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About The Artist
Charlotte, North Carolina native Fred Austin Kirby had a long career in country music, mostly based in his home city. Nonetheless, he made occasional forays into other radio outlets in major cities.
1920's and 1930's
Despite his long association with Charlotte, Fred actually made his radio debut at WIS Columbia, South Carolina in 1927 when he just wanted to see the inside of a radio station and ended up being given a regular program. Rural Radio's version of his beginning says he wandered into a radio station with a guitar in hand. He was seen by Charles Crutchfield who was then an apprentice at the station and asked him to sing a tune. Radio Mirror provided further lore to his beginnings in the December 1943 issue. They wrote, "It was a hot July afternoon in 1929 when a boy and a man strolled purposefully down the main street in Columbia, South Carolina. The boy was Fred Kirby, tow-headed, tanned and lanky; the man, Fred's Uncle Bob. Under Fred's arm was a guitar. They were holding "try-outs" that day up at the radio station "studio" in the hotel annex, and Uncle Bob thought Fred's singing would sound mighty good over the radio." The article mentions Mr. Crutchfield and noted that after he told Fred, "Go ahead and sing, son." It only took half a song to get him a regular program each week. Then the fan letters began to pour in.
It was his Uncle Bob who taught him a few songs and the guitar chords he would need to accompany himself. Fred was said to have then told of his early experiences. Just before going on the air, the announcer or control operator would tell him, "Fred, just keep on singing. I'm going down for a sandwich." But Fred related he thought sometimes those sandwiches turned into full course meals. That meant singing every song he knew back then and perhaps starting over. His programs could run from 15 to 40 minutes, a bit haphazard compared to the later structured form of programming. Ten years later, Charles was the Program Director at WBT and welcomed Fred, at the age of 19, to WBT and Charlotte where he spent a decade.
Sometimes he sang solo and also did frequent duets with Bob Phillips. Sentimental country material and Jimmie Rodgers songs initially dominated his repertoire, but from the mid thirties western-themed songs and cowboy images gained steadily in his favored songs. In fact, the WBT Memories web site shows the cover of a song folio proclaiming Fred as "Now America's Blue Yodeler."
But the initial association with WBT was coming to an end and the beginning of Fred's journey to other stations began in 1936. A short newspaper article indicated that he had moved to WFBC in Greenville, South Carolina in September 1936.
In 1938, research shows he was working at radio station WWNC in Asheville, NC and had formed a group called The Smiling Cowboys. Even doing personal appearances in Charlotte, articles would call Fred the "Smiling Cowboy."
In September 1939, Kirby and White left Charlotte for WLW Cincinnati. Fred was coined the "Friendly Philosopher" at WLW. During their stay at WLW, they were part of WLW's Boone County Jamboree program. Fred had a regular 15-minute program in the early morning over WLW. Fred and Don remained at the station until 1941 when they departed for WLS Chicago.
Radio logs published in the Chicago Tribune show that Fred had a program over at WLS in late 1940. By mid 1941, he was entertaining audiences over the air on WJJD.
Fred soon left there for St. Louis (KMOX?). By that time World War II was underway and Fred soon gained attention for his work with War Bond Drives which continued after he returned to WBT in 1943.
Fred initially entered a studio of the American Record Corporation in 1932, but none of his four numbers were released. In February 1936 when Bluebird scheduled sessions in Charlotte, that would change dramatically.
He did solo numbers, duets with Phillips and Don White, and a few numbers with veteran recording star Cliff Carlisle. Some, but not all, were western flavored such as "That Good Old Utah Trail," "Night Time on the Prairie," and "My Old Saddle Horse is Missing." Moving to Decca in 1938, the pattern continued, mostly with a band called Fred Kirby's Carolina Boys which included Don White and fiddler Tiny Dodson who also recorded with his own Circle B Boys. One number was with Cliff Carlisle.
During the conflict Kirby was also honored for his efforts promoting and encouraging War Bond sales which won him the sobriquet "The Victory Cowboy." In fact, it was on Saturday, March 20, 1943 when Thomas H. Dysart, then chairman of the War Bonds Sales Organization declared him the "Victory Cowboy" when a proclamation was read over the radio airwaves by Col. F. F. Christine.
His work on "the Home Front" provided him not only with the nickname "Victory Cowboy" but received special citations from Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morganthau. Arlie Kinkade told National Hillbilly News readers that Fred had "yodeled in more than $5,000,000 worth of bonds in bond sale drives" in the June 1946 issue.
His greatest acclaim came from a song penned and recorded at the end of World War II, "Atomic Power" which was widely covered by numerous artists and inspired several other songs about atomic bombs.
Floy Case wrote of how Fred came to write the tune. She prefaced Fred's tune by noting that songs came to be written in many different ways. "Some were the results of a long, diligent effort. Some were the rephrasing, a new twist on an old song or powem. But she then says, some are like a flash of lightning, a bolt out of the blue - like the searing flash of an - Atom bomb!" That's how Fred's song, "Atomic Power" came to be written.
Like many in that era after the atomic bombs were dropped, many were wondering what this meant for the future due to this immense power being unleashed. It captured Fred's mind at the time, reading about it in the morning paper, reading about it in the evening paper. He felt the victims of the bomb and the people of the world were "crying and screamin in terror, with their arms outstretched to Heaven, begging for mercy."
This was on Fred's mind one morning when he was helping his wife with the dishes after breakfast and the kids had gone off to school. The idea hit him right then and he shouted, "ATOMIC POWER! ATOMIC POWER!" His wife kind of looked at him with a questioning eye and asked him, "What in the world are you shouting about Fred?" Fred told Mildred, "It's a new song hit, honey, and I'm going right on down to the studio to work it out!"
He left the house and went to the WBT studios and within 45 minutes or so, the song, "Atomic Power" was down on paper. Fred recorded the song. Others covered the hit as well with some variations on the lyrics. The lyrics below are from the version recorded by Fred Kirby.
By that time he was back recording with the Sonora label. Artists for the bigger companies such as Red Foley on Decca and the Buchanan Brothers on RCA soon did cover versions of his song which sold quite well.
Other war themed songs included "My War Torn Heart" about a soldier abandoned by his girl during his military service and "When It's Reveille Time in Heaven," a tribute to fallen soldiers which was revived by Mac Wiseman during the Korean War and made into a bluegrass classic. Also during his Sonora days Fred was part of a WBT group known as the Carolina Playboys who recorded numerous sides with no individual names attached (see separate entry).
Fred wrote more than a few songs. Here is a list of what has been found thus far (the year noted is from the publication where the song was found):
Kirby's work with Sonora ended in 1947, but he continued on with WBT on such shows as the "Carolina Hayride" and "Carolina Calling." In 1948 four of his unreleased Sonora masters were sold to MGM. While none were hits "Jukebox Jackson from Jacksonville" proved to be an exciting song with a catchy title.
In 1950 and 1951, he recorded several numbers for Columbia, one of which "When that Hell Bomb Falls" warned of disastrous results that would happen if the hydrogen bomb were ever dropped.
In 1951, he also appeared in a musical motion picture "Kentucky Jubilee." The film was directed by Ron Ormond. He was also co-writer with Maurice Tombragel. The 'star' of this movie was Jerry Colonna. Other stars featured were Jean Porter and James Ellison. Musicians such as Fred Kirby, Claude Casey, Les (Carrot Top) Anderson, Slim Andrews, The McQuaig Twins and The Broome Brothers were provided the entertainment.
By 1951, Fred Kirby's career was changing focus as WBTV went on the air and Fred, while continuing to sing country songs, started a Saturday children's TV program, He had earlier done a radio program "Cowboy Roundup Time," but "Fred Kirby's Junior Rancho" quickly captured the attention of the Carolina Piedmont's boys and girls.
Besides kids, others on the show included his horse Calico and sidekick "Uncle Jim" Patterson. After some years both the horse and Uncle Jim passed on so the show changed format. As more network children shows took over the better time slots "Fred Kirby's Cartoon Carnival" was moved to 7:30 A M, It was still going in October 1985 when Fred and many other Charlotte radio and recording pioneers (Claude Casey, Briarhoppers, Tennessee Ramblers, et al.) gave concerts on an arts-funded program "The Charlotte Country Music Story."
One of the things that has stumped our research is trying to document a song and recording Fred did around the end of 1956. A newspaper article noted Fred wrote a song about the children he visited in the hospitals. "Help, I pray. Your little ones and let them walk again." Those were the words of a prayer in song that was writteny for and dedicated to crippled children the world over by Fred Kirby. He was backed on the recording by the Harvesters Quartet and was to have made its premier before an audience of Shriners around the end of 1956. The original manuscript from of Fred's composition was to be presented to the Shriners' Imperial Potentate Gerald D. Crary by Joseph F. Bryan, president of the Jefferson Standard Broadcasting Co. The song while meant for all crippled children, drew inspiration for Fred from the patients at the Shriners Hospital in Greenville, SC. Fred was to send an autographed copy to each child in that hospital which Fred frequently visited. The Jefferson Standard Broadcasting Company made 5,000 cpies of the song and was to be sent to other Shrine hospitals around the country and Hawaii.
In January of 1964, Channel 3 in Charlotte dropped "Romper Room" and replaced it with Fred Kirby's "Tinytown" with Uncle Jim (Jim Patterson) as Fred's sidekick.
In 1959, he also began playing regularly at the Tweetsie Railroad, a mountain tourist attraction in Blowing Rock, North Carolina. So enduring was his popularity that when he became confined to a wheelchair in old age, a group called "Friends of Fred Kirby" built an incline so he could still ascend the stage.
The impact Fred made with the younger set continued through the years. In 1982, Kays Gary, columnist for the Charlotte Observer, told of a 4 and a half year old, Amy Hope Laughter, who really wanted to win the "Miss Little Charlotee" title but not for the reasons one might think. She wanted the prizes. She told Kays, "I want to blow kisses in the Carrousel parade and meet Fred Kirby, that's why." She did win and appeared on the Fred Kirby show on WBTV.
On July 7, 1990, they honored Fred ("Everybody's Favorite Cowboy") at Tweetsie Railroad, "where the good times roll all the time." As part of the celebration, attendees received $2.00 off park admission if they could show an old picture taken with Fred.
The Tweetsie Railroad connection seemed to pass on from generation to generation. By 1982, Fred had been with Tweetsie for 22 years. But seemed to take on a new role as Ambassador At Large. Fred noted that over 25 years, he had seen many children who would now come back with husband and wife and children of their own. An example was Doug Faulkner. He visited Tweetsie when he was just four years old and has a picture with Fred Kirby to show for it. But at the age of 20, he was a junior at college and worked as a marshal at Tweetsie Railroad.
Sometime in this period he made his last recording, a single on the local Dixie label, seemingly unrelated to the other two Dixie labels. For at least a dozen years after his death, his birthday was still honored at Tweetsie.
Fred continued at Tweetsie at least through 1989, and perhaps later, but age began to catch up with the venerable entertainer. In 1993, he moved to a retirement center and passed away at age 85 in 1996, fondly remembered by thousands of children in the Carolina Piedmont. Two compact discs of his early recordings were released in England and Germany respectively.
Fred was first married the former Mildred Joyner. They had three daughters, Patricia, Dianne, and Evon. They were divorced on February 24, 1958. She was born November 27, 1910; died November 4, 1975.
Fred then married Mary Burke Durrence on April 26, 1958. He was 47, she was 30. They were married 38 years at the time of Fred's death in 1996. She was born July 25, 1927; died June 21, 2012.
Columnist Kays Gary wrote of the annual Carrousel Parade in Charlotte:
The Carrousel Parade, Fred Kirby, Santa Claus.
"You Just Can't Feel Bad When You're Around Him"
Credits & Sources
Sound Sample(YouTube Video Format)