Saturday, April 19, 2008

Eeny Meeny Dixie Deeny...

Slim Bryant and the Wildcats from Pittsburgh Magazine

Thomas Hoyt "Slim" Bryant, the first of six sons, was born in Atlanta on Dec. 7, 1908. Bryant's dad was an electrician who played the fiddle and mandolin. His mother was a poet, sang and played guitar and piano. "I think that's where I got my songwriting ability," he said of his mom to Rich Kienzle of the Post Gazette. "She lived to be 104 years old."

Bryant lives in Dormont, a bedroom 'burb he's called home for 59 of his 99 years. The Gibson L-5 guitar he played for the past seven decades sits in a corner of his dining room. His late brother, Raymond, better known as "Loppy," was one of his band mates and later became a Dormont councilman. And who sez the City can't attract people?

He grew up listening to country acts such as Fiddlin' John Carson and Gid Tanner's Skillet Lickers, but didn't decide to play guitar until after he spent some time plying his father's trade after high school. Sixteen months of studying with Atlanta jazz banjoist-guitarist Perry Bechtel gave him a broad musical background and a jazzman's licks.

In May 1931, Bryant gave up his day job to join Clayton McMichen's new band, the Melody Men. He spent the next six years with McMichen and his renamed Georgia Wildcats at radio stations in Kentucky, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Cleveland and New York.

In mid-1932, Bryant was at WTAM in Cleveland with McMichen when Jimmie Rodgers, who knew McMichen, invited the fiddler to accompany him on some recording sessions in August. McMichen suggested using Bryant as a guitarist.

He and McMichen bused to Washington, D.C., met Rodgers and traveled to RCA-Victor's Camden, N.J., studios in the singer's chauffeured limo. "Producer Ralph Peer heard 'Mother, the Queen of My Heart,' and I was in," he told Kienzle. "Jimmie Rodgers liked it."

Bryant wrote the song when he was was sitting in an Atlanta diner and overheard two men talking about the previous night's poker game. "One guy said, 'You know, I'm never gonna play any poker again. I'm through with it.' And he told the story: He drew this card and saw his mother's picture."

"I thought, 'Ahh ... this would make a hell of a song.' So I went home and I wrote it." It's the most popular of his tunes, and was covered by everyone from Lonesome George Gobels to Merle Haggard to Jerry Lee Lewis.

At the time of the 1932 session, Rodgers, who was fighting tuberculosis, had eight months to live. Bryant is the last living musical link to him.

The Georgia Wildcats' hip, swinging style, totally different from the Western Swing music of Texas, reflected McMichen's and Bryant's love of jazz. In fact, Bryant was an early pioneer of using jazz chords in country songs. In 1934, younger brother Loppy became the Wildcats' bassist.

But in 1937, when McMichen formed a 12-piece dance band in Louisville, both Bryants, guitarist Jack Dunigan and several others amicably parted ways.

After hiring Louisville banjoist Jerry Wallace, they returned to KDKA Radio as Slim, Jack and the Gang. Apollo fiddler Kenny Newton joined the group in 1938. Reclaiming the name Georgia Wildcats, the band left Pittsburgh and moved to Richmond.

After a musicians' strike put them on the unemployment line, Loppy and his wife, originally from Zelienople, used the time off to visit Pittsburgh. When he made a courtesy call at KDKA, program director George Hyde invited the band back. They arrived on Aug. 10, 1940.

"I liked Pittsburgh," Bryant said with a smile. "I liked KDKA's 50,000 watts."

In June 1941, they joined the new "KDKA Farm Hour" Mondays through Fridays and played 11 songs between the day's news and farm reports. When Wallace joined the Marines during World War II, KDKA bandleader Maurice Spitalny suggested local accordionist Al Azzaro as his replacement. By then, they were simply the Wildcats.

Bryant and the Wildcats never became national stars, and in fact never even played at the Grand Ole Opry. But from 1940 through the '50s, on radio and local TV, Slim Bryant and his Wildcats were the face and sound of country music in the region. They were sort of country crossover artists of their day.

Only one Bryant tune, "Eeny Meeny Dixie Deeny," ever became a hit (in 1946), but its' success was limited by the tiny label the Wildcats were signed to, Majestic. RCA had artist Zeke Manners cover the song, and his version outsold the original 2-1. So it was a big seller, just not for the Wildcats. Such is show biz.

But their legacy lives on for country fans and historians. The Wildcats recorded 287 songs in New York for Thesaurus Library, which supplied radio stations with early versions of EPs they could use as prerecorded 15-minute show segments. Those tracks still survive.

Those vinyls covered the gamut of the group's varied stylings: country, pop, swing, Western, polkas, and a bit of gospel and jazz. The band harmonies compare to early Sons of the Pioneers. Bryant's Wildcats played so they could catch the ear of the city slicker as well as the farmers, crossover artists before crossover was a concept.

When television came to Pittsburgh, on Jan. 11, 1949, Slim Bryant and his Wildcats performed on the very first program aired, a musical variety show live on WDTV from the Syria Mosque in Oakland.

The next day, ad agency executive Vic Maitland, who handled Duquesne Beer's account, offered Bryant a five-day-a-week, 15-minute show the brewery was sponsoring. But WDTV didn't have a decent studio yet, and he passed on the offer.

But when Maitland created the weekly "Duquesne Showtime" featuring rotating acts two years later, Bryant agreed to host the program once a month. They had added popular local singer Nancy Fingal to the group, and were versatile enough to serve as a house band, too, when vocalists like Rosemary Clooney came to town.

When Iron City took over the show, it grew to a half-hour and moved from Thursday to Friday nights, and they kept the slot even after WDTV became KDKA in 1955. Iron City added a Thursday night show from WTRF for the Wheeling market.

The mid-50s were the Wildcats' halycon years. Though a MGM recording contract flopped, they occasionally appeared on the ABC network's "Jubilee U.S.A." They also played at local amusement parks (don't snicker - they were big venues back in the day) and at East Coast and Midwestern fairs.

By 1958, network programming replaced local prime-time TV, and the Wildcats' days on the "Farm Hour" ended. In 1962, Bryant and his missus Mary Jane opened Slim Bryant's Card and Gift Shop in Dormont. He started teaching guitar in a studio he built in the shop.

The Wildcats scattered to the wind. Azzaro continued playing locally. Newton moved to California and Wallace left for Vegas. Loppy died of lung cancer in 1968. Now they're all gone, except for Slim.

He and his better half ran the gift shop until 1980, and Mary Jane passed away in 1987, survived by their son Tom, a college prof teaching in Kansas. Bryant still teaches guitar - no rock and roll, though - and performs at the occasional festival.

It's been a good career. Bryant's played with Joe Negri, Tex Ritter, Jimmie Rodgers, Gene Autry, Eddy Arnold, Les Paul, Burl Ives, and Rosemary Clooney. Duquesne University honored him with the Pittsburgh Legends Award

Les Paul called him his idol since he heard him play guitar back in the early 1930's. Bryant still opens the mailbox and pulls out royalty checks. And he's not retired quite yet.

Bryant released a CD last year of his old favorites. It's called "Hoyt 'Slim' Bryant & His Wildcats," and has 31 songs on it. Maybe he'll tour to support it...

EDIT - Slim's touring days are have come to an end. He passed away on May 29th, 2010, at the age of 101 after a prolonged illness.

(A lot of this post and the quotes used were lifted from "A Life In Tune: The Real Slim's Heyday" from the Post Gazette, Sunday, August 11, 2002, by Rich Kienzle)

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