Gary James' Interview With

Le Roy Van Dyke

He kick started his career with a song he co-wrote with Buddy Black called "The Auctioneer", a song that would go on to sell over 2 1/2 million copies. In a career that's spanned over 50 years, he's recorded more than 500 songs. His recording of "Walk On By" in 1961 was named by Billboard magazine as the biggest Country single of all time! Music industry experts named him as the Country Music Entertainer Of The Decade for the 1960s. He was the first to take a staged, produced, choreographed, self-contained Country music show to The Strip in Las Vegas. He was the first to take Country music to Bourbon Street in New Orleans' famed French quarter. And he was the only Country music performer to ever open a show for Marilyn Monroe! In 2001, he was inducted into the North American Country Music Association International Hall of Fame.

We are speaking about Le Roy Van Dyke, and Mr. Van Dyke has led quite an interesting life, as you'll soon find out.

Q - I see you've recorded over 500 songs. Where does the time come from to record so many songs?

A - I've been doing this for 57 years. That's how you do it. (Laughs) You just outlive everybody else.

Q - That would explain it.

A - Sure.

Q - What a lot of time goes into the recording of just one song. I don't think most people understand it.

A - No, they don't understand it. Most of those were done several years ago and not all of those have been released. There's quite a number of those that haven't been released.

Q - What are they waiting for?

A - I don't know. The record business is really strange. I'm not even with some of those labels anymore. I've probably been with six or eight different labels in 57 years. If they don't have you signed, they had no interest in trying to commercialize on 'em.

Q - I realize that in the 57 years time, you performed in 50 to 70 Fairs a year including livestock events, but did you go out on the road in what we would call a regular tour?

A - Well, it depends on how you define tour. Most of the time those shows, when I was working those Fairs, were not connected with each other. There is no relationship between one Fair and the next. You might play a County Fair in Ohio, a State Fair in Illinois and another County Fair in Illinois and a Regional Fair in South Dakota. And none of those are connected with each other. But in the off-season, the concert season that doesn't include those Fairs, then you might have a buyer that would buy 10 or 11 dates and that would be a bona fide tour. You'd go from one to the next to the next to the next, all for the same buyer. We used to work for a guy named Abe Hamza up and down the East Coast. Then there was a guy named Ward Beam from upstate New York that we worked for quite a bit. There was a guy named Peebles that we worked for in the Plains area. Another guy named George Moffatt that we played in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Any number of those people would set up bona fide tours, but the Fairs were generally not part of an organized tour.

Q - The Fair tours weren't spread a month apart, where they?

A - No.

Q - You were probably doing three or four Fairs a week.

A - Yeah. We did a lot of them that way. But the Fairs had no relation to each other. I mentioned the name Peebles, he would have a string of dates that were connected. He would be the person putting the tour together. There were a couple of years, 1961 in 1962, I worked a lot of shows for the same buyer and those were a bona fide tour.

Q - When you'd go out, would you go out as the headliner or part of a package tour?

A - Headliner.

Q - Who was on the bill with you?

A - I can't remember. In 57 years I worked with everybody in the business. I don't remember who was on any specific tours with me.

Q - Did you ever cross paths with Patsy Cline?

A - I knew her very well. She was not famous at the time. She was just another girl singer. We worked shows together. In fact, I was making more money than she was. She was just getting started.

Q - You graduated from the University of Missouri and for a while you worked as a journalist. Is that what you studied in college, journalism?

A - Journalism and Animal Science. I worked for a newspaper that required that kind of training because it was a livestock paper. I had to know livestock and I had to be able to sell advertising and I had to have the ability to write up the results of various shows in sales, auctions. I had to do all of those things.

Q - No showbiz writing?

A - No.

Q - How long did you work at that paper?

A - Three years.

Q - Then you decided it's time to become a singer?

A - No, I didn't decide anything. (Laughs) I had a song I had written while I was in Korea. I entered a talent contest and I didn't decide anything. The phone started ringing and they asked me to go record.

Q - Things just started taking off from there.

A - Yeah. The first record sold 1 million (copies). I did not win the talent contest that precipitated the call. I think I was second or third. It doesn't matter because the phone rang and within two weeks I had a record album and within three months I sold 1 million records.

Q - I guess your life changed then!

A - Real quick. (Laughs)

Q - Were you ready for that? Did you expect it?

A - I don't know. I didn't know anything about the music business, the entertainment business, but I don't think anybody does when they first start.

Q - You are a survivor.

A - I am a survivor. That's true.

Q - In other words you didn't develop a lot of the bad habits that the Rock guys developed.

A - And the Country acts too. A lot of the Country acts developed a lot of bad habits.

Q - You were the first entertainer to receive the Country Music Association Founding Presidents Award for contributing to the advancement and improved image of Country music.

A - Yes.

Q - Improved image? If it was Rap, I could understand, but Country music does have this wholesome, all-American image. What was Country music's image when you came along? Was it bad?

A - Well, you'd have to qualify the definition of image. Many people in the business were treating it as a hayseed artform, very bucolic and rural. My opinion was we could dress it up and take it anywhere if our behavior was right and our show was presented correctly and we had the correct wardrobe, that we could take Country music anywhere, and we did! That was the main thing I wanted to do, was improve the image so that we could take our shows to Broadway, take our shows to The Strip in Las Vegas and we could take 'em to the fancy hotels and casinos.

Q - Wasn't it more the acceptance of those venues to book Country music?

A - Yeah, but they had to be educated. I did about a dozen or a dozen and a half free shows, showcases for the Country Music Association. I played the Waldorf in New York, the Ambassador in LA, the Monteleone in New Orleans, the Conrad Hilton Chicago, as well as the Edgewater Beach in Chicago, as well as many, many showcase productions around Nashville. When I would work those deals, it was for the specific purpose of showing the Ad Age workshop or the Madison Avenue entertainment or the commercial advertising agencies to show them Country music doesn't have to be in bib overalls. And, it worked. We were directly responsible for many radio stations going into an extended play period for Country, where they might have just had one or two hours a week. They were going to all-night shows. And we were directly responsible for making that happen.

Q - That TV show, Hee-Haw, didn't really help the image of Country music, did it?

A - No, it didn't.

Q - You talk about hayseeds.

A - It was amusing. It didn't help our image. And I said so. I was too vocal about it I guess. They never did invite me to work that show because they knew I didn't agree with the way they presented it.

Q - You are the only Country music performer to have opened for Marilyn Monroe.

A - (Laughs)

Q - Marilyn Monroe was an actress. I know she did do some singing. Where was this?

A - I was a Special Agent in the US Army Counter-Intelligence. I was attached to the 160th infantry Regiment along the 38th parallel in Korea. They had a USO show that came through there featuring Marilyn Monroe. The Colonel came down and asked if I'd do about 15 minutes to open the show for her and I did. That's how that came about.

Q - You were singing?

A - Yeah, but I was not in show business at that point. I was a Special Agent in the Army.

Q - I guess you got to meet her.

A - Oh, I got to meet her. I didn't talk to her very long 'cause she was very, very busy getting ready for a show and everybody else was bending her ear and wanting to talk to her. We just spoke and said "hello, how are you doing?" That was about it.

Q - Was Joe DiMaggio with her?

A - No. The only reason she was allowed to make that trip was because a fellow who later on became my manager, a guy named Walter Bouillet, he was a Captain in the Army and he was in charge of a lot of those shows that came over there. He and Joe were good friends. The only way Joe DiMaggio would allow her to make that trip was if Walter Bouillet, my friend, would guarantee that she had plenty of security and somebody watching her all of the time so there would be no problems. Everywhere she went in Korea he was helping her down from the truck or helping her out on a tank or helping her up the stairs so she wouldn't slip and fall, carrying her coat for her. Every picture you saw of her in Korea, somewhere within six feet of her or closer, was Walter Bouillet.

Q - You also worked on Red Foley's TV show Ozark Jubilee. He was a big name in the Country field.

A - Yeah. He had a lot of big hits before I ever met him. He was one of my idols. I never dreamed that I'd ever meet him. He had been one of the stars on the Grand Old Opry and then when the opportunity came for the Ozark Jubilee on the ABC television network in Springfield, they asked him to be the host and he accepted. I didn't go on that immediately. About two years later I went with the Ozark Jubilee and was with it for three years.

Q - These days you raise premium quality Arabian mules?

A - Well, that's just an aside. These days I travel the road and sing songs.

Q - You still do that?

A - I haven't slowed down. That's always been my main focus, even though we do have some horses and mules. They have nothing to do with the entertainment business and that's not what we have on the ranch here in Missouri, but we don't have much time to spend with 'em 'cause I'm on the road. I was in West Palm Beach at the South Florida State Fair last week. I'll be at the State Fair in Florida this week. Then next week we'll be in Yuma, Arizona. What I do has not changed at all. I'm still traveling like I always have.

Q - Country music sounds a lot more like Rock 'n' Roll these days. Do you miss the way Country music used to be played?

A - Yes, I do. When I got in the business it was music. Now it's noise.

Q - I take it you don't have any favorites out there today.

A - No, I don't. I don't listen to the current Country music at all.

Q - Do you travel with your own band?

A - I carry my own band. It's a seven piece band.

Q - Do you travel by plane? By bus?

A - A little bit of both. We've kind of honed this down to a fine art where we have to have equipment on the ground to get our equipment there. We carry enough sound equipment for a State Fair grandstand. We carry wardrobe, spare parts, spare equipment, amplifiers, the whole backline of equipment and we pull that with a truck. So, that has to be there. We fly the band in because it's cheaper to fly 'em than it is to pay 'em to ride. For instance, if we were playing the Utah State Fair, basically it takes about five days to do it. If you use some common sense and allow enough of a time cushion, it takes care of any potential problems getting there. Weather, breakdowns. So, to go from here to Salt Lake City and back normally figure on five days. Well, we don't want to take up that much time of our band members because sometimes they have opportunities to go out with somebody else or do something else to make money at home. It's the difference between five days and 36 hours if we fly 'em in. So, we fly 'em in the night before, do the show and fly 'em back the next day and they'll be back home in 36 hours.

Q - Did you ever tour overseas?

A - Yes.

Q - Do you tour overseas now?

A - No. I don't want to go over there anymore. It's a very difficult thing the way they travel. They don't seem to have any concept that sometimes entertainers might want to get some sleep. I don't mind stayin' up long hours, but they have no concept of taking care of the health of the entertainers over there.

Q - Who are you talking about, the agents or promoters?

A - Promoters. I've played Holland, Germany, Italy, Spain, England. I've also played Australia, Japan, New Zealand, but I don't care much about going overseas anymore 'cause things are to messed up.

Q - Do you record these days? Do you still write?

A - I never did write. I wrote one song and quit. That was not what I wanted to do, but I wrote this song that got me started in the business called "Auctioneer". I wrote that when I was in Korea, but I never was a songwriter as such. I wrote one song, that's the only one I ever wrote. I wanted to sing songs, not write songs.

Q - What kind of songs to you sing in concert?

A - I've had a lot of my own songs to pull from and then I always include some standards that everybody knows and maybe were done by my friends. I can't give you a list because it's never the same list twice. I have to do "Auctioneer". I have to do "Walk On By". I do "If A Woman Answers, Hang Up The Phone" and several others that I've done and some album cuts. But then I do other songs in the show that I never recorded, because I like 'em and I know the crowd will like 'em too.

© Gary James. All rights reserved.