Singing It Pretty
How the Phelps brothers turned South Norfolk into a musical hotbed that is still celebrated with an annual summer festival
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The Phelps Brothers grew up in a Hull Street home filled with music. The boys’ father, William Jordan Phelps, liked to joke that he lost the top half of his right index finger from playing his banjo—he tuned it like a guitar and called it his “Spanish Fandang.” But he lost it working at the Elizabeth Knitting Mill, which is where he met his future wife, Lula Mae Selbe. The couple had seven children together, although the first (Josephine) died young.
Norman was born in 1912, Willie came along two years later and Earl two years after him. Three girls would trail along— Lillie, Vivian and Rosa. Norman, Willie and Earl loved to make music together, and Mother Lula Mae found herself toting them around to sing. As Willie would say years later in a written account, “all the boys could play several instruments, but Norman’s special was bass, [mine] was guitar and Earl Fiddle.” Their first professional gig was at a popular Portsmouth joint called Bones and Buddy’s. It was while playing at the Ocean View Ballroom that they caught the ear of a WTAR radio exec, soon becoming regular live performers on Virginia’s oldest station, as well as WGH and WSAP.
This radio exposure propelled them to local stardom. In 1936, stretching their wings, the hometown heroes traveled with members of their band, Lloyd “Stubby” Stubbs, Pee Wee Banner and George McLeod, to New York City. “[We] went to the Decca Recording Company and started making records at once,” Willie Phelps remembered. They recorded 24 songs, all cut in one single day’s session. This Decca material, credited to Norman Phelps and His Virginia Rounders, showcase a feisty country band capable of both inspired cornpone (“I Like Bananas,” “My Baby’s Hot”) and intimate crooning (“Sweet Violets”). “They played instrumentals, love songs, rags, scats, a little bit of everything,” Bobbie says.
Earl, the youngest, was the most talented musician of the trio, but Norman was the most outgoing, effortless in front of crowds. He also conjured up sounds used in themusic—bird calls, whistles and dog barks. Willie became a whiz on the washboard and was clearly the finest vocalist, his baritone capable of caressing a lyric or belting it out. “The man could sing anything,” Ed Beard says. “He was a consummate performer.”
The seasoned Rounders also invented its own musical language. “If they were going to play something in the key of G, they’d call out to the musicians to play it in ‘Jaw Haw,’ and if it was in C, it was Saw Haw,” Ed Beard laughs. B-Flat, you guessed it, was “B-Flat Haw”.
Severing ties to their band, the boys, except “Stubby” Stubbs, joined the WHN Barn Dance in New York, a weekly live country broadcast, and hooked up with singing cowboy Ray Whitley, banjo player Ken Card and accordion player Happy Daws to form the 6-Bar Cowboys. This new combo caught an early break performing at Madison Square Garden in the popular Colonel Johnson Wild West Rodeo Show.
On one national radio program during this period, announcer Fred Allen asked them if they were “real cowboys or the synthetic type.” It was a fair question. Before joining the rodeo, the entire group had to take a Cowboy 101 course—roping, riding, sod busting. Soon, they were jangling spurs as one of the attractions at the 1936 Texas Centennial, where they got President Franklin Roosevelt to sing along during a performance of “Home on the Range.”
Throughout the 1930s, singing cowboys were all the rage thanks to the popularity of top stars such as Gene Autry and Tex Ritter. To meet demand, Hollywood called on the 6-Bar Cowboys to appear in several Westernthemed b-movies, including Rawhide, from 1938, with baseball star Lou Gehrig in a rare lead acting role, and in special short films such as Prairie Papas (1938) and Sagebrush Serenade (1939).
Life was good, but there were missed opportunities too: Norman co-wrote the prairie standard “Back on the Saddle”—made famous by Gene Autry—and gave away the copyright; Willie could’ve been “Roy Rogers” if he hadn’t arrived late to the Republic Studios audition.
“He laughed about it,” Willie’s daughter says. “He often wondered what it would have been like to be Roy Rogers.”