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About The Artist
Finley Duncan "Red" Belcher was a quality claw hammer banjo player, old time singer and comedian. But more than that, he was a quality "pitchman," a term used to describe those musicians who had a special knack for selling a sponsor's products.
Unlike many country performers of his era, Belcher eschewed western garb and keeping with a rural image, favored bibbed overalls. He also was one of the few musicians to have their pictures on a souvenir plate.
Sometimes called the "old redhead," this native of Emberton, Kentucky worked on radio from the middle-1930's until his untimely death at the age of 38 in 1952.
He was born to parents Madison Nelson and Sally (Kingery) Belcher. He grew up on the family farm which had 110 acres. HIs dad raised corn, sorghum and tobacco. His father passed away in 1928. Red told fans in his song book No. 3 that both his parents were "hill musicians". His dad played the fiddle while mom played the five string banjo.
Red says he got his first banjo at a farm sale for all of $1.10. After he graduated from high school, he thought about trying this 'radio thing' and knew there was a station about 400 miles from home. Using the internet maps, the 400 miles is about the distance from Emberton, KY to Peoria, IL. Another station he would work at, WDZ in Tuscola was only about 300 miles.
Rather than working solo, Red usually had other musicians working with him, more often than not, a brother duet.
WDZ — Tuscola, IL
The KWTO Dial monthly publication told readers of Red's start in radio. Reading the story, one wonders how much was stretched a bit to make for a good story. He left his family home in Emberton, KY on September 14, 1936. He had saved about nine dollars from sawings at the handsome sum of ten cents per one hundred. He took his $1.10 banjo and a mail order guitar with him. He left behind his mom, four brothers and two sisters telling them he was going to "get on the radio." He was wearing his only "store" bought suit of clothes he had ever owned to that point, the banjo was in a pillow case and his guitar was in a gunny sack.
His journey started by walking about three miles to Emberton, KY. There, he met a man who was driving a truck with a cow in the back end. The man was going to travel through Tuscola, IL. Red asked him how much he would charge him for a ride. The man told him it would cost five dollars, but he had to sit in back with the cow.
For the next day and night, it was Red and the cow in the back of the truck. He would have to push the cow away when they turned a corner and in another turn, the cow was on its own. He got the cow to fall asleep one night while doing some tunes with his banjo and finally even Red fell asleep. The KWTO article also mentions that Red quit school after the third grade.
However, in November of 1943, the KWTO Dial featured Red in their "The Spotlight..." feature column. It shows some differences to the later versions of Red's story of getting on the air. For one, he was said to have been working on farms around Mattoon, IL and what he heard over WDZ was his chief source of entertainment. Mattoon is about 25 miles south of Tuscola. The 1943 story indicates he went to WDZ on October 17, 1936 to apply for a job as an entertainer.
The story of Red's start in radio spanned a couple of issues. It took about 48 hours for Red to get to Tuscola, about 300 miles from Emberton by today's roads. However, he arrived at 3:00 am. He did not try to find a hotel as he only had four dollars left in his pockets. But he didn't even know there was such a thing as a hotel. He didn't know if folks would be as hospitable as the folks he knew back in Kentucky and at that hour, none asked him to come to their home and sleep the evening. He just walked the streets of Tuscola until daylight and made his way to radio station WDZ. Tuscola was a small, seemingly rural town. In 1920 and 1930 the population was about 2,500. By 2010, the town had grown to about 4,500. It is about 40 miles east of Decatur, IL and just over 20 miles south of Champaign, IL and about 160 miles south of Chicago.
Finally morning came and he went to the station. However, he was told the manager would not be in for two or three hours and would ask Red to do an audition. Red was not familiar with 'auditions' at that point, but he stuck around. Later, the manager, Mr. Claire B. Hull came in and asked Red what he wanted. Red simply said, "I want to make music on the radio." Mr. Hull asked for a sample of what Red could do and he did "John Henry." Red said it was the "...very best coon callin' music." Red was offered a job, not as an entertainer at that point, but as a janitor and a promise he could du a tune on the air every now and again.
Red finally did get on the air and the station received 80 cards and letters afterwards. He became a regular. After a month, he was breaking all the mail records for the station in Tuscola. Because he was both an entertainer and janitor, his pay was about $15 a week.
Also working at the station as a janitor was (Lazy) Jim Day. One day Jim told Red to get the Bon Ami and wash the studio windows. But the problem was, Red could not read. Instead, he picked a can of Johnson's Floor Wax and proceeded with "Kentucky vigor" to apply it to all the studio windows. When this mistake was caught, it was reported that no amount of wiping and polishing could remove the wax from the glass windows. But all was not lost. By the time that happened, the station manager, Mr. Hull, had decided that Red had a better future at the station as an entertainer rather than as a janitor. He became known as the "Kentucky Coon Caller."
He left WDZ in 1939 and was working at station WMBD in Peoria, IL for about a year. From there, he journeyed to Chicago where he found national popularity over WJJD and WIND.
WJJD — Chicago, IL
When Red joined KWTO, their monthly magazine told readers of this 'quality pitchman' and his successes. His popularity was such on WJJD that his listening audience purchased 25,000 subscriptions to the American Poultry Journal ... in just three months! Consider also that his show was on at 5:30 am. It was also stated that orders came in from every state in the nation.
If that wasn't enough, he was pretty good at pitching his own song books. He reportedly sold 13,000 copies at 50 cents a piece during that time as well.
While at WJJD around 1942 and 1943, he also had a nightly show over radio station WIND, then located in Gary, IN. A local newspaper noted that Red was doing very well and his paycheck was growing and could eat at decent restaurants and stay at the better hotels. But his friends were after him to get a new suit of clothes. They tried to tell him subtly or diplomatically that the overalls he wore in the studio and everywhere else made him a bit conspicuous in the cocktail lounge in a Gary hotel. Finally, Red relented. He went to the most expensive tailor in the steel city and ordered the ... finest pair of overalls he could fashion to fit, one of the best material obtainable. The editorial note, probably a bit tongue in cheek that Red could now enjoy a fancy $1.50 dinner dressed in %50 tailor made overalls.
The KWTO Dial indicated that Red stayed at WJJD from 1940 until August 7, 1943, when he went to KWTO.
KWTO — Springfield, MO
When Red joined KWTO, it did not take long before his impact on the listening audience was seen. He had started on of the 'fastest growing organizations in the country ... and there's every indication it may soon exceed the size of the Republican Party. He had started "The Red-Head Club."
Evidently fans heard Red tell them he was a red-head but he was getting letters telling Red they were also red-heads. That became the impetus to form the red-head club. By the end of 1943, there were over 1,311 members from mainly Southern Missouri and Northern Arkansas as well as members from other states.
In April of 1944, the KWTO Dial publication announced that its show, "Cornfield Follies" had signed a contract to present its show during the upcoming season at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. Red Belcher, who would be the star, was to sing the leading parts in "Faust", "The Bohemian Girls" and other well known productions. Helen Smith of the Smith Sisters would be the 'prima donna' during that season. KWTO's Professor Ishamel Wayne Loveall (Ozark Red) would be conducting the orchestra at the Met. After the contract was signed, Belcher told reporters that "Opera is the love of my life. I remember the time when I preferred hillbilly music to real music, but now that I have attained culture, I no longer go for such tunes as "The Talkin' Blues" and "Bile Them Cabbage Down." After the contract was signed, photographers were allowed to take pictures while the cast was being measured by a tailor for tuxedos. Belcher reportedly ordered a dozen red silk Windsor ties and six new berets. But of course, the paragraph you just read was part of the April Fool's issue published that year.
Around July of 1944, he had a show at 6:00 am and 10:45 am every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. He also had a show at 3:00 pm, six days a week except Saturdays.
In November 1944, the KWTO publication indicated that Red and fellow artist Jerry Fronek had gotten together to write a song called "I Will Always Be Glad To Take You Back." M. M. Cole was to publish the song. It shows up in a Down Homers song folio published by M. M. Cole. This is not the tune written and recordered by Ernest Tubb that has a similar title, "I'll Always Be Glad To Take You Back."
WSVA — Harrisonburg, VA
After Red left KWTO, he went to radio station WSVA in Harrisonburg, VA and began to work with Buddy Starcher and his group in December 1944. Promotional ads were touting it as Buddy's "Grand New Radio Show." Also on the billing were such folks as Mary Anne, Dick Hart, Dottie Davis and Ted Arthur.
In 1945, another event occurred in Red's life. Hmarrieded the former Ellen Jane Hoffman of Elkton, VA on July 4, 1945 at Natural Chimney Park iVirginiaia, on a personal appearance date.
WMMN — Fairmont, WV
In 1944, Red had joined Buddy Starcher's All Star Roundup. At some point, the group changed stations was broadcasting over WMMN in Fairmont, WV. Buddy's newsletter indicated that along with Red, the Franklin Brothers, Curly Mitchell and Bashful Oscar were on the air from 45 amam to 30 amam over WMMN, Monday through Friday. Red wrote in "Starcher's Buddies" in 1946 that while at WMMN the group was making numerous personal appearances. He noted that many of those trips were over "...some of the worst hairpin curves and narrow roads in the whole country." But he said Buddy was ever the careful driver and always got them to their destination on time.
WWVA — Wheeling, WV
Although prior to World War II, Belcher had worked on radio outlets as far from home as KWTO Springfield, Missouri, Peoria, and WDZ Tuscola, Illinois, his postwar efforts were concentrated in his native Appalachia.
But his greatest success came a little later at the WWVA Jamboree and on their weekday programs. Brother duets that worked with Red included Budge and Fudge Mayse, Galen and Melvin Ritchey, Mel and Stan Hankinson, and perhaps most noted of all, Everett and Bea Lilly. This latter group recordered six numbers on the rare Page label in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. First mention of Red's move to WWVA came in Cowboy Music World in the fall of 1947 which was showing Red's show from00 am00am to15 am15am, Monday through Saturday.
National Hillbilly News informed readers that Red was out of action for about three weeks in 1947. He was in the Ohio General hospital dealing with and recovering from an appendicitis attack that resulted in surgery.
A small mention in Billboard indicated that Red had added Jimmie Walker to his show in 1948.
Red appeared in the WWVA Jamboree cast photos from 1946 through 1951.
Recordings & Songwriting
The session from 1948 had two songs featuring the Lilly Brothers, two banjo tunes by Red, one featuring Bea Lilly, and one featuring fiddle Tex Logan. Red also made two numbers about 1950 on Cozy Records with future Jamboree legend Roy Scott doing the vocals. While some discographies list Red as doing vocals, the actual record labels show something different. Page 501A and 501B were both banjo instrumentals by Red Belcher backed by his Kentucky Ridge Runners. For Page 502A, the vocal was by Mitchell Lilly. For Page 502B, the vocal was by Tex Logan. Page 505 appears to be vocals done by the Lilly Brothers with Red Belcher, Tex Logan, Smilie Sutter and Don Kidwell as the musicians. Page 258 and Cozy 258 were both by Red Belcher and his group with Eddie Miller, Jackie Starr and Roy Scott doing vocals as a trio. On the flip side, the vocal was done by Roy Scott.
Red also wrote several songs which would show up in his and other artist song books. Some of those songs are:
Auto Accident Ends Red's Life
Red Belcher died tragically in an auto crash on August 16, 1952 after he and the Kentucky Ridge Runners had performed at the Elkton (VA) Field Day festivities. Several news reports indicated he was driving alone when his car missed a curve and smashed into a bank in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains. The incident was said to have happened a30 pm30pm on US Route 33, four miles east of Elkton. Other reports indicated he was living in Lexington, VA at the time of the accident. He was buried in the Collierstown Presbyterian Cemetary in Collierstown, Rockbridge County, VA. At the time of his death, he was being heard over WSVA in Harrisonburg, VA. Elkton was his wife's hometown. A few weeks prior, he had performed at NatuChimneysenys Park where he and his wife were married during a personal appearance.
He married the former Ellen Jane Hoffman on June 2, 1945. Ellen outlived him by 63 years. She married Stanford Good in 1955. She passed away in 2015 at the age of 88.
Credits & Sources