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. She was the "top name" on the first country music program regularly broadcast on a national TV network. Bonnie Lou was one of the first female co-hosts of a successful syndicated television talk show, and a regular musical performer on popular shows in the 1960s and 1970s. She "was a prime mover in the first days of rockabilly," and 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. A newspaper columnist described her opening in Kansas City:
"She walked out into the spotlight and the crowds went 'Ahhhh!'." A couple of minutes later she brought down the house! That's the history in brief of Sally Carson's first appearance as a regular songstress last Saturday on KMBC's Brush Creek Follies. You can close your eyes...and even her voice bubbles over with wim, wigor, and witality. Open up though, and the secret is no longer a secret -- just look at them golden tresses!"
In 1945, Bill McCluskey, executive at powerhouse WLW in Cincinnati, first learned of his future star from a salesmen he met on on a train who "proceeded to rave about a young teen age country and western singer named Sally Carson who in his opinion was the best in the business..." McCluskey had the girl send a transcription of her singing to WLW. Impressed, he then requested a recording of her singing and yodeling "Freight Train Blues". He hired her and redubbed her "Bonnie Lou" because KMBC owned the rights to "Sally Carson." She was promptly featured 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.
During her years with WLW, Bonnie Lou often performed at country music hub Nashville, Tennessee on weekends, including several times at the Grand Ole Opry.
August 26, 1945 she married Glenn Ewins (1920-1964). She returned to Illinois with Ewins in 1947 when he took a job at Farmers State Bank where his father was a major stockholder and cashier, and had her only child, Connie Jo, September of that year. In 1950, two masked men entered her home at one a.m., shoved her into a kitchen closet, and demanded to know where her husband was, saying they wanted him to open the bank safe for them. She told them the safe was on a timer and couldn't be opened at night. They absconded leaving Bonnie Lou unharmed. By 1953 the Ewins family returned to Cincinnati and Bonnie Lou resumed work at WLW. In January 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.
From yodeling sweetheart to rockabilly pioneer:
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. "When the record hit the top twenty nationally, I asked the station if I could take some time off to tour. Management said no. That hurt: I couldn't promote the record or myself." Some of her records were also released by labels in Germany and Holland. Reflecting on her recording career in the 1980s, she concluded that "the sound on my records was too mixed, part country, part R&B. It got the artists and the public confused, I believe. You to do one thing or the other. People won't accept it unless you focus. You can't have a mixed bag."
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. Their pairing began when Dixon approached her and said, "I'd like to have you with me every day. We fit one another." The show was perfect for a quick-witted, multi-faceted performer like Bonnie Lou, who noted, "The show was off the top of his head. You had to know how to ad lib."
Faithful to her country music roots, she was also the "top name" on WLWT's televised version of Midwestern Hayride, which began as a regional program and was eventually the first country music program regularly broadcast on a national TV network, NBC. Bonnie Lou, honorifically dubbed "Queen of the Hayride", (and sometimes affectionately 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, an innovative live weekday talk and entertainment show that had 7 million viewers at its peak, though it was only aired regionally. 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 1974, Bonnie Lou semi-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 and magician. They had married in Las Vegas, Nevada on January 2, 1966. Capitalizing on her public appeal, the Okums appeared together in TV commercials for the store. For a couple of years in the mid-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. Even into her 80s Bonnie Lou still performed in public occasionally.
For decades Bonnie Lou was an indefatigable entertainer. Until her retirement she performed not just on radio and television, but at taverns, county fairs, conventions, trade shows, and countless other venues. Her accessibility, vivacity, and talent made her a headline favorite wherever she appeared. Even at 17, when her career was building momentum, a columnist for the Atchison (KS) Daily Globe wrote of the young performer that "When Sally Carson looks at us with that twinkle in her eyes, we're ready to believe anything."
Bonnie Lou now resides in a Cincinnati nursing home. She has had to move from one home to another because of persistent efforts by fans to contact her.
In 2014 her fan club celebrated 50 years of continued existence with the same president, Ruth Tatman.
March 23, 2015, Bonnie Lou's home town, Towanda, Illinois, honored her with a joint resolution. The resolution invites "our local community and beyond to reflect on the talent and remarkable achievements of the hometown girl who grew up to be a star."
Renewed interest in recordings and career:
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).
On March 8, 2015, The Pantagraph newspaper of Bloomington, Illinois published an extended feature about Bonnie Lou's career, as well as a second article about the longevity of her fan club.
Text from this biography licensed under creative commons license