The above picture shows part of the cast of The Old Dominion Barn Dance (Richmond, Virginia). This was one of the many successful radio shows across the USA, giving the late Janis Martin her big break in 1955. It had emerged from radio station WRVA barn dance in September 1947 and used to draw hundreds of thousands of crowds from listeners. The 'Femcee' of the program was the gorgeous Sunshine Sue (real name : Mary Arlene Higdon ; she later became Mrs. John Workman). She and her Rangers had been featured on the National and Columbia Networks. She once was crowned as 'Queen Of The Hillbillies' by Governor William M. Tuck of Virginia. Old days indeed ; wonder what Dolly Parton would think of such an accolade !!
Eventually, the show became The New Dominion Barn Dance.
Back to the photo. At the top, in color, is the beautiful Rose Lee Maphis (this pic graced the front cover of her only solo album, on Columbia). On her left, in black and white, is Sunshine Sue. At the bottom, members of the cast, including Benny & Curly (back row, at left), Looney Luke & Roly Poly Reid (back row, at right), Bill & Arline Wiltshire (front row, beside the accordion player), Little Robert (easy to spot) and, at the far right, Joe Maphis. For your pleasure, I've inserted a frame of a rare pic showing Joe doubling as Cousin Joe and Crazy Joe.
Walker, a skilled guitar player who has an excellent CD out, reminisces
: 'Maphis played both electric and acoustic - he
used a Martin archtop which is the only one I have ever seen . I was featured
with Joe on The Old Dominion as Little Joe Jr. He would play and I would come
back and play exactly the same thing as he did. I knew all of the players
on the show and stayed with some of them at their homes.
I played a lot with Lenny Jones and Bill & Arlene Wiltshire . I also played with Bill in clubs in Washington, D.C. Red Murphy, who is in the cast picture above, started the Atlantic Barn Dance in Richmond, Va. and I worked with him for a long time until he went to Nashville with the Carter Sisters and Chet Atkins.
Last, a player named Ray Edington, who was engaged to Rose Lee, became ill and had to go to
a sanitarium. Later, Rose Lee married Joe Maphis.
After the service, I moved to Riverside, California, where I played with a house band for the greats coming thru. I was also a member of the Bobby Bare band there. Later got into jazz and still play here locally'.
To top it off, here's another bunch of photos of some of the cast members, including Slim Idaho (below, with his triple neck steel guitar) and a nice picture of Looney Luke (real name : Henry Luther Baucom) while he was part of the Tobacco Tags (at right). Apparently, Looney Luke and Roly Poly Reid used to do this routine where Reid would play the part of a woman (singing high pitched) and then Luke would sing and do comedy stuff with 'her' !
More info has come to light lately. Dale Mickle wrote that his Great Uncle, Dave Tyler, set in to play with Sunshine Sue when a member was ill. And Joyce (last name unknown) sent me this wonderful account of those days gone by : 'In the '40s when Sunshine Sue and her cast were so popular in Richmond and the surrounding towns, I was privileged to see several of their shows at the WRVA theatre at 9th and Broad. There were two shows every Saturday night, and the crowds were always lined up to attend each show.
I think one very important group that you did not mention as part of the cast was Maybelle Carter and The Carter Sisters. Mother Maybelle with Helen, June, and Anita were adored by all! Their typical Carter harmony brought down the house everytime they sang. Maybelle played guitar and autoharp; Helen played a mean accordion; June was such a great comic character and interacted regularly with Crazy Joe Maphis; Anita, who was pre-teen, had a strong voice, and the crowd loved to hear her rendition of 'Freight Train Blues'. She was quite a yodeler, and could hold a note till the audience almost fainted! As she sang the line, "I've got the freight brain blu--oos" - she would take that last syllable way up high and hold it forever. Joe Maphis would stand in front of her doing all sorts of shenanigans, trying to make her laugh, to no avail. She held it until she was ready to stop !
In addition to Saturday night performances, various groups within the organization appeared in schools, civic centers, etc., in nearby communities. I attended one of these in which Sam Workman and several musicians entertained in the railroad station! He was Sunshine Sue's brother-in-law, and besides performing with the Barn Dance, he had his own radio program which featured hymns and poetry. I have one of his booklets that he made available to fans.
The Tobacco Tags also had their own radio show and did personal appearances here and there. You mentioned their skits in which Roly-Poly Reed played a woman. They were hilarious! As his name suggests, he was rather plump, and that added to his character with make-up, wigs, and fancy dresses. One of their best songs was "Paper of Pins".
I grew up seeing these groups; they seemed almost like family to their Virginia fans.
And you know what, Paul? They did it all without being trashy! I'm thankful and proud to be part of that generation'.
© Paul Vidal * Privas, France * September 1999/July 2007
Also, many thanks to Ms. Kim Latham and Mr. Mike Wade for their help with info and photos.