About The Artist
Nora Mae Harper was born to parents William and Julia (Evans) Harper in March of 1918. Census records of 1920 seem to indicate she was born in Arkansas as her parents were then living in Pine Bluff. The 1920 census shows she was the youngest of five children in the Harper household.
By 1930, it appears the family had moved to Fort Worth, Texas. Another sibling had been born.
The 1940 census shows Nora Mae living with her parents and her marital status as 'divorced'.
But she was known to audiences and friends during her lifetime as "Dixie Harper." She first gained fame with her band at the time, the Bluebonnet Boys.
On Sunday, August 3, 1947, a statewide contest for amateur string bands was held in Dallas. The contest has previously been narrowed to a list of 27 bands from Texas.
It was sponsored by Gus Foster and Flem McDonald. The master of ceremonies for the contest was Fred Edwards. While it was reported that Dixie's band had only been together for about two and a half months, her five piece ensemble took first place in the contest. At the time, the band was being managed by Mrs. Jerry Harper.
A picture of the band in the newspaper a few days later tells readers who the members of Dixie's group were. Durwood Tonn (fiddle), David Baker (guitar), (Mrs) Dixie Harper, Slim Hensley (electric guitar and J. L. Hodges (bass fiddle).
Dixie was apparently making solo appearances in early 1947. One promotional ad shows her appearing on a midnight show at the Parkway Theater. She shared the bill with Sheb Wooly and his string band, Harvey Anderson (a black face act) and Shirley and Jim (a singing act). The show was promoted by the Daughters of America.
During 1947, the band's name took on the name of their sponsor - All Gold Flour. Thus, the band became "Dixie Harper and Her All Gold Drifters" as seen in various promotional ads for personal appearances.
But starting in 1948, after becoming Texas state champions, the band changed its name again or at least was promoted as Dixie Harper and Her Texas State Champion Band. Durwood Tonn was the fiddle player in the band, but also took on a comedic role with the band as well. He was billed as 'the funniest fiddler this side of Hollywood.' Slim Hensley was touted as the 'teenage heartbreaker.'
Based upon promotional ads seen, Dixie Harper and her State Champion Hillbilly Band were performing at the Saturday night Cowtown Rodeo events at 33rd and North Main in Fort Worth. One ad shows that they would perform at 7:30pm until the program (rodeo) started at 8:30pm.
In March of 1948, news reports indicated that Dixie and her band had signed on for an extended engagement at the Hilarity Club (located at the Roberts Cut-off and Jonesboro Highway. Al Clauser and his Outlaws had finished an engagement prior to Dixie's band. The band was to play three nights a week during the spring of 1948.
The Hilarity Club changed management after Dixie's engagement. Later, John Jones took over the management of the club. It was completely remodeled and was renamed the Nut House. COmedians (or two half-wits as articles called them) Don Payne and J. B. Brinkley became the main performers on weekends. The remodeling job included a cowbell to announce arrivals as well as a clothesline of 'unmentionables' overhead. Another article declared, "And the rest rooms? These you'll have to observer for yourselves."
Dixie and her band were busy on New Year's Eve 1948. They were booked at Lola's Paradise. Also booked was Chester Odom's band who were backing AL Dexter at Danceland.
A small mention in the newspaper in November 1949 tells us that Dixie also had another regular venue she appeared at. She had recovered from a throat illness and was again appearing regularly at Stella's Dine & Dance on E. Belknap in Fort Worth. The mention stated that her band, the Bluebonnet Brats, had won the state championship for hillbilly bands for three years and were being heard and seen over radio and television.
We received an email from Horace Barnes back in 2012. He wrote that he attended the same school as Dixie's son, Houston Day. He said they played guitar and would sing for the kids at J. P. Elder Junior High School in music class. Horace lost touch with everyone after he joined the U. S. Navy in 1954. He noted that he played in several bands and wrote a few songs. One of those songs got recorded, "One Step Ahead Of A Heartache."
In early 1950, Dixie was part of the earliest television broadcasts in Fort Worth. Leslie A. Hoffman, an electronics manufacturer in California had taken on the promotion of local, live television broadcasts that usually featured local hillbilly music acts. His idea was to introduce the new television medium as well as to sell television sets, which sometimes were pieces of furniture in themselves.
On Friday night, January 27, 1950, a crowd of nearly 2,000 was expected to be at the Paschal High School Auditorium to view the "biggest remote television show ever aired in the Southwest." The show was to begin at 8:00pm and folks were told to be in their seats by 7:45pm. WBAP-TV engineers would be providing special hook-ups that would allow the audience to see themselves. Appearing on the "Hoffman Round-Up" show were Ken Houchins (acting as emcee), Bob Crawford, Roscoe Pierce, Bill Ring, The Westernaire Trio, Peggy Wilder, Calvin Moore and his square dancers, Fred Stroud (a 'very remarkable ventriloquist) along with Dixie Harper.
Dixie's radio program seems to have ended on KCNC in August 1950. In September 1950, the radio logs for station KCUL was showing a half-hour program for Dixie and her band. Their show was after Bing Crosby's and before the Cowtown Corral.
Dixie was also a regular on another new television show over WBAP-TV. Cousin Herald Goodman was hosting the "Crossroads Store" as a proprietor of the store and mayor of the town. Dixie played the role of "Miss Effie". The cast also included city-slicker Bill Guy, Kate's Country Cousins and a four-piece band.
The West Texas Fair in September 1950 was featuring what was termed a "Hillbilly Circus" that would feature western musicians each night of the fair that was held at the Sears Arena. Radio station KRBC was sponsoring the show that would begin at 8:00pm each night and last until around 10:00pm - 10:30pm. Part of the show would be broadcast over KRBC each night as well.
Dixie Harper and Her Bluebonnet Band was to appear at the fair on Monday and Tuesday nights (September 25 and 26). Following her would be well known performer with roots at the Grand Ole Opry, Cousin Herald Goodman who would be there on Wednesday and Thursday evenings. A mixture of local and out of town acts were also appearing. Among those listed were Dan Roay, the Butane Boys, Slim Willett, Dave Cox and his Blue Sage Boys, Melvin Mazey and his Texas Pals, Kim Polk (from Swseetwater), Katy Ball (from Hawley), Jeanne Stansbury, Bert Caffey, Johnny Mosley, Vaughn O'Shield (from Lawn) and a 16 year old soloist from Albuquerque, Faye Martin.
In 1953, Dixie was part of a group of 60 western and hillbilly entertainers who put on a benefit show for the tornado damaged areas in Waco and San Angelo, Texas. The show was to be part of the weekly "Hayloft Jamboree" that was held on Friday nights at the North Side Coliseum. WBAP radio and TV were going to broadcast the event. Besides Dixie, some of the other stars appearing on the show were the Maddox Brothers and Rose, Sonny James, Darrell Glenn, the Friendly Four Quartet and the Marion Snyder Quartet.
The last mention of Dixie Harper in the radio logs for Fort Worth was on June 30, 1951.
While she may not have had a radio program any longer, she did appear to stay with the music. In 1964, she was part of the Doyle Stokes band that appeared with Tommy Duncan and Leon Rousch at the Stage Coach Inn.
If indeed it was the Dixie Harper, the subject of this essay, she won a $350 first prize in the talent show sponsored by the World Inn Blackstone during the weekend of March 20-21, 1971. She would have been about 53 years old at the time.
Dixie's only daughter, Arlene, wrote us an email providing other information and explaining the later life of Dixie. Dixie was married to Terry Day at one time; they had a son, Terry Houston Day, who was born in 1936 and passed away in August 2018.
Terry and Dixie divorced and that is when Dixie decided to make a go of it with music and become a performer. She started up her band, at first known as the Bluebonnet Boys and later as the Texas State Champion Fiddle Band.
She married two other times, one ending in divorce and another leaving her a widow.
She then met Donald Louis Sparks and they were married in 1953. They had a daughter, Julia Arlene, in 1954. A son, Donnie Mark Sparks, was born in 1957.
Dixie and Donald divorced in 1959. Dixie never remarried.
Around 1963, Dixie decided she wanted to become a performer again. She formed a three piece all girl band. They played every Saturday night at the Half Century Club in downtown Fort Worth for about two years.
It was during that time that Dixie decided to make a change in her life, leaving music behind and finding a new career. She went to nursing school. It was no easy task for her during this time as she worked at several jobs to pay the bills while attending school. She drove a laundry truck and delivered laundry, she had a paper route which entailed stocking the newspaper boxes around town. She also drove a taxi for atime.
Once she finished nursing school, she became a Private Duty nurse for many years. She worked in hospitals, nuring homes and private homes.
She no longer had the all girl band. But she was asked many times to come and perform with other musicians around town. She took up some of those offers when she was off duty. It was something she really enjoyed. She took the stage at venues such as Panther Hall, Guys and Dolls, Rusters Rest, the Stagecoach Inn and other similar venues around Fort Worth.
In response to our inquiry, she noted that Dixie was the hit of family gatherings! She would take out her guitar and sing tunes for the family. Her son, Houston, would bring his guitar to some of these gatherings and participate as well, doing numbers with his mom. Arlene said it left them some very fond memories.
Dixie continued her nursing career until about 1995 when she decided it was time to retire.
During those years, Dixie's daughter Arlene got married. Her husband was in the U. S. Air Force and was stationed in the U. K. fof a period of time. They invited Dixie to visit them; Dixie enjoyed it as she had never been overseas. Arlene and her husband moved to Mississippi where he was stationed. Dixie looked forward to visiting them and also her daughter's visits to Fort Worth.
But by 1999, Dixie's health was deteriorating. Her family took the car keys from her as she had gotten lost while driving ‐ twice. But she was stubborn and wanted to live in her own home and be independent. Her daughter arranged for an organization to tend to her mother's needs such as groceries, errands, etc.
In May of 2002, while her youngest, Donnie, was visiting and she became seriously ill and was taken to the hospital. They diagnosed her with double pneumonia and Alzheimer Disease. She could not tell anyone her name at that point. The doctor told Arlene and Donnie she could no longer live alone. The serious nature of her illness at that time kept her in the hospital for two weeks.
Her son got her a place in a nursing home in Weatherford, TX and they sold Dixie's home. Later, Arlene moved her mom to the Driftwood Nursing Home in Gulfport, MS. Her health improved a bit, regaining a lot of her capabilities until around 2006. She gave the home instructions to keep the TV on the country music channel 24 / 7 - she never lost her love of music.In early 2007, she lost most of her memory and eventually passed away in March of 2007. Arlene indicated that one of the nephews put together a DVD highlighting her career in music.
By 1988, Dixie had moved to Gulfport, Mississippi. She passed away on March 7, 2007. She was later buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Fort Worth, Texas.
Credits & Sources
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