Roy Lanham's Life Story
By Ken Griffis

The youngest of nine children, Roy Howard Lanham was born in Corbin, Kentucky, January 16, 1923, to John Thomas and Pearlee Brooks Lanham. Brother Arvil gave Roy his first guitar, and as a youngster Roy took an interest in music, joining in church singing and playing the guitar with little urging. His first serious involvement in music was in playing for local events, which provided experience but very little money. Listening to the Corbin Ramblers (headed up by neighbor Roland Johnson) and the Grand Ole Opry gave Roy the necessary stimulus to pursue a career in music. The compelling drive of a natural musician surfaced at an early age and young Roy soon demonstrated a unique talent. Roy recalled listening to a favorite artist, Robert Lund, and sending in a box top of Strike-a-Light matches for the music to "Talking Blues." He featured that song throughout his career. When he was twelve Roy and his cousin, Jim Brooks, entered a contest sponsored by John Lair and the Renfro Valley Barn Dance held in Mt. Vernon, Kentucky. Adopting the hopeful name of the Harmony Boys, they performed, finishing second to Lily Mae Ledford who was invited to join Liar on his Chicago program. The fellows settled for a wrist watch apiece.

While Roy was attending Felts High School in 1939, a musical group "Grandpappy and His Gang" came through Corbin. The group consisted of "Grandpappy" Archie Campbell; Doug Dalton, mandolin; Gene McGee, guitar; Charlie Pickle, bass; and a young tap dancer, Pete Hines. After the performance Roy informed Campbell of his interest in joining his troupe. Campbell replied, "Well, let's hear you." Roy performed so well that Campbell, after obtaining his parent's permission, took Roy along as he left town. When the troupe wasn't touring, they appeared on the Mid-Day Merry Go-Roundup show over KNOX, in Knoxville, Tennessee, where Roy made his initial appearance October 13, 1939. The most popular group then appearing on KNOX was The Stringdusters, that included Kenneth Burns, Holmer Haines, Atchy Burns, and Charlie Haggerman. Their sound was more pop than country. As Burns and Haines began hamming up more and more of their numbers, they gained such popularity that they formed a duo, calling themselves Homer and Jethro. Roy credits several of the fine string men around the area for aiding and inspiring his development as a guitarist, Harry C. Adams and George Barnes in Particular. Barnes played the first electric guitar Roy had ever heard.

After several months at KNOX, Archie Campbell moved his show to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and radio station WDOD, where Roy, Doug Dalton, and Bynum Geouge put together a group, the "Fidgety Four." How can a trio be called four? They solved that problem by adding a fourth member, a young fellow who came by the station to compliment them on their sound, but told them they would sound better with a bass. The trio agreed and Red Wooten became the fidgety fourth. Greatly influenced by The Stringdusters the group took on a pop sound.

Gene Austin, one of the giants of popular music, came through Chattanooga, with a large entourage in early 1940, and the Fidgety Four wrangled an appearance on his show. They were so professional Austin invited the fellows to join his organization. A relatively unknown guitarist, Chet Atkins, was hired as Roy's replacement on WDOD. Austin recommended a change of name for Roy's group and suggested the "Whippoorwills," taken from the first line of his hit song "My Blue Heaven." Roy recalled that they toured Virginia and North Carolina with Austin for about three months. The advance man would go in early, locate a vacant lot, make hotel reservations and ballyhoo the show. Their advance man was Tom Parker, later "Colonel" Tom Parker of Elvis fame. Preceding the break-up of the tour an incident of note took place. They had just left a small town in Virginia and a check paid to cover their expenses was, shall we say, slightly non-sufficient. When the show opened in the next city Portsmouth, Virginia, the marshall attached the gate receipts. The seasoned performers took the fastest route out of town, but the naive Whippoorwills remained as the attachment also covered their musical instruments. The fellows were sharp enough to point out to the judge that a bus belonging to Austin was still in town and convinced the judge to release their instruments and transfer the attachment to the bus. As quickly as the fellows could pick up a few dimes and quarters from an impromptu performance on a street corner, they caught the first bus to Chattanooga, and it was back to work with Campbell.

The Whippoorwills were surprised by a phone call from Austin in mid-1940 asking that they rejoin him for a swing of the night club circuit. He offered them $55.00 a week and as an added measure of protection, they were allowed to join the musicians union. This association included a tour through the Midwest, ending in Miami, Florida. Roy and the group were with Austin at the start of World War II. The follows never regretted the time spent with Austin, finding him a most enjoyable individual to work for. Not too long after the start of war the Whippoorwills disbanded and Roy made his way to Atlanta, Georgia, where he became associated with a trio, "Shades of Blue," who were appearing on radio station WGST. He appeared with the LeFevre Trio, on radio station WAGA, and it was here that Roy met and married Marianne Le Glise, who quickly became Roy's number one supporter.

In December, 1943, Roy and Marianne journeyed to Cincinnati, Ohio where Roy renewed acquaintance with his old friend, Hank Penny, who , along with his Plantation Boys, were featured artists on radio station WLW. The Plantation Boys included future greats, Sheldon Bennett, Boudeleaux Bryant, Noel Boggs, Louie Dumont, and Carl Stuart. Just by chance WLS was searching for a replacement for Doris Day, who was leaving to join the Les Brown Band. Penny arranged an audition for Marianne. Roy picked up the bass fiddle to help with the instrumental back-up, and that led to his being placed on staff as a utility performer, playing guitar, bass, and joining the vocals as needed.

Most of the activity at WLW centered around the Top Of the Morning program with its wealth of talent. In addition to the Penny band, they had The Boone Country Buckaneers, Pa and Ma McCormick, Curley Fox and the Texas Ruby, and the Brown's Ferry Four and featured Rabon, Red and Lige Turner, and Irene Martin. Another fine talent, Rome Johnson, was shortly to arrive at WLW, and while there and under contract to Fred Rose recorded the hit song, "Waltz of the Wind." Lanham made special mention of the talent possessed by the Delmore Brothers, both as song writers, vocalists and instrumentalists. Apparently Alton and Rabon, talent and all, were pure country.

Taking leave of WLW in early 1947, Roy joined Doug Dalton, Gene Monbeck, and Dusty Rhodes in reorganizing the "Whippoorwills." The new group spent countless hours in daily rehearsal, developing the most professional sounds possible. They shortly added a girl vocalist, Juanita Vastine, who was given the name, Sweet Georgia Brown. Much of 1947 and 1948 was spent working the Midwest circuit. Deciding greener pastures awaited them in Hollywood, the Whippoorwills headed west, with a stop-over in Springfield, Missouri for a visit with their old friends Zed Tennis and Slim Wilson. The brief stop-over was to last for a year. Receiving an offer to do a series of transcriptions with Gene Autry's side-kick, Smiley Burnette, the group proceeded on to Hollywood. Nearly three hundred transcriptions were made between 1950 and 1953, with guest stars such as Rex Allen, Eddie Kirk, Johnny Bond, Eddie Dean, Tex Williams, and the Sons of the Pioneers. This was Roy's first meeting with the Pioneers although he was most familiar with their music.

While visiting his old friend Shug Fisher in 1951, Lanham was introduced to Roy Rogers and was invited to join Rogers' tour that included an audition in Battle Creek, Michigan for Post Cereals. The Whippoorwills were so popular that the Sons of the Pioneers invited them all to fill in on their Lucky U Ranch radio program while they were on tour. About this same time Roy was asked to provide guitar work on Dale Evans' "Happy Trails."

From 1950 to 1956, in addition to his association with the Whippoorwills, a good amount of Roy's time was spent free-lancing, recording with Jim Reeves, Bonnie Guitar, Johnny Horton, The Browns, Wade Ray, and Faber Robinson, among others. The final break-up of the Whippoorwills took place in 1956, the group leaving a reputation of considerable dimension.

Reflecting back over those years, Roy remarked that he took a good deal of pride in his accomplishments, along with some very pleasant memories of the many individuals with whom he was associated. An amusing incident came to mind as he was recalling some of those memories. One afternoon outside the CBS studio where he was to appear on the Red Rowe Get Together show, he was approached by a fellow who introduced himself as Stuff Smith, asking for directions to the Bob Crosby rehearsal. Roy informed him he was at the wrong location. During the conversation Stuff, an outstanding exponent of the electrified fiddle, was pleased to learn that Joe Venutti was making a guest appearance on the Red Rowe show that day. Since Venutti and Smith were old friends he said he would drop in and say hello to Venutti. The get-together produced an impromptu jam session and Stuff completely forgot his Bob Crosby appointment.

Bonnie Guitar contacted Roy in 1959 asking that he provide guitar background for a tape she had made of a Seattle trio called the Fleetwoods. As he listened to the tape he was surprised to find that the only background for the song, "Come Softly To Me," was the shaking of car keys. Roy liked the tune and worked in rhythm guitar and a fill in with guitar tuned to a bass sound. The recording became a million record seller. Roy, with Sy Zenter on trombone, also provided background for the Fleetwood's recording of "Mr. Blue," another million seller. As time permitted, Roy played on numerous recordings with several name entertainers and recorded a couple of albums of his own: The Most Exciting Guitar (Dolton, BST 8009) and The Fabulous Roy Lanham (Sims 105)

Although in the midst of a successful career Roy was delighted when invited by Pat Brady to become a member of the Sons of the Pioneers. However, he did regret the loss of their outstanding guitarist, Karl Farr, that brought about the opportunity. He and Karl were good friends and he was an admirer of Karl's talents. Lanham joined the Pioneers in September, 1961.

Those who had the privilege of working with Roy found him to be a most uncomplicated individual. He was always just plan ol' Roy, someone who never made an effort to be anything other than what he was. There are an unlimited number of stories concerning Roy. A favorite is the time he and his lovely wife, Marianne were driving along the highway and they were forced to pull over due to car trouble. No sooner had they emerged from the auto then it burst into flames. Sensing the need to remove his valuable guitar from the trunk of the car, Marianne shouted "Roy, your guitar, get your guitar." Roy casually remarked, "I don't feel like playing right now, dear."

His friends, his many fans, and his fellow musicians were greatly saddened at the passing of Roy Howard Lanham on February 14, 1991. He did, indeed, leave his mark on so many people.

by Ken Griffis.

Taken from, Hear My Song, The Story of the CELEBRATED SONS OF THE PIONEERS, reproduced here with the permission of Ken Griffis, author of Hear My Song.

For information about obtaining a copy of Hear My Song, write:

Norken
P.O. Box 450
Camarillo, California 93010

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