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Canadian Country Music Pioneer
Myrna Lorrie is one of the first notable Canadian women singers of country music. As an inaugural inductee into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame in 1989, Lorrie's significance is recognized by its founder, Gary Buck, when he states:
Canadian country music has experienced only one who commanded the world's attention as a child-star and then went on to claim that same attention as an adult, Myrna Lorrie. This vivacious super-talent came out of the north country of Thunder Bay, Ontario, to set the world humming to a song she co-wrote, "Are You Mine". In 1955, that single (sung with Buddy Deval), could be heard on every major radio station across Canada, United States, and Europe. (38)
The following article is a brief account of Myrna Lorrie's musical career. For the complete manuscript from which this piece is taken, please refer to "Myrna Lorrie, A Canadian Country Music Pioneer" found in the International Country Music Journal 2014 (Daniel 69-92).
Myrna Lorrie was born Myrna Lorraine Petrunka on August 6th, 1940 in Fort William, Ontario, Canada (Whitburn 245), named after her father's favourite American movie actress, Myrna Loy (Everett 6-7). The third of five children, Myrna lived with her family on a farm in Cloud Bay, a small northern Ontario community near the Minnesota border (Cobb 24), twenty-eight miles south of [Fort William and Port Arthur, later renamed] Thunder Bay (Carl 16).
Myrna's father recognized his daughter's musical ability when she was only two years old and sang "You are My Sunshine" without missing a word. Interviewed by David Cobb in 1970, Myrna recounts, "That day my father decided I should be a singer…and when I was 10 he decided I should be serious about it and bought me a guitar." (24). At 12, Myrna was playing on CKPR's radio program "School of the Air" in Fort William where she says, "I was the only country singer at the time" (Everett 7). It was hosted by Jack Masters (Cobb 24) who later gave Myrna her own radio show called "Harmony Trails" ("Keep an Eye…"). Around the age of 13, Myrna remembers appearing with the Cowboy Copas show at the Fort William Gardens: "My mother began to cut out and embroider satin shirts for me. …In my mind, I was thinking beyond the mountains" (Everett 7).
Don Grashey Discovers Myrna PetrunkaDon Grashey was a local Fort William/Port Arthur songwriting entrepreneur who became a producer and manager in the music business. It was Jack Masters, the local radio announcer mentioned previously, who told Grashey about a talented young singer performing at the Embassy Grill where a portion of her show was being broadcast live. Upon meeting her, Grashey asserts, "I knew immediately that Myrna Petrunka had star potential. She was pretty, personable, a fine musician and a very good singer." Not only could she sing, both she and her brother, Dave, could write. Grashey recalls driving 30 miles south from where he lived in Port Arthur to the Petrunka farm in Cloud Bay to help Myrna develop her own style in order to be different from that of her idol Canadian country music star Hank Snow (Grashey 22).
While a major concern for Don was the fact that Myrna was only 14 years old, they signed a management contract. Grashey did not think "Petrunka" was "a very good theatrical name" and asked Myrna if she would be willing to change it provided they secured a recording contract. She agreed. Her middle name "Lorraine" was shortened to "Lorrie" and "Myrna Lorrie was born." (Grashey 22).
Grashey knew a man named Jim Amadeo whom he had met in the pool halls of Port Arthur. Amadeo, who subsequently also became known as Buddy De Val, played guitar and sang on weekends with various local bands. Don and Jim decided to collaborate as a songwriting team with Grashey writing lyrics and Amadeo the music (Grashey 7). So how did Myrna Lorrie, a young teenager from a farm in northern Ontario, find herself travelling to Hollywood, California in July of 1954 to record a duet with Buddy De Val which would become a major hit?
Lorrie's Rise to Stardom
Myrna's journey to Hollywood began when Don Grashey decided to write a tribute song for the late Jimmie Rodgers with lyrics by Don and melody by Jim Amadeo (Buddy De Val). He sent a demo to Carrie Rodgers, Jimmie's widow, and later received a formal invitation to attend the first Jimmie Rodgers' Memorial Day to be held in Meridian, Mississippi (Grashey 17). While at the event, Grashey met Fabor Robison, "one of the most influential, and controversial, independent record owners and talent scouts of the 1950s" (Wolfe, "Fabor Robison") who had founded the Hollywood-based Abbott Records (Wolfe, "Abbott Records"). Fabor introduced Grashey to artists Jim Reeves, Ginny Wright, and The Browns who were signed to his label and asked Don to send him any material suitable for them to record (Grashey 18-19).
Several months later the Grashey/Amadeo written "My Rambling Heart" was recorded by Jim Reeves who, according to Don, "was constantly touting the vocal talents of my partner, Buddy De Val to Fabor." (Grashey 19-20). Since Robison had only one group on his label, Grashey thought that he could interest Fabor in recording Myrna and Buddy as a duet which "would open the door for both of them as solo artists." Grashey recounts that one night within half an hour, he wrote the lyrics for a song called "Are You Mine" and, later, together with Amadeo and Lorrie, composed a melody for it. Myrna and Buddy sang "Are You Mine," in addition to some other songs, and the demo was sent to Robison (Grashey 22-23). In an interview in 2011, Lorrie recalls that upon receiving the tape, "Fabor called and asked specifically to have the girl who was on the demo tape come to Hollywood" (Lorrie qtd. in Everett 9).
Myrna and Buddy recorded "Are You Mine" at Western Recorders, 6000 Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood, California with engineer Don Blake. The session leader and steel guitar player was Speedy West with the rest of the band formed by the Whippoorwills, famous for being the backup group of Smiley Burnette, the western movie sidekick (Grashey 24). Interestingly, several years later Grashey would return to this same studio to record an unknown Loretta Lynn who signed with his Zero Record label in 1960 (Grashey 46).
In 1955, at the age of 14, Myrna Lorrie became a "child" star (Cobb 24) when "Are You Mine" on Abbott Records, sung as a duet with Canadian singer Buddy De Val, reached #6 on the Billboard country charts (Whitburn, "Lorrie, Myrna…") and #2 on the Cash Box Top 20 Country Chart. In the annual Disc Jockey Poll of July 1955, Myrna was named #1 "Best New Female Singer." The Cash Box Annual Music Poll placed her third for "Best Female Singer" and second in "Up and Coming" (Grashey 25). Barely a teenager, Myrna Lorrie became "the first female Canadian country artist to earn Best New Female Singer honours in the United States" ("Singer Myrna Lorrie to be Inducted…" 1).
Life after Abbott
Next Lorrie signed with RCA. Her first producer was Steve Sholes who had signed Jim Reeves and The Browns in addition to Hank Snow, Eddy Arnold, Chet Atkins, and Elvis Presley (Everett 12). The session was held on January 10, 1957 at RCA Victor Studio 1 on East 24th Street, New York City. Nine months later, on October 31, 1957, Lorrie recorded for RCA Victor Studio on McGavock Street in Nashville, Tennessee with producer Chester B. Atkins which included a song written by Myrna called "Tradewinds" (Weize and Everett 24).
Lorrie's first tour in the United States had her opening for country stars such as Hank Snow, Marty Robbins, Johnny Cash, Kitty Wells, and Sonny James. She appeared on the Grand Ole Opry broadcast as a guest of her idol Hank Snow. Later she toured with Faron Young, Skeeter Davis, Ferlin Huskey, and Porter Wagoner ("Singer Myrna Lorrie and Editor…" 4).
"In 1963 [Lorrie] headlined a country music show at the Atlantic Winter Fair and the audience loved her" (Cameron 8). Shortly after, at the age of 23, she formed The Myrna Lorrie Show which successfully toured the Canadian country music circuit performing at fairs, small towns, and the Calgary Stampede until it disbanded in December of 1968 (Cobb 25).
According to Larry Delaney in Country Music News, Lorrie first appeared on the Canadian country charts in 1965 with "Do You Wish You Were Free" on Quality (8). In 1968 she topped the RPM country chart with "Tell Me Not to Go" on Columbia (Pentelope 7) and "Turn Down the Music," also on Columbia ("Country Music"), and released "Changing of the Seasons" and "Bashful Billy" produced by Don Grashey. Managed by Don Turner of Sarnia, Lorrie toured extensively throughout Ontario during the late sixties (Pentelope 7). From 1966 to 1968, Lorrie performed as a guest on many CBC TV country shows including Don Messer's Jubilee (Miller, "Lorrie…"). With a number of Canadian hits in the mid-sixties in addition to her television exposure, Lorrie had several requests for live concerts ("Singer Myrna Lorrie to be Inducted…" n.pag.).
In the fall of 1969, CBC Halifax created a show called Countrytime. Myrna was a guest during its first season and "she proved to be so charming that producer Cy True and the CBC brass invited her to co-host the show with Don Tremaine in October, 1970" (Cameron 8). From 1970 to 1974, she continued to co-host Countrytime from Halifax (Miller, "Lorrie…"). In addition to several other personal appearances, Lorrie performed at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa with Canadian entertainer Tommy Hunter in the summer of 1971. She was broadcast live by CBC Radio as one of the top entertainers performing at the Canadian Open Championship Fiddle Contest in August (Cameron 8).
On the evening of Thursday, July 25th, 1974, Myrna Lorrie hosted her own summer mini-series called Country Sunshine. It consisted of three half-hour shows (July 25th, August 1st, and August 8th) with guests such as Mac Wiseman, Sylvia Tyson, and Tommy Overstreet ("Keep an Eye…"). While about half the songs Lorrie performed were her own compositions, she chose others to "make her shows work" (Lorrie qtd. in Kirby n. pag.) In the summer of 1976, Lorrie made an impressive appearance at the Mariposa Folk Festival on Toronto Islands. Described as "the big surprise" of the festival, "The Toronto press was out in force following her performances" and RPM reported that over 1,000 fans gave her a standing ovation ("Singer/songwriter Myrna Lorrie…").
From 1977 through 1981, Lorrie co-hosted the nationally syndicated Toronto TV series Nashville Swing first with Tom Kelly and then Tom Bresh (Miller, "Lorrie…"). They were half-hour shows taped from Tuesday to Thursday in the discotheque of the Triumph Hotel in Toronto with the cast being given the weekends off in order to make personal appearances (Everett 17). Lorrie also appeared on TV series hosted by Ronnie Prophet and Ian Tyson and was a regular guest on CBC's The Tommy Hunter Show ("Singer Myrna Lorrie to be Inducted…" n.pag.).
The Later Years
For several years Lorrie performed close to home, no longer on the national scene. She stopped recording and writing songs. Then in the late 1980s, she and her brother, Dave Petrunka, who lived in Thunder Bay, formed Sibley Records. With Dave as her manager, they planned to get Myrna back to making records. The plan worked. "Myrna Lorrie re-established herself in 1989 as one of Canada's finest country vocalists, with her No. 1 hit record, 'Blue Blue Me'" (Charney 1). The album Blue Blue Me was released in 1990. A series of concert appearances followed including a tour with Porter Wagoner in British Columbia ("Singer Myrna Lorrie and Editor…" 4). Unfortunately, around this time, Myrna's brother David died but the album still went to #1 in Canada and Lorrie continued to perform and record (Everett 19).
In 1992, Myrna Lorrie, along with country singer Elaine Jarvis, prepared a special concept show entitled "Canadian Women of the 90's" at the Rosetown Inn in Brampton, Ontario. Its aim was to highlight female country artists and to showcase local singers (Canadian Music Legend..." 14).
In 1970, Lorrie received a Juno, the Canadian recording industry award, for Top Country Singer, Female and in 1972 for Female Country Singer of the Year (Melhuish 196). She won a Big Country Award for outstanding performance by a female singer in 1977. On November 1st, 1989, Myrna Lorrie, along with her mentor, Hank Snow, was one of several inaugural inductees honoured by the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame at the Centre in the Square Theatre in Kitchener, Ontario ("Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame…" 8).
Described in a press release as "one of the brightest talents ever on Canada's country music scene," on September 9th, 1996, Myrna Lorrie was inducted into the Canadian Country Music Association Hall of Honour at the Canadian Country Music Awards televised on CTV live from Calgary, Alberta ("Singer Myrna Lorrie to be Inducted…" 1). In 2012, Bear Family Records acknowledged this Canadian country music pioneer's contribution by releasing a CD of Lorrie's early recordings on their Juke Box Pearls series entitled Myrna Lorrie, Hello Baby, (Myrna Lorrie CD).
Myrna Lorrie's fans have followed her from the time she became a childhood star in the 1950s to her years on national television with Don Messer, Tommy Hunter, Ronnie Prophet, and Ian Tyson. They know her as co-host on two of her own television series: Countrytime and Nashville Swing where she not only performed herself but also graciously welcomed other well-known country music stars of the day. They remember her hit songs and the awards she has won over the years (Charney 1).
Singer/songwriter/guitarist Myrna Lorrie is one of the first Canadian women to achieve success in the country music business. From an auspicious beginning, she forged a path for herself in the Canadian entertainment industry and made inroads for others seeking to do the same. Myrna Lorrie is to be recognized as a Canadian country music pioneer who has played a major role in helping other female singers to achieve their dreams.