Jethro Burns enjoyed two very successful careers: an award-winning country comedian and a respected jazz musician. He remains the standard by which both mandolin players and music parodies are judged.
Kenneth Charles Burns was the fourth of seven children, born March 10, 1920 in Conasauga, Tennessee, a small town near the Tennessee/Georgia border. The family moved 100 miles to the northeast to Knoxville when Burns was 3. His father was a Vaudeville performer and all three of his older brothers played musical instruments. When Burns was six he picked up the smallest instrument in the house, a mandolin. One of his brothers showed him three chords on the instrument and he taught himself everything else.
In 1932 Burns, who had his own band, went to an amateur audition being held at Knoxville's WNOX radio station. As he waited his turn to try out he struck up a conversation with the rhythm guitar player in another band that had shown up for the tryout. The two discovered they both liked the innovative sounds of French jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt and American jazz performer Fats Waller. To pass time they began playing together. WNOX's talent judge came in the room and heard the two playing. He walked over to them and disqualified them from the competition by telling them, "You ain't amateurs." Burns was all of 12, as was his new-found friend, guitarist Henry Haynes, Jr. As they were considered too advanced for the rank of "amateur," WNOX hired both boys as studio musicians.
By 1935 the two boys had quit school and were working full-time at WNOX backing performers such as Pee Wee King, Bill and Cliff Carlisle, and Archie Campbell. They had also formed their own band, a jazz/swing act called the String Dusters. Within the String Dusters they developed a comedy act based on singing pop songs with nasal, exaggerated country vocals. When they performed the comedy routine they went by their nicknames, Dude (Burns' nickname pinned on him by his grandmother) and Junior. The comedy act became the highlight of the String Dusters.
As they waited to perform one night in 1936 the show's announcer, Lowell Blanchard, forgot their names. Blanchard improvised a name to get them on stage. The names Blanchard blurted out -- Homer and Jethro
-- remained with the duo from that day on.
The String Dusters made the rounds between radio stations in Knoxville, Bristol, and Chattanooga. Homer and Jethro's comedy was well-received but the jazz and swing of the String Dusters was unpopular in the cradle of country music. By 1939 the String Dusters broke up because two of the members married, leaving Homer and Jethro alone as an act.
The duo moved to Kentucky later in 1939 and joined the Renfro Valley Barn Dance. They became one of the most popular acts on the show. The world situation, however, loomed large in the foreground. Shortly before the attack on the United States Jethro volunteered for service and went into the Army. He was shipped out of Fort Thomas, Kentucky to Georgia for basic training (the same base where his father had trained in World War I) and made an infantryman. Jethro became Private Kenneth Burns and was sent to the Pacific theater.
Jethro served most of his time in the Pacific, first in the infantry then in a communications office. After someone saw him playing guitar off duty he was transferred to the Army band. He played guitar in the band until he was sent back to the States to finish his enlistment. He left the Army in November, 1945 at the rank of sergeant. He settled in Cincinnati and waited for Homer to be discharged after serving three years as a medic. In December 1945 the two resumed their career in Cincinnati on radio station WLW.
While at WLW Jethro met a member of the Johnson Twins, a singing duo at the station. He fell in love with the girl, Lois, and they wed on May 5, 1946. Lois' twin sister, Leona, married a friend of Homer and Jethro's from Knoxville, a guitarist by the name of Chet Atkins.
In 1948, fresh from their stint in Cincinnati and on King Records, Homer and Jethro signed with RCA Victor. An RCA producer suggested to Homer and Jethro that they should try writing parodies of songs instead of the novelty renditions of pop songs, the act they had been doing since 1935. The first song they produced was an instant success: a spoof of Frank Loesser's "Baby, It's Cold Outside." Their friend and Jethro's brother-in-law Chet Atkins was working with the Carter Family (Mother Maybelle and her three daughters), so they enlisted June Carter to sing the girl's part in the song. RCA executives worried that Loesser might object to the parody so they sent the legendary pop songwriter a pre-release record of the song. Loesser's reaction put everyone at ease, for he loved the song. When Homer and Jethro recorded seven more of Loesser's tunes for the 1953 EP release Homer and Jethro Fracture Frank Loesser
Loesser wrote the liner notes, singing the praises of the parodists.
Loesser's "stamp of approval" quickly had everyone beating a path to Homer and Jethro's door. The great Hank Williams declared that no song could be declared a truly "successful" song "until Homer and Jethro butcher it." Nothing was off-limits, be it country (Williams' song "Jambalaya" became "Jam-Bowl-Liar"), pop ("How Much is That Doggie in the Window" was turned into the million-selling spoof "How Much is That Hound Dog in the Winder"), or even opera ("Pal-Yat-Chee," which they recorded during a brief stint with Spike Jones).
The success of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" was followed by a personal success: the birth of John, Jethro's son, in late 1948.
Homer and Jethro auditioned for the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. Chet Atkins sat in on their audition as a favor. The Opry management welcomed Homer and Jethro, provided they did not
bring Atkins along. The duo were offended at the insult to Jethro's brother-in-law and rejected the Opry's offer to become members. They moved to Chicago, where Jethro settled with his family in a townhouse in Evanston and Homer moved to the southern suburb of Lansing with his wife and son.
The duo scored many successes in the 1950s in radio, television, and records. They also became one of the first country acts in history to headline in Las Vegas, a town with a traditional pop music slant. In 1956 Jethro and his wife welcomed their second child, a girl named Terry.
In 1959, shortly after the birth of twins to Homer and his wife, Homer and Jethro scored their greatest pop success, a parody of Johnny Horton's historically-themed song "The Battle of New Orleans." Titled "The Battle of Kookamonga," the song caused some controversy because of the story in the song featuring skinny-dipping Girl Scouts being ogled by both a Boy Scout troop and Marines. The song went to #12 on the Billboard
pop charts and was later awarded a Grammy for "Best Musical Comedy Performance." With Horton's original song also taking "Song of the Year" honors in 1959, it became the first time that a song and
its spoof were both awarded Grammys in the same year. It also set Homer and Jethro apart from all other country comedy acts: they remain the only country music act to receive a Grammy award in the Comedy category.
The 1960s began where the 50s left off, with success following success for the duo. Their landmark live album Homer and Jethro at the Country Club
, considered by many critics to be their finest comedy album and one of the greatest comedy albums ever in country music, was released. The pair were picked by Kellogg's to be the spokesmen for Corn Flakes, employing their catchphrase, "Ooh, that's corny" (which predated the commercials) for the ads.
In 1962 Homer and Jethro fulfilled an ambition by releasing Playing It Straight,
an album of jazz instrumentals that showcased their exemplary skills as musicians. While the musicians they worked with were well aware of what exceptional talents Homer and Jethro were, most of the general public was too busy laughing at their jokes to take notice. With Playing It Straight
their musicianship came squarely into the foreground. Homer received praise as the best rhythm guitarist in the business (a dying art thanks to the use of drums), and Jethro showed his skills on both mandolin and guitar. Playing It Straight
remains one of the albums mostly highly praised by fans of Homer and Jethro.
By the end of the decade Homer and Jethro had enjoyed nearly four decades of success as comedians and performers. There was no medium they had not assaulted: radio, television (they were a personal favorite of Johnny Carson's, appearing frequently on The Tonight Show
), records, and even movies (they performed two songs in the 1965 film Second Fiddle to a Steel Guitar
). Johnny Cash made them semi-regulars on his popular ABC variety show.
The world of Homer and Jethro came to a sudden end on August 7, 1971. While preparing to join Jethro at the Great Midwest Fair in the Chicago suburb of Crete, Homer suffered a heart attack. He was taken to a hospital in Hammond, Indiana, just six miles from his home, but despite the doctors' efforts to save him his heart was too severely damaged. Eleven days past his 51st birthday, Henry "Homer" Haynes
Jethro was devastated. He sat in his home in Evanston for weeks following his partner's death. Eventually he began working again, first with his friend and brother-in-law Chet Atkins. He also began giving mandolin lessons in his home.
In 1972 Jethro and his wife went to the Chicago folk club the Earl of Old Town to see their son, John, perform with his band. The junior Burns was opening for singer/songwriter Steve Goodman. While visiting his son backstage Jethro encountered the diminutive songwriter, who was thrilled to meet the legendary Jethro Burns. "If you ever need a mandolin player," Jethro told Goodman, "give me a call."
A week later, Goodman took Jethro up on his offer. Jethro played on Goodman's album Jessie's Jig and Other Favorites
and began a decade-long relationship with the noted songwriter.
In 1976 Jethro recruited one of his music students, a school teacher by the name of Ken Eidson, to start an act billed as "the new Homer and Jethro." The act lasted less than a year, partly because Eidson was unable to tour during the school year but mostly because the "new Homer" could not recapture the magic of the original.
Goodman took Jethro on the road for the fall of 1977, and the two performed the Homer and Jethro classic "Don't Let the Stars Get in Your Eyeballs" together to the delight of Goodman's audience, most of whom were unaware of Jethro's previous career as a country comedian.
During this time Jethro was also making the transition, thanks to numerous solo recordings and performances with his Jethro Burns Quartet, from "country cornball comedian" to, as Goodman called him, "the premiere mandolin player in the world today." Jethro was no longer seen as a comic with a prop (even though that is how he regarded himself), rather as the greatest mandolin player with a marvelous sense of humor.
In 1984 a Minneapolis PBS station filmed a concert to pay honor to Jethro. Titled Jethro and Friends
, the show featured his son John, his brother-in-law Chet Atkins, Steve Goodman, and the other members of the Jethro Burns Quartet. Two poignant segments highlighted the show. First was the performance of "The Dutchman" by Jethro and Goodman, who by that time was rapidly losing his decade and a half-long battle against leukemia. It would be the last time Goodman and Jethro would perform publicly together. Second and more touching was the opening segment of the show, where members of the band and Jethro's friends sat on a couch with Jethro watching clips of Homer and Jethro on Tennessee Ernie Ford's show in 1960. While the others laughed heartily at the jokes, tears welled in Jethro's eyes, a clear indication that, even though it had been well over a decade since his partner's death, Jethro still mourned Homer.
By the time PBS aired Jethro and Friends
in late August 1984 Steve Goodman lay dying in a Seattle hospital. When Goodman succumbed to complications of a bone marrow transplant on September 20 at the age of 36 (the same age as Jethro's son), Jethro again found himself grieving the loss of a musical partner.
Jethro continued to make records with others and with his quartet and to tour, but by 1988 prostate cancer had robbed him of his health. On February 4, 1989, Kenneth Charles "Jethro" Burns passed away in the Evanston home he had bought in 1950. He was 68, five weeks away from his birthday. Two months later his wife of nearly 43 years, Lois, also passed away from diabetes. They were buried together near Cincinnati, the city where they had first met.
Homer and Jethro were confined to a footnote in country music history until 2001. In early July, the "class of 2001," an unprecedented twelve inductees to celebrate the opening of the brand new Country Music Hall of Fame, was announced. Among the new Country Music Hall of Fame members: Homer and Jethro. Sadly, the announcement was made just one week after Jethro's brother-in-law, Chet Atkins, lost his battle with brain cancer.
To this day most mandolin players in any genre of music cite Jethro Burns as one of the greatest, if not THE
greatest, to ever play the instrument.