Bonnie Lou is a fitting example of the relationship between King Records and the radio and television station WLW. Like many artists, Bonnie came to Cincinnati to perform on the station’s 500,000-watt broadcast system, which reached further than any other radio station at the time. Many of King’s early country singers, including the first artists to record with Syd Nathan, came from the pool of talent provided by the radio and television network.
Bonnie was not new to radio or recording when she came to Cincinnati. She had a musical childhood on a farm in Illinois. She learned to yodel from her Swiss grandmother, began violin lessons at age five, and received her first guitar from her father at age ten. In high school she sang at a local radio station and at age 17 she signed a contract with WKBC in Kansas City, where she sang under the pseudonym “Sally Carson” (her given name was Mary Joanne Kath). After two years she left Kansas City for Cincinnati at the encouragement of WLW executives.
Bonnie Lou sang for WLW from the mid 1940s to the early 1970s. On radio and television, she was a charming, charismatic “sweetheart” of a star on shows such as The Midwestern Hayride and The 50/50 Club. She also recorded several records for King between 1953 and 1960. For a time, Bonnie balanced being a local television personality and having international hits (her song “Tennessee Wig Walk” was popular in the U.S., England, the Netherlands, and even West Africa). When she heard her first recording for King, “Seven Lonely Days,” playing at a gas station in Illinois on a vacation home, she realized she’d made it.
As successful as some of her King songs were, Bonnie was even more successful in television and may have had more artistic freedom at WLW. Her “country” persona for the station spoke to many white Cincinnatians who had migrated from Appalachia and the rural south. On the other hand, King experimented with bringing Bonnie Lou’s distinctive yodeling and harmonies into the new rockabilly sound, one of the early forms of rock’n’roll. Although she is in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame for songs such as “Daddy-O,” she felt more closely tied to country music.