Thomas Hoyt "Slim" Bryant died Friday at St. Clair Hospital
in Mt. Lebanon after a long illness. He was 101.
A country music legend who hailed from Georgia but made Dormont
his home, Slim Bryant charmed Pittsburgh for 69 years, captivating
audiences on radio and television and teaching hundreds of youngsters how to
play the guitar.
He could not boast about scores of crossover hits. He was never nationally
known. But national stars knew him, and he was admired and respected by the
likes of Gene Autry, Merle Haggard and a teenaged Les Paul, who idolized him.
For a generation of listeners across the region, Slim Bryant and His Wildcats
defined country music. Mr. Bryant and his band played during
the KDKA Farm Hour for nearly 20 years, turning up daily
for the 6 a.m. radio show regardless of where they had performed the night before.
A Southern baritone and a talented guitarist, he moved deftly between genres,
playing pop songs and polkas with equal ease. He was one of the first
country guitarists to incorporate jazz chords, said Rich Kienzle, a country
music journalist based in Greensburg.
"He brought this level of sophistication to country music and country guitar
playing that simply had not existed before," said Mr. Kienzle.
Armed with his new sound, Mr. Bryant played his way through country music history.
In 1932, Jimmie Rodgers -- the father of modern country
music -- recorded Mr. Bryant's song, "Mother, the Queen of My Heart,"
accompanied by Mr. Bryant on guitar. The song was later rerecorded by Mr.
Haggard and by Jerry Lee Lewis.
In 1985, Mr. Bryant was inducted into the Atlanta Country Music Hall of Fame.
"He played with many of the great artists of his time," said Mr. Bryant's son,
Thomas Hoyt Bryant II, of Kansas City, Kansas.
Family and friends said Slim Bryant was humble, polite and soft-spoken:
a 6-feet-4-inch tall country gentleman. A 1977 Pittsburgh Press article
declared him "as down-home as grits and red-eye gravy."
He was also a sharp businessman, Mr. Kienzle said. He shepherded his career
with purpose and stepped back gracefully when it faded, teaching music
to hundreds of local students and playing his guitar well into his 90s.
The eldest of six sons, Slim Bryant was born in Atlanta in 1908. He trained to
be an electrician, but later abandoned the trade after 16 months of guitar
lessons, said Mr. Kienzle.
He joined a band called the Georgia Wildcats and played live on
radio stations in Kentucky, Cincinnati, Chicago, Cleveland and New York. When he
split amicably from fiddler Clayton McMichen, the band became
Slim Bryant and His Georgia Wildcats.
Band members settled in Pittsburgh in August 1940 and eventually
dropped "Georgia" from their name.
"He always said this was his home," said the younger Mr. Bryant.
In 1941, the band joined a new early-morning radio program, the KDKA Farm Hour.
Slim Bryant and His Wildcats were the mainstay of the broadcast,
and KDKA's 50,000-watt signal made them the area's dominant country music
act, Mr. Kienzle said.
Through an NBC song library, the Wildcats recorded 287 songs that were available
for syndication on radio stations nationwide.
During most of its later history, the band was a quintet. Mr. Bryant and
his brother, Raymond "Loppy" Bryant, were accompanied by fiddler Kenny
Newton, of Apollo, accordionist Al Azzaro and Jerry Wallace, a banjoist
and electric guitar player.
In 1946, Slim Bryant traveled to New York to seek a record deal. RCA turned
him down, but the Wildcats recorded 16 songs with Majestic
Records. Though the label folded in 1948, one of the songs the Wildcats
recorded, "Eeny Meeny Dixie Deeny," became one of Mr. Bryant's best-known hits,
climbing the regional charts.
Because of radio exposure, the band never lacked for bookings across
Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio, said former KDKA reporter Wayne Van Dine.
He remembered that when Mr. Bryant once appeared at a church in Kittanning,
two women arrived with programs from a show he had played 40 years earlier.
Mr. Bryant was unfailingly kind to his fans, Mr. Van Dine said.
"Even if they were asking for directions to a Walmart, it was all the same
to Slim," he said. "He treated everybody with dignity and respect."
In 1949, Slim Bryant and His Wildcats appeared on Pittsburgh's
first television broadcast, performing live from the Syria Mosque alongside
then-Mayor David L. Lawrence. The band performed for about 10 years on
WDTV, later KDKA-TV.
In the 1960s, when bookings began to taper off, Mr. Bryant and his
wife, Mary Jane, opened a card and gift shop in Dormont. Soon, he began teaching
guitar lessons as well.
"He taught generations of guitarists here," said Mr. Kienzle.
In 2007, when a British label rereleased many of the Wildcat's songs
on CD, Mr. Bryant appeared at a local Borders store to sign autographs for long lines of fans. He was 98.
He retired his guitar just a few years ago, his once-nimble fingers stilled
In addition to his son, Mr. Bryant is survived by two grandchildren.
Visitation will be from 2 to 4 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. Monday at the
Beinhauer Mortuary, Beechview. A memorial service will be held at
11 a.m. Tuesday at Dormont Presbyterian Church.
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