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About The Artist
Onie Daniel Wheeler had one of the most atypical vocal styles in country music. Many critics see him as being several years ahead of his time, but still firmly rooted in country music. A native of Senath, Missouri, Onie grew up as part of a large family. Onie learned harmonica and guitar in his youth, but never thought of it as a career until after he came out of a five-year hitch in military service (1940-1945) which included action in the Pacific. Onie told readers in Country & Western Jamboree's 1957 yearbook that he spent $5.00 for a guitar and harmonica he saw in an advertisement. He said, "I did' learn but three chords on my guitar, but the harmonica came a whole lot easier. I would take it win the fields with me and play while plowing." He won a talent contest in high school that may have planted the seed to a future in music. During time in the Army, he won a number of talent contests which undoubtedly influenced his post-war choice to try music as an occupation.
Wheeler initially worked stints at a number of small radio stations in southeast Missouri and adjacent states for a number of years. Along the way, he met and married Betty Jean Crow in 1946 and they worked as the team Onie and Betty Jean for a time.
At WWOK (Flint, Michigan) in 1950, the two recorded a single on the Agana label. Back in Missouri at WSIM Sikeston, he met three more musicians: guitarists A. J. and Doyal Nelson and drummer Ernie Thompson who would primarily be his band members for the next several years. By this time Betty Jean left the road as daughter Karen had been born in 1947 and a second daughter would soon join the family which eventually numbered three children.
While working at a club in Odessa, Texas they met Little Jimmie Dickens who suggested they go to Nashville and seek a record contract.
In Nashville, they encountered Troy Martin who helped them get a contract with OKeh records, later changed to Columbia. In exchange, Martin got part ownership of four of Onie's original songs which were recorded on August 29, 1953. "Run 'Em Off" became Onie's best known song and also made the charts for Lefty Frizzell. "Mother Prays Loud in her Sleep" became a bluegrass gospel classic for Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs as did "A Million Years in Glory" to a lesser extent which was also covered by Carl Story. In December Wheeler and associates came back to Nashville and again in May 1954 with a session that produced more songs including another original gospel classic as covered by Lester and Earl, "I Saw Mom with God Last Night."
In 1954, he was part of a special radio network broadcast of the Tennessee Barn Dance over WNOX in Knoxville, TN. The occasion was to celebrate two of the show's acts latest Columbia releases - Don Gibson ("Symptoms of Love" and "Many Times I Waited") and Carl Story ("Step It Up And Go" and "Have You Come To Say Goodbye.") Lowell Blanchard was the emcee of the show which also featured Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.
In 1955, Onie was part of a group of acts that set off on a tour of Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee. The tour was arranged and underwritten by Hank Snow and Col. Tom Parker. Hank Snow was the main headline act. Others on the tour included Faron Young, the Wilburn Brothers, Slim Whitman, Martha Carson, the Davis Sisters, Mother Maybelle Carter and the Carter Sisters, Jimmie Rodgers Snow along with Onie Wheeler. A young and upcoming star by the name of Elvis Presley was on this tour as well.
For a time in 1956, Onie toured as a featured vocalist and bass player with Flatt and Scruggs and had another hit with "Onie's Bop." But he generally preferred a Missouri residence which was hardly a good career choice although he toured with some of the upcoming stars of Sun Records such as Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. In fact, when his Columbia contract expired, he recorded for Sun in 1957 which produced a rockabilly classic "Jump Right Off This Jukebox" although it did little for his career at the time.
Onie then went back to working a day job and ran a country music park near St. Louis on weekends.
Finally, when he and Karen, now a teenager, signed a brief deal with Epic in 1962, he moved to the Nashville area. He soon went to work as a featured vocalist with the George Jones show and recorded a single for Pappy Dailey's Musicor label.
As a writer, he composed a pair of George Jones-Melba Montgomery hits "Let's Invite Them Over" and "There's a Friend in the Way." Later in the decade he joined Roy Acuff's Smokey Mountain Boys playing harmonica and doing his train whistle on railroad songs. With minor exceptions he remained a part of the Acuff band much of the rest of his life.
During the week, he worked for Shot Jackson at Sho-Bud Guitars. Onie also bought a forty acre farm near Mt. Juliet, Tennessee.
Wheeler continued to make records under his own name although with little recognition until 1972 when he had a mid-level hit with "John's Been Shuckin' My Corn" on Royal American.
In the early 1980's, he recorded an LP for Brylan and another one on his own Onie label.
In early 1984, he had an aneurism and surgery, but probably went back to work too soon. On May 25, 1984, while singing with his long time friends the Nelson Brothers, he collapsed and died on the Opry stage on Jimmie Snow's Grand Ole Gospel Time. In Robert K. Oermann's obituary in the Tennessean, Grant Turner said it was probably the first time a death occurred on the Opry stage.
There was a crowd of about 1,500 - the Gospel Time show usually took place after the Opry shows. He was in the midst of singing one of his most famous compositions, "Mother Prays Loud In Her Sleep" when he was stricken and suddenly fell forward. Rev. Jimmie Snow had the Opry curtain drawn and led the audience in a prayer for Onie as we was rushed to Nashville Memorial Hospital.
Onie's obituary indicated that for a short time, Elvis was a part of Onie's band.
He was survived by wife Betty Jean, daughters Karen and Jerene, and son Daniel.
In 1991 Bear Family Records reissued his OKeh, Columbia, and Sun material including some unreleased numbers.
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