Born Onie Daniel Wheeler, 10 November 1921, Senath, Missouri
To those who live by Billboard statistics alone, Onie Wheeler had one minor hit, "John's Been Shucking My Corn", which peaked at # 53 on the country charts in 1973. But there was much more to Onie than that solitary hit : a career that began in the mid-1940s and ended tragically in 1984. In between there was some great music.
One of thirteen kids, Wheeler worked on the family farm until he went into the service in 1940. He played a harmonica and guitar around the house, but never considered music as a career option until his discharge in 1945, when entertainment seemed a livelier option than farming. His favourites were the Delmore Brothers and Ernest Tubb. An accident while he was in the Army meant that the harmonica became Onie's major instrument ; he had injured the index finger on his left hand and could only play guitar in open tunings. In 1946 he married Betty Jean Crowe ; their oldest child, Karen (1947), went on to achieve some success as a country singer in the 1970s.
Wheeler did radio shows in Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky and Michigan, but didn't give up his day job until 1952, when he settled back in Missouri and started a band with drummer Ernest Thompson and the Nelson brothers, Doyal and A.J., both guitar players. In August 1953, they signed with OKeh/ Columbia Records in Nashville and had their first recording session at the end of that month, under the supervision of Don Law. The session included two of Wheeler's best-known songs, "Run 'Em Off" and "Mother Prays Loud In Her Sleep". Both were covered by other Columbia artists : "Run 'Em Off" by Lefty Frizzell (# 8 country in February 1954) and "Mother Prays Loud.." by Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs. After five singles on OKeh, Onie's releases were moved to the parent Columbia label in April 1955. In that year, Onie went out on tour with Elvis Presley and other Sun artists. His Columbia contract was extended for two years in August. The amusing "Onie's Bop", recorded in April 1956, was Wheeler's first attempt to come to terms with the new rockabilly music. His last Columbia single appeared in May 1957, "Goin' Back To the City", another rockabilly-flavoured number, recorded with the Nashville A-team.
By the time the Columbia deal ended in August 1957, Onie and the Nelson brothers were playing on package shows with the Memphis rockabillies : Jerry Lee Lewis, Billy Riley, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. It was only natural that Sun would become his next label. Onie's opinion of Sun was that it was a "bush-league operation" in terms of recording, but he gave them "Jump Right Out Of This Jukebox", one of his best songs. Recorded in late 1957, it was unaccountably held back until February 1959. By that time, musical tastes had changed considerably and the record (Sun 315) never stood a commercial chance, excellent as it was. Perhaps Sam Phillips was too busy trying to salvage something from the ruins of Jerry Lee Lewis's career. Two other up-tempo Sun cuts ("That's All" and "Walking Shoes") were held in the can until 1986, when they were saved from oblivion by Bear Family. According to Colin Escott, the tempo on these two songs was too fast for Onie to feel comfortable. His heart (and strength) lay in slow country numbers and his rockabilly numbers for Sun and Columbia lack conviction, in Escott's opinion. While all of this may be true, "That's All" and "Walking Shoes" are my favourite Onie Wheeler tracks. Pure Sun rock 'n' roll, infectious and happy.
For the remainder of his career, Wheeler flitted in and out of the music business. Between 1960 and 1966 he recorded for a variety of labels, had a slot on George Jones's package show for two years and worked with Roy Acuff. He did not record again until 1971. "John's Been Shucking My Corn" was initially released on Old Windmill Records in late 1971, and re-released a year later on Royal American. Onie's only hit brought in a few show dates, but he couldn't find a follow-up. During the late '70s and early '80s he owned and operated a guitar repair shop. He was operated on for an aneurysm in January 1984, but started to work again a few months later. While performing at Jimmie Snow's Grand Ole Gospel radio show on May 25, 1984, he collapsed on stage and died of a massive heart attack.
Onie Wheeler was a true original, with an immediately recognizable voice, but he never achieved much recognition, in spite of his many talents. A mixture of stubborness, uncommercial attitude and sheer bad luck may explain why he never really made it. According to Charlie Terrell, Onie's songwriting was "too far ahead of its time. His best material was written ten years too soon. He could have been as big as Tom T. Hall later became."
- More info : http://www.karenwheelermusic.com/pages/about/my-dad.php (Karen Wheeler about her father).
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