Country and rockabilly performer Bonnie Lou was born Mary Joan Kath in Towanda, Illinois, on October 27, 1924. The signal from Chicago's AM powerhouse WLS reached loud and clear into central Illinois, and Bonnie grew up listening to Prairie Ramblers recordings featuring the yodeling cowgirl vocals of Patsy Montana. Mary also learned to yodel, both through those old records and the influence of her Swiss grandmother. She also studied violin and guitar as a child. By 16, Mary was singing on a radio show in Bloomington, Illinois; two years later, she was performing as Sally Carson with the Brush Creek Follies radio variety show, airing each Saturday from KMBC in Kansas City. The Brush Creek Follies program was regularly broadcast nationwide through the Columbia radio network. This valuable exposure led Mary to WLW in Ohio, where station exec Bill McLuskey hired her as a singer and yodeler with his Midwestern Hayride country & western radio program. McLuskey also christened Mary with the Bonnie Lou moniker. While with Midwestern Hayride, Bonnie performed regularly with the Girls of the Golden West, a cowboy yodeling combo she used to hear on WLS as a child.
While a few of her radio performances were cut to acetate and eventually released, it wasn't until the 1950s that Bonnie had any real success as a recording artist. Signing with the local Cincinnati label King in 1953, Bonnie had hits with "Tennessee Wig Walk" and "Seven Lonely Days," which both broke the Top Ten on the country charts. When the rockabilly sound hit, Bonnie recorded "Daddy-O" for King; the single went to number 14 on the Billboard charts in 1955-1956. The Rusty York duet "Lah Dee Dah" followed in 1958. After another uneventful York duet, Bonnie left King for another Cinci local, Fraternity. There she released several singles, though none found the success her early work for King had. Bonnie also continued to work with Midwestern Hayride, which by this point had spun off the television program Louisiana Hayride. She eventually retired from the business and settled in Cincinnati with her husband, Milton Okum.
Bonnie's choice to work and live in Cincinnati prevented her from finding the nationwide fame that a contract with RCA or another big label would have. However, she was a prime mover in the first days of rockabilly, and saw many of her early recordings reissued on niche labels like Bear Family and WestSide, which issued the definitive collection of her King years with 2000's Doin' the Tennessee Wig Walk. Bonnie Lou died in a nursing home in Cincinnati in December 2015 at the age of 91. ~ Johnny Loftus