Country Star Bonnie Lou Dies At Age 91

Bonnie Lou

Bonnie Lou

Country and pop hit maker Bonnie Lou passed away in Cincinnati on Tuesday, Dec. 8, at age 91.

The singer, guitarist, yodeler and TV personality had two top-10 country hits in 1953, “Seven Lonely Days” and “Tennessee Wig Walk.” She made the transition to rockabilly music with 1955’s “Daddy-O” and other singles.

She starred on The Midwestern Hayride on both radio and television for decades and also had a number of local Cincinnati solo programs.

Bonnie Lou was born Mary Joan Kath on Oct. 27, 1924 in Towanda, Illinois. She was taught to yodel by her Swiss grandmother. The child began playing the violin at age 6, switched to guitar at age 11 and debuted on radio at age 13.

She appeared on WMBD in Peoria, then became a regular performer on WJBC in Bloomington, Illinois. Her first stage name was “Mary Jo, The Yodeling Sweetheart.” After graduating from high school, she appeared on WLS in Chicago and KMBC in Kansas City. At KMBC, she became a star of The Sagebrush Follies show as “Sally Carson.” The show was carried on the CBS radio network.

In early 1945, WLW’s Bill McCluskey hired her for that station’s Midwestern Hayride in Cincinnati and renamed her Bonnie Lou. She remained a star of that show until it folded in 1972. Both The Sagebrush Follies and The Midwestern Hayride were ensemble-cast, radio barn-dance programs like the Grand Ole Opry.

The Midwestern Hayride began broadcasting on local television in 1948. From 1952 to 1959 it aired as a network-TV summer replacement series on NBC, then ABC.

Signed by King Records in 1953, Bonnie Lou scored immediate hits with “Seven Lonely Days” and “Tennessee Wig Walk.” As was the case with other artists who recorded for King, her session instrumentalists were racially integrated.

In 1954. she aimed for the teen market with “Two-Step, Side-Step.” The song was written by Murry Wilson, who fathered future Beach Boys members Brian, Carl and Dennis Wilson. The bouncy “Daddy-O” became Bonnie Lou’s biggest rockabilly hit in 1955. Other teen-oriented singles included “La Dee Dah,” “Little Miss Bobby Sox,” “No Rock and Roll Tonight,” “Teen Age Wedding,” “The Barnyard Hop” and “I Let the School Bell Ding-a-Ling.”

She later recorded for Todd, Wrayco and other labels. The Cincinnati company Fraternity Records issued her highly regarded rockabilly single “Friction Heat” in 1958. Among her albums are Bonnie Lou Sings, Daddy-O, It’s Christmas Time Again and Raining Down Happiness.

In addition to appearing on The Midwestern Hayride, Bonnie Lou starred on such Cincinnati TV shows as The Paul Dixon Show and The Fifty Fifty Club. Husband Milt Okun owned a furniture store, and she appeared in commercials for it for decades. In the 1980s, she became an Ohio country radio disc jockey.

Bonnie Lou is a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.

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Category: Artist, Featured, Obituary

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Robert K. Oermann is a longtime contributor to MusicRow. He is a respected music critic, author and historian.

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