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Will K. Henderson was just 42 years old in 1923 when he invested in his first radio station, a modest 250 watt operation to which he gave his initials – Shreveport, Louisiana's still operating KWKH. It wasn't long before he discovered a disparity in how the government awarded frequencies and wattage, and he quickly grew tired of the favoritism shown to northern stations. Thus began what would be a long and protracted battle for equality of the airwaves for his beloved city and the South in general. The Federal Radio Commission (forerunner of today's FCC) was formed in part to regulate the language and range of this broadcast pioneer who dominated the airwaves of the 1920s as the nation's first "shock jock" and whose colorful storytelling and rambling political diatribes made his sign on catchphrase "Hello world, doggone you!" known far and wide throughout the land.
Next, it was the anti-chain store movement that became Henderson's obsession and drove his nightly tirades. He shared the growing national belief that chains came into a community, took away business from the local "mom and pop" operations, and rerouted taxable revenue away from the community. He feared these industry giants, if allowed to grow unchecked, would spell the end of small business in America and destroy the unique flavor they lent to their neighborhoods. Nearly ninety years later, with the proliferation of McDonald's restaurants, retailers like Wal-Mart, and broadcasting giants like Clear Channel Communications, we are beginning to understand the effects of the system Henderson foretold in his nightly broadcasts.
Looking back on the Henderson era, one can see the incredible influence of this man and his legacy. He gave unlimited air time to a local public works commissioner who was running for governor, and this was the tipping point that got his friend Huey Long elected to office. Will also gave a break to a local high school social studies teacher who wanted to give singing a try, and the world came to know and love Jimmie Davis as he did. Henderson and his engineers were the first to broadcast records directly from the needle, bypassing the standard method of placing a microphone in front of a conical speaker. They, too, were the first to use two interlinked turntables to fade from one record into the next. Today's generation of disco mixologists owe their very existence to Will K. Henderson.
After his death in 1945, KWKH went on to become one of the nation's flagship radio stations and, in the spring of 1948, decided to launch its own version of the popular barn dance variety programs sweeping the country. Taking its name from a well known musical and a recent motion picture, The Louisiana Hayride radio program premiered in April of 1948 with one simple goal: fill three hours with quality musical entertainment that would attract and hold advertisers.
The story of the Louisiana Hayride is one of binge and purge. The show would work each week to develop talent, only to see its rising stars lured away by the bright lights of Nashville and the promise of greatness. The audience embraced each act as more than just stage talent; these people were neighbors, salesmen, postmen, secretaries - regular hometown folk who made up the world’s greatest country music “farm team.” Each “graduation” to Nashville was a great loss requiring a look back into the ranks to select and groom the next superstar. From Hank Williams to the radical new sounds of Elvis Presley, this book covers the maturity of country music and the infancy of rock ’n’ roll from the place “where it all began."
Witness the greatest country music talent show in American history birth an unlikely child, Elvis Presley - its greatest achievement and yet the kiss of death when hordes of loyal country music elders reject the show’s new youthful direction and abandon it for the comfort of their own living room and the growing popularity of television. With the death of its last major star, Johnny Horton, the Hayride accepts the fate of a changing world and fades quietly from sight for a time, but not before leaving a rich and powerful legacy of music talent unequaled in modern times.
Cradle of the Stars presents a rich tapestry of photographs culled from a collection of more than 3000 images and accompanied by an engaging narrative assembled from historical accounts and first person interviews. The result is THE definitive volume on the history of KWKH and its most influential program, The Louisiana Hayride, as related by the one man who could tell it best, Joey Kent. As the son of Hayride owner David Kent, Joey has worked tirelessly the past twenty five years gathering the interviews, accounts, and images of the story that begins almost 100 years ago, and, now, with your help, it will be added to the historical record of this great nation for future generations to enjoy.
I. W. K. Henderson and the founding of KWKH Begins in 1907 with the first radio in Shreveport. Examines early radio stations and Henderson’s entry into the game. Explores his immense national popularity, his unique role as the nation’s first “shock jock,” and his fight against chain stores and the federal government. Details history changing contributions of Henderson and his station and his relationships with Huey Long and Jimmie Davis.
II. KWKH and country music in the late 1940’s The rise of country-western music in the post-WWII era and the popularity of national “barn dance” radio shows like the Grand Ole Opry and the Wheeling Jamboree.
III. The first Louisiana Hayride - April 3, 1948 The cast, crew, successes, and failures of the first Hayride show.
IV. Henry and Horace: The staff, auditions, morning shows, and other procedures. KWKH general manager Henry Clay and chief announcer Horace Logan are featured along with the day-to-day operations of the radio station.
V. The arrival of Hank Williams How Hank came to KWKH, what he did there, and his first Hayride appearances.
VI. The departure of Hank Williams and the birth of the “Cradle Of The Stars” Hank leaves for the Grand Ole Opry, and the Hayride has to scramble for his replacement. New stars begin to spring from the ranks and their careers and contributions are examined.
VII. Shreveport: Support and attitudes towards “hillbilly music” Social attitudes toward the music coming from the Hayride, and how it affected the audience members.
VIII. Road shows and beer joints: Life during the week for Hayride acts When not performing on the Hayride, the artists held regular jobs, did morning shows on KWKH, toured the region as part of package shows, and played local honky-tonks. Their routines are examined.
IX. Webb Pierce, a guy who wouldn’t give up Webb Pierce tried anything and everything to get on the Louisiana Hayride and became the biggest selling country artist of the 1950s. His antics are featured in this chapter.
X. “Farm Club for the Opry”: Talent scouts, record deals, and the lives of Webb Pierce, Slim Whitman, Kitty Wells, Goldie Hill, Faron Young, the Wilburn Brothers, Johnnie & Jack, Red Sovine, etc. The “pre-Elvis” Hayride acts are chronicled in this chapter.
XI. Jim Reeves, Hayride junior announcer Jim Reeves came to KWKH for an announcer job when an injury ended his baseball career. Filling in on the Hayride one night launched the career of one the most popular crooners in country music history.
XII. The Memphis Flash, Elvis Presley A whole chapter cannot contain all the information on Elvis Presley and his arrival at the Louisiana Hayride. Details from his time on the show that launched him to superstardom are doled out with dozens of amazing and rare photographs and testimonials from the people that knew him best.
XIII. George Jones A disc jockey and part time house painter, George Jones, showed up at the Hayride a week before Johnny Cash in the fall of 1955. Elvis was still there. What a time in music history!
XIV. Johnny Cash Sam Phillips sent Johnny Cash to the Hayride hoping to duplicate the success he achieved with Elvis. He got his wish. Johnny had some interesting times on the Hayride stage.
XV. “Elvis Has Left The Building”: The beginning of the decline Elvis Presley’s final Hayride show in December of 1956 is detailed and, with the growing popularity of the new medium of television, the Hayride begins its journey into decline.
XVI. Binge and purge: Coping with the endless cycles of fame What was done to try and save the Hayride and stop the exodus of its famous talent.
XVII. Johnny Horton Johnny Horton arrived at the Hayride in 1952 but didn’t settle on a style and find a way to stardom until the end of the decade. His journey and tragic demise are examined.
XVIII. “And all the regular cast...”: Jack Ford, Hoot & Curley, Betty Amos, Jeanette Hicks, Werly Fairburn, Jimmy C. Newman, Tony Douglas, Tibby Edwards, etc. The unsung heroes of the Hayride, its regular cast, and their successes and near misses.
XIX. Rockin’ the ‘Ride: Rockabilly comes to the Hayride When Elvis leaves the Hayride, a number of acts try to copy his style in hopes of success or to please the younger audience’s growing demands. Bob Luman, Jerry Lee Lewis, Dale Hawkins, Tommy Blake, Warren Smith, Bruce Channel and other early rockers are covered.
XX. A teenager’s dream: The diaries of Joyce Railsback Beginning the week before Elvis got to the Hayride, a West Texas teenager named Joyce Nichols would listen to the Hayride show and kept a detailed diary for several years of what was said, what was played, and what she thought about it. These written time capsules are offered up in a unique portrayal of the era.
XXI. The end of an era: the influence of TV, the changing Hayride audience, and the rising cost of competing Now famous Hayride acts come back to the show but their fees can’t be sustained. People stay home to watch Ed Sullivan on a Saturday night, and the Hayride struggles to stay relevant as the 1950s draw to a close.
XXII. The package shows of the sixties KWKH sponsored touring package shows throughout the 1960s that featured well known talent while still showcasing new talent like Nat Stuckey. These shows that were assigned the Hayride name are examined.
XXIII. Hayride U.S.A. & The Louisiana Hayride revivals In 1974, Shreveport businessman David Kent led a group of investors in a revival of the Louisiana Hayride. Kent ran the show until 1987. The artists and successes from his era as well as a handful of tribute shows that followed are chronicled in this chapter.
XXIV. Appendix: Louisiana Hayride Talent Roster and Show Schedule, Louisiana Hayride Song List, the Diaries of Joyce Railsback Nichols, etc. All the facts of who was on the show, when, and what they sang are laid out in this appendix from Hayride archives, news ads, posters, diaries, and other ephemera.
Because Elvis Presley got his start on the Louisiana Hayride, my book will have wide appeal with his fan base, which is heaviest in the U.S., UK, Europe, Japan, and Australia. Roots music of this country is most popular in European and Scandinavian countries, with most fan clubs of former Hayride artists located there. In the U.S., the Hayride was most popular in Texas (over 70% of each week's live audience came from there), the southern states, and the Midwest, and should appeal to the senior demographic in those regions as well as fans of roots music everywhere. Statistically, Elvis and Johnny Cash generate the most fan interest, followed by Hank Williams, Jim Reeves, Slim Whitman, Johnny Horton and others. The early rockabilly acts hold particular interest with foreign music fans, and many like Bob Luman, Tommy Blake, and Bruce Channel got their start on the Hayride.
Billboard Magazine once called my Hayride audio collection "the most important collection of country music still in private hands." The place of the Louisiana Hayride in country music and early U.S. roots music history has worldwide appeal and cannot be denied. Next year, acclaimed documentary film maker Ken Burns is presenting his take on the History of Country Music, to which I have contributed key Hayride images and information. His efforts are always so well done and so well received and will create newfound interest in the story of the Louisiana Hayride. Cradle of the Stars will be there to answer the call of curious audience members, offering a well-placed, lavishly illustrated, comprehensive, and easy to read volume on the show that should prove indispensable. Plus, to sweeten the pot for publishers, I could offer my 168 page book Elvis Presley: The Louisiana Hayride Years, 1954-56 for reissue. It was created in 2005 as part of an infomercial offering, but the backers invested in too many other projects and were unable to come up with the funds for a proper media buy. Therefore, the book (while critically acclaimed in the Elvis world) never got a proper launch. I would love to see it reissued, and this can certainly be discussed with potential publishers.
Joey is the author of "Elvis: The Louisiana Hayride Years" and has over fifty film festival awards for screenwriting to his credit. He is an archivist, historian and public speaker.
I will launch an appeal to all of my Facebook friends and anyone they know who is interested in music history or the key figures like Elvis, Johnny Cash, etc. To my friends, the appeal will be to help me put to bed the collection I have nurtured all the time they have known me and share a wonderful historical account before embarking on a writing career of historical fiction. Over the years, I have been contacted by enumerable fan clubs and individuals about one aspect or another of Hayride history. I will reach out to these individuals and organizations and appeal to all they know for help in producing this vital volume of music history. Lastly, I will reach out to those I know in the music industry - artists, publishers, disc jockeys, etc. - who will understand the need for this volume and, hopefully, pass along my link to their followers.
No one has attempted an impartial, fact-laced, coffee table book on the Louisiana Hayride before. Although, there are several biographies out there by former Hayride acts and employees, most notably:
1. Elvis, Hank, and Me by Horace Logan. St. Martin Press, 1998. 274 pp. (about 30 photos). The title says it all. Former Hayride emcee Horace Logan takes credit for many acts on the show in this biographical offering.
2. I Was There When It Happened by Tillman Franks. Magic Circle Press, 2000. Former Hayride bass player and manager, Tillman Franks, tells some great stories in this entertaining self-published biography that largely deals with his time on the Hayride.
3. Louisiana Hayride: Radio and Roots Music along the Red River by Tracey E.W. Laird. Oxford University Press, 2004. 224 pp. (about 22 photos). Expanded college dissertation on the many roots music contributions of Shreveport, including the artists of the Hayride. Fact based and thoroughly researched. I contributed notably to this volume. Invaluable for the music researcher.
4. Looking Back to See: A Country Music Memoir by Maxine Brown. University of Arkansas Press, 2009. 348 pp. Entertaining biography of a former member of The Browns, a family act that started on the Hayride. Includes some good stories from the Hayride era.
The goal of my book is to set the stage for the Hayride by enlightening the audience on the founder of KWKH and the history that led to the show, then taking the reader on an impartial journey in words and pictures that shows how regular folks became stars (or not) and the impact the three hour weekly radio broadcast had on music history in America. This is not an ego-driven project like the first two books, nor is it a biography of one person's perspective, nor is it a technical exploration and analysis of music trends and happenings of a particular city. I want the reader to get to know the process, the people behind and in front of the microphones, the audience, the time, the place, and the influences left behind. People love pictures, and I've got plenty...AND I know the facts and stories behind them. This is a coffee table book, rich in imagery and supplemented by first hand accounts, culled through my own interviews, research, or verbatim from actual audio transcriptions. Because I own the rights to all the images and their usage, this project need not be limited by licensing fees and can thus contain a large amount of photos. Here is a sample page:
This is but one story of Elvis Presley's time on the Louisiana Hayride. It was written for Shreveport's regional SB Magazine and published in 2011.
When Elvis First Left The Building
Even though it’s been 55 years since Elvis Presley traded his weekend gig in Shreveport for superstardom, some parts of his legacy are destined to live on forever. Anyone who grew up listening to Elvis or had relatives that did is familiar with the legendary phrase “Elvis has left the building.” It has become part of the popular culture, having morphed into slang for almost any person’s dramatic or noteworthy departure. What few Shreveporters realize, though, is the phrase got its start here in town as well.
The date was December 15, 1956. The place, the Youth Building (now Hirsch Coliseum) at the Louisiana State Fairgrounds off Greenwood Road (Interstate 20 had yet to be built). It was Saturday night and time for another installment of KWKH’s popular barn dance show, the Louisiana Hayride. Normally held in the Municipal Auditorium on the west edge of downtown, the show had to move to a larger venue that weekend because Elvis was back in town.
It had scarcely been two years since an unknown 19 year old Elvis Presley first showed up in Shreveport, fresh from a lukewarm reception at the Grand Ole Opry and hungry for success on his own terms. The Hayride welcomed Elvis as they had so many unproven talents before him: Hank Williams, Kitty Wells, Webb Pierce, Slim Whitman, Jim Reeves, Johnny Horton and more. It didn’t matter that the Presley sound wasn’t exactly country music. It was something different, and KWKH was all about different.
Elvis first took the Hayride stage in October of 1954 and by early November had charmed the ladies in the audience, befuddled the men, confused his fellow performers, and taken over every teenage girl’s heart in the 38 state coverage area of KWKH’s powerful signal. That was good for business, very good, for a while at least.
Picture, if you will, the Municipal Auditorium half filled each Saturday night with fans of classic country music. Webb Pierce ruled the charts during the mid-fifties with more than a dozen Number One hits featuring his unique, twangy style. MGM was releasing every track they could find on Hank Williams to satisfy the fans of the artist so recently taken from their midst. Country was the music of the times, and crooners were in high demand. Blue jean overalls, checkered shirts, ten gallon hats, and cowboy boots adorned most of the audience and the cast on any given Louisiana Hayride Saturday night. Then, in walks this greasy haired teenager from Memphis wearing a pink suit, two tone bucks, and a clip-on bow tie. Before they knew what hit ‘em, Elvis Presley offered up his take on blues and country to the audience and they began to lap it up.
March 31, 1956 became Elvis Presley’s final Louisiana Hayride appearance as a regular member of the cast. It had never been the intention of the powers that be to hold Elvis back from his destiny, so Henry Clay agreed to let Elvis buy out the remaining six months of his Hayride contract for twice face value, a staggering sum of $10,000. As the chairman of the Building Committee for the YMCA, Clay tossed in a requirement of his own - Elvis would return to Shreveport within six months and do one final benefit performance for “the charity of his choice, which would, of course, happen to be the YMCA of the City of Shreveport.
“Love Me Tender,” featuring newfound movie star Elvis Presley, was filling up theaters coast to coast by the time the Shreveport charity show rolled around in December of 1956, and Elvis was topping the charts with the simplistic rhythm and blues song “Hound Dog.” Every spot in the 10,000 seat venue had been sold, and then some. Teenagers crammed into every corner, and concerns were high that the fire marshal would shut down the show even before it began. At the last minute, bed-ridden hospital patients on gurneys were wheeled into place at the base of the stage to afford and protect the buffer zone required by fire code.
To every member of the audience it was clear the King had come home. To KWKH and the Hayride, it was business as usual and Elvis was scheduled as the third act of about twenty. He came out just after 9 p.m. and delivered a ten song performance culminating in a drawn out, burlesque sounding rendition of “Hound Dog”. He could have played the National Anthem and no one would have been the wiser. The screams of ten thousand teenagers were deafening.
“All right, uh, Elvis has left the building. I have told you absolutely straight up to this point, you know, that he has left the building. He left the stage and went out the back with the policemen and he is now gone from the building.”
Gone were the teenagers, gone chasing Elvis. Gone, too, were the loyal fans of the old Hayride, the country one. They had grown tired of the screaming teenagers cluttering up the audience of the Louisiana Hayride in increasingly large numbers. Plus, there was now this new medium of television taking hold in the nation, and a guy named Ed Sullivan put on a pretty good Saturday night show of his own.
Without any doubt, Elvis remains the biggest thing to ever hit the Louisiana Hayride, but it was a hit from which the show would never fully recover. Following on the heels of Elvis came Johnny Cash and George Jones, who both tried their hand at the new “rockabilly” sound, as it was being called. Johnny had modest success with “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” before deciding to return to country, while George busied himself trying to buy up all known recordings of the four forgettable tracks by “Thumper” Jones. It was the dawn of a new era, and the Louisiana Hayride would end its primary run just four years later but not before launching a few more careers on the road to stardom.
In July of 1976, Elvis returned to Shreveport and the Louisiana State Fairgrounds for what would be his curtain call in the town “where it all began.” Horace Logan came to see him and renew acquaintance. Robert Catts, the sleepy eyed Shreveport patrolman who had served as a decoy for Elvis back in December of 1956 and helped make Presley’s legendary escape from the building possible, was once again there to serve and protect. Elvis took up an entire floor at the Chateau Suites hotel downtown, and Catts tells a great story about the unscented skunk they unleashed on the floor as Elvis sat quietly reading his Bible. But that’s another tale for another day.
Oh, and for those of you keeping score, the YMCA ended up collecting a check from KWKH for $7551.99 for their share of the proceeds from the 1956 charity show. It went into the Building Fund and helped construct, among other things, the swimming pool out at the Y’s Camp Forbing. Rock on, Elvis!
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