Home Page

Awards

Biographies

Discography

Feedback

Filmography

Lyrics

Recollections

Reference

Reflections

Search

Slide Shows

Special Features

 

UNC

Videos

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ken Carson

(1914 - 1994)

by Madison

 

Martha Retsch photo

 

"The Pioneers have had some remarkably fine gentleman as members of that illustrious group. None were finer than Ken Carson." (Laurence Zwisohn)

 


There is a fair bit of information that roams around about Ken "Shorty" Carson, but little has been said in depth or accuracy. Many folks appreciate him, few know him.  Little has been written, researched or spoken about this exceptional man and we think that it is high time that this was remedied. Ken was a vital part in the Sons of the Pioneers, even though he was only with them a few short years (1943-1947).  Ken was the superb whistler in the Pioneer's recordings. One of the songs that best showcases Ken Carson's singing, guitar playing and whistling is "Hills of Old Wyoming", which was recorded on the Garry Moore Show in the 50s.(Madison)

__________________________________________________________________________________________________


Ken "Shorty" Carson was born Hubert Paul Flatt on November 14, 1914 in Centrahoma, Coal County, Oklahoma. He was raised partly by his mother and stepfather, and partly by his grandparents. His parents played guitar and fiddle. Even as a child Ken found pleasure in seeing people enjoy music, so he picked up the Jew's harp and a harmonica. His mother gave him a guitar one Christmas and a legend was born.

His career started with playing harmonica accompanied by a fellow by the name of Red Barton on KGFJ radio. He went on to perform with all sorts of notables such as Stuart Hamblen, the Beverly Hill Billies (not to be confused with the later TV show of the same name), the Ranch Boys, and the Sons of the Pioneers. He appeared in 22 of Roy Rogers' movies as a member of the latter group. Ken was a regular on the Garry Moore Show from 1951 to 1958 and was also a successful solo artist.

He had a voice that was sweet, soulful and pure, unlike any other. He could cover any variety of genre, and his tenor voice was well suited for the harmonies of trios and quartettes. Bob Nolan of the Sons of the Pioneers took a liking to him when they met in Chicago and Ken kept in touch with them over time. When Lloyd Perryman was drafted into WWII, Bob brought Ken in as Lloyd's replacement. Ken was in two of the groups' most famous recordings Tumbling Tumbleweeds and Cool Water. On the latter tune, Ken's was the voice echoing "Cool, clear water." Although Ken was only with the Pioneers for four years (from 1943-1947), his impact on the group was tremendous. He added the voice that hit. He added the whistle which became a classic Pioneer sound to this day, though no one has ever been able to do it as well as Ken did!


Ken was master of over six instruments. He was the only one of the group who could write musical scores. He took down many of Bob Nolan's compositions over the years, including Halfway 'Round the World.

At age twenty three, Ken rode from Los Angeles to Chicago, and from Chicago to New York on horseback along with Curley Bradley and Jack Ross. The three, who comprised the group called "The Ranch Boys", did it as a publicity stunt for their sponsor, Miles Laboratories (the producer of Alka-Seltzer). The trip took three months. "I always tell everybody it's 3975 miles on horseback," he used to say, "and I've got the calluses still to prove it!"

 


 

Personal Background

Early Career

Years with the Sons of the Pioneers

Post Pioneers Career

Songs

Contact Madison

Ken Carson Lyrics

Recollections and Reflections

 


 

Ken Carson's parents were Herbert Flatt and Bessie Marie Jessee, whose marriage date was October 6, 1913, in Stafford, Yell County, Arkansas. His mother was born on April 7, 1896, in Mill Creek, Chickasaw Indian Territory, OK.

 

When Ken was 1 month old, they moved to Drumwright, Oklahoma, which was a brand new oil town that was just starting. Bessie recalled that they lived in a tent there, and ate in the big tent with everyone else in the small town. She described one incident that firmly impressed itself into her memory:They were eating breakfast one morning and suddenly there was a big explosion. The gas stove in the meal tent had exploded, and the escaping gas was on fire, burning up everything. She does not write more about it, but it doesn't leave much to the imagination to fathom just how terrifying that would have been to a young mother.

Ken's father, Herbert, fell ill with typhoid fever some time after that, and his sickness resulted in their move back to Centrahoma. They moved into a small, two room house that the neighbors had built for them, and Herbert recovered slowly. Then, in Bessie's words, "My mother and father, Floyd and Martha Jessee lived east of Centrahoma on the old John Scott farm which my Dad raised corn, cotton, sweet potatos[sic], and peanuts. During that winter, my Dad and one sister, Dovie come down with pneumonia and Herbert and I went and stayed with Mother and Herbert would ride into town most every day for medicine and let the Dr (Cody) know how they were. This one day that he went to town it was sleeting and snowing all day and when he got home he was so wet and cold he took a hard chill and ear ache all night. The next morning we sent for the Dr (Cody) and right away he said Herbert had spinal meningitis and give him the seruim but he never gained consciousness and died 3 days later (Jan 1918) as well as I remember now."

 


Hubert Flatt (Ken Carson) and his mother, Bessie (Jessee) Willburn. Date Unknown.

(Picture Courtesy of Robbin Andrews)
 

Bessie married Bill Willburn in 1919 and bore him three children: Vestal (who probably died at age four), Vernon (who also died young--about age two) and V Opal, born in November, 1920. Her father, Ken's stepfather, was abusive and after he and Bessie divorced, he took V Opal at gunpoint from Bessie and she was raised by her paternal grandparents in Anson, Texas. She lived in California all her adult life, married twice and died in February 2011. She had no children.
 

Bessie Jessee Willburn, Hubert Flatt (Ken Carson), Bill Willburn
 

Ken's maternal grandmother, Martha Flatt, was 1/2 Cherokee Indian (according to Ken's mother), making Ken 1/8th Cherokee. The rest of his ancestors were mainly from the South and Virginia, going back as far as the early 1700s. The Indian blood explains Ken's 'exotic' features.

Much of Ken's childhood was spent living with his mother's parents, Floyd and Martha Jessee. His mother worked as a hotel maid and housekeeper, and Ken had as playmates his four child aunt and uncles. After the Jessee family moved to Wichita, Kansas, he and his uncle Herman (four years his senior) went to school together there, using the more adventurous mode of transportation: they would hop the freight that ran close to the house and ride to school by train!

 


Ken's grandparents Floyd and Martha Jessee, and Herman (13 yrs), Ken's uncle. Speculated date 1924. 

 

Ken with two of his uncles, Herman and Bob Jessee.

 

Ken standing beside what looks to be their house in Wichita, Kansas.
 

Ken was a Boy Scout by age 9, and "worked hard to make good", as his mother put it. He also worked as a golf caddy at the Wichita Golf Course about 3 or 4 miles across town, and he would thumb a ride or walk to get to the course in time for the early morning game on Saturday and Sunday. It was during that time that he acquired his lifelong love of the game of golf, and went on to win many competitions and championships.

At the age of 12 or 13, Ken got "Bitten by the musical bug", as he termed it. He played both guitar and harmonica very well, and during those years in Kansas he organized his own musical band: 9 harmonicas and 1 guitar. They played for churches, halls, small theaters, and earned a little money now and again.

Bessie, Ken Carson's mother, moved to California in March of 1939, and the next year her parents and Ken followed. Ken--his mother called him "Sonny"-- attended Puente and Garfield High Schools. Most of the students were Mexican and spoke Spanish. Ken said that this was where he picked up the little Spanish he knew. Contrary to rumor, Ken was not a fluent speaker of Spanish. He knew a little, and his accent was perfect, but he didn't speak enough to converse in the tongue.

 


 

Early Career:

Ken Carson (Appearing under his real name, Hubert Flatt), and a friend named Red Barton performed on Bob Schuler's program for a while, playing guitar/harmonica duets. In 1932, Ken auditioned and won a place in Stuart Hamblen's radio program "Family Album", where he then played the seven-to-nine morning slot three times a week. He was with the group for about nine months.
 

Stuart Hamblen's Family Album, 1932.

Left to right, top row: Skipper Hawkins, Stuart Hamblen.
Middle Row, L-R: Vince Engel, Sue Willie, Rubye Blevins [Patsy Montana], Ruthy DeMondrum, Lorraine McIntire.

Bottom Row, L-R: Norman Hedges, Hubert Flatt (Ken Carson, age 17).

Photo courtesy of Kevin Coffey.


His career had begun. In 1933 he joined the Beverly Hill Billies (not to be confused with the later television series of that name), a notable and extremely popular group. The history and configurations of the Beverly Hill Billies is very convoluted and difficult to research, but we know that Ken was with the group at least two separate times. The first time, according to his mother, he was with the Beverly Hill Billies (earliest found mentions of him are dated in January 1933). That group was headed by Glenn Rice. Ken performed harmonica and guitar, sang, and danced. They may have been performing on radio, but it is certain that they were playing the theater circuit as well.

They were based in San Francisco and it was only because of the promise of Shug Fisher to the 17 year old Ken's family that he would watch over the boy that Ken was allowed to leave home and join them. As was the custom with the Hill Billies group, the members assumed 'hillbilly' names, so Ken called himself "Caleb Winbush" (Not "Kaleb"), while Shug became "Aaron Judd".

Ken and Shug Fisher became good friends for life, and it was Shug who looked out for Ken during their stay with the Hill Billies. He was more like the older brother that Ken never had, and remained so through all the years that they worked together.

 

The Tarzana Hill Billies

L-R: Ken Carson ("Caleb Winbush"), Shug Fisher ("Aaron Judd"), Chuck Cook (top), Squeek McKinney, Curley Bradley.

(Barbara Cogburn Collection)


Ken also did a little rodeo riding during his time with the Hill Billies, riding in the Saugus rodeo, among others. After a time with that group, Ken joined Jack Ross and Joe "Curley" Bradley - the latter whom he had met in the Hill Billies - and formed The Ranch Boys. The year was 1933 but the details on how the Ranch Boys met and formed are still being researched.

 

Shortly after forming, in 1934 the Ranch Boys decided to take their career elswhere. In Ken's words, "I was just a child. We decided to try for better things, so we drove from L.A. to Chicago." The three, crammed into their little 1931 Chevrolet car, drove the long journey of about 2016 miles.

 


A Chevy 1931, probably similar to the one the Ranch Boys drove to Chicago in.

 

Upon arriving in Chicago, the three trooped into the office of the NBC radio station and asked for a job. They were told, "We can use you, but not for another two weeks. That's when the fellow you're replacing gets off." The boys replied that that was fine but did the man know of any place they could get a slot at whilst waiting?

In Ken's words, the answer was, " 'There's a place up there called Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. They have a big resort up there.' So we went up there and we asked the hotel manager if we could sing for our supper, so to speak. [W]e didn't ask for any money or anything, and he said, 'Sure.' So we stayed there for two weeks and he invited us back every time we could come for the next year or two, to sing for him at Lake Geneva at the hotel."

 

The Ranch Boys in Chicago.

The autograph reads "To the swellest little girl in all the world - I wish you happiness, - Hubert "Shorty" Carson"

 

 

The Ranch Boys signed a one-year contract with NBC which in the end turned out to be five and a half years. They played on Garry Moore's radio show titled Club Matinee, performed on the popular morning show "Breakfast Club" hosted by Don McNeil, and had various other singing engagements. They sang on WENR and WMAQ, as well as recording many numbers with Decca, like "Call of the Canyon". They sang Western songs; traditional cowboy songs that any fan of the Sons of the Pioneers would quickly recognize. As were most Western groups, they were influenced heavily by the pioneering Southern California Western group, the Beverly Hill Billies. The three young voices, blended in their unique and easily identifiable harmony, were a success. If this was any indicator, the careers of the three young men were getting off to a wonderful start.

 

During their career in Chicago, The Ranch Boys were cast "The Fitch Bandwagon" (a variety show) and "Don McNeil's Breakfast Club", a largely popular morning variety show. The Ranch Boys teamed up with the three Morin Sisters for the latter show It was there, under the mentorship of Eddie Ballantine, the band leader, that Ken studied harmony and composition in music, which skill became a great asset to him throughout his life

 

 .

                Eddie Ballantine, the man who taught Ken musical structure and harmony.


 

Picture on right,lockwise from top: Ken Carson, Jack Ross, and Joe "Curley" Bradley.

Ken was shorter (5"10) than the other two Ranch Boys (see second picture). Perhaps they were the ones who gave him the nickname "Shorty."


The cover to one of The Ranch Boys' song books that they made while in Chicago.
The clothes they wear here were their 'uniforms' for NBC radio while they were on the Breakfast Club.

 

We first find Ken calling himself "Shorty Carson" during his Ranch Boys days, though he may have begun earlier. He was billed as "Ken" now and again, though it is unknown why he introduced the name at that point. He was the youngest of the Ranch Boys. Curley was four years Ken's senior and Jack a full decade. Not much has yet been uncovered about Jack Ross. After his career with The Ranch Boys, he dropped out of the public eye.
 

The Ranch Boys started out on the radio show "Happy Go-Lucky Hour" hosted by Norman Nielsen. In 1934 they were on a show titled "Pinto Pete and His Ranch Hands" and The Ranch Boys provided much of the dialogue, instrumentals and singing. The show consisted of mainly music with a little dialogue, teasing, philosophizing, and poeticizing in between - the latter two usually being done by the actor who played Pinto Pete. Many of the cast for the show were ex-members of the Beverly Hill Billies, such as Ken, Curley, and Shug Fisher (cast, as usual, as the stuttering comic relief), accompanied by a fiddler named Jerry Hutcheson (who sometimes was replaced by Shug, who also played fiddle). There was also an accordionist named Dooley. Ken played guitar and harmonica on the show and Shug played bass fiddle. Shorty was the most low-profile member of the Ranch Boys, having very little dialogue and solos, but played a large part with his guitar and harmonica, and singing high tenor. As the Pinto Pete shows progressed, he developed more of a standing in the cast, and took on solos like "Oh My My, It's Almost Courtin' Time". 

 

The cast of the Pinto Pete radio show.

Ken is seated on the hitching post with the guitar. Curley Bradley is standing beside him, and Shug Fisher is on the Bass fiddle.

Jack Ross may be on the far left.
 

They were on that program for 82 episodes in 1934-35. In 1934 (Ken was 19), The Ranch Boys appeared in a movie starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. The movie was the watershed "It Happened One Night". The Ranch Boys had an appearance about 40 minutes into the film, singing "The Old Oaken Bucket" / "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze" on the bus.

 

In 1935 they became cast members for the very popular Tom Mix radio program. They played bit parts (Curley played "Pecos", the sidekick) and sang the commercial for Shredded Ralston.
 

Curley Bradley was reportedly born Raymond George Courtney on September 18, 1910, in Coalgate, Oklahoma. He worked as a range cowboy with his two brothers for his pioneer parents. Curley was six foot one at age 16. He was a stuntman in silent films but said that he preferred singing to being strapped down in a hospital bed so he quit and joined the Ranch Boys. In 1944, three years after the Ranch Boys had disbanded, Curley Bradley became the radio voice of Tom Mix - the last of seven actors who had done so. He held the role until the radio show went off air, in 1950.

Very little is known about Jack Ross, except that he was born Paul Victor Ross on May 19, 1901 in California. He was married to Margaret and in 1930 he had a 4 year old daughter, Margaret Ann. That same year he was employed as a mortgage broker. He died on October 19,1969 in Orange County, California.


Joe "Curley" Bradley as Tom Mix.

His shirt bears the Tom Mix "Ralston Straight Shooters" logo on the right breast pocket.

The checked pattern on his shirt reminds his fans of the sponsorship of Shredded Ralston.

Date estimated in the mid to late 40's (after The Ranch Boys broke up).

 

In the spring of 1938, Jack Ross, the leader of the Ranch Boys, suggested that they ride from Los Angeles to Chicago to New York - this time on horseback. The other two agreed and they submitted the idea to the sponsor of the National Barn Dance, Miles Laboratories (Alka-Seltzer), who also agreed. They planned the ride as a publicity stunt and the event was well publicized. Starting on May 10, 1938, They rode along the highways on horseback. They were preceded by the supply truck, which carried three spare horses, and set up camp.

 

Bessie, Ken's mother, beside the Ranch Boys' relief truck

 

Ken with his Aunt Georgia, who was very close to him and whom he regarded as a sister.

 

Ken claimed jokingly that he had a callus for every town they passed through, and that "it's 3975 miles on horseback, and I've got the calluses still to prove it!" The three young men were well outfitted, with customized chaps to boot. Their names ("Jack", "Curley" and "Shorty") were emblazoned on their chaps, and, typical of Ken, he had a heart on the hips of his pair.
 

The ride took them about three and a half months in total. They had many adventures along the way, some pleasant, some not. They had to ride along the highways, and even though it was only 1938, the age of the horse had passed and the automobile ruled the highways. While most automobile drivers were polite and careful, there were a few nasty incidents. One time, they were crossing the Donner Pass in California when a truck driver deliberately backfired his vehicle to scare the horses. They reared and would have fallen to their deaths carrying the three young men had not the Ranch Boys skillfully regained control and brought them about.
 

The Humane Society investigated their outfit twice but both times admitted that the horses were in excellent condition. Even Curley's horse, Lucky, who was only two years old at the time and had to be hand-fed (because he hadn't his teeth yet), was doing well.

 


The Ranch Boys in Gene Autry's Movie "In Old Monterey", Picture courtesy of Chuck Cook

 

Every morning the young men would rise at 4:30 AM, cook breakfast, ready the horses, break up camp and be on the road by 6:30.
 

Later, they would stop for lunch, switch their tired horses for the fresh ones in the relief truck, and resume the trip. They rode the old stagecoach trails into San Francisco, through Sacramento, and then on through Nevada, Utah, and up into Denver, Colorado. In many of these cities, parades greeted them. Autograph seekers and fans hailed them and newspapers all over the country ran updates on their ride. The Ranch Boys broadcast over WLS every Saturday, and if they couldn't, the radio station gave listeners an update on the boy's progress. The Ranch Boys made thirty-two broadcasts during their trip.

 

They rode through Nebraska and Iowa, finally crossing the bridge over the Mississippi River and riding triumphantly into Chicago. Upon arriving in Chicago, as Ken said, "[We] got a big reception there, and we said 'Shucks, why stop now? We might as well do the whole thing.' We rode from Chicago into New York, rode right up on the steps of City Hall and delivered a big plaque to Mayor LaGuardia." Although Ken's words give us the impression that going to New York was a spur-of-the-moment decision, it probably was not. Newspapers documenting the trip give us the information that the Ranch Boys were, indeed, planning to go all the way to New York from the start.

 

Clip from the Ada Weekly News (Ada, Oklahoma), May 12 , 1938.

Contrary to publicity, Jack Ross was not from Oracle, Arizona, but rather from California.


 

To add to their filmography, The Ranch Boys made an appearance in the Gene Autry film "In Old Monterey". They appeared as singing ranch hands, performing Bob Nolan's "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" with Gene. The film's release date was August 14, 1939. Ken said that Gene was "One swell fellow".

 

On October 6, 1939, the 24-year-old Hubert Paul Flatt (Ken Carson) was united in marriage to little, 5'2" Coy Maxine Wade in Cook County, Illinois. I say 'little' because Ken--although nicknamed "Shorty" - stood a good five foot ten inches tall and could boast of about a hundred and forty pounds of slim weight. Coy was a brunette, and with Ken's dark hair and green eyes, they must have made a lovely pair.
 

In about 1941, The Ranch Boys split up and went their separate ways. Their career together had spanned eight long years together, and the three were probably ready to branch out on their own. Curley went on to become the Tom Mix of radio, Jack Ross departed the spotlight to live quietly, and Ken got his own radio program on WGN starting at ten o'clock PM. He did very well with a rating of 7.8 on the 'Hooper Scale', which was the commercial rating of radio artists. The highest rating was 10. At one point, Ken's station was sending out a thousand pictures a day to fans. He got fan mail from 48 states, and all but one province in Canada. He sang everything from popular music to standards to cowboy music, and of course, songs from South of the border. There was a "Hugh Carson Fan Club" in Chicago with over a hundred members. He also appeared on television a number of times a week, remarking that he thought that television would "Go to town" after the war. And he was right.
 

____________________________________________________________________________________
 


Left to right, Ken Carson (age 26), two unknown ladies, Edna Ruth Ellison, and Unidentified.

The ladies were the "TWA Promotional Quartet", for which Ken wrote the music to the song "A Treasure In the Sky" (lyrics by Jack Ross, Ken's friend from the Ranch Boys).
Courtesy of Joyce Bethune, this picture is dated as April 8, 1941.

 


 

Years with The Sons of the Pioneers
 

"San Fernando Valley", 1944.

Calin Coburn Collection
 

Ken had a good job with his own show on the radio five days a week when the Sons of the Pioneers called him up. It was April, 1943, and Ken was just 28 years old. They requested him to come to California to fill in for Lloyd Perryman who had been drafted into the army. Ken, although he had kept himself in touch with Bob Nolan and the Pioneers since they first met in Chicago, was hesitant to leave his position at the radio station. He knew that the job offered by the Pioneers would be rather temporary and his position in Chicago was a comfortable one. But in the end he decided in favor of California and he and his pregnant wife, Kitsy, packed up and headed West.
 


Man from Music Mountain /Texas Legionnaires (1943)

L-R: Tim Spencer, Bob Nolan (Standing), Roy Rogers, Hank Bell, Pat Brady, Karl Farr (standing), Hugh Farr, Ken Carson.
Courtesy of the Calin Coburn Collection
 

Ken and Coy (or "Kitsy") had a son, Paul Scott (born in 1943) and Coy Brooke (born in 1945). It was at this house that Roy Rogers and Dale Evans would visit while they were courting. "They'd just go outside and smooch awhile," Ken remarked in his later years. " [Roy Rogers] was just one of the boys. He never made any big deal about being a big Western star."
 

The current appearance of the house. Ken and his family resided here during most, if not all, of his years with the Pioneers.


Ken and Coy were married for at least ten years. One can't help wondering if he had Coy in mind when he later recalled his somewhat prophetic song Let Me Keep My Memories. (He wrote and copyrighted it in December 1943, and the Pioneers recorded it two weeks later. However, the recording was not released until 1991.)



The 'Wartime' Sons of the Pioneers group

Top row: Hugh Farr and his brother, Karl. Bottom row: Ken Carson, Tim Spencer, Bob Nolan, and Shug Fisher.

Photo courtesy of the Calin Coburn collection.



Ken Carson and Tim Spencer in New York City, 1943.

Private Anonymous Collection.


Ken was part of the Pioneer group that recorded with RCA and Decca. They did hundreds of recordings together during the years Ken was with them, many of which became 'got-to' Pioneer material for fans, past and present. Bob Nolan noted that they had a hard time adjusting to Ken's voice in their trios. Ken Carson had a gorgeous, clear-as-a-bell voice, which was wonderful, but didn't suit the close Pioneer harmonies as well as Lloyd Perryman's more mellow tenor did. In an interview with Ken Griffis, Bob remarked "You couldn’t blend with [Ken's voice] like Lloyd or when Roy was with us and Tim’s voice. There was a mellowness that was missing and it was one of those voices that it was just impossible for us to hold our same tone quality and get a blend with. His voice would stand out and that’s what we’d tried to eliminate was any one voice standing out." 


He had a radio show as well, called both "The Ken Carson Show" and "Music With the Accent On Romance". It ran somewhere from May to September 1945. The Sons of the Pioneers remarked that Ken was a better singer than Frank Sinatra - neither the first nor the last time that that opinion was expressed!


Tim Spencer, Bob Nolan, and Ken Carson singing Ken's "Cowboy Jubilee" in the Republic film "Lights of Old Santa Fe" (1944).

Tim Spencer, Bob Nolan, and Ken Carson singing Tim's "Ride 'Em, Cowboy". ("Lights of Old Santa Fe" 1944)
 

"Ken Carson said they’d go to New York and back East and they never knew how big they were till they went out to see the fans. And everybody knew who they were. They were equivalent to the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, whatever, back then. They were, I mean, Big Time. Women knocking on their doors all the time and all that type of stuff. They could have had any woman they wanted. Ken told me that, and Ken was not the type of person to lie. He said, 'Fred, you can’t imagine the women that would chase us.'" (Fred Goodwin)

 

The Sons of the Pioneers recorded hundreds of songs in the years that Ken was recording with them, including Chant of the Wanderer (1946), Everlasting Hills of Oklahoma (1947), I Wear Your Memory in My Heart (1946), Wind (1946) Bunkhouse Bugle Boy (1946) Stars and Stripes over Iwo Jima (1947) Cowboy's Lament/Streets of Laredo (1947), Yellow Rose of Texas (1946), Timber Trail (1945) The Last Roundup (1947), Song of the Rover (1947) and Cowboy Camp Meetin' (1946).



"Song of Texas" (1943)
 

During the war, Ken worked a full 8-hour swing shift at the Lockheed Vega war plant, assembling P-30 heavy fighters. He passed his physical and was awaiting a summons from the Navy but was never called into service.

 

Interestingly, the factory he worked in which was located in Burbank (5 miles from North Studio City, where he lived), was camouflaged to deceive enemy aircraft. The entire factory was covered with a giant tarp constructed of burlap, and painted to resemble an average semi-rural neighborhood. It even had three dimensional fake trees and shrubs (created from chicken wire), rubber cars, fire hydrants and buildings to complete the effect. Such camouflaging was also done at Boeing, the Washington State aircraft plant.


 
Overhead view of the Lockheed factory, before and after camouflage.

View of a parking garage in the Lockheed plant where Ken worked. Notice the burlap 'ceiling'.

B-38 "Lightning" heavy fighter, an example of the plane that Ken may have been assembling.
 

Ken Carson, although he was a member of the Pioneers for only four years, was a vital chord in their success. He had a distinctive, warm and gentle voice experienced in the group's harmonies, and his musical skills were instrumental in many of their song's arrangements. He was an accomplished songwriter and he could write out music on paper whereas most of the Pioneers could not even read it. He would take down songs for Bob Nolan as Bob couldn't write out the musical scores he composed.

"I got to know Tim [Spencer] pretty well. He was not a very talkative guy but was a very sincere, very nice man. It was always a good pleasure being with him and I enjoyed his company. I think he was more outgoing than Nolan was. Nolan kind of stayed within himself a lot. Hugh and Karl were constantly at each other's throats all the time. They argued 18 hours a day. Tim was very nice to me - I was kind of the kid of the family. I helped him write a few bars of "Room Full of Roses" - just suggestions, things like that, but nothing I could claim any part of." (p. 15 "Song of the West" magazine, Fall 1990 by William Jacobsen)


Photo courtesy of Michelle Sundin
 

In part of a letter to Michelle Sundin, April 15,1990, Ken wrote:

 

    "I received your nice letter recently and therefore I'm forwarding a few thoughts & trivia that you might enjoy. The man: Bob Nolan!! To know Bob Nolan was to know a very special piece of history. Those of us who were privileged to know him and be as close as I was to him is a most treasured period I shall long cherish.

    "Bob was a special 'one of a kind' man, a loner to some who really never knew him. A silent man, thoughtful in every respect toward his fellow man. Never once did I ever hear an unkind, malicious word from the man who composed two of the greatest all-time western songs, "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" and "Cool Water".

    "One thing I discovered about Nolan; he had no aspirations toward becoming a great Star though I know he had at one time been considered ... as a potential candidate for a series of his own.

    "Bob and I got along extremely well. He could not write the music to the songs he composed and that's where I was able to help him, having studied harmony & composition before I joined the group. When he got an idea for a song he had dreamed up, he'd get on the phone & say, "Hey, Carson, bring your guitar & some paper and come on over" even if it was 1:00 a. m. and I had been in bed three hours. "Oh, this won't take long," he'd say. Well, three hours later, we had it down on paper.

    "One song I especially remember I wrote down for him was "From Half Way Round the World" [sic] which Lloyd later recorded ... and what a beautiful rendition he did of the song. Bob was a master of utilizing words that made the perfect marriage of music and lyrics come together.

    "There won't be another Bob Nolan around in this or any future lifetime. He truly was one of a kind. I still treasure a picture taken in Madison Square Garden on one of our trips to the rodeo there, of Bob and myself. Ah, memories."
 

Ken with Bob Nolan at a rodeo

 Calin Coburn Collection
 

Courtesy of O.J. Sikes
 

"Ken Carson came in and took Lloyd's place during the war. They were on location. Ken was sitting down below the road, fooling around. Bob was standing up next to the stagecoach and Karl was up on top of the stagecoach. Ken was fooling around with a little prank. He could take a little pebble and put it between his fingers and he'd flip it. He flipped that thing and he hit Bob right on the back of the head with it. Bob had to turn around and when he turned around, he was looking right up at Karl. And Karl had this funny grin on his face. Bob says, "I'm gonna come there and get you!" Of course, you know Bob Nolan was a huge fellow and he started climbing up that stagecoach right at Karl. Karl had a prop guitar in his hands - not a real one, you know - a prop guitar. And as Bob was coming up, he took it and busted it over Bob's head. 'Course it was made out of balsa wood and this hurt Bob, but Bob got tickled. He'd always get tickled, so he started laughing. Then Ken heaved a sigh of relief 'cause he was the one that did it." (Dale Warren to Hugh McLennan, Spirit of the West radio commentator.)
 

Right to left: Shug Fisher (comic, bass fiddle), Hugh Farr (fiddle), Bob Nolan (vocals), Roy Rogers, Tim Spencer (vocals), Karl Farr (guitar) and Ken Carson (guitar and vocals), Date 1944.

Martha Retsch Collection
 

Ken was a natural musician. He could teach himself to play just about any instrument in a matter of weeks. Instruments which he played included Jews' Harp, banjo, guitar (Spanish, Hawaiian Steel, Acoustic, Electric), bass fiddle, harmonica, and bugle. He was the rhythm player for Karl Farr's galloping guitar numbers, and could pick out a pretty swell little tune alone, too.

One of his very favorite songs, and one he was best known for, was Cowboy Camp Meeting by Tim Spencer. Ken did the vocal arrangements on the song which showcased the extreme low bass of Hugh Farr while counterparting it with Ken's high tenor. The song is acclaimed as one of the real masterpieces of the Pioneers.

 



Calin Coburn Collection
 


1944 at Big Bear Lake, CA.

The boat belonged to Bob Nolan.

 


 

Ken wrote the musical cues for a number of Republic Roy Rogers films as well, namely Sunset In El Dorado, San Fernando Valley, Song of Nevada, and Utah. He was an accomplished songwriter in his own right, and also co-wrote many songs with friends of his. Songs he wrote included:


Call of the Prairie (from Sunset in El Dorado)

A Cowboy Has To Yodel In the Morning
Cowboy Jubilee
Desert Serenade
Dreams of a Cowboy

Fasten Your Seat Belt  (Co-Writer Buddy Feyne) April 1963

From Now Until the End of Time (co-writer Bill Harrington)
Gone are the Blues
How Can I Ever Forget You

How Can I Pretend I'm Only a Friend  (Co-Writer Buddy Feyne) October 1960

I Can't Stop Loving You (co-writer Buddy Feyne)
I'm With You
I Love You Now

If You Need Me
I'm Movin' On

In My Cabin in the Carolinas
It Ain't the Rock That ___ (full title unknown)
Just Show Me the Way

Las Vegas (1955) (co-writer Buddy Feyne)

Let Her Go (co-writers Hy Heath and Johnny Lange)
Let Me Keep My Memories (1943)
Lonely Cowboy's Reverie
May Heaven Forgive You (co-writer Buddy Feyne) 1955
Moonlight on the Rio Grande
My San Fernando Rose (co-written with Henry Russel)
My Southland
Numbers Jive
Over the Rainbow Trail
Ridin' Across the Prairie
Ridin' Down to Mexico (covered here by Rex Allen)
Saddle Scouts Jubilee

Song of the Open Trail
Sweet and Tender

'Tain't No Use

Take Me Back to T-E-X-A-S (Chicago, 1943)

Take Me to Your Heart
Teardrops on the Roses (co-writer Johnny Lange) sung by George Morgan
Tears of Regret
There's A Full Moon Over Texas

There's a New Moon Over Nevada
We'll Meet Beneath the Evening
Western Wonderland
Why Don't You Say it With Your Heart (1955) (Co-Writer Buddy Feyne)

Wondrous Word of the Lord

Yes, My Love
 

 

 


Calin Coburn Collection

 


"Lights of Old Santa Fe" (1943), L-R: Hugh Farr, Tim Spencer, Bob Nolan, Ken Carson, Shug Fisher, Karl Farr.

Calin Coburn Collection


Ken recorded with the Pioneers, even after Lloyd returned from the war, into 1947. "Lloyd would do lead and I'd do tenor, and vice versa." They recorded songs like Santa Fe, New Mexico and Down Where the Rio Flows, the latter being an excellent example of Ken's Spanish pronunciation. He said that he sang the words phonetically. His accent was perfect - though he could not speak the language.


Ken always spoke very highly of Lloyd, both as a man and as a singer. "I admired Lloyd's vocal prowess very, very much. He was my inspiration, really."


Much has already been documented on this site about the years that Ken spent in the Pioneers so I have touched on it only lightly while encouraging readers to discover for themselves this magnificent resource.
 

Courtesy of Lois Spencer

 


 

Post-Pioneers Career
Ken Carson left the Pioneers in late 1946, but continued to record with them into '47 and made appearances with them even longer (such as two Melody Hour episodes in 1949 where they performed, among other songs, Cowboy Camp Meetin'. Even during his Pioneers years he did not stick exclusively to performing with the group as some members did. In March and April of 1947, Ken appeared on two episodes of the popular radio comedy The Great Gildersleeve. The first time, he was cast as a crooner, and had no dialogue. This episode is rather frustrating to any fan of Ken's because all we hear are tantalizing snippets of his singing, muffled to give the impression of a gramophone playing, and overlapped by noisy dialogue. The second time they brought him in was more satisfying. This time he appeared in the latter half of the show as a courteous dinner guest who is talked into singing a tune - again rudely cut off by dialogue.

Disney released a hit live-and-animated film in 1948 by the name of So Dear To My Heart. Ken Carson was the voice of the animated Wise Old Owl, who sang "County Fair", "It's What You Do with What You Got
" and "Stick-To-It-Ivity". " Ken said that "I sang 'Stick-to-it-ivity' like an owl should sing it." He also appeared with the Pioneers in the Disney live-and-animated film Melody Time. He provided the whistle in "Blue Shadows", as well as singing tenor but we do not see him appear in the live film sequences of the Pioneers.
 



 

Ken was a performer on Tom Brenneman's "Breakfast In Hollywood" (a restaurant radio show) in '48. For that program, Ken was the "Ivory Flakes Troubadour" who sang the praises (literally) of one of the sponsors of the show. It was there that Ken renewed his friendship with Garry Moore. They had first met on Moore's show "Club Matinee" in about 1940 when Ken was with the Ranch Boys Trio. Breakfast in Hollywood was replaced by the Garry Moore Show shortly after Tom Brenneman died, and Ken became a cast member. When the show was transferred to CBS television in New York, Ken left California and moved to New York.
 

Ken did another advertisement in the spring of 1948, this time singing the catchy "Dream Girl" for the Lustre Cream Shampoo company. This commercial was aired on the popular Dennis Day comedy show, A Day in the Life of Dennis Day. Singing commercials was a very lucrative business and Ken did a fair bit of it during his career.


On the Garry Moore Show, Ken and three other cast members (Garry Moore, Durward Kirby and Denise Lor) provided a packed and popular variety show with everything from skits to songs to comedy. It was an easygoing, creative and enjoyable program where you never quite knew what was going to march on stage at any given moment. Even the commercials were enjoyable!

The director of the Garry Moore Show was Clarence Schimmel, one of the brains behind the program. He could keep up with the lively Moore's antics on camera, and Schimmel was the one who thought up many of the gags that the cast pulled while on air. At one point in the show, he improvised two cameras to create the illusion that Ken and Denise were walking on a tightrope above the audience, a trick that was well appreciated. Ken, being the accomplished horseman that he was, sometimes sang across the theater stage on a white horse. There was a reason they called it a 'variety' show - the unexpected was normal!


Clockwise from top left: Ken Carson, Durward Kirby, Denise Lor, and Garry Moore


Another time, Garry Moore informed the audience, slightly hesitantly, that "it isn't often that they [Ken Carson and Denise Lor, the show's singers] do the more....sophisticated type of numbers, but today they've got a really...beautiful song, and it's called 'Unconditional Surrender'." With that introduction, out onto the stage strutted Ken. Kenny was dressed in a very loud suit, complete with false teeth, wig, and a straw hat perched jauntily on his head. Closely following on his heels (nearly literally), trotted his compatriot Denise Lor, who was no less fitted out, with a rope tied around her waist as a sash and a floral horror of a hat strapped atop her curls. The two, armed with washboard and guitar, proceeded to deliver their number!



Denise Lor and Ken Carson Decked out in style for their number "Unconditional Surrender" on the Garry Moore Show, February 23, 1955.


But Ken Carson didn't get just fame from the Garry Moore Show. It was during his work there that Ken met his wife, Gretchen Jane Lynch. They met when Gretchen was a member of the audience one day, and they were married on May 14, 1959 in San Francisco, California. They remained married until Ken's death.

 

Gretchen and Ken

Courtesy of the John Fullerton Collection


There is some mystery surrounding the name of Ken Carson - so far little is known as to why Ken changed his name. He was born Hubert Paul Flatt and the first documentation we have of him calling himself "Hubert Carson" is with the Ranch Boys (beginning in 1934). He appears as "Ken Carson" now and again with the Ranch Boys (on records and in Gene Autry's movie In Old Monterey, for instance) but didn't use it much, from what I can tell. But he was "Hugh (known as "Shorty") Carson" up until he joined the Pioneers. It's my speculation that it was upon joining the Sons of the Pioneers that Ken began calling himself "Ken" instead of "Hugh". The fact that the Pioneers already had a "Hugh" (Hugh Farr), would necessitate that Ken go by another name. The same thing had happened to Pat Brady back in 1937. When he joined the Pioneers, he was "Bob Brady". But the Pioneers already had Bob Nolan, so Bob Brady became Pat Brady--"Patrick" was one of his middle names.


Ken, on the other hand, seems to have pulled 'Ken Carson' out of the blue. He was not related to any Carsons, nor Kens either, for that matter. But it was a catchy stage name, and fit him well. He legally changed his name from Hubert Paul Flatt to Ken Carson in 1946.


Ken Griffis wrote a very insightful book called Hear My Song: the Story of the Celebrated Sons of the Pioneers. In the book, he included short biographies of each of the members, structured around interviews with the men themselves. Griffis is revered as one of the best historians of the Pioneers, and justly so. He was able to amass a great deal of information without the modern conveniences that we have today, such as computers and online archives. However, as many researchers and historians do, he failed to double-check the stories and facts of the men he interviewed. A very easy mistake to fall into as one often assumes that the interviewees know their own history (or is telling the truth), and doesn't go to the trouble of digging to find the real story. So it was natural that there are errors in Griffis' book. The chapter on Ken Carson has a number of small ones.

For instance, it gives the obvious error of listing his parents as "Herbert and Bessie Marie (Jessie) Carson". It was really Herbert and Bessie Marie (Jessee) Flatt. Not serious errors, but errors nonetheless. There is some truth in the statement "History is what we remember, not what happened." Griffis made great mistakes in his vast research, but "never assume you know anything for certain, because as much as we like to think otherwise, history is a sinuous and subjective thing. For every new tidbit of information I discover, unearth or stumble upon, I also find something which contradicts something I thought I knew before. It's sometimes a humbling thing to admit you're wrong, but I feel like the stories of the men and women I've researched and written about are more important than my ego, so I always hope that I get the chance to correct errors I've made in print in the past." (Kevin Coffey)

 

Ken Carson, circa 1960s

(Barbara Cogburn Collection)

 

Ken Carson was an artist of great variety. Of course we know him for singing Western songs, but he was very adept at diverse other genres as well. He could pull off just about any sort of song and make it sound good. He did a lot of singles in the fifties; recording songs such as Hide and Seek (from the album "Rock'n'Roll Dance Party", which was quite popular, Daniel Boone (the Daddy of them all), Just One Of Those Things (the latter recorded on the Garry Moore Show, 1955) and (New) Streets of Laredo.

After his long stay with the Garry Moore show, Ken recorded for various labels, sang commercials, appeared on various television shows, et cetera, but so far not much has been uncovered after Ken's Garry Moore Show career. Ken was a cast member of the "Sheriff Bob Dixon" aka "Chuck Wagon" show on WABD channel 5, and also WCBS-TV, but at this point research has not come this far into his career, so very little is known for fact.

 

While in New York, Ken spoke with one of the producers at the Longines Symphonette Recording Society. The fellow suggested to Ken that he collect a bunch of uncopyrighted country and western songs to record. Ken was doubtful at first but started researching songs, finally reaching the grand total of about 65 numbers. He hand-picked the musicians and singers, rented a recording facility in an old church, and went to work recording The Treasury of the Golden West, a six-record box set (which included songs like Empty Saddles, Pearly Gates, and Twilight on the Trail), and America's Favorite Campfire Songs (featuring songs such as Nancy Till and Goodbye Old Paint). The latter was a record that was given as an incentive to buy the box set. Ken, who did essentially all the work producing, directing and singing, was awarded a Gold Record (an award for reaching five hundred thousand sales of an album). He was very proud of the project, and the gold record held a place of honor on his wall for years.



Ken said that one of the highlights of his career came in 1972 when he was invited to sing at the wedding of Tricia Nixon Cox. He sang a song that he had composed with Bill Harrington, entitled "From Now Until The End Of Time". He called Gretchen from the White House, and she reacted with "Are you crazy?" "I just wanted to hear your voice," Ken told her.


Barbara Cogburn Collection

 


Left to right: Gretchen Carson, Bessie Simpson (Ken's mother), Ken Carson, Georgia Cogburn, Ken's cousin who was a sister to him.

Dated 1972, the Barbara Cogburn Collection


In 1979, Ken and Gretchen moved to Delray Beach, Florida to 'retire'. Ken didn't understand the term, of course, because he kept right on doing what he had always done--performing. He did different community events, benefit dinners, private parties, and put together various trios and quartettes. The latter did fairly well but weren't particularly successful, Ken said, but "It pays the rent once in a while." He was the musical director of the Hunters Run Golf and Racquet Club in Boynton Beach, Florida, for many years. He loved performing and he loved to see people enjoying good music. He considered modern "Country" music as more country pop than anything else, and he wasn't terribly fond of it. During his performing years in Florida, he performed music that ranged from Tumbling Tumbleweeds ("Everybody wants to hear Tumbling Tumbleweeds," he explained), to the music of Gershwin and Porter and Rodgers & Hammerstein, to the mellower songs of Billy Joel and Stevie Wonder. He said that he also liked the more traditional country music by Randy Travis, Clint Black and George Straight.
 

Ken, his wife Gretchen, and their little poodle, Martini, 1991


One of Ken's great hobbies for much of his life was golfing. In 1937 (age 22) he won the NBC golf tournament, one of many tournaments he triumphed in. His mother wrote "I saw that excited game and loved every minute of it." She added, "I used to walk for miles with him [when he would go golfing] and carry his clubs just to get the fresh air and sunshine......I was in bad health at that time. He was so good and understanding with me."


He was left handed, and consistently shot in the 70s, which put him in the top 10-15% of all golfers, and maintained a 2 handicap, hitting a 0 several times. HE was a member of the notorious Lakeside Golf Club in Toluca Lake, California. In 1949 he felt that he'd hit a rut in his golfing-- he was so good that there was little challenge in the game for him. So, at the suggestion of professional golfer Harry "Lighthorse" Cooper, Ken switched from shooting with left handed clubs to right handed, and newspapers all over the area gave the event coverage. Imagine trying to shift your writing hand, then transfer that to golf. He was an expert with his left handed shooting, then started all over again!


He enjoyed traveling cross-country to visit friends and attend events. He was a very social person who enjoyed people, was the perfect host, and could cook a steak like nobody's business. He made his guests and people he met feel important, no matter who they were. He was attentive, kind and cheerful, and always singing. He couldn't help but sing. He had a lively sense of humor, was passionate, articulate, vivacious, adventurous, talkative and always smiling. He was well received as a performer in Florida, and did a great deal of private performances, which he enjoyed.
 

Ken and Gretchen, whose birthdays fell on the 14th and 15th of November, respectively, celebrate what proved to be Ken's last birthday. November 1993.

Barbara Cogburn Collection
 

In the last six months or so of his life, Ken began to fail physically. Gretchen became concerned but the doctors could not figure out what was wrong with him. Even in the midst of the uncertainty, Ken never lost that optimism and cheer that was his. During the last two weeks of his life he was in an extremely weakened condition, but he refused to succumb to his weakness and continued to entertain, even though it meant that he had to be carried on and off the stage. Once he drove himself to the pharmacist to pick up his medicines, and the druggist told him sternly to never do that again. Finally, doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville diagnosed Ken's illness as Lou Gehrig's Disease and it was only a matter of a day or two after the diagnosis that Ken met his Maker.

At the very end, in the hospital, he was still cheerful..... and still singing. "He never wanted to quit singing." Gretchen said. "Even in the hospital, he had the nurses and the doctors and everyone in the whole place singing."


79-year-old Ken Carson died on April 7, 1994, in St. Luke's Hospital, Jacksonville, Florida. A funeral and viewing were conducted in Florida, but he was buried in the Sunshine Terrace of Rose Hills Cemetery, Los Angeles, California.


He left behind his wife, Gretchen Jane (Meyers) (Lynch) Carson, his sister V Opal (Willburn) Berry, his son and daughter, Paul Scott Carson and Coy Brooke (Carson) Scobie, his son's three children and his daughter's daughter. 

With the loss of Ken Carson, the world of Western music lost yet another of its masters. No one had ever been able to match the quality and tone of tenor voice that Ken possessed, nor has anyone ever yet. He was a musical genius and an exceptional gentleman, who was always ready to serve others. He was a humble man. He performed for the enjoyment of others and in that gained joy for himself. He was a favorite of all who knew him, for he was kind, modest, gracious, and engaging - not to mention an astoundingly good singer. He shan't be forgotten.


__________________________________________________________________________________________

"The Pioneers have had some remarkably fine gentleman as members of that illustrious group. None were finer than Ken Carson." (Laurence Zwisohn)

__________________________________________________________________________________________
 

Questions, corrections, suggestions, additions, stories and anything-else-related-to-Ken are always welcome! Contact me --do!