Singer, TV Star Bonnie Lou Dies At Age 91

Dec 9, 2015

Bonnie Lou Okum
Credit Connie Wernet

Bonnie Lou, the last remaining star from Ruth Lyons’ TV show and Cincinnati’s Golden Age of Live TV, died Tuesday at age 91.

The country, rockabilly and pop music singer performed for 30 years on WLW’s iconic “Midwestern Hayride,” “Boone County Jamboree,” Lyons’ “50-50 Club” and the “Paul Dixon Show,” the crazy weekday morning host who inspired young David Letterman. 

After leaving TV when Dixon died in 1974, she continued to entertain for another 30 years at fairs, festivals, pageants and concerts. Her last major public performance here was at the 2006 Tall Stacks riverboat festival.

Bonnie Lou was one of Greater Cincinnati’s most popular stars for her versatile vocal abilities, great sense of humor and her laugh. She was one of my favorites too from watching “Dixon,” the “50-50 Club” and “Hayride” as a kid, and even more so after I met her many times during my 30-plus years on the TV beat.

Bonnie Lou, front right, sang on a 1958 Christmas record with fellow stars from Ruth Lyons' show. Front row from left: Cliff Lash, Ruby Wright, Peter Grant, Lyons, Bob Braun, Bonnie Lou and Marian Spelman.
Credit WVXU

To me and thousands of others, she was a huge star – on local and network TV, radio and records – but she remained very humble, gracious and approachable, like a next-door neighbor.  She didn’t have a huge ego like other celebrities universally known by their first name.

I was struck at how she was always respectful of her mentors. She would refer to Ruth Lyons, Cincinnati’s TV biggest star, as “Miss Lyons” – four decades after Lyons’ retirement in 1967.

Bonnie Lou (left) with Paul Dixon and Colleen Sharp Murray.
Credit WLWT-TV

Bonnie Lou, who married Cheviot furniture store owner Milt Okum in 1966, scored three hit singles -- “Seven Lonely Days,” “Tennessee Wig Walk” and “Daddy O” -- for Cincinnati’s King Records in the 1950s.

She also hosted the Mutual Radio Network’s national “Six Star Ranch” country music show from WLW-AM in the 1950s, and was a country music DJ at Fairfield’s WCNW-AM and Middletown’s WPFB-AM in late 1970s.

She once sang at the Grand Ole Opry on Nashville in the late 1960s or early 1970s, and was inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame in 2002.

Her fans loved her self-effacing humor -- particularly as Dixon’s sidekick with singer Colleen Sharp Murray in the 1960s and early 1970s -- and her talent for singing, or playing guitar, banjo and violin, or yodeling.

Yes, yodel.

Yodeling brought her to WLW-AM in 1945 at age 20. Crosley Broadcasting talent manager Bill McCluskey needed a “girl yodeler,” she once told me, so she left Kansas City’s KMBC-AM where she sang as “Sally Carson.” McCluskey renamed her “Bonnie Lou.”

A young Bonnie Lou.
Credit Connie Wernet

She was born Mary Joan (pronounced “Jo-Ann”) Kath on Oct. 27, 1924, in Towanda, Ill.  She started violin lessons at age 6, and got a $2.50 pawn shop guitar at age 11. She learned to yodel from her Swiss grandmother, who called the cows by yodeling on their farm.

“The talent came to me naturally,” she told me for an Enquirer story in 2007. “I would go out after the cows and yodel. Nobody believes me, but that’s the truth.”

After a year at WLW-AM, she moved back to Illinois because her husband, World War II veteran Glenn Ewins, was unhappy here. They returned to Cincinnati in 1951 with their young daughter, Connie, who lives today in Indian Hill.

She credited much of her success to “Miss Lyons” and Dixon.

“I had two of the greatest teachers in the world at WLW, Paul Dixon and Ruth Lyons,” she told me in 2007. “They taught me how to go out and converse with your audience, and that you’ve got to see your audience afterward. You’ve got to sign and sign autographs afterward.”

That’s what she did in 1961 after singing at Armco Park near Middletown. My father or mother took pictures of her signing autographs for my sister Karen and dozens of other fans.  (Karen is seated to her right.)

Bonnie Lou signing autographs for her fans, including my sister Karen (seated next to her), at Armco Park near Middletown in 1961.
Credit John Kiesewetter

When I emailed them to her daughter Connie Wernet, she wrote back to say: “Great photos of mom doing what she loved - signing her photos, mingling with her fans.”

Survivors include daughter Connie Wernet of Indian Hill, two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. First husband Glenn Ewins died in a 1963 car accident.

A celebration of her life will be held after a private funeral service.

Bonnie Lou Tributes

WVXU-FM (91.7) replays a 2007 show with Bonnie Lou telling interviewer Randy McNutt, a local music historian and producer (and my former Enquirer colleague), about working with Ruth Lyons, recording at King Records and her early days. It will air 11 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 26, in place of Lee Hay’s Blues show.

Bonnie Lou and accompanist Buddy Ross at Armco Park in 1961
Credit John Kiesewetter

WMKV-FM (89.3) repeats a tribute show featuring a conversation with Bonnie Lou and Judy Perkins, a long-time friend and a former “Midwestern Hayride” performer, on Mike Martini’s show at 4 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 10.

The Broadcast History Museum at the National Voice of America Museum, 8070 Tylersville Road, West Chester Township, soon will have a special Bonnie Lou display case, says Mike Martini, Media Heritage Inc. president.  The museum will be open on the third Saturday in January, February and March.