Forgotten Artists: Kenny Roberts
I am departing from the artists of the 1980s in this installment to tell you a little about the World’s Greatest Yodeler. One doesn’t normally associate Massachusetts with country music, but that’s where Kenny Roberts was raised and has lived much of his life.
Kenny Roberts is a country music singer born in Lenoir City, Tennessee, but raised on a farm outside of Greenfield, Massachusetts. Very musically inclined, he started his career at age eleven when he organized a band comprised entirely of young harmonica players. Over the course of time he added the guitar, bass and fiddle to his arsenal. As a guitarist, Roberts is excellent, in the class of Cowboy Copas, Doug Stone, Hank Thompson and other top-notch pickers better known for their vocal prowess. At age 15, he joined a radio band, the Red River Rangers, at WHAI in Greenfield.
Inspired by the likes of Jimmie Rodgers, Wilf “Montana Slim” Carter, Gene Autry and Yodeling Slim Clark, Roberts developed his yodeling skills and in 1944 he entered and won a New Hampshire radio contest to be crowned ‘Eastern States Yodeling Champion’. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy in early 1945, and moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana after World War II ended. He performed on various radio shows in the Midwest at stations such as KNOX in St Louis and also appeared on the CBS-Radio network Saturday morning show “Barnyard Frolics.”
After this he moved to Pennsylvania where he organized and led a Pennsylvania-based western swing band called the Down Homers, recording for Vogue Records. Bill Haley (of later “Rock Around The Clock” fame).
Roberts signed a recording contract with Coral Records in 1949, a division of Decca (now MCA). A radio appearance on WLW (Cincinnati) where he performed the old British music hall number “I Never See Maggie Alone” led Coral to issue the song as a single. The song was a tremendous hit, Top 10 on both the pop and country charts, selling (unofficially) over one million copies. The song was also released internationally and did well. The next year (1950) he released “Choc’late Ice Cream Cone” which did nearly as well.
Both of Roberts’ mega-hits were novelties, but did not feature the yodel that made him the ‘King of the Yodelers’ and though he continued to record novelty songs, his stock in trade was straight ahead country ballads and yodeling songs. While he only charted four songs on Billboard’s national country charts, he had many regional hits including “River of Tears,” “I’ve Got the Blues,” “Yodel Polka,” “She Taught Me to Yodel,” “Hillbilly Style,” and “Country Music Singing Sensation.”
Roberts’ other trademark was that he would jump while yodeling, making him very popular with youngsters. Tired of the grind of constant traveling, he settled down to local television, starring in a children’s TV show in 1953 on Cincinnati’s WLW-TV. He also performed on Arthur Godfrey’s CBS network talent program.
During the 1950s, he became a regional star playing such venues as the Hoosier Hop, the WCOP Hayloft Jamboree, and the Midwestern Hayride (Cincinnati). During the early 1960s he began a daily cartoon show on WNEM TV-5 in Saginaw, Michigan, titled The Kenny Roberts Show where he was known as ‘The Yodeling Cowboy.’ The popular black-and-white show featured Roberts singing and playing guitar between hosting the children in the studio audience and presenting cartoons. The Kenny Roberts Show lasted for five years. Eventually he moved to Dayton, then in 1975 he returned to Massachusetts where he lives today. Until his return to Massachusetts, Roberts was a frequent guest (and at times a regular) on the WWVA Big Jamboree. He also has made numerous appearances on the Grand Old Opry and has toured Europe.
When Margaret LeAnn Rimes hit it big in 1996 with “Blue,” a song written by Bill Mack for Patsy Cline, the story circulated that Mack saved the song after Patsy’s 1963 death until the right singer came along. This story is absolutely untrue as Kenny Roberts recorded the song on his late 1960s album The Incredible Kenny Roberts.
Kenny Roberts’ recording career spans all the various forms on which a recording could appear except wax cylinders. He was not a very prolific recording artist and his recordings are scattered across a variety of label. The biggest hits were for Coral but he also recorded for Dot, Decca, King, Starday and numerous smaller and regional labels.
Jumpin’ & Yodelin’ – a Bear Family CD covering the years 1949-1959, this 29 song collection covers the recordings made for Coral and Decca and catches Roberts at the peak of his vocal abilities and has three of his four Billboard Country chart entries including the two biggies.
All vinyl is out of print and I’ve never located a decent Kenny Roberts discography so I don’t know exactly what’s out there. I own four of his albums:
Just Call Me Country – thus album is on Music Room Records and probably was issued during the late 1970s or early 1980s (judging from the cover photo). Hank Snow wrote the liner notes to this album.
I Never See Maggie Alone – this album is on Nashville Records and reissues Starday tracks from the 1960s.
The Incredible Kenny Roberts – Starday material mid 1960s.
Country Music Singing Sensation – Starday material – Starday records almost never contain copyright dates so my guess for this one is around 1969 or 1970 since it contains a cover of the 1968 Jerry Lee Lewis hit “What Made Milwaukee Famous.”
Aside from these four records, I’m certain that there has to be more which can be found by sleuthing the internet (Music Stack is a good source) or hitting the used record shops.
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