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Ben and Jessie Norman
WNAX Missouri Valley Barn Dance
WNAX Yankton, SD

Ben and Jessie Norman were a husband wife act that performed together at various radio stations in the Midwest in the 1940s and into the 1950s before they were divorced around 1952.

Jessie Mae Fitzgerald was born in 1919 at Wood River, Nebraska. During her younger years she sang in the choir and was active in the usual musical and drama activities one found in high school. She grew up in a musical family. Her mom played the organ, piano, guitar and also sang. Her dad played fiddle, mouth harp, jews harp, guitar and sang, too. After Jessie Mae graduated from high school in 1937, she attended a beauty academy in Omaha, Nebraska.

Her future husband, Ben Norman was born in 1910 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The family home life would often find Ben playing guitar while his dad played the fiddle. Later, Ben and a friend, Lonnie, started singing on a radio station in Omaha, and they also worked in a meat packing plant. Lonnie was Lonnie Robertson, who later teamed up with Roy McGeorge as "Roy and Lonnie, The Boys From The Hills". They were at KFAB in Lincoln, Nebraska from around 1938 to 1940-1. Meanwhile, Lonnie was dating Jessie Mae's roommate and one night, he brought Ben along with him.

Ben started singing with his guitar and Jessie Mae just joined in singing with him. Ben was suitably impressed for he asked her to quit beauty school and come with him as he had an itch to sing on a radio station.

Jessie Mae accepted his offer and they set off for radio station KGFW in Kearney, Nebraska. One day she just stuck her head out the window to see if she could yodel—she could. Jessie Mae said that Ben looked at her so funny at the time, then he decided he would try to see if he could yodel too. He found out he could, too. Their stint at the station in Kearney lasted for several months.

From Kearney, they went to radio station WJMC in Rice Lake, Wisconsin. During that trip, the two of them stopped off in Papillion, Nebraska and got married. During this time frame, Jessie Mae took it upon herself to learn to play the mandolin and became quite a "picker". They stayed with WJMC for about a year.

The next stop in their career was at radio station KVOX in Moorehead, Minnesota. This time, their stint lasted nearly two years.

In 1941, their son, "Little Benny" was born in St. Paul, Minnesota. This was while they were singing over the airwaves at WMIN and various nightclubs in the area.

When 1942 arrived, they were on the move again, this time to KMMJ in Grand Island, Nebraska. That led to another move to KFNF in the famed Iowa town of Shenandoah. While there, Ben was inducted into the U.S. Army and went to Fort Leavenworth, then was transferred to Florida. Jessie Mae and Little Benny along with a girl friend traveled to Florida so she could be close to Ben.

Jessie Mae remembers that she and Ben used to sing in their Florida apartment with the windows wide open. One night, she said they heard people clapping and when they looked out the window, they saw a large crowd had gathered on the sidewalk and into the street and was enjoying the free "concert".

Ben was discharged from the military service in 1945 and they headed back to Grand Island and KMMJ. But while they were in Florida, Jessie Mae had written radio station WNAX up in Yankton, South Dakota, requesting a chance to come to the station for an audition. The station accepted their offer and they went, auditioned and got the job. They remained on the staff of WNAX for seven years.

Like many performers back then, they had their own radio show over WNAX and one of their sponsors was the Gamble Stores chain. Their sponsors had them travel to several states in the Midwest and entertain the customers at various Gamble Stores.

But along the way, the marriage had reached the point to where they were divorced in 1952. Jessie Mae left WNAX in 1952 and headed for Fairbanks, Alaska. She wanted to strike out on her own. During this time of upheaval in her life, her father had passed away, too. Before going to Fairbanks, she asked her mother to take care of Little Benny for a time. She had a brother who lived there and she lived with him a short while until he left Alaska.

Jessie Mae then got a job at the Ladd Air Force Base along with "secret" clearance, that enabled her to live on the base. She sang in the local nightclubs while there. After establishing herself in Fairbanks, she sent for Little Benny. They stayed there for quite a time and in fact, Benny graduated from high school while they were in Fairbanks. She was written up several times in the Fairbanks newspapers about her career in the nightclub business. She also enjoyed the privilege of working with Wanda Jackson when she did some shows in Alaska.

In 1962, Jessie Mae left Fairbanks and moved to southern California. She got a job with the Public Social Services department there and also worked for the Probation Department for a time, too. But she didn't give up the musical part of her life - she often entertained the audiences at the "Red Barn Nightclub" in Pomona and worked with Tex Williams and Eddie Dean.

Jessie Mae retired from the music business in 1980 due to her declining health. Her son, "Little Benny" came home to be with his mom for a time, but later returned to Fairbanks where he now lives.

Ben eventually moved to Winner, South Dakota where he worked at radio station WINR. He retired from radio in January of 1976 and moved to Custer, South Dakota. He later bought a motel and then took flying lessons, eventually buying his own plane. He lived in Winner a number of years and the local newspaper did a lengthy write-up on Ben and his career. He later left Winner and moved to Bemis, Tennessee in 1986, where he passed away on January 14, 1992. He was buried in the Veteran's Cemetery in Memphis, Tennessee.

Credits & Sources

  • Hillbilly-Music.com wishes to tip our hat in thanks to Ms. Lois Pierson who transcribed an interview of Jessie for our use. Ms. Pierson and her husband Willie Pierson worked together with the Normans for a time when they were at WNAX in Yankton, SD.

  • Hillbilly-Music.com also wishes to tip our hat in thanks to country music historian, Dick Hill, for additional information provided for this writeup.

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