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The Freddie ‘Boy’ Burns story

The Freddie ‘Boy’ Burns story

Photo Courtesy of New York City Public Library

Freddie Burns has lived an eventful 98 years. He went from humble beginnings to hobnobbing with the famous and entertaining the multitudes.

“I was born in Dixieland on one cold and frosty morning,” is how Freddie began his story.

He was born on Feb. 1, 1914 in Booneville, Miss., but he currently lives in Selmer. His father was an elected official. When the elder Burns finished his term in office, he bought a farm. Freddie's father died when Freddie was only three years old. There were eight people in his family.

“That left my mother to be the manager of the whole family,” he said. “We were like everybody else. We were just a poor country family, but we never went hungry.”

His mother had not one, but three gardens.

“We had plum thickets. We had blackberry thickets. We had fruit trees, peaches and apples and everything you could think of, and pigs. We had plenty of pork. We had a curing house where we cured our pork and so we had meat. We had beef. We ate and we were happy, poor people because everyone else was poor but didn't everybody else have as much to eat as we did, and they always loved to come to our house to eat because we had plenty of food,” Burns recalled.

Burns got his first guitar when he was 15 years old when he lived in Decatur, Ala.

“I heard Jimmie Rodgers singing and yodeling, and that attracted my attention. I said, 'I believe I can do that and so Sears and Roebuck had a guitar advertised for $2.98. I bought it,” Burns said.

Burns financed this purchase by selling popcorn on Saturdays next to the theater in Decatur.

“I saved up a little money so I got this cheap guitar, and I learned to play it because they gave me the instruction book and a pitch pipe to tune it up.

He learned to yodel and some Jimmie Rodgers songs, “Tea for Texas, Tea for Tennessee.” and “All Around the Water Tank, Waiting for a Train.”

He began his career on radio in 1930 on WJDX radio in Jackson, Miss. The station was across the street from the Governor's Mansion.

“I got acquainted with the Governor, Theodore G. Bilbo. He and I became personal friends. He would invite me to the mansion. The butler would come to the door and say, 'The Governor is expecting you,” Burns said.

Freddie was working as a Western Union bicycle messenger at this time. He served that state capitol, including the Governor's office.

“His office door was open and the outer office was open and he could see you from the balcony over the rotunda, and when I would walk by there and it was open, he'd see me and say, 'Come in.' I didn't have to stop and ask for permission to see the Governor. I would just walk in. It's important to be known. It's good to know somebody. I know a lot of people that don't know me, and there's a lot of people that know me that I don't know, but if you know someone who is in a high place and they recognize you, that gives you a bit of an advantage,” Burns pointed out.

Bilbo and Burns would talk politics on these occasions.

“He wanted me to be a Democratic politician and he wanted to prepare me by getting me to go to Oxford to be a Rhodes Scholar, because the Democratic Senators and Governors wanted to supply as many young men as they could,” Burns said.

However, Burns interests were elsewhere.

“I was a kid, and I was least interested in politics. I didn't care who was running anything. We were on friendly terms. I didn't say 'I don't want to,' I just listened to what he said,” Burns explained.

As a bicyle messenger, he delivered telegrams for Western Union.

“Telephone service was too expensive. Not everybody had a phone and so most communication was done by Western Union telegrams,” Burns said.

Prior to delivering telegrams, Burns delivered newspapers for the Clarion Ledger in Jackson, Miss.

“I couldn't get my customers to pay me,” Burns lamented. “I went into the office and told them I quit.”

“I didn't have a job and my mother said, 'I see these boys in nice uniforms riding bicycles delivering telegrams, why don't you put your application in.' I said, 'Momma, I am an old country hick, they wouldn't hire me' and she said, 'You don't know, go down and see,'” Burns said.

He talked to the boss who said, “I don't have much. I'll get in touch with you if I need you.”

It was about two weeks when a Western Union boy knocked on his door and said, “Mr. Causey wants you to come talk to him.”

When Burns got to his office, he said, “There's a uniform back there in the dressing. Go put it on.”

His job with Western Union led Burns to radio.

Burns was playing guitar, singing and yodeling in the dressing room one day when his boss walked by.

He said, “Freddie, I didn't know you could do that. It sounds good. Have you ever thought about being on the radio?”

It just happened Burns' boss knew the program director at WJDX, Armand de Coulet. Burns auditioned for Coulet and was offered a 15-minute radio program. Burns sang and played his guitar on this show. The show was on Saturday mornings for kids, and Burns wore a cowboy suit and cowboy boots on the it.

“That was a big deal. They called me 'Cowboy Burns.' They thought I was about 14 years old when I was actually 18. I looked young for my age,” Burns said.

“We had a lot of fun in that theatre on Saturday mornings,” Burns added.

However, Burns did not quit his day job. He continued to deliver telegrams for Western Union.

“I was in contact with businessmen, in offices, lawyers, the Governor and people like that. I had a lot of experience as a Western Union messenger and I came in contact with a lot of professional people. They gave me a college education,” he said.

Read the Independent Appeal next week for the second part of my interview with “Cowboy” Freddie Burns, in which he moves to Memphis and meets Elvis.

Burns was then given an opportunity to work for Western Union in Memphis, Tenn. His sister also lived there and wanted him to move there, also. He moved there in Nov. 1933.

Due to its size, getting around in Memphis can be overwhelming, especially for people used to small towns and rural areas. It is common for people who have lived in Memphis all their lives not to know some parts of town. However, this was not true for Burns.

“I didn't know one street from another, but eventually I learned every street and even at night, without a light, I could go anywhere I wanted to go on a bicycle,” Burns said.

He sometimes rode nearly 10 miles on his bicycle to deliver telegrams.

Western Union was so pleased with Burns' work that they promoted him from his bicycle to an inside job and offered to send him to business school.

“'That will qualify you to hold any office job we might want you to have,' they told him and so that's the way I finished my academics. I made better grades there than I ever have,” he said.

Burns then attended business school, while continuing to work for Western Union in Florida for two years, during the tourist season. He also worked as a service manager there.

“They tried to get me to stay and work full-time, but it was time to go back to Memphis,” Burns said.

Upon his return to Memphis, Burns said goodbye to his Western Union career and decided to go into radio full-time in 1938.

“We organized what we called a hillbilly band, we liked hillbilly music played by a real hillbilly band,” Burns said.

Burns explained that his career in show business was a gradual progression.

“It wasn't an overnight sensation. That's what Elvis did, an overnight sensation,” he said.

Burns was recognized as one of the best guitarists in Memphis at that time.

“I can't do that now because I'm 98 and I quit playing for a long time. I get my guitar out sometimes and just play, like this morning,” he said.

A woman had visited him earlier in the day and asked him to play and sing for her. It is ironic that the first song he played was “Take that Night Train to Memphis.”

The woman had relatives at Lynwood Place, where Burns now lives, and someone told her that he sang and played guitar.

He then sang, “Hey, hey good-lookin', what you got cookin.”

Elvis Presley used to sing with Burns' band. He was once scheduled to appear on Burns radio show.

“At that time, he was quite young and rather timid, and you wouldn't think that Elvis would have ever been timid. He was very shy and while we were playing, he would come in and kind of ease in like he didn't want anybody to know he was there,” Burns recalled.

“He would stand around a while, sit around a while. Then he would come up to the bandstand and say, 'When you get tired, I'll sing a song or two.' I said, 'Elvis, I'm ready right now,'” Burns said.

At this time, Elvis had just recorded, “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and “That's All Right, Mama,” but was not yet famous.

On the night he was scheduled to appear on Burns' radio show, Presley called and said, “I can't come tonight. It's raining and my Mama's afraid I'll get a cold.”

“His Mama, Gladys, really took care of Elvis,” Burns said.

Burns believes that Elvis would have never become famous had it not been the management of Col. Tom Parker.

Burns knew Parker when he managed country music star, Eddie Arnold. He said that RCA records said that if Parker bought Elvis contract, they would record him.

“Parker had a way with the recording company and so that's how Elvis got on records, and also, that's how he got on the Ed Sullivan Show, which made him an overnight sensation,” Burns said.

Parker hired Burns' band to play with Arnold.

“Speedy” McNatt, who played the fiddle in the Tennessee Plowboys, Arnold's band at the Grand Ole Opry, left to join Burns' band after the Plowboys disbanded.

Someone once asked Arnold if he knew McNatt and he replied, “Why, we starved together.”

McNatt taught Arnold to play guitar while they were in Jackson, Tenn.. They then went to St. Louis to play on the radio, “but he said they like to have starved. He said the only place they could play was a beer joint,” Burns said.

Burns' band played as a guest on the Opry.

“I got acquainted with a lot of the Opry people,” Burns said.

George “Judge” Hagy, who was the boss of the Opry, tried to get Burns and his band to play there permanently.

“The Grand Ole Opry was alright, but it was too much traveling,” Burns said in explaining why he turned the Opry down.

“We were not really looking for stardom. We were looking for bacon and eggs,” Burns said.

They also turned down Hollywood. Republic Pictures wanted them to do some movies with Gene Autry.

“They pay you $1,300. Why, we make $1,300 in less than a week here,” Burns told them.

Burns attributes his ability to attract good musicians to the fact that they were well-paid. Though Burns received a little extra money for being the leader of the band, the rest of the money was split evenly.

“They called us a country-western band, but the people that called themselves legitimate musicians, that had readers in the symphony said, 'We sure do wish we could play music like you do,' and I said, 'Well, you can if you would,'” Burns said.

“We were recognized as one of the top musical groups in Memphis, but we had a lot of fun. Have you ever noticed on television how people are looking like they are hurting so bad when they are playing...We didn't do that. We sang like we were happy. We played like we were happy. If somebody made a mistake, we made fun of him. 'All right, go back and show them what you can really do. 'We wanted them to know that we were just straight, ordinary human beings, and for that reason, I think we attracted people's attention,” Burns said.

They had an early morning program from 6 until 7 a.m. to reach the farm people.

“It was not scripted. It was just off-the-cuff. We didn't even know what we were going to play when we got there,” Burns said.

Burns didn't write his own songs.

“We just sang the songs that the people were already singing,” he said.

One song Freddie did sing was “Lovesick Blues” by Hank Williams Sr.

“I've got a feelin' called the blu-u-u-ues,” Burns sang to illustrate.

“They told Hank when he recorded that, says Hank, 'That will never sell. You can't make any money off that.' He says, 'I'm going to record it anyway,'” Burns said.

“We got more requests to do that song on the radio than any other,” Burns said.

This was also his wife's favorite song.

“We didn't have to tell anybody what key we played the songs in. We already knew,” Burns said.

Burns played by ear for a long time, but eventually learned to read music.

While he was playing the Jack Frost show, Frost asked him to play a song, and Burns said he couldn't read music.

“You play guitar the way you do and you can't read music?” Frost said.

Frost then referred Burns to a friend who taught him to read.

“I took three lessons and I learned how to associate the notes on a scale with what I was playing on the guitar,” Burns said.

Burns band played in three-part harmony. They fixed a song the way they wanted to play it and played it the way they wanted to.

A trumpet player in his band, Pee Wee was legally blind by virtue of having only 40 percent eyesight and learned how to play at the Tennessee School for the Blind.

Burns' sister, who they called “the Sunshine Girl” sometimes sang harmony with his band.

One of Burns' radio programs was carried on 448 stations coast-to-coast on the Mutual Broadcast System and Armed Forces Radio in Europe and Radio Tokyo.

Burns band had no salesmen to sell the ads for their show, they sold the ads themselves.

One of their sponsors for a show from noon until 1 p.m. was the Burnett-Carter Livestock Commission. The program was aimed at farmers during their lunch hour. Burnett-Carter gave their livestock prices during this show. The band was called the Burnett-Carter Ranch Boys. Later the name was changed to Freddie Burns and his Ranch Boys.

At various times, Burns played on WNBR, WREC and WMC radio in Memphis.

After television began broadcasting, the band also played there.

Burns then became Motion Picture Film Director for Channel 13. At this time, everything was recorded on film, there was no videotape. Advertising agencies didn't know how to make television commercials and Burns, in this position, helped them do so.

Burns and his band then played a variety show.

“Now, a lot of people that like music, that liked country music, didn't want to hear what they called popular music, but when we played it, they did,” Burns said.

Live shows by Burns and his band were at first almost entirely in school buildings within a 150-mile radius of Memphis.

“I doubt if there's a school in that area, that we didn't put on a show at some time,” Burns said.

The band would get 75 percent of the gate and the school or other organization would get the remainder.

They later began to play for dances.

“We made excellent money playing for dances,” Burns said.

Burns band even played Selmer twice during the late 1940s or early 1950s, once at the Courthouse and once at the high school.

He said that there was a Y at the Courthouse at that time and Main Street was twice as wide as the main street in Memphis.

“Selmer has changed so much. I can go down there to the Courthouse and nothing looks like it used to,” Burns said.

Change was a constant in Burns life but many of the changes brought opportunity.

Burns bought a guitar for $100 in 1940, as time passed the guitar became a classic and was valued at $60,000 or $70,000. He said he sold it six or seven months ago.

Burns also discussed the changing attitudes toward the music that he played. He said that he was once asked to play at the Brooks Museum in Memphis at a display of western culture.

“They called it art form. Until then, it was hillbilly. Then it became art form,” Burns said.

Burns once recorded at the Stax recording studio, where many Memphis rhythm and blues artists would later record.

Burns and Dewey “Daddy-O” Phillips were friends and Phillips' radio program was on the same station just before Burns.

Phillips once asked Burns to teach him to play guitar.

“The Grand Ole Opry people are coming to the Ellis Auditorium (in Memphis) and I want to play guitar and sing,” Phillips told Burns.

“When?” asked Burns.

“Friday,” Phillips replied.

“That was on Tuesday (when Phillips asked),” Burns chuckled.

“Dewey, I can't even teach you to hold a guitar in that length of time,” Burns said.

“I guess I'll have to do something else then,” Phillips replied.

Phillips favorite catch phrase was “Let 'er go, Elvis,” Burns said.

Phillips, a native McNairy Countian, was the first disc jockey to play Elvis' records on the radio. However, Elvis bought former classmate and disc jockey, George Klein a Cadillac but didn't buy Phillips one.

“Dewey went out to Hollywood after Elvis went there and Elvis told them not to let him in. Dewey climbed over the fence,” Burns laughed.

Later in life, Burns worked as film director for Channel 13 where he stayed until he retired in 1979.

Within three weeks of his retirement, they called him and asked him to come back to work.

“The people who have replaced you don't know what they are doing,” they told Burns.

“One of the directors, he didn't know I was back. One day he came to my office and said, 'I knew you were back' and I said 'Why?' He said, 'Because things are natural now,'” Burns said.

They called Burns back twice to do that.

“They paid me more money to do that than they did for my regular work,” Burns said.

He once had a show where he was the host and they played Roy Rogers and Gene Autry movies called Freddie Burns Western Theatre. Burns would ride onto the set on horseback and then ride out.

“That horse was rather wild,” Burns said.

The first time he rode the horse, it reared up on its back legs in an attempt to throw Burns off, but he stayed with it.

“That horse never did that again,” Burns said.

Prior to his 98th birthday earlier this year, Burns lived by himself, cooked his own food and drove himself. Shortly after that, he became very ill and lost 20 pounds in three weeks. He then went into hospice care, but is now out of it and feeling much more like his old self. He is now under assisted care.

“I do everything just about on my own,” he said.

To read Burns story in its entirety visit www.independentappeal.com. For a sample of Freddie's music go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mOgqLQZOA7s.

The correct title of the song mentioned in part one of the Freddie Burns article is "T for Texas, T for Tennessee" rather than "Tea for Texas, Tea for Tennessee" as it appeared in the article.

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