About The Artist
Walter Fisher Hendley was a clawhammer banjo picker who was born in Anson County, North Carolina. Although he fell in love with the banjo at age twelve, he also manifested interest in baseball and attended Rutherford College with that sport in mind but later shifted his ambitions toward Glee Club after switching to Trinity (later known as Duke). While he never obtained a degree, he gained sufficient education to develop a good head for business.
A 1932 biographical article written by Guy Swaringen provides a glimpse as to how Fisher got the itch to play the banjo and how he got that first one from his dad. He was after his dad, a farmer, to get a banjo. But his father felt it was more important for him to help improved the farm, earn a living and tend to his schooling. Guy wrote, "While a very small boy, Fisher had a yen for string music that often would set his fingers twitching and his feet to patting. Beyond almost anything else of vaue to a boy, he longed to possess a banjo. But all his cajolings to that end were in vain."
But Fisher did not give up. There were fiddlers in his family and hearing the sound of a banjo always stirred his heart. So determined to have a banjo, he made himself one. He made it out of 'homely materials' like a round, flat cheese box, a piece of board and lengths of twine for the strings. He taught himself several tunes on his new instrument. In fact, legend goes that he learned so well, his father finally saw that there was indeed a musical side of his son and he gave Fisher a cheap banjo that became precious to him.
He kept up helping his dad on the farm, but found time in the summer afternoons to get together with the neighobr boys and go fishing or swimming or play baseball.
We would be remiss if we did not include the bit about Fisher's baseball talents with this article. The boys in the area would get together to play baseball, perhaps a version of sandlot baseball. It seems that Fisher began to show a talent as one of the best pitchers of their area. It was a dislike of working hard in the fields with his arms and legs that inspired him a bit and he tried to keep his brain busy. He developed a "fade-away curve that got the other boys guessing, studied each batter's weakness, and fanned them out with puzzling regularity." He kept at it in later years. The "boys" in the places of business around Albemarle had their own 'amateur' team. They would play other teams and "...Fisher not only fans the batters of opposing teams, but often fools their own catcher as well!"
During World War I, Hendley worked in a Hopewell, Virginia munitions factory. In 1921, he came to Albemarle, North Carolina where he took a job as a bookkeeper in a combination service station, garage, and auto dealership. Over the next several years, he advanced to manager and finally owner.
But during that time of holding those various jobs, he started to immerse himself in Albemarle's musical life. His managerial talents and musical interest led him to form an organization. It was called "Albemarle's Novelty Amusement Company." The personnel in that group were Fisher Hendley, Grover Thompson, Worth Allen, R. C. Simpson, P. L. Mayberry, Hugh Barrier, Hoyle Lowder and others who took part from time to time. It was stated that they were the first musicians to be broadcast over the radio. They were on the air at WBT on April 15, 1925.
Fisher competed in the finals at the Ansonville School in 1923 that included a musical concert and fiddler's convention. The local news wrote, "...a large crowd was present and the music was fine. Mr. Fisher Hendley of this place won first prize, but all did fine."
The local Charlotte newspaper reported on a champion banjo picker who was to play over WBT in Charlotte in April of 1925. The article noted that "Hendley has the distinction of having won nine consecutive banjo contests, the last one being the state fiddlers' convention las fall, in which he won the state banjo championship. He has the record of having never lost in a contest." The article went on further, "He makes no pretentions to 'high brow' music but is held in Carolina banjo picking cirlces to be a 'bearcat' when it comes to dispensing the 'natural born' old-fashioned variety. His repertoire included such songs as a revamp of "Let Your Shack Burn Down", "Cindy," and "Mississippi Sawyer." It was reported that the Victor talking machine personnel were listening in on the program and may have called Mr. Hendley to come to appear in Camden, New Jersey to do some recordings for the company.
He also maintained an interest in banjo picking, competed in contests, and in 1925 won the state championship. This led to cutting a single on OKeh in Asheville North Carolina in August which made little impact. The local newspaper reported that Fisher went to do test records for OKeh, playing various banjo selections. The focus was on playing old time melodies. The article stated, "...Mr. Hendley is doing much to keep alive the banjo and the melodies that gave our fatherspleasure. It is the sort of music that goes to the heels, and makes glad the heart." Local sentiment was that if he got a fair shake, he would be contributing his talents on records on a regular basis.
One of his early sponsors was the Mason and Melton company. "Walk in here and let us show you the dandiest machine you ever saw for curing valve troubles," was the promotional pitch Fisher would give over the air. The company did renewing of valves and bake-linings for cars. The company had "The Kwick-Way System" to ensure the valves were done accurately, without guess work, no grit or muss of any kind.
November of 1925 saw Fisher along with four others take the "Scottish Rite" degree with the Albemarle Elu Club of 32d degree Masons.
He did make a few appearances on WBT radio. He won the banjo picking championship again in 1927 "as usual. ... It is a habit he has had for several years." A local band named the Hawaiian Serenaders (Cecil W. Price, H. M. Teasley, S. Prosser and J. Biggers) took home first prize of $50 at the annual North Carolina State Fiddlers' Convention held at Albemarie, NC.
In 1926, Fisher left North Carolina for a time to join a vaudeville organization in Chicago. "He has made a great reputation as a banjo player and singer." Further research reveals an article in 1932 that indicated that he went to Chicago to partner with an unkown show man to produce a vaudeville show of their own. However, his partner developed a serious illness and the project was abandoned. While in Chicago, he did perform over radio station WGN.
Maintaining his musical interests in entertainment while managing his business, Fisher and banjo playing friend Marshall Small journeyed to Memphis in 1930 where they did a session for Victor as Whitter-Hendley-Small which eventually resulted in four sides being released, most notably a tune called "Shuffle, Feet Shuffle." Two of the numbers were released in 1936 on Bluebird. The better known Henry Whitter played guitar while the other two played twin banjos.
Hendley's opportunity to enter music as a regular occupation came about through an association with Crazy Water Crystals which went into radio sponsorship in a big way about 1932. Fisher not only formed a band—the Carolina Tar Heels (not the Victor Recording artist string band)—at WBT, but helped local manager Hubert Fincher find additional talent (most notably Mainer's Mountaineers among others). In 1934, Fisher sold his business in Albemarle and moved his family to Charlotte. Fisher and his band recorded ten numbers for Vocalion (eight were released) in 1933. A December 1932 sort of biographical article about Fisher told readers who was in the Tar Heels at that time. The group included Professor Dan J. Harris, school teacher and fiddler from Oakboro; Marshall Small of Badin; Earl Hatley, Spencer Hatley, Fred Russell, James Russell and Claude Eudy of Albemarle. The article also mentioned that Hendley and Marshall Small went to Memphis in 1931 and recorded several numbers for the Victor company. On their way back, they made an appearance on one of the two Nashville radio stations.
In early 1933, Fisher set about making a tour of every county in North Carolina. He wanted the string musicians of each county to hold a county championship fiddlers' convention where Fisher would select the winners of each county to participate the state championship. The first one was to be in Duplin County in the Kenansville High School auditorium on January 14, 1933 at 7:45pm. The winners would get blue ribbons and then advance to the state championship. Mr. Hendley intended to hand out $1,000 in prizes; Best String Band of four or more, $300; Best Vocal Quartet, male, ladies or mixed, $100; Best Duet of any two instruments, $75; Best Violin, $60; $40 each was to be awarded to winners being named best five string banjo, tenor banjo, standard guitar, Hawaiian guitar, mandolin and best buck dancer.
Crazy Waters was promoting the many string bands in the Carolinas as part of its promotional efforts. Fisher Hendley, then head of the string musicians' assocation of North Carolina, was the director of these promotional efforts / events. It was said his "...folk songs, barn dances, and "Hill Billy" music is (was) the talk of the south." Because of the publicity gained through association with Crazy Waters, several of the bands were playing in large southern cities at good salaries. It appears there was a weekly Saturday night two and a half hour concert on the radio that later evolved to the point where the public was invited to attend in person. The Charlotte Observer Town Hall was rented to host the events.
Perhaps the association with Crazy Water Crystals did not end well. In January of 1938, a short article mentions that Judge Hubert E. Olive of the superior civil court was deliberating W. Fisher Hendley's claim of $10,750 against the Crazy Water company. He contends he was owed that for personal appearances with the "Crazy Mountaineers" and the "Crazy Barn Dance."
In 1935, Hendley relocated to Greenville, South Carolina and WFBC. He also obtained a new sponsor and a new band name. Balentine's Packing Company became the sponsor and his band the Aristocratic Pigs. The name implied that Balentine's pork products came from high class hogs. Rather than rustic or western outfits, the Aristocratic Pigs wore suits, white shirts, ties, and top hats. Fisher's son Graham and daughter Helen became band members.
One of his early promotional gimmicks on the show was a hog calling contest that would take place during their program in the WFBC studios and might attract 'hundreds of people to the station.' First prize was to be a large Balentine ham and second prize was an eight-pound can of Balentine lard. However, he thought the announcers at WFBC should be restricted in participation as "...he thinks they have had too much practice."
Although personnel changed frequently, two of the Pigs, Tommy Faile and Sam Poplin, later went on to longer service with Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith and the WBT Briarhoppers, respectively.
A promotional photo of the Aristocratic Pigs in October 1935 provided the names of the members of the group then. Elmer Lenzer, comedian, Eddie Smith, vocalist, accordianist, violinist, pianist; Zeb the Hill Billy Kid; and Zeke. A new announcer at WFBC was also in the picture, Graem Fletcher and of course, Fisher Hendley.
In 1937, the Greenville News contained a photo of the 'new' Aristocratic Pigs line-up. Fisher Hendly was said to offer a free photo of the group was available for the asking by listeners. The five member group, dressed in white shirt, black bow-ties, black jacket and top hats were Couzin Ezra Roper of Easley, who was a newcomer and "The Wizard of the Accordion"; "Little Boy Blue" or Hampton Bradley who was called "The South's Sweetest Singer;" Fisher Hendley, who held the title of being Carolinas' champion banjoist; Sam Poplin, titled the champion fiddleplayer of the south; and, "Baby Ray" or Dixon Syewart, bass fiddler and "funniest comedian in Dixie."
In 1937, the show celebrated three years of broadcasts with the same sponsor, Balentine Packing. They were being heard twice a day at noon and 4:00pm, Monday through Friday over WFBC. Then at 8:45am and 5:00pm on Saturdays. It was said the Pigs were able to '...render almost any requested selection.'
In a February 1937 article touting how farn in advance the Pigs were booked, it tells readers who the four members of the group were then. The group was booked for the entire month of February and only had a few open dates in March. In addition to Fisher Hendley, the members of the group then were Hampton Bradley (Little Boy Blue) on guitar; Dixon Stuart (Baby Ray) on bass; Sam Poplin (Little Sam) on violin (fiddle); and Harold Compton on accordion.
In 1938, the Pigs cut twenty-two numbers for Vocalion (twenty released) with the most notable being "Hop Along Peter" and a cover of the Dixon Brothers' textile mill song "Weave Room Blues."
By 1939, the band moved again to WIS Columbia while retaining their connection with Balentine's Packing Company. Later they were sponsored by Allen Brothers Milling, makers of Table Tested Flour, and the band became the Rhythm Aristocrats. They continued broadcasting although the Hendley children left in 1943 for more schooling. By about 1947, Fisher dropped musical programming and he and his wife had a talk-chat type morning show "Fisher Hendley and the Madam" on WKIX in Columbia which was syndicated on three other South Carolina stations.
A January 1947 ad promoting an appearance of the Rhythm Aristocrats provides some insight as to who were members of the group at that time. In addition to Fisher Hendley, Tommy Faile (Guitar, Sweet Singer and Comedian), Cecil Bowers (Fiddling Deluxe — He sings too!), Johnnie Bishop ("Hush Yo-Mouth", featured Comedian, "King of the Ivories", Singer and Dancer), Gene Goodwin (Hawaiian Guitar SPecial — Vocalist), Alvin J. Wall (Hot Bass Player and Singer), Larry Ruff (Red Hot Guitar, Popular Singer and Comedian).
In May 1949, he retired from radio, sold his home, built the Gulf Palms Motel in Venice, Florida and moved south. Classified ads indicate he was trying to sell the motel in February 1952 due to being ill. The motel was located on the Tamiami Trail near the beach, golf and fishing.
In 1952, he retired again to Apopka where he lived until his death. His health appears to have deteriorated in the end. The Orlando newspaper reported he had been admitted to the Orange Memorial hospital in October of 1962 and his condition was listed as critical.
An interesting sidelight in the Fisher Hendley story involved one of his banjos. Daughter Helen pointed out that he always had the best instruments. One of his new banjos he later sold to fellow WIS artist Snuffy Jenkins. The latter somewhat later sold it Don Reno who then traded it to Earl Scruggs. The banjo was the very one with which Scruggs recorded "Foggy Mountain Breakdown." This has led some persons to regard it as the most important banjo in the world.
Mr. Hendley married the former Margaret (Maggie) Carroll (B: June 18, 1899; D: April 15, 1977) on August 21, 1926 in New Hanover, NC. They raised two children, Graham and Helen.
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