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Ken Carson was born Hubert Paul Flatt on November 14, 1914, near the little town of Centrahoma, Oklahoma. His father, Herbert Flatt, drove a team for the oil fields, hauling large oil pipes. When Ken was only three, his already ill father was caught in the cold and sleet of a harsh Oklahoma winter and died only days later. Bessie and her young son moved onto her parents' farm. A few years later, the family moved to Wichita, Kansas. Ken had for a playmate his uncle Herman, four years his senior. The two boys chose the adventurous route to get to school: instead of walking, they would hop a freight train that ran near their house every day. When Ken was twelve or thirteen, he got "bitten by the musical bug" as he put it. He started out with a harmonica and a Jew's Harp, then a guitar which his mother gave to him one Christmas. He organized and led his own 9-harmonica band of schoolmates, performing in churches, halls and small theaters, and even earning a little money.
In 1930, Ken and his grandparents' family moved out to California to join Ken's mother who had gone ahead the year before. Ken and a friend of his, Red Barton, managed to get a few appearances on the radio, playing harmonica and guitar (respectively) in the L.A area. That opportunity gave Ken enough confidence to venture into the show business for good. In 1931, Ken landed a job with the Stuart Hamblen's popular radio show Family Album, playing the seven-to-nine morning slot three times a week. Interestingly, one of the other members of the show was a young Rubye Blevins, later made famous as the girl yodeler Patsy Montana.
After his short career with Stuart Hamblen, which lasted for less than a year, Ken (still performing under his real name of Hubert Flatt) moved on to become a member of the Beverly Hill Billies, the pioneering Southern California Western group, and their offshoot, the Tarzana Hill Billies. As part of the groups' façade of being real hillbillies who traveled from their log cabins every week for broadcasts, he assumed the 'hillbilly' name of Caleb Winbush. Some of the other members of the group were Chuck Cook, Squeek McKinney, Curley Bradley, Shug Fisher, and Jerry Turner. Fisher was to work with Ken for many years afterwards, and became like an older brother to him. During that time, Ken also did a little rodeo riding, trying his hand at being a 'real' cowboy.
In 1933 he joined two other young men, Curley Bradley (who had also been a member of the Tarzana Hill Billies with Ken and Shug Fisher), and Jack Ross, in forming a singing trio, calling themselves the Ranch Boys. Starting their singing career in Los Angeles, appearing briefly in the watershed film It Happened One Night (1934) starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, then moving to Chicago in 1934, the three performed on dozens of radio shows, including the "Tom Mix Show" (after the Ranch Boys disbanded in the early 1940s, Curley became the last Tom Mix of radio), "The Breakfast Club", and the "National Barn Dance". They also made many recordings for Decca. In 1938, they suggested to their sponsors, Miles Laboratories (makers of Alka-Seltzer) that they ride cross-country on horseback as a publicity stunt. The sponsors agreed, and beginning on May 10, the three young men, decked out in real cowboy fashion with their spurs, hats, and custom made chaps emblazoned with their names, hit the trail for New York. Every morning they would wake up at 4:30 AM, cook breakfast, break up camp, and be on the road again by 6:30. They were preceded by a supply truck which carried three spare horses and the men's gear. Later they would stop for lunch, switch their tired horses for the fresh ones in the truck, and resume riding. Over the nearly four months that the trip took, braving the busy highways, autograph seekers, mischievous truck drivers, weather, and weariness, the Ranch Boys sang every Saturday over the radio of any town they happened to be in. If they couldn't broadcast, their station (WLS, NBC Network) gave updates on their progress to the eager listeners. Ken (known as Hubert "Shorty" Carson at this point), Curley and Jack were 23, 27 and 38 years old, respectively. In later years, Ken joked that they had a callus for every town they passed through, and that "it's 3975 miles on horseback, and I've got the calluses still to prove it!" After reaching New York, the three rode right up to the steps of City Hall and presented a plaque from the governor of California, Frank Merriam to the mayor of New York. Afterwards they made a starring appearance at the 13th Annual World Championship Rodeo at Madison Square Gardens. Little did Ken know that he would be returning to the rodeo in a few years!
The Ranch Boys split up in 1941 to go their separate ways. Ken, performing under the name of Hugh 'Shorty' Carson now, became a popular singer on the radio with his own show and hundreds of fans all over the country. In the spring of 1943, Ken received a call from Sam Allen, the manager of the Sons of the Pioneers.. Allen told him that Lloyd Perryman, the group's tenor, had been drafted into the Army, and asked if Ken would come to California to fill the vacancy. Ken was torn. He didn't want to lose his successful radio career that he held in Chicago, but he had also long wished to be a member of the Pioneers, whom he greatly admired. In the end he and his pregnant wife of nearly four years, Kitsy, packed up and moved to Los Angeles. It's my speculation that it was upon joining the Sons of the Pioneers that he began calling himself "Ken" instead of "Hugh". The fact that the Pioneers already had a "Hugh" (Hugh Farr), would necessitate that Ken go by another name. The same thing had happened to Pat Brady back in 1937. When Pat joined the Pioneers to replace Len Slye (Roy Rogers), he was "Bob Brady". But the Pioneers already had Bob Nolan, so Bob Brady became Pat Brady--"Patrick" was one of his middle names.The time that Ken spent with the Sons of the Pioneers were some of their most successful years. They were making movies with Roy Rogers, recording for RCA, touring (they appeared at the Madison Square Gardens rode once or twice), recording radio transcriptions, and making personal appearances. Ken's best known and 'trademark' songs were probably "Cowboy Camp Meetin'" by Tim Spencer, and "Cowboy Jubilee", a rollicking tune that Ken composed himself. Dale Warren, who had known Ken since they worked together on Chicago radio, related a story of how, while on shooting a film on location, Ken Carson was sitting below the road, killing time by flipping a stone from his thumb and forefinger. One of his pebbles struck Bob Nolan, who was standing beside the stagecoach, on the back of the head. Bob turned and caught site of Karl Farr, perched on the roof of the stagecoach grinning down at him. Bob warned Karl, "I'm gonna come up there and get you!" and started climbing up the stagecoach. Karl was holding a prop guitar made of balsa wood, and when he saw the huge Bob Nolan charging at him, he took the guitar and bashed it over Bob's head. Dale finished his story with "'Course it was made of balsa wood and this hurt Bob, but Bob got tickled. He'd always get tickled, so he started laughing. Then Ken heaved a sigh of relief, 'cause he was the one that did it."
Bob Nolan (who dubbed Ken "Kenny") described him as "The boy with the voice you remember". Ken was the only one in the group who could read and write music, so he was often drafted into taking down Bob Nolan's compositions. He told the story of how Bob would call him up in the middle of the night to "Come on over and bring a music sheet. I want you to sit down and [take] some notes for me!", and, despite Ken's sleepy protests, cheerfully assure him that it would only take a few hours. Ken related that he took down many songs for Bob, one of which being "Halfway 'Round The World" which Nolan wrote for the homesick Sgt. Lloyd Perryman.
After his career with the Sons of the Pioneers Ken Carson resumed his radio career. He also did a little more film work, voicing for two Disney films: first with the Sons of the Pioneers in "Melody Time" (1948) and then as the Wise Old Owl in "So Dear to My Heart" (1949). But he had never truly left radio: even while he was with the Pioneers he had his own show entitled "The Ken Carson Show" or "Accent on Romance". Now in 1949, he became a regular of the brand-new radio program "The Garry Moore Show". Incidentaly, this was not the first time Moore and Ken had met. The Ranch Boys had been regulars for a time on a show entitled "Club Matinee" in the 1930s, and Garry Moore was the young host. Now Garry and Ken were working together again, this time for much longer. Ken moved with the show as it transferred from radio to television as a result of the CBS raid of NBC talent of 1948-49. The new "Garry Moore Show" regulars were Ilene Woods (for a period of time), Denise Lor, Durward Kirby, Ken Carson, and of course, Garry Moore. It was a variety show, and lived up to the brand. They did everything. Ken, on occasion, sang his way across the stage on horseback while regaling the audience with his clear tenor voice. He also kept a supply of Western songs to mix with his vast and varied television repertoire.
He was with the show until it ended in 1958. Upon the completion of this chapter of his career, he became a cast member of NBC's Sherrif Bob Dixon Show "Chuck Wagon" (according to some accounts), sang for commercials, performed at all the cerebral palsy telethons, and traveled a great deal. In 1962 Ken took on a big project: he collected over 60 uncopyrighted Folk and Western songs (including several of his own numbers) and orchestrated almost every part of the production of his 6-record box set entitled "The Treasury of the Golden West". The project sold over a million copies, for which Ken was presented with a Gold Record which held a place of honor on his wall for years afterwards. Another highlight of his career was when he was invited to sing at the weddings of Julia and Tricia Nixon, daughters of the then-President Richard Nixon. Julia married in 1968, Tricia in 1971. At Tricia's beautiful wedding in the White House's Rose Garden, Ken sang "From Now Until the End of Time", composed by Bill Harrington and himself. "He called me from the White House to say hi," laughed his wife, Gretchen. "I said he was crazy. He said, 'I just wanted to hear your voice.' "
One of Ken's lifelong hobbies was golfing. He was an expert golfer, having won numerous championships and playing alongside such notorious pros as Harry Cooper in his Hollywood days. He was left handed, and after several years of consistently maintaining a ranking as one of the top amateur golfers of his day, he switched to right-handed clubs in 1949 in order to challenge himself.
His later years were spent in 'retirement', located in sunny Delray Beach, Florida. The word "retirement" meant nothing to the lively Ken, as he never relinquished his very busy schedule performing. Now in his 70's, the small, silver haired singer was active in his community: organizing and managing trios and quartets, acting as music director of a local golf club, and performing for private parties, benefits, and community events. His health began failing in 1993 but even as his body grew weaker, he didn't stop singing and entertaining. At the very end, the last two weeks before his death, he was so feeble that he had to be carried onto the stage.
Soon after being finally diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's Disease, the still cheerful, 79-year-old Ken Carson died on April 7, 1994. He was buried in the lovely Rose Hills Cemetery looking over Los Angeles, the city which had given him his start as a young boy. "He never quit singing," his wife Gretchen said after his death. "Even in the hospital, he had all of the doctors and nurses and everybody in the whole place singing." With the loss of Ken Carson, the world of Western music lost another of its masters. Ken had a unique talent for capturing the beauty of the West in his renditions. He was a musical genius and an exceptional gentleman, who was kind, modest, gracious and engaging-- not to mention an astonishingly beautiful singer. He shan't be forgotten. "The [Sons of the] Pioneers have had some remarkable gentlemen as part of that illustrious group. None were finer than Ken Carson." (Laurence Zwisohn)
Footnotes "The Life of My Son As I Recall It" from the personal papers of Bessie Jessee Simpson
Kevin Coffey, to the author
Harmon, Jim Radio Mystery and Adventure and Its Appearance in Film, Television and Other Media Jefferson, N.C: McFarlan & Company, inc.
Song of the West magazine, Spring 1991, pg 17 by William Jacobsen
Dale Warren to Hugh McLennon, Spirit of the West radio commentator Teleways Transcriptions, show #4
"Roy Rogers Co Star Dies at 79 in Delray Beach" Boca Raton News, April 10, 1994
Laurence Zwisohn to Elizabeth McDonald, courtesy of bobnolan-sop.net