Instruments: Guitar, Vocals
Date of Birth: November 1, 1901
Place of Birth: Opp, Alabama
One of the Last of the Old-Time Entertainers
By Charles Wolfe
Not long ago, the late Grandpa Jones was conducting one of his informal seminars on country music history. Several old friends, and a few young ones, were gathered around his picnic table on his patio. "Today it's all about records," he said. "People remember you because of your records. But there were a lot of people in the old days that were known as big radio stars who hardly ever made any hit records. They were fine, old-time showmen who knew how to entertain you in person. Big Slim was one of them, and Blue Grass Roy up in Illinois, and Sunshine Sue, who was in Richmond, and Cousin Emmy. The best salesman we ever had on the Opry was Lew Childre. Doctor Lew, they called him. A lot of these new people never heard of him, but if you'd been around here in the 1940's, you'd sure have known who he was."
Another of the great Opry legends, Whitey Ford, The Duke of Paducah, paid tribute to Lew Childre by calling him"one of the greatest one-man shows in the business." And, indeed, Lew could entertain in a dozen different ways: he could play the guitar, both in standard and in Hawaiian style; sing; buck dance; do comedy; recite poetry; ad lib commercials; improvise dialogue; or tell fish stories. And he could do this both on the stage and on the air, and he could do it with an easy affability that made him one of the most popular and sought-after entertainers from the 1930's to the 1950's. He was one of the last - and best - of the old-time entertainers that had been trained on the stages of the old-time medicine and vaudeville shows. His career ranged from the dusty Depression-era Texas tent shows of Harley Sadler and Milt Tolbert to the early TV stages of Nashville. He worked with many of the greats, including Wiley Walker, Floyd Tilman, Curly Fox, Bill Monroe, Bill Boyd and Stringbean. He was no instrumental virtuoso, but he had a wonderfully flexible voice that could ease into a complex yodel at the drop of a hat, as well as a rich fund of old comic songs and stories. For years he charmed listeners across the country.
Lew always reminded listeners that he was born in Opp, Alabama - a place that sounds suspiciously like Grinder's Switch or Possum Trot. But there really is an Opp, in South Alabama just a few miles from the Florida line. Lew was born there in 1901, son of a local judge who planned a normal, upper-middle class career for his off-spring. After a few years, though, the judge began to get an inkling that this might not work out: When young Lew was seven, the judge found him on the corner in downtown Opp buck dancing for any stranger who would give him a nickel. He was learning that people would pay good money to be entertained - a key lesson. In high school, he acted in plays, sang the latest pop songs, and played drums in the school band.
Though his family persuaded him to spend four years at the University of Alabama in pre-med school, he would sneak off summers and tour with various shows. Instead of going on to medical school, he wound up traveling with the famed Milt Tolbert show in North Carolina. Here he was billed as "Milt Tolbert's Most Popular song and Dance Artist," and posters show him dressed in a tuxedo. A little later he organized a jazz band, The Alabama Cotton Pickers, in which he played drums and sang; one of his sidemen was a young accordion player named Lawrence Welk.
By 1925, the boom in "Old-time" or "Hillbilly" music was beginning, and for reasons that are still a little obscure, Lew decided to move into this area. He bought a guitar and took off on a solitary backwoods fishing trip, telling his friends he wasn't coming back until he learned to play it. He did, devising a style that involved playing the Spanish guitar with a Hawaiian steel - a style he would later introduce as "Poop Deck Pappy Lew Childre and his two chord guitar." Given his singing style and fund of old songs, it all worked, and by 1929-30 he was broadcasting as a solo act on radio stations in San Angelo, Texas, and Hot Springs, Arkansas. During the next two years, he teamed with Wiley Walker as The Alabama Boys, but by 1933 he had become a mainstay on WWL in New Orleans.
It was here that he won his national fame, and did one of his few recording sessions. In March 1936 he traveled to Chicago, where he recorded some of his favorites for the old American Record Company. These included his best-known number, "Fishing Blues," as well as "Hang Out Your Front Door Key," "Hog Calling Blues" and "Horsie Keep Your Tail Up." By now Lew had the reputation of being able to sell about any product he advertised on his shows, and sponsors were lining up. He also continued to tour, and for a time took his winters at the border station XERA, in Del Rio. By 1943 he had a nationwide show on the Blue Network Monday through Saturday, and was doing three daily shows over WAGA in Atlanta. Much of this schedule was facilitated by Lew's pioneering use of transcription discs. He made dozens of these for everyone from Pepsi to the Warren Paint Company. On many of them he would start off with a spiel like he used on this old ABC transcription: "Just as easy as ABC! Yes sir, Mr. Ernie Keller, that means it's time for old Poop Deck Pappy Lew Childre to hit ‘em with a few ditty-way ditties!"
There was a partner of sorts on many shows a little white sheltie he named "Mr. Pooch." The dog did some tricks, acted cute, and attracted kids. But, Lew's widow recalled, Mr. Pooch also had a serious function: "Once Lew got his guitar tuned before he went out to start the show, he would put it back in its case; it was Mr. Pooch's job to lay on the guitar case and guard it." In his spare time, Lew invented new fishing lures - including one that reportedly netted him thousands in royalties and helped him found a fishing supply company in Foley, Alabama.
Lew's last stop was the Grand Ole Opry. He arrived in 1945, and went out on show tours with the likes of Curly Fox, Floyd Tillman and Bill Monroe. By 1946 he found another partner in Stringbean; both were natural comedians; both loved fishing; and both had a fund of old songs. For three years they delighted Opry crowds, though, sadly, they never recorded. Lew continued on the Opry (except for a short stint with Red Foley and the Ozark Jubilee) until 1959, when he decided to retire. Before he did, he cut his first LP, for Starday, with members of Roy Acuff's band. It was his swan song. He died December 3, 1961 at his home in Foley.
Source: Alabama Music Hall of Fame
One of the holdovers from the early days of vaudeville shows and one-man bands, Lew Childre managed a successful career during the 1930s and '40s playing radio broadcasts and doing his own advertising transcriptions. Born in Opp, AL, in 1901, he played trombone, trumpet, and drums in high school before being persuaded to attend the University of Alabama by his parents. Childre finished school, but in 1923 joined a tent show as a singer/performer.
He then formed a jazz band called the Alabama Cotton Pickers -- which also included Lawrence Welk -- and recorded several sides before becoming fascinated with country music, then in its commercial infancy. Childre learned to play guitar and then returned to the tent shows until joining broadcast radio in Texas in 1930. After recording several sides for Gannett Records during September 1930, he toured the state with Wiley Walker (later of Wiley & Gene fame) as the Alabama Boys.
Lew Childre moved to New Orleans in 1934, broadcasting over WWL and recording for ARC. He spent the late '30s working the Texas border station XERA with the Carter Family, but moved to West Virginia's Wheeling Jamboree by the early '40s. Childre's talent for ad-libbing comedy and songs made him a natural for advertising, and after he joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1945, he began producing transcriptions for General Foods and Pepsi, among other companies. He recorded an LP for Starday in the mid-'50s, but retired from music in 1959 and died two years later. ~ John Bush, Rovi