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Johnny Rion
Born:  May 20, 1916
Died:  December 31, 1996
KMOX Old Fashioned Barn Dance
KFMO Flat River, MO
KFVS Cape Girardeau, MO
KWK St. Louis, MO
WIBV Belleville, IL (1950)
KSTL St. Louis, MO (1953)

About The Artist

He was born in Farmington, Missouri. At the age of twelve, Johnny Rion bought a guitar for $3.00 and in a short time was playing at schoolhouses, dances and parties throughout the southeast Missouri area. They wrote that his boyhood idol was the legendary Blue Yodeler himself, Jimmie Rodgers. He began writing songs in his teens sending them to St. Louis entertainers and in fact was first heard over KMOX. His songs received extensive airplay and were heard on radio almost daily and on CBS coast-to-coast. During slack periods on his Father's farm, he made various appearances on many radio stations including KMOX's Pappy Cheshire's National Champion Hillbillies, the house band for the Old Fashion Barn Dance a national radio show. His song, Hit the Trail became the show theme.

He became a member of a group on radio station KWK in St. Louis for a time and by the mid 1940's Cowboy Music World honored him in the Cowboy Songwriter's Honor Roll of writers of over 100 songs along with Jimmie Rodgers, Gene Autry, Jimmy Davis and others.

During the 1940's Johnny had a recording contract with King Records in Cincinnati, Ohio. At King, he recorded with Jerry Byrd, Zeke & Zeb Turner, Tommy Jackson, and Ernie Newton and released "The Blind Childs Prayer", and his own compositions, "Handprints on the Window Pane", "Sunny Tennessee" and "Package Tied In Blue."

Johnny also had his songs recorded and released by:

  • Rex Allen
    Old Country Chapel
  • The Country Girls
    Dreaming of My Texas Home
  • Ernest Tubb
    Go Home
  • The Wilburn Brothers
    Temptation Go Away
  • Benny Martin
    Who Put Those Tears In Your Pretty Blue Eyes
  • Johnny Lee Wills
    The Eyes of My Heart
  • Cal Shrum
    That Heaven Bound Train
  • Skeets Yaney with the Four Guys
    Heaven at Five
  • Ann Rion
    The Love Bug Boogie; I'm Thinking of Settling Down; I Want A Man I Can Trust and many others.

Late 1953 found him at KSTL in St. Louis, where a Cowboy Songs Disc Jockey Roundup article cites his motto as "Be humble and honest with the folks. Work hard and play what the listeners want to hear." And he put those words to action - he had a weekday program that began at 6:15am and then had a late evening show at 8:30pm. They said he did four programs on weekdays and two on Sundays. During that time, he was getting 1,500 to 2,000 fan letters and cards a week.

In 1956, he sang and recorded four sides for ABC Paramount and in the same session recorded his own original theme "Under The Light of The Western Stars". The late Red Sovine produced the session of four original songs. Chet Atkins played lead guitar, Roy Wiggins on steel, Dale Potter played fiddle, Van Howard played rythmn, Curly Rhodes was on bass and Cedarwood published the release of: "Our Love is Just Fading Away" and "You're The One For Me". Two of the other songs recorded in the session, "A little More Each Day" and "I Can't Find My Way Out of Your Heart", were not released.

His recording of a song written by Reverend John Barton, "The Iron Mountain Baby" was placed in the archives of the Missouri Historical Society and the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Another of his compositions, "That Heaven Bound Train" a tribute to Hank Williams is also enshrined in the Hall of Fame at Nashville. Including his own early recordings Johnny recorded about 30 sides and four albums released on Embassy, King, Coral and ABC Paramount labels; his own New Life label contains his later recordings.

In later years, Johnny cut several records of his own songs, solo on his own independent Open Road and New Life labels including "Faded Gardenia", "Sweat on My Brow", "There Will Always Be a Red White and Blue", a re-issue of "The Iron Mountain Baby", "It's Later than You Realize" and "Goodbye Mom".

Most reverently and proudly, on his own New Life record label he recorded an album: Hymn Time with Johnny Rion. All twelve of the songs include five composed by Johnny and seven standards. The album and most all of his later records were recorded with only Johnny and his 1937 Martin guitar which he used his entire life. Johnny later recorded three more albums of hymns which were only made available on cassette. Additionally on cassette, Johnny catalogued 118 of his most memorable secular songs and The Iron Mountain Baby song and story. His library of compositions numbers well over three hundred.

In 1937 he did a Saturday night radio program singing live on KFVS Cape Girardeau Missouri and began a radio career that spanned 60 years. During the 1940's, Johnny appeared on radio stations KREI, Farmington, Mo. with his group, The Martha White Mountaineers and KFMO, in Flat River, Mo. and in 1950 was hired by Carson May Stern Furniture Company in St. Louis to produce shows at WIBV, Belleville, Illinois and KSTL in St. Louis. By 1955, Johnny had been on twenty-five radio stations at various times. He stayed with Carson's and appeared on many other stations for them until 1966. He also was a featured entertainer on TV station Channel 36 predecessor to KTVI Channel 2.

From 1950 to 1958, in addition to his radio career and song writing, he and his wife Ann operated the Johnny Rion Hillbilly Park with locations in Okawville, Granite City and Chain of Rocks Illinois as well as St. Louis which featured top names from the Grand Ole Opry. Art Denny, General Manger of the Opry gave Johnny exclusive booking rights within a one hundred mile radius of St. Louis. Many of the stars that performed there have since been inducted into the County Music Hall of Fame.

As luck would have it, we received an email telling us of an experience a group of performers had at the Hillbilly Park around 1955. Memories...a priceless gift. We thank Marcia R. Massey for passing along this memory. Read on:

Memories from Hillbilly Park...
"This is a true story of Claude Massey, his brother Jerry Massey, and Floyd Pauli, the brother of Marcia."

Jerry liked the sound of the bass guitar. Trouble is he didn’t have one. So his dad told him how they used to make them when he was a kid. You take a washtub, make a hole in the center of the bottom, turn it upside down and run a broom stick through it, then string a rope to the top of the broom stick, down through the hole in the tub, add a washer, tie a knot in it, and you have a bass drum.

Well, the technology is a little more involved than that, but Jerry made it simple. By running your hand up and down the rope as you thump it against the wooden stick, holding it with your thumb, and strumming with your fingers, you get a sound like a bass. You can’t tell them apart if you weren't looking.

Jerry was ecstatic with his instrument—once he developed hard calluses on his blistered fingers. It was a painful sacrifice to be sure, but he would keep playing, stopping every so often to look at his swollen fingers, shake them, and say, “Man!” then go right on plucking. He got so good on it that Claude decided it was time to take their talent one step further.

At that time amateurs were invited once a month throughout the summer to perform at Hillbilly Park in St. Louis for a country music talent contest. Claude and Jerry decided they’d go sign up, but they needed another player, so asked Floyd if he would go with them. There was one song in particular that he picked quite well, called “La Paloma.” Claude decided he would back him up with rhythm and with Jerry on the bass. They felt pretty good about their chance of getting some attention at the contest to further their career as musicians, as talent scouts would often be in the audience.

The big day arrived and they loaded up their old car with the guitars, tub and performers and off they went. But Jerry was having second thoughts, biting his nails to the quick, and making excuses to back out. He was having all sorts of visions of what could go wrong, namely, that his rope would break in the middle of their act, which it was apt to do as it shredded from the stress of plucking, not to mention the rubbing on the hole cut in the middle of the galvanized tub.

The weather for the day was perfect and Hillbilly Park was packed with people who were there not only to hear the amateurs, but the professional musicians and singers who would take part in the show. Some were rather popular, coming all the way from Nashville.

The guys signed up and found a place to sit and try to relax before their turn. As they waited, each one of them grew quieter and their faces seem to get paler, and Jerry’s nails became shorter. After hearing some of the contestants, they knew the competition was going to be a challenge for them.

Finally, it was their turn and showing their nervousness, their legs trembled as they walked on stage. People began to laugh as they watched Jerry set up his big tub; he was ready to call it quits right there. To him, this was no comedy routine.

The group finally struck their first chord and the audience grew quiet with anticipation of what they were going to hear. Marcia and her sister Jackie were standing in front of the crowd by the stage with big smiles on their faces, trying to encourage the band.

Everything was going great until they got to the chorus, which was only about one minute into the song. Then for some reason, he lost track of time and the minute seemed began to seem like hours with a sea of faces watching them. Floyd stopped playing as though the song was over. This caught Claude and Jerry off guard. They turned around and gave Floyd a quizzical look, and seeing him just standing there, they stopped too, as Floyd was the lead man.

Well, sometimes the Spanish songs have a stop-beat; the crowd just stood there waiting to hear what may come next, as Claude, Jerry, and Floyd stood frozen in time. Jerry was looking at Claude; Claude was looking at Floyd, who was staring at the audience with a puzzled look on his face, his complexion switching back and forth from red to white. He was wondering why no one clapped. Even the worst perfomers so far had gotten some minimal applause if only for the effort.

Jackie and Marcia saw the dilemma and began to clap and holler, “Yea!!! More!!! More!!!” and their voices echoed throughout the silent crowd. That seemed to break the spell. A spatter of clapping started in the crowd, then a few hollered, “More!” and the show host, realizing what had happened, came to the microphone.

“That was great, guys,” he said, “Let’s hear that again, and how about playing a little longer this time?” With a big grin spreading across our musicians faces, they began to play again with real gusto.

Jackie and Marcia suddenly noticed Jerry’s rope growing thinner and thinner, and Jerry noticed too. His eyes grew bigger and bigger as he watched it fray and we all prayed it wouldn’t break before the end of the song, which it did with the very last chord! The audience must have thought this was planned because they broke up with laughter and applause! It probably was the funniest performance the audiences at Hillbilly Park had ever seen.

“Man,” Jerry muttered, as he walked off stage. “If that thing woulda broke while I was playin’ I woulda got under that tub and crawled off like a big turtle!” Then he added, turning to Claude, “Don’t EVER ask me to do this again!”

The guys didn’t win first place with the crowd that day, but they sure won first place with Marcia and her gang for their efforts!

And, as Claude would say, “That’s the end of THAT tune!”

Through his very popular radio programs he also promoted appearances by many country music artists. Johnny Rion was deeply involved in the Country Music business in the St. Louis area. When Columbia Records wanted to present awards to Marty Robbins for White Sport Coat and Ray Price an award for Crazy Arms, they asked Johnny to do it in St. Louis.

In 1955, Country Song Roundup included a note from Johnny in their special RCA Victor tribute issue. Johnny took the opportunity to pay tribute to one of his idols - Hank Snow. He was a member of Hank's fan club. He also collected Hank's recordings when he could find them in the early stages of Hank's career when perhaps they were harder to come by. Johnny was quoted, "It's always a great pleasure to have Hank appear at our Hillbilly Park every year, because you can be assured of a large attendance. I'm sure it's the same everywhere his appearances take him." He mentioned that he had proof of Hank's popularity in his mail box every day. But then ironically he notes as a disc jockey might, that it can be fleeting the moments a singer has a hold on the audience when he notes, "...and as long as the songs he chooses are so appealing, we can feel sure our listeners will leave their radio dials where they are when Hank beings his song."

When Johnny Rion was not operating his Hillbilly Parks or playing dances in the region or at Playing the New Lindy Hall and Jefla Hall in St. Louis, he was promoting shows in other seasons of the year.

Perhaps the most memorable shows that Johnny did not book into St. Louis, but was deeply involved with took place at the Missouri Theatre October 21, 22 and 23, 1955. Two shows were scheduled for 7:00pm and 9:30pm Friday and Saturday, with three shows scheduled for Sunday at 2:00pm, 5:00pm and 8:00pm. In advance of the event, Colonel Tom Parker arranged a meeting with Johnny. At the meeting, he presented Johnny with a string neck tie especially made for "The Colonel" by Smiley Burnette's wife and a fifty dollar bill for phone calls to help promote a show coming to St. Louis. He asked Johnny to serve as emcee for the event featuring twenty-five great Country stars including: Roy Acuff and The Smokey Mountain Boys, Kitty Wells, Johnny & Jack and the Tennessee Mountain Boys, Pap and his Amazing Jug Band, and Elvis Presley a sensational rising star with Sun Records. General admission in advance was 75 cents, $1.00 at the door; kids 25 cents and reserved tickets "slightly higher." Johnny did promote and emcee the shows, and his entire family met, mingled and talked with the future King of Rock 'N' Roll, band members Bill Black and Scotty Moore as well as all the other great artists present. Elvis in fun had even tried to kiss thirteen year old Priscilla Rion on the cheek.

On January 1, 1956, Johnny & Ann's paths again crossed Presley's when he played another cavalcade of country star's show at The Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis. Ann recalled her backstage memory of that occasion:

"He was such a nice young man, he asked us to go out for dinner, but Johnny had to run to the airport to pick up Webb Pierce. I guess I'm the only woman in the world that ever had to turn down an invitation to have dinner with Elvis."

Johnny and Ann made a friendship with Elvis and Colonel Tom Parker that would result in a Christmas card every year thereafter from: "The Colonel and his friend." Johnny was given the opportunity to book Presley at his Hillbilly Park, which he declined.

Entertainment in St. Louis in the 1950's saw Johnny Rion involved if it had anything to do with his kind of music. And even the King of Rock and Roll started in the field of music that Johnny Rion help cultivate in St. Louis and other area's.

In 1958, he was ordained an evangelist at the Dongola Missouri Baptist Church and tirelessly traveled to any denomination and hundreds of churches, groups and organizations that called him the remainder of his days. His music was always an integral part of his ministry. He described his ministry as strictly gospel- the plan of salvation. When asked what religion he represented his reply was: "The one Paul preached." In 1957, Johnny had a life changing born again experience and never wavered or faltered from the life God called him to for forty earthly years.

Johnny was also an accomplished sculptor and built model homes. He sculpted busts of country stars and all the presidents through Nixon. Several of his Lincoln sculptors were put on display in the Springfield, Illinois area. His entirely homemade model replica of the home of country music pioneer Jimmy Rodgers remains on display in the Jimmy Rodgers Museum in Meridian Mississippi. His model replica of the Rhyman Auditorium, home of the original Grand Ole Opry, was displayed at the Ernest Tubb Record Shop, on Broadway in Nashville, Tennessee.

During the last ten years of his life, Johnny and his wife Ann hosted a Cowboy Church Radio Program on station KFMO, 1240 AM Park Hills, Mo. Sunday's at 9 to 9:30 a.m. To perpetuate the program, Ann continues the Sunday morning program with the help of their son Danny which features rebroadcasts of programs by Johnny and Ann Rion.

The world lost Johnny Rion who passed away at his home December 31, 1996.

Credits & Sources

  • Bio information and photos, courtesy of Danny Rion, Springfield, Illinois
  • Cowboy Songs No. 29; November 1953; American Folk Publications; Derby, CT
  • Country Song Roundup No. 39; July 1955; American Folk Publications, Inc.; Derby, CT

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Recordings (78rpm/45rpm)

 
ABC Paramount
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  45-9694 A You're The One For Me
  45-9694 B Our Love Is Fading
 
Coral
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  64148 A That Heaven Bound Train
  64148 B When You Are Away
 
Embassy
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  3801 A A Goodnight Waltz
  3801 B Cell Twenty Four
 
King
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  810 A Sunny Tennessee
  810 B A Package Tied In Blue
 
New Life
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  R11913 A Iron Mountain Baby Song
  R11913 B Sweat On My Brow (w/A. Rion)
  W-237 A Goodbye Mom
  W-238 B It's Later Than You Realize
 
Open Road Records
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  17770 A Sweat On My Brow (w/A. Rion)
  17770 B A Faded Gardenia
  R2760 A Iron Mountain Baby Song
  R2760 B Sweat On My Brow (w/A. Rion)
 
Sparton
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  254 A You're The One For Me
  254 B Our Love Is Fading


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