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
- 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
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
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
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
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