Ferlin Husky -- Just A Man and His Guitar




EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first in a three-part series about one of the most famous people to come out of
St. Francois County, entertainer Ferlin Husky. The series will look at his life before he became a star,
the people he has worked with over the years, and his success in a greatly varied career.
By LEROY SIGMAN, Daily Journal Staff Writer

In 1946, a young guitar picker and two musician buddies walked into an establishment in Jefferson County called Pete's Tavern and asked for a job playing music. When the owner asked how much he would have to pay them, the young man said with the cost of gas and everything to travel from St. Louis to Festus they could not do it for less than $10 a night - split three ways.

The tavern owner said that was too much, but the young singer-guitarist responded, "I couldn't take my guitar out of the case for less than $10."

The three young musicians started out the door, expecting to hear the owner call them back but he did not. Just as the guitarist got out the door, we turned and went back in with the hope of negotiating a paying gig out of the owner.

"I realized I didn't even have a guitar case," the young musician recalled more than 50 years later. They needed the work and so a different deal was struck. Instead, the group ended up playing several weekends at Pete's Tavern just for the tips they collected from the customers.

That young guitar picker with a most unique voice became the first country music recording artist to get a start on Hollywood Boulevard.  From his roots as a poor boy in St. Francois County, Ferlin Husky grew to be a legend in the industry.

At age 78, with a voice so mellow and a smile so bright, Ferlin Husky continues to play 65 to 70 dates a year around the country. He is scheduled to be back as a guest star on the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, probably in May. He also appears frequently in the new Mecca of country music, Branson.

The Ferlin Husky Story could be a book, full-length feature movie and a mini-series on television and still not capture everything there is to be told. He was born on Dec. 3, 1925, in Cantwell, which is now a part of Desloge.

As a lad, Ferlin's family moved a lot just trying to make ends meet. He lived in St. Louis on several occasions, and also in Flat River, Bonne Terre and a small community between Irondale and Bismarck called Hickory Grove. He attended elementary school at Hickory Grove and then went to Irondale High School. The family then moved to Stony Point and Ferlin said he tried to finish the ninth grade at Frankclay High School.

Husky recalls living in a house in Flat River, but said he cannot recall exactly where it was located. While still a youngster, Ferlin said he moved back to Bonne Terre where he lived with his mother's brother, Everett Wilkinson, and his family. He described Wilkinson as somewhat of a mix between a "big brother and a father to me." The Wilkinson children were more like brothers and sisters than cousins.

If all the tales you hear from old-timers who grew up in the Lead Belt were true, Husky would have had to live in 100 different places when he was growing up - all of them just down or across the street from the person telling the tale. He admits the family did move around a lot, but not quite that much.

Ferlin does confirm he spent a lot of time in the small community of Gumbo while he was growing up. That is where his paternal grandmother and several aunts lived and he would stay with them.

After World War II broke out while Ferlin was still a teenager, he joined the National Guard and was mobilized into the Merchant Marines. He was in Army Transport and the ship on which he served as a merchant seaman was involved in transporting troops across the English Channel to Normandy for the D Day invasion.

Over the course of the war he remained in Army Transport, but served in three branches - the Merchant Marines, the Army and being discharged in 1946 as a member of the Coast Guard - all that time serving aboard ships. He still can talk the technical nautical lingo about ships as though he had just been discharged last year.

Husky recalls one day when his ship was in dry dock for repairs at Marseilles, France, all the ships in the harbor began blowing their whistles. The bells of all the churches and cathedrals in the city were also ringing and the sailors were wondering why. It turned out it was the day that Japan surrendered to end the war.

Upon his discharge, Husky returned to Bonne Terre and in a short time married Irma Jean Hollinger, a young school teacher who lived just down the street from the Wilkinsons. They moved to St. Louis for a brief time and then moved to Farmington. There he lived in a rental house across from what is now Southeast Missouri Mental Health Center but then was known as State Hospital No. Four.

Like in his prewar days, it was back to St. Louis again for Husky and then back to Farmington. It was simply a matter of going where he could find a job and make a living as meager as it might be. It was during that last stay in St. Louis that he and his friends got the weekend music jobs in Festus while holding down other jobs in St. Louis.

For as far back as he can remember, Husky said, he wanted to be an entertainer. He wanted to be a musician and play at the Grand Ole Opry. But he also wanted to be in the movies. When he was growing up, television was not even heard of in the Lead Belt, but eventually that would also be one of the fields in which he was to thrive.

There are a lot of stories about how Ferlin started his musical career. He did play guitar in churches and in amateur competition around the area. He said he did not play the local road houses, as many claim he did.

When Husky returned to Farmington, Wilkinson was operating W&W Welding Shop. Always encouraging Ferlin to pursue a career in country music, the uncle sponsored Husky's early morning radio show on KREI in Farmington.

"It was just me and my guitar," Husky says with a grin. "I was performing under the name Tex Terry at that time."

The radio show lasted only one or two months, but it gave him exposure and also provided him with a valuable link. Johnny Rion, a very popular local musician, was managing KREI at the time and they would then perform together in areas to the north such as Jefferson County and the St. Louis area. This experience only strengthened Husky's desire to make good in the music industry.

Through the years and his much varied career, Husky said with a nostalgic tone, he always tried to keep in contact with Rion. After Rion's death, he continued to correspond with his mentor's widow. He said they both meant very much to him.

Ferlin Husky returned to Farmington this week but not under the happiest of circumstances. His uncle, Everett Wilkinson, is seriously ill and a patient at Mineral Area Regional Medical Center. Husky canceled three appearances he had scheduled to come be with the man he looks upon as a father and also with the rest of the family.

"They come into the hospital early every morning and stay until the evening," Willa Dean Meyer of the hospital's administrative staff said of Husky and the Wilkinson family. "They are such friendly and caring people."

Meyer said the entertainment giant has been most cordial throughout his visit. He loves to meet and talk with people. He will even pose with them for pictures and willingly signs autographs. He also loves to talk. He posed with a volunteer worker who greets visitors at the front entrance to the hospital and then autographed the photo.

A hospital maintenance worker met Husky in the lobby and said with a big grin, "I just wanna ask you is Simon with you."

She was referring to Simon Crum, Husky's comical alter ego who has been a part of his career since he first started appearing professional. Crum tends to be more outspoken and less delicate than Husky, but is much beloved by Husky's fans.

Husky, who would don a comical cap and distort his face and voice when portraying Simon, looked at the lady with a smile and said, "Simon's sleeping out in the car."

Nothing could have pleased Husky more because the question made it obvious he had met another of his adoring fans. He admits he loves nothing more than performing for the people and his fans mean everything to him.

While in the area, Husky is staying in Festus with the eldest of the Wilkinson children, Bobby, and Bobby's wife, Lavera.

In a waiting room off the lobby, Bobby said of his famous cousin, "I think he is the best performer ever to come along."

With a smile, Lavera added, "And he is easy to take care of. He goes to bed early and doesn't ask for much special attention."

Both then quipped that Husky has been eating a lot of lemon meringue pie during his visit with the family.

Published by the DAILY JOURNAL, Park Hills, St. Francois Co. MO, Sat. March 27, 2004.

Ferlin Husky Postcard Photo (circa 1973)
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Back side of 1973 Ferlin Husky Postcard
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  Fame did not come easy for Ferlin Husky

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second in a series of three articles about the life and career
of country music legend Ferlin Husky.  He was born and grew up in the Lead Belt
but has made a name in more than just the music field.

By LEROY SIGMAN, Daily Journal Staff Writer

Just like people of the Lead Belt like to say, "I knew Ferlin Husky when....," the country music legend who was born in Cantwell 78 years ago can say, "I knew Elvis Presley when....."

Husky was already a recording star and touring out of Memphis when the young swivel-hipped lad from Mississippi was trying to break into the music world. Promoters signed Presley up to be the opening act for several Husky tours through Mississippi and other areas to the south of Memphis. Those were the first performance tours for Elvis before he made it big.

"How many people can say Elvis Presley opened shows for them?" Husky said with a smile of satisfaction.

Husky said he met Presley in Memphis and they got acquainted. He also go to know Presley's parents, Vernon and Gladys, and the eventual King of Rock and Roll's promoter, Col. Tom Parker. When Presley was drafted in the late 1950s, he continued to correspond with Husky while serving with the U.S. Army in Germany.

In August of 1977, Husky had heart surgery in Minneapolis. When he regained consciousness, the owner of the Minnesota Twins was in the room and read him a list of the people who had left messages wishing him a speedy recovery.

"He said Vernon called," Husky said. "I have a cousin named Vernon so I asked, 'Vernon who?' He said, well Vernon Presley, of course."

"I don't remember the date of the surgery," Husky said, his voice more somber now, "but I will never forget date they took the stitches out. I was laying there on the table and there was small, black and white television monitor up on the wall. All of the sudden they flashed a news bulletin on the screen. Elvis had died. It was Aug. 16, 1977, the day I got the stitches out.

"You don't know how I felt. He was a good friend and a good person. It really took something out of me."

Husky said Presley was a very unique young man with a tremendous personality. He loved to perform and loved his fans. For those who were his friends, they could have no better fan. Unfortunately, it is Husky's opinion, that some of those who surrounded him not only created the problems that complicated Presley's later life, but also caused his death.

Name-dropping contest - -

A person would certainly not want to get into a name-dropping contest with Ferlin Husky. After all, the slender lad who was born in Cantwell and grew up in the Lead Belt has spent 57 years performing all over the world with some of the biggest names in show business.

He recalls first meeting Roy Orbison when Orbison was just getting started playing local clubs in the area around Odessa, Texas. Husky knew a lot of stars before they were stars, and performed with most of them after they hit the big times.

After getting his musical appetite whetted by performing with local country music legend Johnny Rion, Husky headed west to California because that was emerging as the entertainment capital of the world in the late 1940s. It was "the place" to go.

Having grown up "financially challenged," it came as no great surprise to Husky that success was not going to occur immediately upon his arrival in sunny California. Hollywood was not his first stop. He went to Salinas where he worked the lettuce fields in the day and at night, when could find a job, played honky tonks and night clubs.

It is name-dropping time again. An already famous movie star by the name of Smiley Burnette, the rotund sidekick of cowboy idol Gene Autry, was booked in to perform at the Big Barn in Salinas. Husky met Burnette and was invited by the star to tour with him. Burnette, who died in 1967, was dedicated to helping find and promote new talent and to this day a foundation named for him carries on that tradition.

This was probably the big break for Husky as Burnette introduced him to Autry. The golden-toned Autry, not only a movie star but also a very popular recording artist with tremendous business talents, took Husky under his wing, so to speak. Husky lived with Autry for a while and credits Autry with helping him get a real start in the business.

Everybody in the Lead Belt familiar with Ferlin Husky tends to think of him as a singer, but Husky's career has been much broader than that. One must remember, one of his dreams as a boy was to be in the movies. Autry got him started in that direction by getting him some "bit parts" in the Durango Kid series and a few other Saturday matinee movies.

Ferlin Husky tries the big screen

"I was probably the guy who said 'they went that away,' if I had any line at all," Husky said laughingly of his early movie career.

Actually, Husky has appeared in 18 movies over the years. In several with a hillbilly theme, he had starring roles and appeared with the likes of Jayne Mansfield, Mamie VanDoren, Basil Rathbone, Mollie Bee, Merle Haggard and Sonny James.

"Meeting different people, making contacts, is the key to it all," Husky said. "One person can't do it all."

It was through Autry and Burnette that Husky, while working as a DJ under the name of Terry Preston, got a recording contract and met up with a young lady from Bakersfield, Calif., by the name of Jean Shepard. He had already recorded several songs, but it was a duet with Shepard performing "A Dear John Letter" that he had his first number one hit on the charts. The follow up "Forgive Me John" recorded a year later also went high on the charts.

Husky then made some tours through the Northwest with two of the greatest names in country-western music, Ernest Tubb and Red Foley. Foley convinced Ferlin to come back to Springfield, Mo., and appear on The Ozark Jubilee, which was broadcast nationwide on ABC radio and television.

The weekly broadcasts with a live audience were a great experience, Husky admits, but those were also tenuous times. There was no contract for The Ozark Jubilee broadcasts and it was "a week to week thing, not knowing if there was going to be a show the next weekend."

What ABC found astounding was that the country-western music show from Southwest Missouri was extremely popular with the more sophisticated viewers in northeastern markets such as New York and Boston. ABC had picked up the show in an effort to compete with NBC's popular broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry out of Nashville.

While appearing at the Jubilee, Husky met some more young up-and-coming entertainers. Two good examples were Porter Waggoner and Dolly Parton, not to mention Foley's son-in-law Pat Boone.

The life of a rising entertainer is ever changing and finally it was time for Husky to fulfill his greatest dream by moving on to Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry. A recording contract with Capital Records and his link to Tubb opened the door and Ferlin was to become a regular.

The Grand Ole Opry

"There is no feeling like performing on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry," Husky admits, or at least there wasn't in those days. "Things have changed now. The Opry isn't the same as it was back then, mainly because the people have changed."

Surprisingly, Husky revealed, appearing on the Grand Ole Opry was not necessarily a financially rewarding experience. The pay was not good, but it was the exposure that paid off. Artists would perform on the weekly show but then tour with performances every other night of the week to make their money. Any self-respecting country-western artist would probably have paid to get to appear on the stage of Ryman Auditorium just because of the other doors it would open for them.

Name dropping time again. Husky got to appear with other such greats as Jim Reeves, Marty Robbins, Roy Acuff, Flatt and Scruggs, Faaron Young, Johnny Cash, and the ever lovable Little Jimmy Dickens. Of course, there was the sweetheart of them all, Minnie Pearl.

These were not just fellow performers to Husky, they were friends or even more like family. They traveled together, shared in good and bad times. And, believe it or not, money was not their big motivation.

"We did it because we wanted to do it," Husky declared. "We enjoyed doing it."

"I wish some of the young entertainers would get an education and learn some humility... to care for others. The Opry is not the same. It used to be like a family, but it is not really the same today."

Husky admits he still likes to perform at the Opry, but not as much as he used to. He will be back there, probably in May, for some guest appearances. He also is not reluctant to tell anyone that he would not have had the successful career he has had without the Opry.

So far as Ferlin is concerned, the best regular performer at the Opry today is still Little Jimmy Dickens, "and you have to remember, he is 83 years old."

Had it not been for an unfortunate conflict over broadcast network contracts, Husky would now be the longest performing member of the Opry cast. Because he opted to do a CBS show in 1957, Husky was taken off the regular cast, but he has continued to appear as a guest artist. He said he has no idea how many Opry shows he has performed.

When Husky talks about his career and the people he has encountered, a gleam comes to his eye, his trademark smile is apparent, but there is also often a lump in his throat when he remembers those who are no longer with us.

Talk to Husky for five minutes and you will quickly realize, for all of his success and all of his travels, he is still a down home country boy who loves music and the people for whom he performs.

Published by the DAILY JOURNAL, Park Hills, St. Francois Co. MO, Sun. March 28, 2004.


EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the last of a three-part series looking at the life
and career of entertainment legend Ferlin Husky, a native of St. Francois County.
By LEROY SIGMAN, Daily Journal Staff Writer

A visitor walking the hall of Mineral Area Regional Medical Center this week might have heard the velvet tones of Ferlin Husky singing "On the Wings of a Dove" coming from a patient's room, but they were not hearing a radio. It was the one and only live voice of the country music star.

Here to be with his seriously ill, 93-year-old uncle Everett Wilkinson, Husky took time to visit other patients on the floor. He didn't know them personally, after all he hasn't lived here for more than 50 years, but most of them certainly knew who he is. To Husky it didn't matter because they are all "home folk" for whom he has a deep love.

The vibrant entertainer would chat with the patients and their visitors, willing to talk about anything. And then he would sing a verse of "On the Wings of a Dove," his biggest overall hit.

"It just seemed right," Husky said in an interview. "It is such a pleasant and uplifting song. I think they enjoyed it and I know I did." He described the visits, as well as the situation with his uncle, as "very emotional."

Recorded in 1960, the Gospel hit stayed at Number One in the country-western chart for 15 weeks and was also a crossover hit on the pop music charts. It stayed in the top 10 of the country chart for 50 weeks. For many, the song has become the trademark of Husky, particularly since a major change in directions in 1988. It was then that Husky, somewhat known for an easygoing lifestyle, gave up drinking and focused more on inspirational music.

A plain spoken country gentleman, Husky talks candidly about his life and his career. He has never done drugs, something he is proud of, but he admits there were times he was tempted and had they been available he would have probably tried them.

Still, there are some things in his life that are too personal and too sad to talk about. One of those was the 1970 traffic accident that took the life of his 17-year-old son.

Many still look upon his 1953 duet with Jean Shepard doing "A Dear John Letter" as Husky's greatest piece of work. But it was in 1957 that his second recording of "Gone" soared to the top spot on the country charts and stayed there for 10 weeks. It also reached number four in the pop charts, and -- like the Gospel song later -- stayed in the top 20 for nearly a year.

To teenagers growing up in the late 1950s listening to rock radio stations KXOK out of St. Louis and WLS out of Chicago the crossover hit introduced them to a new sound. Coming along at about the same time was another Capital Records artist, Sonny James, whose hit "Young Love" was another astonishing crossover hit that came out of Nashville.

Not only did the renown derived from "Gone" earn Husky a star on the "Hollywood Walk of Fame" -- the first ever for a country music star -- but it also opened a door that changed Husky's life once again. He was invited to appear as a guest on the Arthur Godfrey Show in New York.

Referring to the star on Hollywood Boulevard, Husky jokingly says, "Because of 'Gone,' I get walked on all the time."

Godfrey was one of the biggest names in radio and television at that time and his variety-talk shows constantly topped the ratings for both daytime and nighttime broadcasting. To be a guest star was significant, but Godfrey took it a step further. Husky was invited to be the summer replacement for Godfrey's shows in 1957. It meant leaving the regular cast of the Grand Ole Opry, mainly because Godfrey was on CBS and the Opry was broadcast on NBC.

"Imagine me, a country boy with little education and not too good with formal English, hosting the Arthur Godfrey Show," Husky said, still finding it difficult to believe it was not all a dream.

Already having appeared in several movies, Husky got the chance in New York to add still two more dimensions to his career. He appeared in Broadway shows but even more noticed were his roles in live television theatrical dramas. These were not soap operas, but the live theater productions that were so popular in the early days of television and launched many acting careers.

Over the years, Husky appeared in 18 movies. In 14 of them he had either featured or starring roles, most often playing a country character, but some involving true drama as much as comedy.

"I have been very fortunate," Husky said with humility. "I have been blessed being able to do some of the things I have done. I feel blessed to have the talent God gave me."

Born in Cantwell -- which is now a part of Desloge -- in 1925, Husky grew up in Bonne Terre, Flat River, Farmington, St. Louis and Hickory Grove. About a year after he got out of service in 1946, Husky made the big leap going to California. Unfortunately, he said, he has not come back to the Lead Belt often enough.

"It is my roots," Husky says of what was then called the Lead Belt. "I still have a love for the area."

When he is in the area, the celebrity loves to drive around and look for old places that will bring back memories for him. He said things have changed so much, there are not a lot of places that he can still recognize.

It was in the mid 1960s that the star was invited back to headline "Ferlin Husky Day" at the St. Francois County Fair. In recognition of that honor, he wrote and recorded "Flat River Mo."

A line in the chorus of that song says, "If I ain't got the money to pay, I'm gonna walk every step of the way cause I gotta go, back to Flat River, MO." Another line says, "Each day the hand of failure wakes me up at the break of dawn and tells me to go back home to Flat River, MO."

While in the area because of the family situation, Husky took the time Thursday morning to do a telephone interview with KREI radio talk show host Louie Seiberlich. They spent 15 minutes talking about his career and sharing fond recollections about country music.

Later in the day, Husky spent more than an hour doing a newspaper interview and one of the things he said bothers him is that many country music stations now ignore the industry's roots. They won't play anything but "new country."

"I am not putting down the new country music," Husky said. "Every generation has its own music, but I think it is unfair what they are doing. It is unfair to the old artists who built the industry and it is unfair even to the young listeners who do not get to hear what great music was being made 40 and 50 years ago."

There are also a lot of older country music fans who simply cannot find what they really like on the radio. Husky said when he travels, he doesn't even dial onto country music stations any more. Instead, he will listen to pop music and golden oldies stations.

During much of his career, Husky lived in Hendersonville, Tenn., a suburb of Nashville where many of the Grand Ole Opry stars reside. It was about 20 years ago he began building the Wings of a Dove Museum in Hendersonville, which has become a part of Conway Twitty's Twitty City.

Husky has performed and recorded under four names. His first hits came while he was using the stage name of Terry Preston, but eventually he chose to return to his real name. For those wondering, there was a time when he spelled his last name Huskey, but later chose to drop the "E" and it became Husky.

The versatile entertainer is also a popular comedian who turns into the hilarious Simon Crum. Even Crum, a country bumpkin and comic philosopher, has had several hit records over the years.

Through much of his career it has been Ferlin Husky and the Hush Puppies, which is his accompanying band. He said proudly that two of the original five members of the band are still with him when he performs now.

What one learns spending an hour with Husky could fill a book. Spending a day with him could provide material for volumes. There are numerous sites on the Internet about the legendary entertainer and the easiest way to find them is a Google search for "Ferlin Husky."

As staff and others at Mineral Area Regional Medical Center observed Husky this week with a sense of awe, they soon came to realize that despite his success he is still a country boy. He is like the guy next door who worked in the lead mines, put out a garden and loved to hunt and fish.

With all of his celebrity, Husky is a man who wanted to be with family during a difficult period. He doesn't use sophisticated words and is not ashamed to show his emotions. He loves to entertain, and at age 78 he has no plans of ending his career on the stage.

Again, as cousin Bobby Wilkinson said, "I think he is the best ever to come along."

Published by the DAILY JOURNAL, Park Hills, St. Francois Co. MO, Mon. March 29, 2004.