Don't Break His Heart

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