To Rebecca Pryor, her grandfather Charlie was a kind of Pied Piper. Everywhere he went, he made music that thrilled listeners.
Charlie Pryor was a percussionist, specializing in drum set, xylophone and a homemade musical washboard supped up with cowbells and horns. When she was little, Charlie took Rebecca with him to play at churches, and he played at her school's assemblies.
"One of my favorite memories from childhood when we would come around and do assemblies and performances at the schools that I went to, was that he would play "Flight of the Bumblebee." So he would hold two mallets in each hand and play "Flight of the Bumblebee." Anyway, it was a very rapid-fire song, and he never missed a note."
Charlie Pryor's specialties included traditional jazz and western swing. The music was old fashioned and sometimes a little corny, but Rebecca loved hearing it. Even today, decades later, she fondly remembers the tunes he played.
"There was a song called "Moon River" that he would play on the xylophone, and also he would play songs – and I believe this was on the washboard, but – he would play "Tea for Two." And "Five Foot Two, eyes of blue, would she, could she, coo-chee-coo. Has anybody seen my gal?"
When Charlie Pryor died in 1983, in his early 70s, the family assumed that they wouldn't hear his music again. As talented as he was, he never recorded. At least that's what Rebecca thought. Now, part of the Pryor family legend included stories about Charlie's career from the '30s to the '50s as a professional musician. Rebecca knew that her grandfather had toured and performed on the radio, but the real extent of his early career had mostly faded from the family's memory.
"Actually, I'd seen photographs of my grandfather in the groups that he played with on the live radio, but I really didn't know anything about it until 1999, when we were going through my grandmother's estate and just came across all these pictures…"
Plus letters, telegrams and posters which painted her grandfather as a full-fledged country music celebrity. She found fan mail from around the country from listeners who had heard his radio performances.
"Here's a Western Union posted date May 5th, 1939: From Abilene, Texas. Enjoyed your program very much. Hope to hear you again. From the Hunt Hall boys, McMurry College. And there were a lot of little postcards and things that people would write in about songs that they liked or something that they were requesting to be played again."
To find out more, Rebecca Pryor called Chuck Haddix. He's better known to KCUR listeners as Chuck Haddock, host of the Fish Fry. But in his day job, Chuck works as director of the Marr Sound Archives. They're located in the basement floor of UMKC's main library and home to every old record you can think of. Plus a lot more you can't. Chuck pulled from deep in the archive's stacks and was able to give Rebecca actual recordings of her grandfather in performance taken from radio transcription discs from more than a half century ago.
During his years as a professional musician, which lasted from the '30s to the '50s, Charlie Pryor worked mainly with two groups, the Tune Chasers and the Midland Minstrels. It was western swing music influenced more by jazz and the old west than by hillbilly folk music. According to Chuck Haddix, Kansas City was home to an impressive western swing scene from the '30 to the '50s.
"Usually, what you had has a group of four or five individuals. They all dressed alike in Western gear. This is cowboy music to the hilt with the hats and cowboy outfits. They sang songs about their horses and about shoot outs and about the prairie and the Western themes."
The center of Kansas City's western swing scene and the source of many of Charlie Pryor's recordings was the Brush Creek Follies radio show. It was headquarter originally at the Ivanhoe Temple, then moved to the Municipal Auditorium and Memorial Hall before finally settling in the downtown KMBC TV Playhouse. This theater later became home to the Lyric Opera. Starting in 1938, audiences could tune in on Saturday nights and hear the live KMBC show.
"What they would hear when they tuned in, they would hear, of course, the intro, the theme. Then Hiram Higby would come out, and he would tell a joke and introduce the band. Then various groups would come up and perform. They had a lot of interesting people like Kit and Kay, these twins, that yodeled and played the guitar. There was also Bud and Spud. The Texas Rangers appeared on there sometimes. And it was kind of a corny thing. If you think about Hee Haw, for example, it's rooted in that tradition."
Even in the golden age of radio, the Brush Creek Follies was one of the biggest music programs in the country. It had huge audiences nationally and locally.
"Thousands of people tuned in each week. Tens of thousands of people, actually. It sold out every week. It was a big deal here in Kansas City, and it was one in a series of these kinds of programs that were broadcast over various radio stations. But it was the most popular program behind the "Barn Dance" out of Chicago." We often think about Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry. It was a very similar thing, only it was bigger than the Opry, because it had a bigger signal. It covered more territory."
Charlie Pryor's bands, the Midland Minstrels and the Tune Chasers served for years as part of the Brush Creek Follies stable of regular musicians. In one of the recordings, they are on the Brush Creek Follies performing "Polly Wolly Doodle" complete with a characteristically impassioned washboard solo from Charlie Pryor.
Charlie Pryor undoubtedly hammed it up for audiences, and he played along with the country-corn shtick of the radio show. Despite being a fully-grown man, he was known on the program as "Little Philbert." But he was also a virtuosic and well-rounded musician, and he managed to play a little classic music, like Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee," on the show.
The Brush Creek Follies radio show came to an end in the mid '50s as KMBC shifted toward television. Not too long after that, Charlie Pryor stepped away from being a country music star. While he never made the leap to TV stardom, Pryor was captured on two short promotional films. In addition to the recordings, the Marr Archives gave Rebecca Pryor these video of her grandfather. In one, he's performing with the Tune Chasers, a group that included banjo, accordion, upright bass, and washboard with all four members alternating on lead vocals.
"One of his trademarks that I watched him do, and then I saw him doing it on the video from 1950, also, was that he would lean the whole contraption forward and use his nose to bump up against the bicycle horn to go "honk honk," and he was quite a performer in that way."
Chuck Haddix says that since Marr started archiving Brush Creek Follies material, they heard from lots of the cast's family members, and their collection is still growing. They've also started a website with Follies clips and history.