(1914 - 1994)
Bob Nolan and the Sons of the Pioneers Work Chronology (compiled by Lawrence Hopper)
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)
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.
(Picture Courtesy of
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
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.
Ken with two of his uncles, Herman and Bob Jessee.
Ken standing beside what looks to be their house in
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.
• 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
Stuart Hamblen's Family Album, 1932.
Left to right, top
row: Skipper Hawkins, Stuart Hamblen.
Photo courtesy of Kevin Coffey.
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"), Jerry Green (top), Squeek McKinney, Curley Bradley.
(Barbara Cogburn Collection)
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."
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
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 cousin, 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.
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
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).
"San Fernando Valley", 1944.
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
L-R: Tim Spencer, Bob Nolan (Standing),
Roy Rogers, Hank Bell, Pat Brady, Karl Farr (standing), Hugh Farr, Ken
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.
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.
Private Anonymous Collection.
Spencer, Bob Nolan, and Ken Carson singing Ken's "Cowboy Jubilee" in the
Republic film "Lights of Old Santa Fe" (1944).
Spencer, Bob Nolan, and Ken Carson singing Tim's "Ride 'Em, Cowboy".
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.
of a parking garage in the Lockheed plant where Ken worked. Notice the
P-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." (Ken Carson from p. 15 "Song of the West" magazine, Fall 1990 by William Jacobsen)
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
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
could pick out a pretty swell little tune alone, too.
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:
Fasten Your Seat Belt (Co-Writer Buddy Feyne) April 1963
From Now Until the End of Time
(co-writer Bill Harrington)
How Can I Pretend I'm Only a Friend (Co-Writer Buddy Feyne) October 1960
I Can't Stop Loving You (co-writer
If You Need Me
In My Cabin in the Carolinas
Las Vegas (1955) (co-writer Buddy Feyne)
Let Her Go (co-writers Hy Heath and
Song of the Open Trail
'Tain't No Use
Take Me Back to T-E-X-A-S (Chicago, 1943)
Yes, My Love
Calin Coburn Collection
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
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" whosang 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.
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!
Gretchen and Ken
Courtesy of the John Fullerton Collection
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.
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 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
Streets of Laredo.
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, his wife Gretchen, and their little poodle, Martini, 1991
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
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!
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