Bonnie Lou in a 1972 publicity photo
|Birth name||Mary Joan Kath|
|Also known as||Bonnie Lou|
October 27, 1924 |
Towanda, Illinois, U.S.
|Genres||Country, rock and roll, rockabilly|
|Associated acts||Janis Martin, Wanda Jackson, Jo Ann Campbell|
Bonnie Lou (born Mary Joan Kath, October 27, 1924, in Towanda, Illinois) is an American rock and roll and country music singer. A musical pioneer, Bonnie Lou is recognized as one of first female rock and roll singers. She is also one of the first artists to gain crossover success from country to rock and roll. Bonnie Lou was also a popular host and performer on syndicated television entertainment shows in the 1960s and 1970s. She is a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
Early life and rise to fame
Mary's parents were Arthur (1899-1977) and Eva Kath (1905-2000). She had a brother, Arthur (1926-2003), and has a sister, Eleanor. "I was named after my grandmother Mary, and my grandfather Joe; and my mother added the -an onto the end of it," Bonnie Lou noted in a 2007 interview. When Mary's family home in Towanda burned down, they moved to Carlock, Illinois, where her father was a tenant farmer.
She grew up listening to Patsy Montana and her band "The Prairie Ramblers", and was greatly inspired by her. Mary learned how to yodel from her maternal grandmother Mary, who had emigrated from Switzerland. She started violin lessons when she was five, and her father bought her a "two dollar-and-a half pawnshop guitar" when she was 11.
At just 16 in 1941, she was singing and performing on WJBC (AM) in Bloomington, Illinois. At 17, after she graduated from high school, she sent an audition record to larger KMBC in Kansas City, Missouri, and was signed to a five year contract to perform on the Brush Creek Follies barn dance show as "Sally Carson," and with a group called "The Rhythm Rangers." The show was broadcast nationwide on the Columbia Broadcasting Service, and has been described as "one of the biggest music programs in the country" at the time.
In 1945, Bill McCluskey, executive at powerhouse WLW in Cincinnati, listened to a transcript sent to the station by Mary of her singing and yodeling “Freight Train Blues”. He hired her, renamed her “Bonnie Lou,” and featured her on Midwestern Hayride Country & Western Radio Program broadcasts and live tours. Her contract with KMBC was voided because she was a minor when she signed it. Once known as Mary Jo, the Yodeling Sweetheart, Bonnie Lou now earned the devotion of listeners which would last the rest of her career. She also performed regularly with the sister duo she had listened to as a child, the Girls of the Golden West, one of whom was McCluskey's wife.
In 1945, the same year she came to WLW, she married Glen Ewins (1920-1964). She went with Ewins in 1947 when he took a job at the Carlock bank where his father was cashier, and had her only child, Connie Jo, that year. The family returned to Cincinnati and Bonnie Lou resumed work at WLW. In 1964 her husband died in a car accident in Cincinnati. His gravestone includes the portentious engravement, "Mary Joan 1924 — ".
Bonnie Lou continued radio performances until the end of the 1940s. Some of her radio performances were cut to acetate and released to the public, but she didn't gain prominence as a recording artist until the 1950s.
Country and rock and roll star in the 1950s
In 1953, Bonnie Lou signed with her first record company, King Records in Cincinnati, Ohio. Early in her recording career, she performed Country Music songs. She soon had top-10 country hits with "Tennessee Wig Walk" and "Seven Lonely Days", each of which sold about 750,000 copies.
Soon, Bonnie Lou started recording rock and roll in a style later called rockabilly. In 1954, she recorded the song "Two-Step Side-Step", written by Murry Wilson, father of The Beach Boys, Carl, Brian, and Dennis. In 1955, she released her first rock and roll record called "Daddy-O". The song rose to 14 on the Billboard (magazine) chart, and turned Bonnie Lou into a rock and roll star overnight. It wasn't until 1958 though that Bonnie Lou had another hit, a duet with Rusty York called "La Dee Dah". They soon reorded a Teen Pop song together called "I Let the School Bell Ding-a-Ling".
When her contract with King expired, Bonnie Lou could have signed with a major label, but declined since it would have required her moving to New York. "I was supposed to sign with RCA Victor, but instead I went with Fraternity Records just because it was local. I should have had more sense. I've always wanted to stay in Cincinnati, though, because of my family and profession." She released several different singles for Fraternity, but none was as successful as her King singles. WLW hampered her career by refusing to allow her time off to tour in support of her early recordings, which had sold well overseas, especially in England where her label was Parlophone, which was also the The Beatles label during most of the band's existence. Some of her records were also released by labels in Germany and Holland.
Later career and personal life
As television eclipsed radio in popularity, Bonnie Lou's engaging personality and beauty allowed her to easily adapt to the visual medium. WLW's TV affiliate, WLWT, featured her prominently in several roles. For two decades she co-hosted and performed on the popular weekday program, the Paul Dixon Show. Faithful to her roots, she was also a star on WLWT's televised version of Midwestern Hayride, which began as a local program and was eventually broadcast throughout the country, first as a 1951 summer replacement show on NBC, and at its peak syndicated to 90 stations. Bonnie Lou, honorifically dubbed "Queen of the Hayride", (and sometimes casually referred to on the show as "Queenie") appeared on the program until it ceased production in 1972. She also appeared regularly on the Ruth Lyon's 50-50 Club, a hugely popular talk and entertainment show. In 1958, Bonnie Lou and other WLWT luminaries recorded a Christmas album for Ruth Lyons's new record label that sold about 250,000 copies. As busy as her TV schedule was, she also hosted Six Star Ranch, a WLW live music radio show transmitted nationwide by the Mutual Broadcasting System.
When Dixon's show ended not long after his death in late 1974, she quietly retired from show business to Monfort Heights, Ohio, a section of Cincinnati, with her second husband Milton J. Okum (b. 1926), a furniture store owner. Capitalizing on her public appeal, the Okums appeared together in TV commercials for the store. For a couple of years in the 1970s, she hosted a weekend country music show on WPFB in Middletown, Ohio. A 2013 look back at the station's history deemed Bonnie Lou "Perhaps the most beloved DJ that blessed the [station's] airwaves..." Due to her many years on radio and TV and performing in public, she was a household name in Cincinnati and across the country among viewers of the programs on which she was a regular performer.
Bonnie Lou now resides in a Cincinnati nursing home.
With a new century and renewed interest in early country and rockabilly music came an upsurge of interest in Bonnie Lou's recordings. In 2000, the CD Bonnie Lou - Doin' the Tennessee Walk: The Best of the King Years was released by British Westside Records, featuring all of her King hits. It is rated 4.5 (of 5) stars by AllMusic which calls it "an excellent anthology of an artist whose genre-straddling recordings will appeal to '50s country, rock, and pop music lovers." In 2009, Friction Heat (1953-58), a compilation of 32 of her King and Fraternity recordings, was released by the Great Voices of the Century label. Another compilation of 38 songs, Bonnie Lou: Rock-A-Billy Essentials, was released as a digital album in 2013 by Rockabilly Records. Most of her recordings, then, are available as commercial digital downloads or through popular streaming services. Some of her individual songs are included on multi-artist compilations, including a 2008 CD, Greatest Country Hits of 1953. Bonnie Lou's "Tennessee Wig Walk"' recording was featured in The Infidel (2010 film).
|Bonnie Lou Sings!|
|Raining Down Happiness||
|Doin' the Tennessee Wig-Walk:
The Best of the King Years
|Danger! Heartbreak Ahead||
|Friction Heat: 1953-58||
|Bonnie Lou: Rock-A-Billy Essentials||
|Ruth Lyons: 10 Tunes of Christmas||
|Ruth Lyons: It's Christmas Time Again||
|Title||Year||Peak chart positions||Album|
|"Seven Lonely Days"||1953||7||—||—||Bonnie Lou Sings!|
|"Dancin' with Someone"||—||—||—||N/A|
|"Tennessee Wig-Walk"||6||—||4||Bonnie Lou Sings!|
|"The Texas Polka"||—||—||—|
|"Don't Stop Kissing Me Goodnight"||1954||—||—||—||N/A|
|"Blue Tennessee Rain"||—||—||—||N/A|
|"Please Don't Laugh When I Cry"||—||—||—||N/A|
|"Darlin' Why" (with The Harmony Quartet)||—||—||—||N/A|
|"Tennessee Mambo"||—||—||—||Bonnie Lou Sings!|
|"The Finger of Suspicion Points at You"||1955||—||—||—||N/A|
|"A Rusty Old Halo"||—||—||—||N/A|
|"Old Faithful and True Love"||—||—||—||N/A|
|"Daddy-O"||—||14||—||Bonnie Lou Sings!|
|"Little Miss Bobby Sox"||1956||—||—||—|
|"No Rock and Roll Tonight"||—||—||—||Bonnie Lou Sings!|
|"I Want You"||1957||—||—||—||N/A|
|"Kit 'N Kaboodle"||—||—||—||N/A|
|"Teen Age Wedding"||—||—||—||Bonnie Lou Sings!|
|"Waiting in Vain"||—||—||—|
|"La Dee Dah" (with Rusty York)||1958||—||—||—||N/A|
|"No One Ever Lost More"||—||—||—||N/A|
|"Twenty Four Hours of Loneliness"||1962||—||—||—||N/A|
|"The Tender Side of Me"||1971||—||—||—||Raining Down Happiness|
|"There's Been More Sun Than Rain"||—||—||—|
|"—" denotes releases that did not chart|
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- "Arthur Otto Kath and Eva Saltzman Kath". Retrieved 12 November 2014.
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- "Arthur Leland "Bud" Kath". FindaGrave. Retrieved 13 November 2014.
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- "Rockabilly Hall of Fame: Bonnie Lou". Retrieved 12 November 2014.
- Ruth Tatman. scribd.com https://www.scribd.com/doc/248330003/Bonnie-Lou-career-facts
|url=missing title (help). Retrieved 26 November 2014.
- "Follies Stars". University of Missouri-Kansas City Library. Retrieved 12 November 2014.
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- "KMBC Brush Creek Follies". hillbilly-music.com. Retrieved 26 November 2014.
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- Carlin, Richard (2014). Country Music: A Biographical Dictionary. Routledge. p. 34. ISBN 9781135361112.
- "Glenn Edward Ewins, Sr". findagrave.com. Retrieved 21 November 2014.
- newspapers.com. The Pantograph (Bloomington, Illinois). September 27, 1947. p. 3 http://www.newspapers.com/newspage/70774443/
|url=missing title (help). Retrieved 21 November 2014.
- "The Press-Gazette (Hillsboro, OH)". p. 16. Retrieved 12 November 2014.
- "Glen E. Ewins, Jr.". findagrave.com. Retrieved 12 November 2014.
- John Kiesewetter (29 November 2007). "Bonnie Lou, One Of My Favorites". Cincinnati.com. Cincinnati Inquirer. Retrieved 14 November 2014.
- Coming Up Strong. books.google.com (Billboard). November 12, 1955. p. 82. Retrieved 21 November 2014.
- "Bonnie Lou". rockabilly.nl. Retrieved 21 November 2014.
- Randy McNutt. "We Wanna Boogie - An Illustrated History of the American Rockabilly Movement". Rockabilly Hall of Fame. Retrieved 13 November 2014.
- "http://www2.cincinnati.com/blogs/ourhistory/2011/08/29/midwestern-hayride-entertained-for-decades/". Cincinnati.com. Retrieved 13 November 2014.
- "Midwestern Hayride". hillbilly-music.com. Retrieved 21 November 2014.
- Kiewsetter, John. "'Hayride' went national 50 years ago". Enquirer.com. Cincinnati Enquirer. Retrieved 21 November 2014.
- "Requiem for the midwest". manwiththeblackhat.blogspot. David L. Alexander. Retrieved 21 November 2014.
- "Drop Me A Line". YouTube.com. Midwestern Hayride. Retrieved 21 November 2014.
- "Ruth Lyons - The Christmas Music Of". christmasyuleblog.blogspot.com. CaptainOT. Retrieved 21 November 2014.
- Milt, Okum. "War Era Story Project 2012". Ohio Department of Aging. Retrieved 13 November 2014.
- "Bonnie Lou: last star shining". Cincinnati.com. Retrieved 13 November 2014.
- "WCNW Radio Has Served the City Well". ffhistoricalsociety.com. Fairfield, Ohio: Fairfield Historical Society. Fall 2013. p. 2. Retrieved 21 November 2014.
- "Bonnie Lou Doin' the Tennessee Wig Walk". AllMusic. Retrieved 13 November 2014.
- "Bonnie Lou Discography: Friction Heat (1953-58)". cmt.com. Retrieved 13 November 2014.
- "Bonnie Lou: Rock-A-Billy Essentials". iTunes.com. Retrieved 13 November 2014.
- "Greatest Country Hits of 1953". Allmusic.com. Retrieved 14 November 2014.
- "Bonnie Lou-01-20". Internet Archive. Retrieved 13 November 2014.
- Whitburn, Joel (2008). Hot Country Songs 1944 to 2008. Record Research, Inc. ISBN 0-89820-177-2.
- Roberts, David (2006). British Hit Singles & Albums (19th ed.). London: Guinness World Records Limited. p. 330. ISBN 1-904994-10-5.
- All Music Guide to Country: Bonnie Lou
- Bonnie Lou At the Rockabilly Hall of Fame
- King Records: Cincinnati Legacy, Part V (WVXU radio interview with Bonnie Lou)
- Bonnie Lou at The Ohio State Fair: Proud Mary & Behind Doors
- Bonnie Lou Facebook fan page
- Praguefrank's Country Music Discographies: Bonnie Lou