Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Kansas Music Scene: It Started with the Harlan Brothers Orchestra

Recently I've grown enamored with the song Walking Where the Roses Grow, a nice story of eshewing the lure of the bright city lights for the simplicity and beauty of rural life. It's by the very successful 1980s British rock/pop group Katrina & the Waves, best known for their monster hit Walking on Sunshine among others. What most people don't know is that the lead singer in the band was a Kansas girl, Topeka native Katrina Leskanich. Her journey from the Sunflower State to England, where she still lives and records today, is one worthy of a major studio bio pic.

This Kansas connection has led me to muse on the musical roots of the Sunflower State and its continuing contribution to the national and international music scenes today. And that leads me back to April 1873, when the Kansas music influence was born. That month saw Dr. Brewster Higley show up at the doorstep of Dr. John and Sarah Harlan on their farm near the town of Harlan in Smith County, Kansas. He had brought with him a poem he had written two years before, called My Western Home.

Now the Harlan family were extremely musical, so much so that Dr. John and two of his sons made up the locally popular Harlan Brothers Orchestra along with friend Dan Kelley. Upon reading Higley's poem, the family called Dan over to their place, broke out their instruments and played around with Higley's words. Once Dan Kelley hit upon the right music to go with the words, the song Home on the Range was born. It was debuted at a dance almost immediately afterwards and was an instant hit, and today is the official Kansas state song.

Later another Kansas Harlan family member went on to even greater heights of musical popularity. Byron G. Harlan (1861-1936) recorded over 50 Top Ten hits between 1899 and 1920. In this same period he teamed up with Arthur Collins to create the most popular comedy recording duo in the pre-World War II music era. Some of the songs Byron had a hand in making immortal include: Alexander's Ragtime Band; Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie; In My Merry Oldsmobile; School Days; Hello Central, Give Me Heaven; and The Dark Town Strutters Ball.

In the 20th Century Kansas contributed to several genres of popular music. Coleman Hawkins (Topeka) and Stan Kenton (Wichita) are jazz legends. Big Joe Turner of Kansas City was the first to record the classic Shake, Rattle & Roll in 1954. Bonner Springs native Gene Clark was a founding member of the 1960s legendary group The Byrds. Other Kansas contributors to rock & roll include Melissa Etheridge (Leavenworth), and the groups Kansas (Topeka) and Shooting Star (Overland Park). Country music has seen Chely Wright (Kansas City) and Martina McBride (Sharon) become stars in recent years. Even alternative rock has benefited from a strong Kansas connection, led by groups such as Kill Creek. No doubt there are others out there that deserve recognition as well.

There is a Kansas Music Hall of Fame that has held annual inductions in Lawrence since 2005. But until they acknowledge rock legend Joe Walsh (Wichita) as an inductee you'll not see me mention them again. I mean, c'mon people, we're talking about a member of the Eagles, for heaven's sake!

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