About The Artist
Richard Lowell Blanchard is best remembered for his long connection with WNOX Knoxville and as host and director of their country music programs, Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round and the Saturday night Tennessee Barn Dance. Despite his close connection with the country music field in East Tennessee, it seems somewhat surprising that Blanchard was actually a native of Illinois and a graduate of the University of Illinois. One suspects that his work at WNOX was influenced by what had already transpired at WLS with its daily programming and the National Barn Dance.
The Early Years
Lowell was born in Palmer, Illinois, the son of a grocer. He began to get noticed while attending the University of Illinois. In October of 1932, the local newspaper reported that Lowell was the president of the senior class the University of Illinois. Blanchard finished college in 1933 and almost immediately made a name for himself as an emcee at events in the Chicago World's Fair. In the years 1932 through 1934, Lowell was an announcer on the University of Illinois radio station, WILL. In early 1935, news reports indicated that Lowell had left radio station KYW in Chicago to become an announcer for WIND, then in Gary, Indiana. But by April of 1935, Paul K. Damai of the Hammond Times newspaper reported that Lowell had moved to Des Moines, IA to take a position with radio station KSO.
The Radio station call letters KYW have an interesting history. It was originally licensed by Westinghouse in Chicago on November 15, 1921. Westinghouse wanted to put stations in major urban areas to promote the sales of its radio receivers. In 1929, the antenna for KYW was moved from the top of the Congress Hotel to west suburban Bloomingdale Township. In November 1928, it was assigned the clear channel frequency of 1020 kHz, one of eight such channels in the five difference national regions. However, the reallocation of frequencies, meant that it should be in the mid-Atlantic states. Westinghouse tried some legal maneuvers, trying to keep clear channel 1020 in Chicago. Eventually, the dust settled. KYW broadcast its last program in Chicago on December 2, 1934 and made its debut in Philadelphia the next day. The move meant that KYW was the easternmost U. S. radio station with a call sign prefix of "K."
Lowell would work in Des Moines less than a year. In November 1935, news accounts of a birthday and farewell party for the "popular KSO announcer" as he was leaving to work at WXYZ in Detroit, MI. Radio logs in the Detroit Free Press around November and December 1935 do not show any particular program that Lowell may have been hosting or handling the announcing chores. But his stay in Detroit proved to be a very short one. The Knoxville News-Sentinel told readers when Lowell joined WNOX that Lowell had been the special events announcer at WXYZ.
The Knoxville Legend Begins
Lowell's long tenure in Knoxville started in January 1936 when he left WXYZ in Detroit.
According to Ed Hooper in his book Knoxville's WNOX (2009), management of the 10,000 watts station wanted to attract audiences throughout more of East Tennessee, and saw down-home music as a way to broaden their listener base. Lowell "drove into the hills and hollows . . . on rumors of a band or singer here and there." Thus, was born the Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round with its 90 minutes of music from 12:30 to 1:45 (later two hours) on weekday afternoons, later adding the Saturday night Tennessee Barn Dance.
The local newspaper would feature ads or short snippets of the type duties Lowell was handling in his early times at WNOX. The station tried a new daily program in May 1936 which would have Lowell as kind of a "man on the street" in which he would pose questions with those he met. Grandpappy was said to be a part of the show, perhaps to just heckle Lowell or provide some comedy. He was stationed on Gay Street, near the Farragut Hotel. An alarm clock was a featured aspect of this show. It was set in advanced to ring while the program was on the air. The premise was that the person Lowell was interviewing at the time the alarm went off, would be given a dollar. A few days later, the News-Sentinel reported that Lowell with his questions of any passerby was getting quite a few witty retorts to his inquiries. It was reported that those who gathered around Lowell with his microphone found it a pleasant quarter-hour if not profitable.
The man in the street effort continued for a bit. A WNOX ad in May 1938 was telling readers that the station was offering money and food! The White Stores in Knoxville was sponsoring Lowell's show and offering a "host of valuable prizes in conjunction with the hilarity coming into your loudspeaker as Lowell Blanchard jibes the pedestrian with unexpected queries. Each person who is questioned on the delightful chinfest from the heart of Knoxville's business section on Gay Street will be given a ticket which can be exchanged for merchandise at any White Store. And one dollar will be awarded the luck person being interviewed when the alarm clock goes off." The show aired Monday through Saturday. Lowell stationed himself at 524 South Gay Street.
In mid-1936, WNOX had underwent renovations providing bigger and better studios, enabling the production of better stage shows. The changes were popular as the new facilities were entertaining capacity crowds for the radio shows. Especially popular was the Saturday "big hill-billy features, the Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round and the WNOX Carnival were enjoyed by audiences in the new "comfortable auditorium" located at 110 South Gay Street. The station had apparently arranged to have "Pappy, Zeb, Ezra and Elton" to appear along with Lowell and the gang, "...the prominent network showmen are appearing in their unique costumes and won't cease their droll humor. Admission is still five cents to all." The act being referred to would appear to be the popular Beverly Hill Billies.
In July 1936, Lowell was the master of ceremonies for an amateur show at the auditorium. The half-hour show that night would announce the winners of the previous week's amateur hour. The promotional item stated, "...If you can imitate the noise of a Model T, sing, whistle, play a saw, dance or recite come on down and join the show. ... Lowell Blanchard will see that you have a chance to display the talent that you have been guarding so jealously for all these years. "
The Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round would become a fixture on WNOX's schedule. The WNOX Carnival was a an attempt to capture the listening audience later in the day. It had an ensemble cast and originated from the WNOX studio auditorium. Mike Hunnicutt led the string band and was the ring leader of the show - which he or the station claimed had "4,000 hillbillies." Some of the acts featured were Lowell Blanchard, Lost John, the Rainey Brothers, Arthur Q. Smith, Grandpappy and others. Guest performers would also be a part of the show each week. It aired during the 9pm to 10 pm Saturday night hour though it was said to start at 8:30 pm.
Bert Vincent in one of his columns said Lowell was "...best known and most often heard radio voice in Knoxville. ... He is wise-cracking, ballyhooing and just plain talking over WNOX from seven in the morning until 11 at night." While he may have chosen another profession, he did not want to be anything else other than what he was doing. He was the WNOX program manager. He wrote scripts, a continuity writer. Not much went over the air that didn't come off Lowell's typewriter.
Mr. Vincent then tries to give the readers a mental image to go along with the voice that was so familiar across Knoxville. "He wears dark-colored suits of conservative style. But his socks, his shirts and his ties are pretty wild. They are striped usually, and the colors are like rainbows. He walks fast, in a sort of a swinging, pitching gait, depending upon his feet to catch him before he falls." He was not yet married and his interests outside of work were golf and his automobile and driving it as fast as he could. Baseball was one of his favorite past times and he would soon become the voice of the local minor league baseball team that played their games at Caswell Park.
Readers learned a bit of Lowell's attempt at doing theater while at the University of Illinois. Lowell once thought he could change the public's perception of some of the tragic characters that Shakespeare had created. But for some reason, his teacher did not like the "...way he burlesqued Hamlet and Macbeth. To laugh at Hamlet was a sin. This teacher did pass him though." He once thought he would be a chamber of commerce secretary. But the university radio station manager told Lowell he should audition for an announcer role. His thespian and chamber aspirations were tabled.
Lowell could not play any musical instrument though he might put on the act of doing so. He enjoyed smoking a pipe rather than cigarettes. He was also said to favor wearing a derby hat on occasions.
After a time musicians found their way to WNOX, auditioned for Blanchard, and the program became more professionalized. It was held in a 600-seat theater and admission was charged, often to sell out crowds. The Barn Dance attracted even larger audiences.
Numerous WNOX artists later went on attain even larger fame in Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry. These included such figures as Roy Acuff, Archie Campbell, Don Gibson, and Carl Smith. In all fairness, some of these people also appeared at Knoxville's other stations such as WROL and WIVK or programs sponsored by Cas Walker. For some successful artists, Knoxville radio was the peak of their careers. These included Molly O'Day and Lynn Davis, Carl Story, Red Rector, and Red Kirk. Bill Carlisle occupies a special place, both in his role as a vocalist and his comic alter-ego "Hot-Shot Elmer." After Carlisle went to Nashville, "Elmer" seemingly vanished but Bill retained some humor as himself and with songs like "No Help Wanted," "Is Zat You Myrtle," and "Female Hercules." Blanchard later reflected, "I train them and Nashville gets them."
While Blanchard never claimed to be much of a singer, he did publish a songbook, Lowell Blanchard's Folio of Mid-day Merry-Go-Round Favorites (Wallace Fowler Publications). It contained both songs and jokes used on the program. He also recorded a single for Mercury, one side was an atomic bomb song and the flip covered a Tennessee Ernie Ford number about the problems of parenthood.
The Baseball Announcer
Lowell's stint as a baseball announcer had an impact on others it seemed. Bert Vincent wrote of Mose Wright, a shoe shine person at the Farragut Barber Shop who apparently would sing something like:
"Strike One. Lowe . . . Here comes the pitch. . . . Long fly over center field . . . Back . . . Back . . . Back . . . Bingo. He's out!"
Mose had gotten a bit of a reputation for some of the lines he would toss out. It was said he had also developed the voice of Lowell as well. Mr. Vincent said that Mr. Blanchard would be surprised to hear his imitator.
His role as baseball announcer played a role in the timing of his marriage to Sally Irene Marshall on September 18, 1938. The date was chosen so that Lowell could finish his broadcasting duties before going to Detroit for the marriage. According to a September 7 article, Lowell indicated that neither he nor his wife-to-be like elaborate affairs. The wedding was to take place at the home of her parents in Detroit. It was to be a simple ceremony with only members of the immediate family present.
The final day of the baseball season at Caswell Park in Knoxville featured a gala event. It was "Lowell Blanchard Day," which featured a special Ladies Day promotion. The home team did come through and beat the Birmingham Barons 12 to 1. Lowell was then the honoree at a bachelor dinner in the orchid room of Louis' Steak House in Knoxville. Attendees for the dinner included members of the Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round show and other WNOX personnel.
The following September would find the fans honoring Lowell one more time. But the reason for the occasion was to obtain votes on behalf of Lowell as part of contest put on by The Sporting News to name the most popular minor league baseball announcer. Fans would have to buy the newspaper and cut-out the ballot and mail it in. The team had arranged for "...an unusually large number of papers to Knoxville for "Blanchard Day."
The efforts paid off.
On July 6, 1941, The Sporting News presented Lowell with a trophy as the Best Announcer in the Southern League. The Smokies had a doubleheader that day against the Memphis Chicks. Lowell dressed for the occasion, wearing "...a becoming ensemble consisting of pants, coat and a blush, the latter occuring when Miss Thelma McGhee, more commonly known as "Miss Knoxville," came gracefully out and handed him the trinket." Tys Terway handled the master of ceremonies chore for the presentation. Tom Anderson wrote, "Tys showed a fine flair for ad libbing, but his principal virtue was that he was brief and did not bore the customers with a lot of superfluous blabber." The trophy was not the only thing that Lowell got that afternoon. He also got a set of silver donated by his oil sponsor, some hay that was contributed by his breakfast food sponsor and bananas that were donated by E. B. Bowles, the wholesale fruit and vegetable dealer known for his donations of food to worthy people and organizations in the Knoxville area.
In the summer of 1948, Lowell acted as the master of ceremonies for the dedication of Knoxville's Babe Ruth Memorial Park. Mayor Jimmy Elmore led the proceedings. Lowell gave the eulogy to the man known as the "Sultan of Swat" who had recently died after a two year illness. The mayor raised the colors and unveiled pictures of the "Bambino." Four action "shots" surrounded a bust picture of the Babe. The flag was lowered to half-mast, then there was a moment of silent tribute. The crowd was served refreshments contributed by the local Knoxville merchants.
Columnist Bert Vincent wrote some of his memories of listening to Lowell announced the Knoxville Smokies games and how Lowell drew the listener in. Mr. Vincent wrote:
I remember well Lowell's broadcasts. He sounded just like he was right on the field seeing every play, even if the game was in Birmingham. I went to watch him one Sunday afternoon. He was sitting on the stage in the WNOX studio, then on Gay Street. There was not another soul in sight.
During research one could not help but notice some of what might be termed the human interest aspect that was part of Lowell's tenure in Knoxville. The Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round was a hit from the time Lowell began with it. The fans supported it. And Lowell understood that. take for instance, Mrs. Annie L. Rhodes. She was said to be at one time the "number one fan" of the show and sometimes a participant. When she passed away in August of 1953, Lowell provided readers with his personal observations of Mrs. Rhodes. "She was the best fan we had. From the time we started it in 1936 until her health failed. She often entertained us in her home on Ailor Avenue. And for my birthday and at Christmas she baked me cakes. We gave her a lifetime pass to our show, out of appreciation of her interest and kindness. ... Several years ago, when her sister died, our quartet sang at the funeral." The Mid-day Merry-Go-Round never had so good a friend.
Lowell worked with many hillbilly music stars, and seemed to help some of them get a start in the business. Bill Carlisle was at WNOX when he told Lowell, "Well, I have written a song for us." Lowell perked up and told Bill to sing it. Bill then preceded to sing his new tune, "No Help Wanted." The story goes that Lowell just kept listening and just sat there, not saying a word. Bill told Lowell, "I'll give you half of it." But Lowell told Bill, "Ah, no. I didn't help you write it. I didn't do anything. Besides, I don't care much for it." Bill said, "OK", smiled and told Lowell, "But remember I offered it to you." Bill recorded the song and it hit the charts and ended up netting Bill about $80,000.
He may have turned down credit on "No Help Wanted" but our collection shows that Lowell got songwriter's credit on two tunes. One by Bill Carlisle - "Spoon With Me" and another written with Carl Story - "God Had A Son In Service."
God Had A Son In Service
The town of Maryville started an annual "Hillbilly Homecoming" celebration. It brought many of east Tennessee's talents back home to enjoy a celebration and entertainment. It started in July of 1953. A 16-year old from Oak Ridge, TN was crowned "Queen of the Smokie" (Marline King) at the start of the gala celebration. Homer and Jethro ("the Hootin' Holler song splitters of Grand Ole Opry fame") were there to provide entertainment. A half dozen or so radio disc jockeys were on hand to take part in a contest to see "which one can talk the fastest and mostest." Those DJ's included Cousin Edward from Grand Rapids, MI; Jack Davis of Rockmart, GA; Red Brown of Chattanooga along with Eddie Parker and Grandpappy Campbell of Knoxville. Lowell Blanchard was to take on the role as referee. The festivities ended with a Queen of the Smokies twilight dance led by the George Kinnon Orchestra. Other entertainment that evening included the Old Harp Singers, Polly Bergen from Hollywood, Homer and Jethro, Chet Atkins and others.
In 1954, Chet came back to Maryville for the Hillbilly Homecoming. Columnist Vic Weals wrote of his conversations with Chet and a bit of Chet's early history while he took in some of the backstage jam sessions by Chet and Eddy Arnold. Mr. Weals laid to rest the thought that a 'hillbilly' musician was not a 'real' musician and pointing out Chet as his number one exhibit. Chet was born in Luttrell, TN and got his start playing fiddle and guitar for local dances and community events. He began to go out on his own at the start of World War II when his father took another job. Chet was influenced by a negro janitor at the school he was attending when the family lived in Columbus, Georgia. He liked that style and adapted it to his own. His first "play for pay" gig was on the WNOX Mid-day Merry-Go-Round show hosted by Lowell. He was working as a fiddler with Bill Carlisle and Archie ("Grandpappy") Campbell. But Lowell heard Chet playing guitar backstage and told the youngster he should become a guitar player. The time was about 1942 or so and Chet the guitar player never looked back.
In 1956, about 5,000 people attended a concert at the Maryville High School campus that featured Pat Boone. Some of the other stars that night included Grace Crewsell, Gene Wardell, Mimi Roman, Dave Rich, The Everly Brothers, Jimmy James and Mary Starr. Smiley Burnette also showed up to join the fun.
In 1953, the University of Tennessee band was invited to participate in the presidential inaugural parade in Washington, DC on January 20. The local talents put their heads together to arrange a fund raising event for the band. Aubrey Couch donated the use of Knoxville's largest and finest theater. Lowell Blanchard and Archie Campbell offered their stage production expertise and got the local Knoxville entertainment folks to participate in the show. The goal of the efforts was to raise about $3,000 to cover the band's expenses for the trip.
When the Tennessee Barn Dance show began on WNOX, it seemingly gained a fan with columnist Bert Vincent who also found more to admire about the talents of Lowell Blanchard. He wrote, "I never hear WNOX's Saturday night Barn Dance program that I don't think to myself, "It is a darn good show." I wonder how Lowell Blanchard, with so many other radio programs to handle, has the time to put together such a long program as the Barn Dance and make it always click."
In 1966, Billy Grammer was taping his syndicated television show in Knoxville. Billy said in a 1966 article he went to Knoxville once a month to tape his shows as the Nashville television station schedules were full. Alex Houston, a ventriloquist was one of the regulars on the show. Billy also had a group called "The Homesteader" which was made up of Jerry Rivers, Big Jack Boles and Frank Evans. Babara Allen was the female vocalist on the show. The "old man of show business" in Knoxville, Lowell Blanchard, was doing all the commercials and handling the emcee chores.
For a time Lowell entered the realm of politics, serving as a city councilman in Knoxville. It was during the same time that another Knoxville resident, Cas Walker was also serving. The actual means of getting elected to the council and even becoming the mayor of the city was a bit of a different process that involved a run-off or two. The mayor's position Knoxville at the time was seemingly more ceremonial in nature.
In 1951, he ran into some controversy as he had a new home that appeared to violate the charter of being on the council. Some wanted to remove him because his new home was outside the Knoxville limits. Milton Roberts was another one in a similar predicament. But his term on the council was to be up relatively sooner than Mr. Blanchard's which was for two more years. In late October, one member said he would make a motion to have Mr. Blanchard removed from the council. But on October 24, 1951, the council voted by a 3 to 2 margin to refuse to unseat Mr. Blanchard.
An editorial raised the question of how long the law would be flouted. In the editorial, Cas Walker stated that it would be "political suicide" for him to declare the seat vacant. One of the three voting to let Blanchard remain was Mr. Roberts, who himself was living outside the city. The editorial pointed out the various discussions about sections of the city not having representation yet when council members move outside the district they were elected to represent nothing happens. The issue dragged on - with no one - not the Election Commission, not the attorney general nor the council. The editorial felt it would be up to the voters to render the final outcome.
Cas Walker wrote of the situation in one of his paid advertisements. He resented the action to try and oust a fellow council member without even offering the person a chance of being heard on the matter. Questioned the others for acting on hearsay evidence? He also felt that the action would be resented by the hundreds of people who voted for Mr. Blanchard. And noted the fact that one of those trying to unseat Mr. Blanchard actually lost to him in the previous election.
In the fall of 1963, Lowell threw his hat into the race for Knoxville mayor against incumbent John Duncan and County Finance Commissioner William C. Tallent. Mr. Duncan won the November vote with 25,594 votes; easily beating the combined votes of Mr. Tallent (9,175 votes) and Mr. Blanchard (7,898 votes).
Effective Monday, May 4, 1964, took on the role of announcer and advertising salesman radio station WROL in Knoxville. Thus, ending his career at WNOX which had begun in 1936. News articles noted his promotion of the shows Tennessee Barn Dance and the Midday Merry Go Round that featured several performers over the years that went on to bigger and better roles. The station was on both the Columbia and Mutual broadcasting networks.
Mr. Blanchard continued to immerse himself into politics. In 1964, he was seeking election to be a representative in the Tennessee state legislature. He ran unopposed as a Democratic candidate from the 8th District and got 12,060 votes. He would face State Representative Fred O. Berry, a Republican, who won his primary election with 12,107 votes, a margin of 8,181 votes over his opponent lawyer, R. C. SMith.
On October 19, 1964, Lowell was admitted to the Presbyterian Hospital after suffering what was thought to be a heart attack. He underwent tests and was reported in satisfactory condition.
The Republicans swept the state assembly seats in the November election. Mr. Blanchard finished 4,661 votes behind Mr. Berry who won with 38,922 votes. Mr. Berry got more than 4,000 more votes than Mr. Blanchard from citizens who lived outside of Knoxville's city limits; he only got 400 more votes from citizens within the city limits.
As live music on radio began to fade from the scene in favor of deejays and changing formats, so it eventually hit WNOX which changed its format to "Top 40" in 1962. Lowell Blanchard remained with the station, becoming a sportscaster for University of Tennessee games and Knoxville's minor league baseball team. He suffered a fatal heart attack following a Volunteer basketball game on February 18, 1968. Nine years later, he was posthumously inducted into the Country Radio Broadcaster's Hall of Fame, often recognized as the "on-air voice of East Tennessee."
Other Posthumous Honors
After his death in 1968, the community honored Lowell Blanchard in various ways.
In April 1968, a four hour nostalgic "Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round" show was held that was attended by over 2,400 people and netted over $7,000 for a Blanchard Trust Fund.
The show was held at the Civic Coliseum in Knoxville. Some of the stars on the show included Grandpa Jones, Roy Acuff, Johnny Wright, Skeeter Davis, Chet Atkins, Don Gibson and others. Lowell's widow along with his daughter, Sally, and son, Arthur (Smiley) were also at the show.
In 1985 WNOX attempted to revive its old "Tennessee Barn Dance program at the WNOX Radio Auditorium. Archie Campbell was to be the emcee that night; Kitty Wells and Johnny Wright returned for the show.
WNOX had just refurbished its facilities and would dedicate the new auditorium as Lowell Blanchard Auditorium. The auditorium was located at 4400 Whittle Springs Road in North Knoxville.
In an article promoting the show, Chet Atkins said,
"Lowell Blanchard was one of the greatest developers of potentially talented people. He had this super way of bringing out the best in everyone and it did not matter to him if he came out on the short end of the stick. I owe to him almost everything."
Kitty Wells said,
"There wouldn't even be a Kitty Wells if it weren't for Lowell Blanchard. When Johnny and I first worked with him I was Muriel Deeson.
Archie Campbell spoke of Lowell:
"He was the best master of ceremonies I've ever seen. He had a real feeling for people ... seemed like he could read their minds.
The home of the Golden Arches, McDonald's actually had a country-music themed restaurant in Knoxville at one time on Chapman Highway. The "McTwang" restaurant as the local paper termed it had a ribbon cutting ceremony on July 18, 1990. The restaurant had displays of East Tennessee country music stars such as Archie (Grandpappy) Campbell, Roy Acuff, Dolly Parton and Lowell Blanchard.
In 1991, the University of Tennessee established a scholarship at the University's College of Communications to honor Lowell. Wayne Bledsoe reminded readers that it was Lowell who nudged Chet Atkins to focus his musical efforts on the guitar; it was Lowell who got a female singer named Muriel Deeson to change her name; she became Kitty Wells; it was Lowell that pushed Henry Haynes and Kenneth Burns to become a duo known as Homer and Jethro.
On December 26, 1968, Sally Irene Marshall Blanchard, Lowell's widow, took her own life with an overdose of pills. It was noted she had been depressed since the death of her husband in February of 1968. She had met Lowell in Detroit in the early 1930's while he was working at WXYZ. It was said to be a case of 'love at first sight' and the couple was quite close. She was prominent in the local golfing community and was president of the Women's Southern Seniors Golf Association in 1958.
Like Father, Like Son
Arthur (Smiley) Blanchard did try to follow his father into radio as an announcer, but found he did not like it. But he tried another career and followed in his father's footsteps - politics. In 1972, he finished first out of 13 candidates for an at-large position on the city council and then finished first in the run-off.
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