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About The Artist
Ernest Earl "Jimmy" Walker became best known for having the first recording of one of the great country hits of the mid-1940s, "Detour."
According to his own account, Walker was a descendant of Dr. Thomas Walker, the frontier physician who had discovered Cumberland Gap in the late eighteenth century. His father was killed in World War I and as a result, he was partly reared by relatives in the Pittsburgh area.
In adulthood he worked as a river boatman. James Devane of the Cincinnati Enquirer told readers of Jimmy's early life on the river in a 1953 column. He started working when he was only 12 years old as a cook's assistant on an Ohio and Kanawha Rivers barge-pusher for the sum of $20 per month. Jimmy told Mr. Devane that he eventually worked himself up to deckhand where he got $53 a month. He quit that job in 1939. This enabled Jimmy to gain acquaintance with the local music scene as he indicated he was always playing a guitar on the boat. But perhaps he did not strike the right chords with his fellow mates for they told him to get rid of the guitar or the crew would quit. He chose to move on. He made radio station appearances on area stations including Greensburg and a short stint at WWVA.
Jimmy told Mr. Devane that he was in Hollywood films where he was often the guy that played the officer who led the cavalry to the rescue. He also participated in rodeos and had scars because a calf led him too close to an arena fence in a roping contest.
A young steel player, Paul Westmoreland, had composed a song "Detour," but the company wanted Walker on the lead vocal and Westmoreland on the steel guitar. The song took off and the bigger companies soon recorded cover versions with their own artists which virtually smothered Walker's original. However, his gained enough attention that it landed Jimmy a year's contract at the Grand Ole Opry as a replacement for Roy Acuff who took some time to make films in Hollywood and tour more widely. Ultimately, Acuff returned and Walker moved on to new pastures.
In 1947, as a member of the WWVA Jamboree, Mary Jean Shurtz told readers of getting to see Jimmy in person in Tuscarawas, OH. As Jimmy was singing the song "Po' Folks" (probably not the one written years later by Whispering Bill Anderson), Ms. Shurtz said a little girl that was with them turned around and asked Mary Jean to come closer. The girl said, "He makes me happy when he sings." How is that for a compliment for a singer?
In that same issue that an appearance with Jimmy Wakely provided him some opportunity in Los Angeles. He enjoyed an extended stint on the Hollywood Barn Dance. Then he did eight movies with Jimmy Wakely. That led to a stint on the WSM Grand Ole Opry to substitute for Roy Acuff while Roy was on leave and on the west coast. A couple of articles have indicated that Jimmy's voice was similar in some ways to Roy's.
After the Opry contract was up, he again played the role of substitute for Roy Rogers on the "Jim Eskew" rodeo during the summer of 1947. After Roy came back, Jimmy moved on to WWVA.
In 1949, while in Los Angeles, he joined the cast of a new show called "Country Caravan" that was to air over KMPC. Some of the other artists on the show included Allen Massey, Ken Curtis, Shug Fisher, Ann Joses, Carolina Cotton, Lonzo, Smiling Ed McConnell, Red Rows, Harry Stewart, Max Terhune, Tex Tyler, Monte Hale and others. The show began on November 6, 1949 and was being done from the San Gabriel Civic Auditorium.
The Los Angeles hillbilly music scene in 1949 was alive and well. Foreman Phillips had his Barn Dance at Baldwin Park on Sunday nights with Spade Cooley. Jamboree Magazine told readers that Jimmy Walker was putting on a "real show" every Friday and Saturday night in Baldwin Park.
Research uncovered a 1953 article from the Athens Messenger that indicates the last movie he had did was "The Woman They Almost Lynched" which was released in 1953. The stars were Brian Dunleavy, John Lund, Audrey Totter and Joan Leslie. However, his part appears to have been uncredited as the list of cast did not include Jimmy's name.
However, he had a much traveled career that included activity on the dance hall scene in Los Angeles in the post World War II era, three stops at the WWVA Jamboree, a year each at the Grand Ole Opry and Cincinnati's Midwestern Hayride.
The next three decades saw Walker roving around, returning to California where he recorded for London and more extensively Intro records, long stints at the WWVA World's Original Jamboree in the early fifties, and early to mid-sixties deejay work in Pittsburgh, and about 1953 as a Midwestern Hayride regular. About 1950, he spent a short spell at the Louisiana Hayride.
In 1953, he did a session for MGM in Nashville and in 1965 cut four numbers for his own Walker label, two released as singles and the other two some years later on an album. While back in California he did enough walk-ons and bit parts to gain a pension from the Screen Extras Guild.
Jimmy recorded extensively on independent labels in California and less often in Nashville.
Jimmy left California and moved to Point Pleasant, WV where he began a radio broadcast along the lines of "Breakfast in Hollywood." He would commute twice a week from Point Pleasant to Cincinnati to do his WLW shows.
It appears that Jimmy served two stints with the U.S. Military. Records indicate he enlisted with the U. S. Army in August 1934 and then discharged at the end of April 1937. He registered for WWII in October 1940 while living and working in Pittsburgh, PA.
A couple of articles in 1953 indicate that Jimmy married Ellen Coughlin, who was part of the "Our Gang" comedy series. They had three children, Nedra, Lee and Clifford. The articles indicated they operated the Chuck Wagon on Route 17. Les (Carrot Top) Anderson mentioned in his column in 1953 that when Jimmy moved back to West Virginia, he had bought a night club.
In his last years, he returned to the locale of his birth, Mason County, West Virginia. Retiring back to Point Pleasant, West Virginia in the early 1980s, he worked some in Holiday Inn lounges playing the organ and singing. Many of his early recordings were released on two Old Homestead long play albums.
Walker's health declined rapidly in his last months and he died in a Huntington, West Virginia hospital.
Credits & Sources