Monday, February 15, 2010
Frank Luther, one of the most-recorded voices of the 20th century, who cut virtually every type of song in formats ranging from Edison 78s to stereo Lps, appeared with his trio on the very first Hillbilly Heart-throbs broadcast in 1933 and, 40 years later, would refer to Ethel Park Richardson as a "wonderful woman whom I know very well."
Francis Luther Crow was born August 4, 1900 to William R. Crow and Gertrude Phillips in Lakin, Kansas, about 40 miles from the Colorado line. His father was managing a cattle ranch near the Arkansas River. The family soon settled in Hutchinson, where Crow engaged in the hog and cattle business. William R. Crow & Sons prospered, and their hogs - raised on buttermilk - were selected by the State of Kansas to be exhibited at the San Franciso Exposition in 1915. Frank later remarked that he missed a lot of school assisting his father and his older brother, Phil, at livestock shows.
Frank, who recalled that his father "made a lot of money raising livestock, and lost a lot of money raising trotting horses," developed an early love for music. His father purchased a piano in 1905, and Frank loved to play - but truly "hated the stupid exercises. The stupid exercises are what drive children away from music. It's why so many of them drop out so soon. The exercises are boring, unpleasant, and unmusical. I think it's important to let a youngster do some of the things he wants to do, instead of the monstrous exercises."
In improvising and playing by ear, instead of just sight-reading, Frank began to compose music. At 13, he started taking voice lessons - and, by the age of 16, he had heard the evangelist Jesse Kellems - who made a lasting impression on him - and left Hutchinson on a tour with an organization led by the Reverend O. L. Cook. He sang, set up the chairs, did advance publicity, and passed the plate. During a stop in Iola, Kansas, the teenaged singer was ordained. Before he was 22, Frank was a minister at the small First Christian Church in Bakersfield, California. He organized an adult choir of 80 voices, a children's choir of 30, and two church orchestras. The church's excellent music inspired its congregation, but the Reverend Crow suddenly stepped down and closed that chapter of his life, explaining later that he was "simply on the wrong path. I was a musician, not a minister."
In 1926, married to Kansas singer/musician Zora Layman and eager to further his career, Frank joined a group known as the DeReszke Singers, serving as piano accompanist/tenor for $150 a week. The group was booked for a long tour with comedian Will Rogers. Sophisticated musicians, the singers looked askance at young Crow - and, insisting that his surname (Crow) was unmusical, bade him drop it and become simply Frank Luther. This he did, but spent most of the tour talking with Will Rogers when the two were not performing. After the last performance, Frank joined The Revelers, a popular quartet, in New York City. The Revelers had hit records and were exceptionally popular in England. At a salary of $600 a week, Frank toured Great Britain as part of the Revelers - meeting the future Queen and doing a set with the Prince of Wales sitting in on drums. His career prospects were fabulous as The Revelers boarded the ship to return to New York - but Frank contracted a severe cold, which led to a monstrous sinus infection, a throat infection, and the inability to sing. Heartbroken, he left the Revelers, replaced by James Melton.
While slowly regaining his singing voice in New York, Frank took a variety of small jobs - one being in a dismal Pittsburg night club. A turning point came when he met singer-songwriter Carson J. Robison, a fellow Kansan. Robison had recorded country music quite prolifically with the wonderful, popular tenor, Vernon Dalhart - and had composed a number of songs which the duo put on record. Disagreements over their business arrangements caused a falling out between Dalhart and Robison in 1928, and they ceased to record together - but Robby, as his friends called him, lost no time in launching into a series of very similar recordings with Frank Luther. Country music was in vogue at the time, and Frank Luther had grown up on Kansas ranches and farms. Having no exclusive record contract, he and Robison were able to record a huge number of country selections for virtually all the record companies then in existence. On Victor, a full-price label, their records were issued under the pseudonym "Bud and Joe Billings." On Okeh, they recorded as "The Black Brothers." On Grey Gull, there were a variety of aliases. Dozens and dozens of songs were recorded, issued on dozens of different labels, using a variety of assumed names. There were big hits - and Frank made his mark in country music.
"Barnacle Bill the Sailor," "Left My Gal in the Mountains," "The Wreck of Number Nine," "The Sinking of the Vestris," "When It's Springtime in the Rockies," "The Little Green Valley," "An Old Man's Story," "Open Up Them Pearly Gates," "The Wanderer's Warning," "Down on the Old Plantation," "When the Bloom is On The Sage," "Sleepy Rio Grande," "In the Cumberland Mountains," "Little Cabin in the Cascade Mountains," "Why Did I Get Married?," and others were major Frank Luther hits. Frank and Robby even hit the pop charts with their hit recordings of "I'm Alone Because I Love You," "When Your Hair Has Turned to Silver," and "Drifting and Dreaming."
During this period, Frank developed a lifelong friendship with Gene Autry, who played guitar on some of Frank's covers of Jimmie Rodgers hits. It must be noted, however, that as prolific as Frank Luther was in the country field, he did not confine his efforts to that genre. From 1927 until the mid-1930s, he made a huge quantity of big band records, providing vocal choruses with his smooth tenor voice. Many of these records were hits, appearing on the charts which existed at that time. In demand at all the labels, Frank recorded solo vocal choruses and worked in quartets. There was virtually no type of music he did not tackle during this busy period.
In the spring of 1932, Carson Robison formed a cowboy ensemble, with John and Bill Mitchell and Pearl Pickens, and embarked on a successful tour of the British Isles. He and Frank ceased to record together at that point, but remained close friends. In 1932, Frank brought in his wife, Zora Layman, and baritone Len Stokes, forming a wonderful trio to record for Victor, American Record Company, Crown and other labels.
Depression consumers did not buy many Victor 75-cent discs, but the dime store records the Frank Luther Trio made for the American Record Company sold well at a quarter apiece. "The New 21 Years," "Rocking Alone in an Old Rocking Chair," "When the White Azaleas Start Blooming," "Seven Years With the Wrong Woman," and "Down By The Old Rustic Well" achieved good sales and became country classics - though seldom with Frank's name connected in the public mind with these hits - and he was undoubtedly one of the most successful country artists on record at the time Ethel Park Richardson launched Hillbilly Heart-Throbs on NBC in May, 1933.
How Ethel Park Richardson became acquainted with Frank Luther is anyone's guess at this point. He did perform frequently on NBC - and, in fact, on all the New York radio stations which existed in the early '30s. Frank, Zora, and Len were on the very first Hillbilly Heart-Throbs show. Ethel and Frank, both creative artists with definite ideas as to how songs should be performed, did not always agree, artistically - but they greatly admired one another. At the time the radio series began, Zora Layman - Mrs. Luther - had a major hit record....the first real hit ever recorded by a female country soloist....Bob Miller's "Seven Years With the Wrong Man." When she sang this classic selection on Hillbilly Heart-Throbs, the switchboard at NBC lit up for a very long time. The Trio was at its artistic peak at that time. The week of the show's debut, they recorded "When the Wild, Wild Roses Bloom," and - a couple of weeks later - "Sweetheart Lane," examples of the Frank Luther Trio at its zenith. They brought to life the hillbilly songs Ethel dramatized, giving them a new dimension of simple beauty and rich harmony.
Often joined by their friend, Carson Robison, who played guitar - and joined Frank Luther and Len Stokes in playing trio arrangements with occarinas - the group did wonderfully creative work. At times, Zora sang the lead in the trio arrangements...and at other times either Frank or Len took the melody. Week after week, the sang the opening signature, altered slightly when the program switched its title to Heart-Throbs of the Hills. When the series reverted to a full 30-minutes, instead of a quarter-hour, the first ten minutes consisted of a Frank Luther Trio mini-concert. An integral part of the show, Frank's trio sang the musical bridges between dramatic scenes, and both Frank and Len were occasionally given dialogue in the stories.
In August, 1934, Frank signed a contract with the new Decca Records. He began filming a series of short subjects to be released through Educational Pictures, and his radio activities expanded. Appearing on many commercial broadcasts, it was no longer possible for him to continue on the sustaining Heart-Throbs of the Hills series. Ethel Park Richardson turned to Carson Robison, who brought in a trio to provide the musical bridges.
The short films, including The House Where I Was Born, Rodeo Days, Hillbilly Love, and Mountain Melody, did nothing spectacular for Frank's career - but a group of records he made for the new 35-cent Blue label Decca company was to change the entire course of his career. On October 22, 1934, he recorded six sides for Decca which consisted of many Mother Goose songs, strung together by short narratives which formed a sort of story. Released as a set of three 78s in a paper sleeve and sold at $1.05, Mother Goose Songs proved successful beyond all expectations. Followed closely by a second set, Nursery Rhymes, Frank Luther brought Decca to the number one position in the field of children's records. His reassuring voice, telling young listeners that "Mother tucks you in and leaves you in the nice, friendly darkness" prompted child psychologists to recommend the records. For the next ten years, Decca Records would have the field of children's recordings just about locked up - with Frank Luther its major performer.
The Story of Babar, Winnie-the-Pooh and Christopher Robin Songs, Bible Stories for Children, Tuneful Tales, Alice in Wonderland, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and Fairy Tales were just a few of the album sets which followed. Although Frank continued to be a popular radio tenor, even taking time out to travel to California to star in a low budget musical feature film, High Hat, released by Imperial Pictures some months after it was filmed - the field which truly made him a "star" was children's records.
Frank and Zora had an NBC series of their own, presenting "Songs of America" to a network audience. Two exquisite album sets of Stephen Foster songs were recorded for Decca, and two album sets of Civil War songs were followed by albums of Irish melodies, Songs of Old New York, and Songs of Old California. All this Americana prompted the energetic Luther to write and publish a book, Americans and Their Songs, presenting an overview of popular music in the USA from colonial days to the 1890s. Decca made Frank an executive, in charge of children's, religious, and educational recordings.
Frank Luther and Zora Layman were divorced, recording together for the last time with harmonica virtuoso Thomas Hart Benton in a superb Decca album set, "Saturday Night at Tom Benton's." Thereafter, Zora remained on her farm in Rhinebeck, New York, and Frank focused on radio work and transcriptions during World War II.
During the war years, when his Decca recording was halted, Frank's voice mellowed from tenor to baritone. He remarried, becoming the father of a girl and boy after WWII had concluded. At that time, he began to record prolifically again, after a hiatus of several years, to rebuild Decca's catalogue of children's records. He remade many of his classic album sets and devised new ones.
Also during the immediate post-war years, The Frank Luther Show made its debut on New York's WNYC, as a children's radio series- at first, sustaining...and later sponsored by Maltex cereal. The program adhered to a pattern from which they very seldom varied. Frank sat at the piano, with a celeste nearby, and sang and played a very simple opening signature. He was joined each week by a singer-actress portraying the part of a child, entering with a theme identifying her as "Judy--That's Me." She would tell stories about a foolishly disobedient child called Silly Pilly, and have adventures with Mr. Wheatly Whale, voiced by Frank himself - who, incredibly, sang bass on occasion as part of his "whale" characterization. Each week, nursery rhymes and other ditties would be dedicated to youngsters who had requested them. Children were saluted on their birthdays. A song-request for mothers was always included. After exhorting his audience to "stay safe and well," Frank would play a wistful closing signature on the piano. The key component of the series, however, was the playing of Frank's Decca records for children throughout each broadcast. It was a successful show - and turned Frank into a recognized celebrity as nothing had ever quite done before. He announced his personal apearances on the program each week...usually in New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Vermont, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, or Maine. Though now a fatherly baritone, his singing was still wonderful to hear.
Competition from the plethora of small record companies which had come into existence during WWII cut into the sales of Frank's Decca recordings. Frank wrote, "We used to have the children's record business all to ourselves. Then, during the war, material shortages halted production of children's, country, Spanish, and other special type records. A lot of little companies saw the chance, jumped into the children's record business, and we've therefrom had terrific competition."
Decca reorganized its executive branch, making Sy Rady head of their children's recording department. Frank began recording independently, even releasing a few discs on his own label, before selling the masters to Decca. Finally, in 1955 - with rock 'n roll revolutionizing the field of pop music and with Walt Disney garnering the lion's share of the children's record business - Frank stepped back.
Moving to Boston, where he had a radio and a TV series for children and was Director of Public Affairs for WNAC-TV, Frank concentrated on writing a musical play, a folk-opera adaptation of Tom Sawyer. This production, aimed at Broadway, was presented on television ,on the U.S. Steel Hour, for Thanksgiving 1956, and a Decca Lp of the original cast recording was released. Thereafter, the play was performed by theatre groups throughout the United States.
In the late 1950s, Frank Luther made albums for a variety of labels. His long time label,Decca, even bought a 1959 stereo album Frank produced independently, "Children's Sing-Along," but much of his product appeared on educational labels. By 1963, he was in charge of producing a line of children's albums for United Artists. He later joined forces with Pickwick International to do educational products.
In New York City in the 1960s, Frank produced the million-selling original cast album of the Off-Broadway classic, The Fantastiks. He was affiliated with a variety of educational record production outfits throughout the '60s and '70s, resuming his performing career with two superb stereo Lps for Pickwick, "Frank Luther Sings 22 American Folk Songs," and "A Treasury of Mother Goose Songs." Made with extremely simple accompaniment ("That's all you need," Frank rightly said), the two albums were issued on the Mr. Pickwick label near the end of his career. He also wrote a score for a musical play, connected with a U.S. Government program to promote conservation of natural resources. "I have always tried to have something good, to benefit others, connected with every project I undertake," Frank said about his conservation play.
Modest about his career, Frank referred to his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame only by saying, "I just got back from the Coast." He was, in the 1930s and 1940s, responsible by estimate for over 75% of all sales of children's recordings. At least two dozen country music standards were first made hits by Frank Luther. His is one of the most-recorded voices of the 20th century, having made hundreds of recordings ranging from nursery rhymes to light opera. As a big band vocalist on records, he sang on a large number of major hits. He composed songs, wrote plays, wrote a book, had hit radio shows, performed on 1950s television, and turned out unforgettable recordings of standard American melodies. He was one of the biggest sellers in country music from 1928 through 1935.
Hillbilly Heart-Throbs derived artistic benefit from the incomparable tenor voice of Frank Luther. His interpretations of many forms of classic American music will delight listeners as long as the recordings he made remain accessible for all to enjoy.