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About The Artist
Urlin Slater was the name his parents gave him when he came into the world in Pattonsburg, Missouri, or rather, a farm about 8 miiles north of town. But when he came to WIBW, Miss Maudie changed that and gave him the name that fans knew him by, Sonny Slater. Sonny jokes in a feature article in 1946 for WIBW's Roundup magazine that his dad (Ezra) said early on, "My golly, can't you shut that thing off." And Sonny says, perhaps they were still saying that later when he began singing. A later article in WIBW's magazine indicated he had a brother named Buford as well.
He took to singing and entertaining folks at an early age and notes that he enjoyed hillbilly music even then. He entered a couple of amateur contests and won them. He decided he wanted to learn to play the guitar. So he took his winnings and knew his uncle had a guitar. He worked his little kid charm on his uncle and got the guitar from him for the princely sum of five dollars. He was just about 7 or 8 years old at the time.
Sonny tells fans he tried gamely to learn to play that guitar, but had an injury and try as he may, he just couldn't reach all of the strings. He kept at it, but finally decided he had to put that guitar in the corner for a while and forget it for the time being.
His first radio job came about when he was visiting radio station KFEQ in St. Josephs, Missouri. The nervous boy wandered around the studio for a time, trying to work up the courage to ask someone if he could sing a tune over the air. Sonny must have made a good impression for the station decided to give him a chance and he sang as a guest on one of the shows.
He struck up the acquaintance of one of the station's guitar players, Tommy Davis, who told Sonny that he could probably teach him to play the guitar. After about eight lessons or so, Sonny began to get the hang of it and kept adding to his talents and abilities. About that time, Tommy had to join up with the military service.
One thing began to lead to another for Sonny. He'd find a way to perform before the audiences near home and surrounding areas, just about anywhere singing entertainment could be found. Several of those appearances were at amateur contests (perhaps today we knoew them as Star Search shows or American Idol type shows). At one of those shows he met up with a man by the name of John Cotton, who was a theatrical agent working out of Kansas City. Mr. Cotton got Sonny several engagements around the Kansas City area.
Sonny considered that to be a bit of a break for him that helped him along with musical education and experience he got in high school being a part of the band and chorus. He had an accident while driving a tractor on the family famr that injured his head and neck. This caused him to start thinking of music as a career instead of just a hobby at that point. He came back to Kansas City after graduating from high school and talked with Mr. Cotton.
That conversation led to Sonny contacting Miss Maudie at WIBW in Topeka, Kansas for an audition to join their broadcasting family. He wrote that he was pretty nervous about that audition, but Miss Maudie must have liked what she heard for Sonny became a member of the staff.
The nice thing about the old radio station magazines are the little tidbits they would tell you about the entertainers on the staff as if they were a part of your family. In Sonny's case, they noted that Sonny's family came to town to pay him a visit, where the fans were told Sonny's dad's name (Ezra) and of a brother named Buford. The following month, we read that he had a bit of "stomach trouble" in May of 1946, but he quickly recovered from that and noted that Sonny told them, "You can't keep a good SINGLE man down."
Sonny's talents got him his own show rather quickly at WIBW. The station moved the show, "Aunt Jenny's Stories" to the 11:15am time slot and they gave Sonny the 10:45am time slot with his own show. Glenn Osborne, staff steel guitar player for WIBW, provided the background music during that show.
Later on that year, it seems they attribute a series of accidents to Sonny (in a tongue-in-cheek manner that is) when he lost a fender in an accident while in St. Joseph, Missouri. Later on, several other WIBW entertainers ended up having car trouble as well.
Gertrude Carson wrote of Sonny several times in her "Midwest Microphone" column in the old Mountain Broadcast and Prairie Recorder magazine. She called him WIBW's Hubba Hubba boy, due to the hold he had over the female listening audience at the time. She mentioned that his shows "...really worth listening to if you're within range." Viola M. Myers also wrote of him in her "Cornbelt Comments" column in the same magzine, calling him the "Hubba Hubba Swoon Boy".
As time wore on, Sonny gained quite a following with the WIBW listening audience. One issue shows a bit of how that popularity and loyalty is for an artist. It seems a radio station in Los Angeles, California had written WIBW to ask Sonny to send some recordings so they could play them and answer the requests of their own listening audience. Who needs a public relations manager with fans like that?
By April 1947, Sonny had added another show to his work load at WIBW. He was also doing a 6:45am show as well as the 10:45 show. In fact, he also was showing off a new guitar as well.
Interestingly, a question and answer column one issue notes that Sonny had already had five cars that year. No mention of why he had that many. Perhaps finding older cars and fixing them? Or collecting them? Or just finding old used cars that didn't last very long?
WIBW seemed to know they had a good talent on their hands. By the summer of 1947, Sonny had a new evening show on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 11:30pm and was being billed as "Sonny Slater and his Missouri Mountaineers".
One annual event was the Kansas State Fair and WIBW always had a presence there and entertained their listeners, too. Sonny's family came to the fair one night to see Sonny perform. The WIBW Roundup magazine notes that Sonny did a tune called "Line On the Highway", which featured his picture on the sheet music. That came about because Sonny had made such a hit of the song, the publishers decided his picture needed to be on the sheet music. He also made his mom feel good when he did a bit of a recitation or poem as well that included a line like "...Mom, when I left home, I thought most about you."
By mid-1948, Sonny had moved on to Clinton, Illinois. He began working at a radio station there along with another former WIBW alumni, Frank Jennings.
While Sonny had moved to Clinton, it seemed he still had his heart in Topeka. Later that year, WIBW reported to fans that Sonny had come back to town to marry the former Esther Jean White. The newlyweds were to reside in Clinton where Sonny was working at the time. As a note, Clinton is a small town about half-way between Decatur and Bloomington, Illinois.
Sonny Slater joined radio station KSAL in Salina, Kansas around 1950, a year after Ken Jennison, a life long friend and president of Smoky Hill Broadcasting which owns KSAL. As their careers progressed, Sonny stuck with the entertaining side of things, while Jennison later became station manager. He was a featured vocalist with KSAL's Smoky Valley Boys.
Back in 1950, most entertainment over the radio consisted of live perfomances. Sonny had his band and they worked the usual venues one finds in towns where the radio station's signal carried their music.
Back in those days, country music singers went above and beyond to entertain their audiences over the radio airwaves. Sonny's day at KSAL began at 2:30am each morning, arriving at the studio at 4:00am. He was on the air from 5:00am to 8:30am. He would air farm and market news along with the weather at noon as well.
Ms. Zier indicates that Sonny held talent shows in the area and would often bring the best performers in to perform for the listeners on his "Barnyard Frolics" show.
Sonny was typical of the country entertainers back then. Often their duties meant being there to sign the station on the air. Sonny was no different, being the first one listeners heard each morning on KSAL and on more than one occasion, "...stayed overnight to make sure he was there to sign on."
He gained a reputation for his farm broadcasting and a phrase that became identified with him — "..a plumb good 'n'". He used it when the weather was favorable to the crops.
Sonny had a program on KSAL that was heard every Monday through Friday from 4:30pm to 5:30pm called "Musical Partyline". Folks heard only country music on that program. Sonny would often interview the stars from WSM's Grand Ole Opry when their tours took them to Salina and Memorial Hall. Wilma Walker Howie tells us that she was the one who greeted the stars when they came to the station and often wishes she had kept an autograph book. KSAL's listeners got to hear the latest from folks such as Johnny Cash, George Jones, Grandpa Jones, Minnie Pearl, George Morgan, String Bean, Faron Young, Ray Price and many more. Sonny didn't even let a stroke affect his work, fully recovering and doing radio work up until he decided to sign-off for good.
Ms. Zier explained the touch he had with his farm broadcasting. Sonny would inform the audience about market prices, politics, trade issues, infestations and other farm issues in simple terms - the impact they had on farmers and their bank accounts.
Towards the end of his career, he bought a farm near Madison, Knasas to be closer to several of his children and had planned on one of his songs helping him out on the farm.
A column by John Schlageck called "Insight" tells us what it was like listening to Sonny at KSAL. "Listening to Sonny on the radio was like listening to a friend over a cup of coffee. When he interviewed farmers, they never felt threatened by Sonny. They had full confidence he would "get the story right"."
Mr. Schlageck goes on to quote others, Sam Knipp, then director of broadcast servicees for the Kansas Farm Bureau (KFB) notes that "Sonny brought the news right into farmers and rachers' breakfast table. Farm people could realte to Sonny because he was one of them."
Mr. Schlageck tells readers that when Sonny retired after 45 years of service to the audiences of radio, the Kansas Farm Bureau presented him with its "Distinguished Service to Agriculture" award in 1990. He retired on May 25, 1990.
Recall if you will how a farm accident played a role in turing Sonny towards a musical career. After he retired, Sonny and his son, Tom, bought a 400-acre farm in the Flint Hills area near Madison. In a twist of fate, Sonny's life ended in December 1991 when tractor on his farm rolled forward towards him and pinned him against a tree. Lillian Zier termed it 'cruel irony' in her report in the Salina Journal on Sonny's accident. He had just started his retired life, having left KSAL where he had spent 40 years on the air.
Sam Knipp told John Schlageck, "You could always depend on Sonny to be exactly what he was. Some people you are never really sure if they will change the next day and say something different."
At the time of his death, his survivors included his wife, Esther, three sons (Dan, Tom and Mike) and two daughters (Rhonda and Kim).
In 1992, the Kansas Association of Broadcasters (KAB) established the KAB Sonny Slater Award For Service to Station and Community. It was meant to recognize a Kansas Broadcaster, who is not an owner or general manager, for service to his or her station and community. The KAB started the award to recongize Kansas broadcasters who work in the tradition of Sonny Slater, who provided many excellent years of service to his station, his audience and his coummunity. Other winners of the Sonny Slater Award:
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