About The Artist
This is the story of a man whose hardscrabble childhood in rural Missouri provided the motivation to make a success of himself at a big city radio station.
Lester Mayberry spent his childhood in Ironton, Missouri, about 75 miles southwest of St. Louis. Born in 1915, he grew up living the life of most young boys in rural communities, and as the eldest child, one might assume that he would set his own course for the future. He did, in a way.
An older cousin, who lived about a mile down the road in Pilot Knob, turned out to be Lester's role model. It was because of this cousin's musical ability that young Lester decided to teach himself how to play the guitar. Unlike that cousin, he also learned how to read music.
Legend has it that cousin Roy Queen hopped a freight train shortly after his 16th birthday and headed north to St. Louis to audition for a job with a powerful radio station, KMOX. Queen would later tell interviewers and anyone else within earshot how he wowed the KMOX program director Kathryn McIntyre with his yodeling during a Saturday morning audition in 1929.
Lester Mayberry's cousin was a passable musician but an excellent entertainer. It was a major difference between the two, and that difference would surface many years later when the two were faced with career choices.
Roy Queen was quickly assimilated into the KMOX hillbilly music culture. As a cast member on several daily shows, he was a featured soloist, backed up by accomplished musicians, but he would always strive to stand out as a gregarious hillbilly personality as well. He allowed himself to be the butt of jokes, and soon, he was "giving as good as he got," joking about his peers and sidemen.
Back in the Pilot Knob area, radios were tuned to the powerful St. Louis radio station to hear the local boy, and in the Mayberry household, Lester had done a very good job of mastering the guitar. The more he listened, the more Lester was determined to follow his cousin and hop the railroad north to St. Louis. But the family decided they would all move, in part because of the bleak economy of the early 1930s and lack of jobs for his father, Jordan, around Ironton. Family records indicate Jordan was able to secure work in the city and soon he and his wife had moved his parents to the first floor of their place on Park Avenue.
Lester was successful in his effort to get work at KMOX as a hillbilly musician, due to his mastery of the guitar. Many years later he told his son that, after the station executives heard him play the guitar, he was hired on the spot. It was a big step for the 18-year-old - the first step on an unlikely roller-coaster career that led to a difficult decision.
Those radio station executives saw the value in having a good guitar player on staff, and his fellow musicians soon christened him with the nickname "Lullaby Lester" for no particular reason. (As anyone who takes the time to study radio's hillbilly musicians will quickly learn, everyone seemed to have a nickname.) During his two-year stint at KMOX, Lester served as a journeyman musician, playing guitar and bass fiddle, and worked consistently with two groups, led by Wade Ray and Roy Queen. Both Ray and Queen were also cast members on the station's hugely popular "Uncle Dick Slack's Barn Dance." Queen later told an interviewer that many of the journeyman performers received the union scale wage of $7.00 for a four-hour shift, which included rehearsal time. But the pay wasn't always low. One of Lester Mayberry's pay stubs from KMOX in 1934 shows him making $300 in a week, and that was during the Great Depression.
Many radio stations programmed their live hillbilly music in blocks given over to farming news, assuming that the agricultural audience made up the bulk of listeners who enjoyed that type of music. This was a particularly noticeable trend in the urban areas. In St. Louis, as an example, hillbilly groups were almost always featured in the early morning hours when farmers would be up tending to chores. KMOX was shown in a 1928 national survey to be ranked fourth in the Midwest as the first radio choice among farmers. (Survey by Prairie Farmer cited in "Prairie Farmer and WLS" by James F. Evans, 1969)
But in Chicago, WLS (shown in the survey as the farmers' first choice) pioneered the National Barn Dance in the 1920s Saturday night broadcasts which beamed out to the nation on the station's powerful signal. Slowly, other stations came up with their own evening barn dance or hillbilly stage show programs.
And as Lullaby Lester and his peers learned over their careers, there were plenty of fans of hillbilly music living in the cities. Some were displaced farmers who moved to the urban areas in search of work. Others were people who'd never been on a farm. Their letters provided tangible evidence of a large urban audience for hillbilly music.
The KMOX barn dance program and the station's early morning farm show were the home of Pappy Cheshire and His Gang. Cheshire, a promoter who fronted the large group of hillbilly entertainers, was responsible for filling the advertising time purchased by furniture merchant Dick Slack. In a very real sense, Slack owned the hillbilly franchise of the early mornings and late evenings on KMOX, having bought the ad time. He told the singers, players and comedians in Cheshire's organization that he was glad to sponsor them, but he expected them to mention his furniture store at all their personal appearances outside the station in return for his sponsorship.
Lester Mayberry's cousin Roy Queen and Wade Ray also took their groups out for personal appearances, which meant the musicians had to do a lot of scrambling to cover their obligations. Comedian George Gobel, who worked briefly at KMOX during those days, later told an interviewer how the group would do a show at some barn dance or country fair, then scramble into their cars and rush back to St. Louis, arriving in time to go on the air live for the 5:30 a.m. Farm Folks Hour.
And there was often much more going on than the listeners might pick up. Lester Mayberry's son said in an interview that just about everyone in these hillbilly groups imbibed heavily. "All the musicians drank," he said. "There'd be times my dad would get up on the stage and tell everyone he was Roy Queen. That's because Roy was too drunk to go on."
Corkey Mayberry personally recalled seeing some tumbles off the fairgrounds stages, but he also said the results of the liquor ingestion contributed to the free-wheeling atmosphere that was common on radio hillbilly programs around the country. These shows were filled with the same basic humor heard on the vaudeville circuits years before. Today is would be dubbed "corny," but the supporting group members always laughed it up, and the laughter carried into the listening audience or the crowds at the fairs.
There was always clowning around among the KMOX hillbilly artists. An archived photo shows members of the group wrestling one of their singers to the floor and removing his shirt during a rehearsal. Another picture, taken a few minutes later, shows everyone back in full hillbilly costume consulting scripts and rehearsing songs in front of the broadcast theater's microphones.
It is not known exactly when or why Lester Mayberry left KMOX, but from his archives we do know that his next job in 1937 was at a much smaller broadcast facility. WEW was a tiny, daytime-only station owned by St. Louis University. It was also a non-commercial station, which meant there was a very limited budget for programming and talent. Lester appeared on WEW as one of the Virginia Mountaineers. It wasn't long before he moved on to what was most likely a better-paying job in St. Louis.
KWK's studios were a few blocks west of the St. Louis University campus, in the Chase Hotel. That station's farm director, Charley Stookey, had just come over from KMOX and he was given the task of creating an early morning farm program. Lullaby Lester became one of the station's "Early Birds."
It was a good enough gig to keep Lester employed for two years, although the studios were not as lavish as the ones at KMOX. Nor was the listening audience as large, since the station's signal simply was not as powerful as the 50,000 watts of KMOX. And there weren't as many opportunities for him to be heard on KWK.
During his nearly three years on KMOX, he had appeared with The Ozark Mountaineers, The Wade Ray band, Roy Queen band, Farm Folk Hour (hosted by Charley Stookey), the Pappy Cheshire group, and he was part of the station's in-house band. On KWK, the Early Bird program appears to be the extent of his on-air work.
Lester Mayberry's eldest son, Lester, Jr., ("Corkey") does not remember his father talking much about work. He does have memories of the family moving from town to town for his dad's work, but the reasons for the job changes were never discussed. We do know that Lester got married in St. Louis in 1934 and Corkey was born in St. Louis in late 1935.
So the reasons behind the decisions will never be known, but Lullaby Lester pulled up stakes from St. Louis and KWK in 1937 and moved west to Shenandoah, Iowa, for a job on KFNF, owned by the Henry Field Seed Company. A stucco building housing the radio studios stood adjacent to the large, brick building that housed the seed company operations.
KFNF offered numerous opportunities to be heard by the rural masses of the Great Plains. Printed program schedules showed a "crazy quilt" of variety, including many hillbilly groups throughout the day. In 1937, for example, daily shows featured the Ozark Tie Hackers, the Cornfield Hawaiians, Tree Planters, Paul and Irving, Singing Gardeners, Ridge Runners, Smithonians, Crouse Twins, Four Horse Team, Cowboy Bill, Cecil and Sally and the Flower Lady. (As part of the employment agreement, Corkey Mayberry said, band members and other entertainers were required to work in the seed plant when they were not rehearsing or performing on the air.) Corkey also said his father was, at different times, a member of the Tree Planters, the Four Horse Team, the Speedliners, and the Four Horsemen on KFNF.
As might be expected, things were more "loose" at the Iowa station than they were in St. Louis. A script sheet from a 15 minute program there doesn't even fill one page, whereas even the supposed ad libs at KMOX had been scripted. In Iowa, where the station's staff roster was much smaller, the script would read, "Paul. 'Boy that's fine boys.' An[d] so on." This put the responsibility for filling the allotted time squarely on the talent.
It appears KFNF shifted its programming every two months. Schedules were printed and sent out to listeners. Included in the schedule were gossipy tidbits about the talent and radio station news:
"We think the folks coming from the greatest distance to visit KFNF this past summer are either from Albuquerque, New Mexico or the man who came from northern Saskatchewan, Canada, 350 miles north of the U.S.-Canadian border. Both claimed they had heard the station at times."
After two years working in Shenandoah, Lester Mayberry and his family (now numbering two sons) were on the move again, headed to a job at KFEQ in St. Joseph, Missouri. It was at the St. Joseph station that Lullaby Lester became a "personality" with his own program.
In addition to his Household Hints show that was heard each weekday, Lester could be heard on the Interstate Varieties program, on The Old Storekeeper show and performing with the Old Timers. Publicity photos were taken of Lullaby Lester in a garish nightgown and custom-made nightcap. Corkey Mayberry remembers a real sense of family among the staffers at KFEQ.
After a third son was born, the Mayberry family moved again, this time to Tuscola, Illinois, where Lester got a job at WDZ. According to the letter he received notifying him of the job, Lester's weekly salary in Tuscola during the war years in 1942 was $25.00, plus guaranteed personal appearances three nights every week ($4.00 - $4.50 per night). The letter makes clear that he would be free to seek out other personal appearances.
The value of a particular talent to the radio station was not calculated by estimates of the size of the listening audience, as was the case in later years, Rather, it was often based on the U.S. Mail. A letter Lester Mayberry received from an unknown peer signed "Jimmy" in 1940, made reference to this:
"I have taken a job here on the staff of WMT. I have a program in the morning at six o'clock, which is a very good mail program. Only need a few more cards this week to average a hundred cards a week for a period of a month and a half."
As in St. Joseph, Lullaby Lester was a personality, hosting the WDZ Household Hints program and playing with The Hobos Brass Band, The Jug Band and the Corn Crib Hoedowns. Unfortunately for family and historians, he stopped saving materials and memorabilia from work around this time, so little is known about what happened during his employment in Tuscola.
We do know, however, that Lester apparently did a lot of reconsidering in Tuscola, thinking about his career, what had happened in the past and what kind of future he might have. He reached out to others, and rather unexpectedly ended up completing the circle of his hillbilly music days in 1943 when he returned to KMOX in St. Louis. It had been nine years since he left the CBS-owned station.
Lester's son Corkey has few recollections of Tuscola, but his memories of St. Louis in 1943 are much stronger. "I remember sitting in front of that plate glass watching those guys play music and act silly. Back then they may not rehearse until they got to the station. Whatever came out of their mouths, that was it. It's not like today where you've got to be exact. Back then it was fun.
"One time Roy Queen told me, 'Every time your dad and I went on a job, it was a picnic. We didn't work. We had fun!' And my dad used to say the same thing."
During this second stint at KMOX, Lester was called into the military service, where he served briefly as a recruiter. He was discharged in 1946 and returned to the radio station, apparently with a different perspective on his future.
Although no date has been found, Corkey Mayberry knows his father soon left radio and became a carpenter, a job he held for the rest of his professional life.
No one knows why he made the move, but Lullaby Lester Mayberry never went back to radio. Maybe he saw the writing on the wall. Radio was changing, and the market for live hillbilly music was shrinking. As the radio networks moved their talent into the new electronic medium of television, more and more radio stations began to rely on recorded music to fill their airtime. Even the high profile musicians like Mayberry's cousin Roy Queen ended up as disc jockeys.
Nonetheless, he became part of the cycle that has affected many past and present entertainers and media people. Like vaudevillians, radio dramatic artists and studio musicians for television, he saw his chosen profession withering on the vine and knew it was time to get out. He knew the demand for his given talent was disappearing and that things would never be as good as they had been during the heyday.
As the metamorphosis of media continues, more and more people will see the need for their talents evaporating. Lullaby Lester Mayberry had pursued his dream for a decade-and-a-half, but it was time to hang it up and accept the fact that the business would never again offer the kind of opportunity he once had. It was time to give up the dream.
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