Who is Bonnie Lou?
Bonnie Lou, born Mary Jo Kath, is an American country, rock and roll and rockabilly singer. Kath first sang on radio at a young age, first at a local radio station in Bloomington, Illinois, then in Kansas City, and then in Cincinnati, Ohio. By then Kath had already been known by her stage name Bonnie Lou. In 1953, inked a recording contract from King label, and scored her first charting hit with her original recording of “Seven Lonely Days” that same year. Bonnie Lou later added another country hit with “Tennessee Wig Walk.” In 1955, Lou released her first rock and roll record “Daddy-O,” which went on to become the biggest single in her career, charting both on country and pop singles territory, in 1955. In her later years, Bonnie Lou veered her career towards television, but kept her music career as steadily as she could by singing on a radio show called Midwestern Hayride until the early 1970s. Since then she has virtually retired from performing.
Early life and radio career
Country and rock and roll singer Bonnie Lou was born Mary Jo Kath on October 27, 1924 in Towanda, Illinois. Kath was influenced by Patsy Montana and her band The Prairie Ramblers, developing the “yodeling cowgirl” style like her idol. In addition to Montana, she also learned yodeling as well from her Swiss grandmother. Kath also learned to play the guitar and violin as a child.
You could say that Kath was a veteran on the radio at a tender age. She started from her first appearance when she was just 16; she sang and performed on a local radio show in Bloomington, Illinois. At 18, she moved to a bigger radio station in Kansas City, Missouri, performing and singing as Sally Carson on a weekend variety show. It was a valuable stint for Kath as the show and the station gave her a lot of exposure. Bill McLuskey, an executive at WLW radio station in Ohio, hired Kath as a singer/yodeler for his radio station’s show titled Midwestern Hayride Country & Western Radio Program. It was also McLuskey who christened Kath the stage name Bonnie Lou.
Although she had been performing for quite some time, Bonnie Lou had to wait for a few years before she would truly break into a career as a recording artist.
Bonnie Lou first signed with the Cincinnati, Ohio-based King label in 1953. Finally, she scored hits such as “Seven Lonely Days” (#7 country) and “Tennessee Wig Walk” (#6 country, #4 UK singles chart).
When the then-new genre called rockabilly began to rule the airwaves, Bonnie Lou wasted no time and jumped into the musical bandwagon, so to speak. She recorded and released “Daddy-O” also on King. The single peaked at #14 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1955 (or 1956).
With that recording by Lou, she became one of the earliest singers in the new musical genre, proving that women too could play and sing rock and roll.
She released several singles (a few of them recorded on another Cincinnati-based label Fraternity) but none of them made a dent on the charts. Bonnie Lou still remained with the Midwestern Hayride, which also veered toward television as Louisiana Hayride. She also co-hosted the Paul Dixon Show until Dixon’s death in 1974. Bonnie Lou quietly withdrew from show business, and reverted to her birth name Mary Jo. She settled in Cincinnati along with her husband Mort (or Milt). Now retired, the couple spends time in their homes in Cincinnati and Cape Coral, Florida.
In reference to her legacy as one of the first female rock and roll performers, a compilation CD titled Bonnie Lou – Doin’ the Tennessee Wak – The Best of the King Years was issued in 2000.
Bonnie Lou is an inductee to the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.