TOWANDA — Bonnie Lou, the pioneering Towanda-born singer who scored one of early rock ’n’ roll's first hits by a female singer, passed away Tuesday at 91.
Her death, at the Hillebrand Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Cincinnati, came in the wake of a spate of renewed interest in her career, including several Pantagraph features and a formal hometown proclamation honoring her in March.
Among Bonnie Lou's best-known hits, which crossed over from country to rockabilly and back, included “Doin' the Tennessee Wig Walk,” “Seven Lonely Days,” "Texas Polka" and “Daddy-O,” the latter the 1954 Top 15 single that turned her into one of rock ’n’ roll's earliest female stars.
Born Mary Joan Kath on Oct. 24, 1924, in Towanda, she later moved with her family to a farm near Carlock after a fire destroyed their home. Before completing high school, she was a featured performer locally, appearing on WJBC radio billed as “Mary Jo, the Yodeling Sweetheart.”
At 17, she was hired by Kansas City's KMBC to perform on “Brush Creek Follies,” one of the country's most popular radio shows, with a new stage name, Sally Carson, soon changed to the billing that stuck: Bonnie Lou.
"I'm always willing to go one more step up the ladder," she told a Pantagraph reporter on the eve of her next ascension.
In 1945, Cincinnati's powerful WLW radio station hired her and showcased her on its "Midwestern Hayride" program heard around the country, beginning a 30-year radio-TV career that made her a household name of the era.
From the late ’40s through the ’50s, she scored her biggest radio hits, and was voted the No. 5 Best Female Singer in a 1955 poll taken by Down Beat magazine.
In her last interview, for The Pantagraph in March and conducted with the assistance of her second husband, Milt Okum, Bonnie Lou admitted, "No, I didn't realize I was part of the rock ’n’ roll revolution."
Even so, she is a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, and, in March, was the subject of formal honor from her hometown when a joint resolution was passed by the village of Towanda and the Towanda Area Historical Society.
"It touches me deeply to be recognized by the community where my roots are deep and permanent," said Bonnie Lou.
"She was immensely proud and thrilled by the recognition she received this year from her hometown and the wonderful articles about her life in The Pantagraph," said Ruth Tatman, lifelong friend and president of the still-active Bonnie Lou Fan Club.
Bonnie Lou is survived by her second husband; a daughter, Connie Wernet of California; and a sister, Eleanor McConkey, Farmer City.