Henderson County, Kentucky History

The Beat Goes On Around Henderson

When local audiences enjoy musical performances at Bluegrass in the Park or the W. C. Handy Blues & Barbecue Festival and the more highbrow offerings of The Louisville Orchestra, its just continuation of something that's been going on here for years.

Henderson is - and was - a musical town.

And there have been those who lived here who've made their marks on the musical world well beyond the boundaries of Henderson County.

Even an internationally known composer-to-be with a gifted vision, W. C. HANDY, found an inspiration in Henderson when he settled here in the 1890s. That encouragement came in the person of Professor J. Maurice BACH, the Swiss-born music instructor at the Henderson Female Seminary and accomplished organist at First Presbyterian Church.

"Henderson was a music center and was famous for its German Singing Society which held forth at Liederkranz Hall," says a 1950s (Louisville) Courier-Journal article by the late Joe CREASON. "Handy was so impressed by Professor BACH that he took a job as janitor at the hall just to be near the singers and to study the technique of the professor."

HANDY went on to become known as "father of the blues" after writing more than 40 blues compositions and twice as many spirituals. He founded a music publishing company that still exists today and helped promote the work of black composers and musicians.

"The HANDY songs grew in popularity in spite of opposition from some Negroes who claimed they tended to put their race in a bad light," wrote Creason. "However, that feeling was overcome by many of the most famous Negro entertainers of that day. They plugged the songs hard. One such entertainer was George W. COOPER, himself a Henderson native, who was the vaudeville partner of dancer Bill ROBINSON (Mr. Bojangles.)"

At HANDY'S funeral following his death on March 28, 1958, mourners included Marian ANDERSON, Cab CALLOWAY, Juanita HALL and Oscar HAMMERSTEIN.

Just this year at the 35th Annual Grammy Awards, HANDY was honored posthumously for a lifetime of achievement with a Trustee Award.

A chapter of Henderson's music history world be deficient without a mention of Louis Marshall JONES, known as Grandpa Jones to the millions of people who have listened to him over the years on the "Grand Ole Opry" and who have watched him on television's country variety show, "Hee-Haw."

Grandpa, a Henderson County native who has had a versatile career as a singer, songwriter, guitarist, banjo player and - foremost - a comedian, is a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Born near Niagara in 1913, he regularly returns to his Henderson County roots to appear at festivals and other events.

Grandpa JONES told this story - typical of his cornpone humor - at a 1991 appearance here in the Preston Lecture Series at Henderson Community College.

"When I was little, we raised tobacco. My dad, he'd get out before daylight and I'd follow him," JONES recounted, "that's when they planted tobacco with pegs. Nowadays they ride.

"Well, there he was, bent over like that all day, and Pap was getting so old that his back would hardly straighten up. We planted till noon, then Ma yelled 'Dinner's read,'" he continued. "I ran into the kitchen and pap ran under the porch."

In another musical genre, fans of early rock 'n' roll likely remember a 1954 hit, "Sh-Boom," that some regard as the first rock 'n' roll song.

The tight harmony of a six-member group called The Chords - a group reminiscent of today's a cappella Boys II Men-style groups - included then and still includes the voice of a Henderson native, Jimmy KEYES.

That "happy little tune" rehearsed to be performed at a Harlem's Apollo Theatre amateur night came on the radio while KEYES was on the job at a New York City dry cleaners.

The song, issued on Atlantic's Cat label, was an instant hit on the rhythm and blues chart and quickly crossed over onto the national chart of best-selling pop songs.

A few weeks later, it was covered and re-released on Mercury Records by a Canadian group called The Crew Cuts and shot up the charts again.

"When we heard that song on the radio, that was the end of everything," KEYES recalls. "When we hit, it was like an explosion. It was like a moonshot. 'Sh-Boom' was like nothing else. It changed everything."

Another Henderson County - born musician, JIM OWEN, made his mark on one of the entertainment capitals of the world: Las Vegas.

The entertainer gained fame with his impersonation of Hank Williams and his hit song "Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man," recorded by Loretta LYNN and Conway TWITTY and a six-million copy seller.

After developing his Hank Williams character, which resulted in a play, a movie and an Emmy for a Public Broadcasting System show based on the life of the late musician, OWEN went to Las Vegas for what he described as a two-week engagement "and wound up staying for six years in the same hotel in the same room."

After a brief time back in Henderson County, OWEN, twice named Entertainer of the Year in Las Vegas, recently has produced a show in the burgeoning Ozark country music mecca of Branson, MO.

OWEN'S show in Branson, "The Jim Owen Show," features a star impersonation segment in which performers acquire the characters of the Andrews Sisters, the McGuire sisters, Johnny Cash, June Carter, Conway Twitty, Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton and others.

If the blues, country music and rock 'n'' roll aren't enough, Henderson has also made a mark on The Great White Way.

Those who happened to see the Broadway version of "Les Miserables" saw Herndon LACKEY play the baritone; bad-guy character Javert in the stage production of the popular Victor Hugo work, a role coveted by many a stage performer.

The 1972 graduate of Henderson City High School has also played in numerous off-Broadway and summer stock productions. In 1991, his was also among the voices recorded on the soundtrack of the Oscar and Grammy Award winning soundtrack of the animated Disney feature film, "Beauty and the Beast."

Reprinted with permission
By Donna B. Stinnett
Henderson County: Home of …., The Gleaner, March 27, 1993, Pages 128 - 129

Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2003 HCH&GS