Bonnie Lou, a pioneering country singer who was among the first to transition successfully into rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll, has died. She was 91.
Her husband, furniture store owner and magician Milt Okum, said she died Tuesday morning at a nursing home in Cincinnati, Ohio. No cause of death was announced.
Born Mary Joan Kath Oct. 27, 1924, in Towanda, Illinois, she was raised to the sounds of country singer Patsy Montana and her Prairie Ramblers. By the time she turned 16, she was singing and playing the guitar on a local AM radio station.
In 1945, she was hired by Bill McCluskey of the station WLW in Cincinnati, who gave her the stage name Bonnie Lou. She performed on the radio throughout the 1940s. In 1953, she got her first record deal, with a label in Cincinnati, and cut “Seven Lonely Days” and “Tennessee Wig Walk,” which became top-10 country hits.
The following year, she expanded her singing style by singing a rockabilly song titled “Two-Step Side-Step,” which was penned by Murry Wilson, whose sons, Carl, Brian and Dennis, would later form the Beach Boys. Her first rock ‘n’ roll hit came a year later, when she cut “Daddy-O,” which reached No. 14, according to Billboard.
She eventually moved to local TV in Cincinnati in the 1960s and early 1970s, becoming a talk show co-host on the “Paul Dixon Show.” She also appeared on “Midwestern Hayride,” so much so that she became known as the Queen of the Hayride.
She retired from the entertainment business in the early ‘70s, settling down with Okum, her second husband, in a Cincinnati suburb. She did appear on TV, however, along with her husband in commercials for his furniture store.
Earlier this year, Bonnie Lou, a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, was honored by her Illinois hometown, which adopted a resolution honoring “the talent and remarkable achievements of the hometown girl who grew up to be a star.”
Published in The Cincinnati Enquirer on Dec. 9, 2015.