Famous Lashua, Duluth’s singing cowboy

The post on Duluth’s first television station from a few weeks back included a mention of “Famous, a country-western singer.”

The name “Famous” piqued my curiosity, so I went digging in the files and found out a lot more about Famous Lashua, Duluth’s singing cowboy, including this article from February 6, 1983:

Famous Lashua, Oct. 21, 1953. (News-Tribune file photo)

Duluth’s singing cowboy remembers

By Bob Ashenmacher, News-Tribune staff writer

He was Duluth’s singing cowboy during the heyday of radio.

He wrote country-western songs that were recorded by some of the biggest names. He made one of the earliest live television broadcasts in Duluth.

So what ever happened to Famous Lashua?

“Every once in a while that comes up,” Lashua, now 66, said from his home in Mountain Iron. “I get mentioned on one of the radio stations I worked for – maybe on a call-in show or something. People wonder where I went.”

He moved from Duluth in 1964 to take over a dry-cleaning business in Virginia. He and his wife Ruby retired two years ago. Lately he’s recovering from an artificial hip operation.

Lashua doesn’t regret leaving show business.

“I’d been in it for 30 years. This (the dry cleaners’) was a chance to get into a good, growing business, so we bought it.”

But his enthusiasm for the music days remains.

“Oh, the way I got into it is funny. I’d gone out West on a freight (train) when I was 16, gotten a job on a ranch. The cowboys there, it was a big joke for them to put me on a wild horse. I did pretty good – an old Indian wanted to put me in the rodeo. Anyway, I wrote a letter to a girlfriend back in Rhinelander and to dress it up a bit I said, ‘We’re sitting around the campfire singing songs and I’m playing my guitar.’ I was BS’ing – I didn’t know a guitar from any other instrument.

“When I came back home in ’36, well, of course I run into the old girl again, and the first thing she wants me to do is sing for her. So I had to quick scare up a guitar and get me a music book for two bits. After about a week I could sneak by with ‘Home on the Range.’ I did it for her, and she liked it. It went from there.”

Songwriter and performer Famous Lashua spins country and western music on WDSM radio in early 1964. Note the Hotel Duluth / Greysolon Plaza facade visible through the window. (News-Tribune file photo)

——————–

Except for a brief stint in Kentucky, Lashua played music locally for almost three decades. He had a pleasant soprano voice that lent itself well to relaxed country-western tunes.

He worked in many settings, from WEBC radio’s 15-piece orchestra to a popular band called Uncle Harry and His Hillbillies to a solo act.

He was master of ceremonies on “Corn’s A’Poppin,” a weekly KDAL radio show broadcast live from the stage of Duluth’s Lyceum Theater for three years in the mid-1940s.

“Every Monday night, right after the stores closed,” he said. “We had full houses – boy, it was great. We’d bring in some local acts each night. Some girls tap dancing or a local kid singing.”

Among his more unusual gigs was one with an organist who was dying of cancer. They played together on a show sponsored by a funeral home.

“He knew he was done for,” Lashua said, “but he insisted on continuing playing. During commercials I’d sing hymns and he’d play organ softly in the background and once in a while he’d break down and cry. … That was harder than digging ditches, I tell you.”

The early TV appearance came when engineers of Duluth television station WDSM were preparing to go on the air and wanted to test the signal.

“There wasn’t even a studio yet, just a garage up on the hill by the antenna. … We dragged a log in out of the woods. I sat on it and played some songs.”

All the while, Lashua was writing songs.

Red Foley had a big hit with his “Chocolate Ice Cream Cone.” It was among the top 10 country songs of – he thinks it was – 1952 and was eventually covered by 10 artists. Vaughan Monroe and Hank Snow each recorded his “Ghost Trains.” The Blue Sky Boys did his “I’m Glad.” His own favorite among his originals: “A thing called ‘Little Miss Mischief.’ It was recorded by the Oklahoma Sweethearts. I liked that one, but it never went anywhere.”

Where’d he get that stage name, “Famous,” anyway?

“They’ve been asking me that for years,” he said. “It’s my real name. My folks must have had big plans for me. Either that or they were running out of names – I’m the ninth out of 10 kids.”

Now that he’s retired, Lashua wouldn’t mind putting together a little radio show of his own again.”

– end –

Famous Lashua, undated photo. (News-Tribune file photo)

—————-

Famous Lashua died on May 3, 1992, at the age of 76.

A Google search turns up quite a bit of information on Famous Lashua. For a site with a number of mp3 files of his songs, click here. Among the files available is “Choc’late Ice Cream Cone,” which was a country hit back in the early 1950s. It’s a sweetly innocent song, certainly from another era. Not quite sure how it would be received today. I found this image of a folio of sheet music for the song on Amazon.com:

A few more sites with information about Famous Lashua can be found here and here.

Share your memories of Famous Lashua, or other well-known Northland musicians, by posting a comment.

16 thoughts on “Famous Lashua, Duluth’s singing cowboy

  1. Back in the early 40′s I would visit my grandpa’s farm near Cadott, WI. This small town had no theater, and entertainment was scarce. On Friday nights the Village would put on free movies (outdoors, of course on a bedsheet) and more often than not, Famous was the added attraction. Some of the kids would make fun of his first name, but in actuality they really liked him. As a farm boy myself, I was interested in western music and really appreciated his singing. One of the local boys had a guitar and could chord, singing Famous’ songs. We nick-named Kenny Famous. Lots of memories there!

  2. During the 40′s and 50′s when my dad was on the radio, there were more “local” stars than national stars in the U S. Famous (his real name) was just “Dad” to us and I have been amazed at the number of people who remember him from “back in the days”. His music is reminiscent of the “innocent” past and his style was unique to him. He was a genuinely great person, dad, and entertainer.

  3. I remember his show! He was good!! I lived in Duluth for 28 years! Live in Kennewick Wa. Now!! My father lived in Duluth for 73 years!!

  4. My Mother, Mary Lou LeMay use to sing on the radio with Famous. She knew Mr. & Mrs. Jack McKenna when they would come hear her sing at the Hilltop House back in the late 60s, early 70s. One night, Mom wasn’t feeling good, so Jack & his wife drove mom home. For years, even recently, my children request their Grandma to sing Famous’s song “The Chocolate Ice Cream Cone.” I still enjoy that !

  5. I was about 4 when we moved to a farm outside of Duluth. We milked about a dozen cows by hand and put up hay etc, the whole farm thing. Dad really was a cowboy at one time and taught me how to ride and handle horses while I was growing up. He had a radio program every Saturday morning in the 1950′s and I would get up early and ride into work with him. I would hang around the station playing records in one of the booths while dad was on the air. He signed on at 6 or 7 so I didn’t have much to do as a little kid until stores started to open. Then I would walk the streets, ride an elevator or two, visit the hobby shop and genreally just hang out until lunch. My favorite thing was a coney dog, They were 20 cents. I could get five for a dollar and often did just that. Never thought it was a big deal that dad was on the radio or wrote songs or made records. I do understand now just how talented he was but never realized it at the time. He was just dad.

    • I’m so happy to see this article about Famous. My Father listened to Famous while working in the CCC or fighting blister-rust in the 1940s and thought Famous was the best. Dad would sing and yodel his remembered versions of Famous’ songs. As a boy, I wrote to Famous care of a Duluth radio station and he sent me an autographed picture postcard, which I gave to my Dad. I have it still as one of my treasured memories. Later in life, Dad sang the message on their answering machine, and I am dying to know if it was one of Famous’ songs – “Ridin’ down the trail of sunshine, spread a little happiness as you go… (then some lyrics I don’t recall into yodeling)”. Please let me know if you recognize this song, I’d love to own a copy.

  6. Thanks for posting this information. I’ve been looking for something on this fellow for years, but it’s only this year that something finally turned up. I watched Famous when I was a kid, and he inspired me to write my own hillbilly song, “Grandma Count Your Chickens, Grandpa Just Flew The Coop!” I thought he was cool, because my favorite movies in the late 40′s/early 50′s were those by the more famous singing cowboys, Roy rogers and Gene Autry. Famous may not have been as famous as Gene Autry, but at least he didn’t have a paunch. The anecdote about the show he did with a guy with cancer that was sponsored by a funeral home was priceless, which is why I’m going to steal it for my next book.

  7. My older sister, Janet Matson, sang on the Famous Lashua show around 1955-56. The show was looking for local talent, especially a female singer and on a dare my sister entered the talent contest held at the former Hotel Duluth. Much to her shock and surprise she won. Since the show was live, and in the evening, my father would drive her to the show, wait for her and bring her home. She was perhaps 16 at the time and young girls did not drive, and my father would not allow her to take a bus at night. It was also at this time that our family became one of the first families on the block to get a TV and it was the only night of the week day that we younger children, there were 3 of us, were allowed to stay up late and watch her perform. Her specialty was yodeling and at least one of the songs she would sing each night she performed would have yodeling in it. This brings back many wonderful memories.

  8. I remember him when I was a little girl living in the west end of Duluth.
    He use to play at some of the businesses there.
    We would stand outside of the store window and watch him. Was a big deal to us.
    I found this address in the Duluth News Tribune a year ago.

  9. My dad Jack McKenna, and Famous met in the early fifties and remained close friends right up to the time of Famous’s passing. Our families did a lot together back in those days and were close friends until we all kind of went our own ways after growing up. I actually settled in an area which one of the sons, Roger, just happened to be, living only a few short miles away. I even was reunited with Famous’s wife of all those years, Ruby, not too long before she too, passed away. In short, really nice family that I was/am fortunate to have known.

  10. I was about 9 or 10 when I heard Famous, I think every day, on the radio (KDAL). I must admit that I didn’t care much for his singing, but he was a family favourite. I appreciate hearing about what he has done following his radio career; thanks very much for the excellent up-date. I very much enjoy hearing about the folks from my era.

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