90 Years of Detroit Country Music

Last June marked the forty-first anniversary of a monster country music fair celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of WEXL radio, Royal Oak, held at Swiss Valley Park near Utica. The organizers (who included WEXL’s Joe Patrick, and musician Ford Nix) produced an eleven-hour event of continuous entertainment. Because the station was synonymous with country and folk music from its first old-time religious broadcasts during the 1920s, to its adoption of a twenty-four-hour country music format in 1962 (the first Detroit area station to do so), the 1973 “Country Music Fair” not only represented a celebration of fifty years, but recognized the long history of country music in Detroit.

WEXL radio 1935 staff

According to Billboard magazine, the celebration began with “Sunday morning church services, and then a continuous show from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. with six hours of live remote broadcasting.” The showcase featured Michigan-based talent, along with the Grand Ole Opry’s George Morgan, guest star of the day. [1]

In his 1948 self-published biography, WEXL founder Jacob B. Sparks wrote that the station was created by Robert Miller and his father A.G. Miller in 1924, with the original call letters WAGM. “The station was the third in Michigan and the 298th in the United States,” wrote Sparks. [2]

WEXL 1948

Cover of 50 Years of Detroit Country Music

By 1929, the Millers decided they bit off more than they could chew, and Sparks created the Royal Oak Broadcasting Company to purchase the station. From then on, religious programming performed by local musicians dominated its schedule, although by the end of the following decade WEXL boasted several cowboy and Hawaiian music shows.

During the years after World War II and into the 1950s, Cousin George Cross and Jack Ihrie presided over the “Sagebrush Melodies” record party during the middle of the day. Ihrie in particular proved a popular emcee at major country music events in Detroit. In 1962, the station went all-country with guidelines requiring disk jockeys to air popular records compiled in WEXL listener surveys, at least one record by a local artist every hour, at least one religious song each shift, and listener requests. WEXL also broadcast live music from local nightclubs. By 1967, the WEXL Country Club boasted 50,000 fan members.

Musicians Loyd Howell and Don Rye, founders and operators of the Ry-Ho Records label in Romulus assembled a small book to commemorate WEXL’s anniversary. In the introduction of “50 Years of Detroit Country Music” Pam Howell declared, “Country music is as American as Plymouth Rock … and is fast becoming the world’s number one music.” [3] Inside its pages appeared “The WEXL Story” by Loyd Howell, historic photos of WEXL from Sparks’ book, as well as portraits in pictures and words of WEXL staff, and Detroit C&W entertainers such as Curly Dan, Joe Pain, Uncle Jack Hilsinger, and Joy Jean.

Back cover of 50 Years of Detroit Country Music

One year later, the Sparks family caved to industry pressures (brought in part by the 1970 introduction of the top-forty country radio format at WJBK radio) and returned its broadcasts to religious programs. Also in 1974, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources purchased the land Swiss Valley Park was built on.

Crawford Broadcasting now operates WEXL “Glory” 1340. And the hand-built structures that once adorned Swiss Valley Park have been removed, with the old park now a nature reserve called Holland Ponds.

Despite countless changes of venues, outlets, and artists, country and folk music in Detroit reaches back more than 90 years – a fact as solid as Plymouth Rock.

 

Notes

  1. “Station Sets Golden Anniv. With Fair,” Billboard (May 26, 1973. Vol. 85, No. 21), 46.
  2. Jacob B. Sparks, Jacob’s Well of Life: The Autobiography of Jacob B. Sparks (Detroit: Self-published, 1948) 125.
  3. Don Rye, Loyd and Pam Howell, 50 Years of Detroit Country Music (Romulus, Michigan: Self-published, 1973) 1.

 

11 Comments to "90 Years of Detroit Country Music"

  • Mitch
    November 5, 2014 at 7:43 am #

    As always Bones, an enjoyable read.

  • Jack North
    March 23, 2015 at 3:38 pm #

    I was a DJ at WEXL from 1966-1969. Worked with Dave Carr, Bill Mann, Dale (Roberts?). Hosted many of those big country music shows at Cobo Arena.

    • March 23, 2015 at 4:16 pm #

      Thank you for checking in with us, Mr. North!

    • Robert Howe
      April 22, 2017 at 5:10 pm #

      Jack,

      My name is Robert Howe. Starting in 1970 at the ripe age of 12, I began coming down to the station on Woodward Hts. every Friday. Got to know Dave Carr, John Ramsey, Mike Jason, Don Kirk. Scotty, who ran the board taught me how to run it, then I would go and practice in the old control room where I could look out at the little studio designed for live performances. I loved those times. I still have WEXL coffee cup with Bill Mann’s likeness on one side and the call letters on the other.

      • Jack North
        April 22, 2017 at 9:31 pm #

        Yeah, Robert, I loved those big old studios, too. I would try to imagine being in radio in the 40’s and 50’s when music and drama shows were done live.

  • Carissa
    May 19, 2015 at 11:25 pm #

    I am one of “Uncle Jack’s” grandkids. I would love to have a copy of this book.

    • May 20, 2015 at 8:54 pm #

      Thanks, Carissa. This is the only copy I’ve seen. If I ever come across a box of them, I’ll let you know.

  • Mark
    June 17, 2015 at 3:30 pm #

    I was a member of the WEXL country club back in the 1960`s when I was a kid living in Windsor Ontario. Great music.

  • August 13, 2017 at 10:13 pm #

    Any chance old photos of WEXL exist from 1938? On September 4 1938, Dr. M.R. DeHaan did his first radio program on WEXL. I found the photo of Jacob Sparks in his funeral home studio from his autobiography, but wondered if any other photos from that era existed. Just trying to piece together the early beginnings of the Detroit Bible Class broadcast that turned into Radio Bible Class, and now Our Daily Bread Ministries.

    • August 14, 2017 at 8:50 am #

      I have the autobiography you mentioned, and that has the only images that I’ve seen from the era you’re researching. Perhaps someone else will see your comment and suggest other sources.

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