The Akron singer shot to fame on a talent show in 1950
Akron’s baritone, Jesse Owens, was a quiet young man with a big voice.
At 19, he was catapulted to national fame in a radio talent show, performed across the country, appeared on network television, landed a record deal and entertained American troops at the stranger.
“Singing is the only thing I do almost right,” he explained in typically self-effacing fashion.
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In 1950, Owens became a popular star of American bandleader Horace Heidt’s “Original Youth Opportunity Program”, a traveling talent show broadcast every Sunday night on CBS radio, including Akron station WADC.
Week after week, Owens won the program’s top prize, competing against a rotating cast of other young performers in various cities. Cigarette maker Philip Morris sponsored the show, which determined its winner using an “electric applause meter” that measured the audience’s enthusiasm for each act.
“He has one of the best voices I’ve ever heard,” Heidt said.
Owens, the son of Cora Lee Owens-Kemper and Scott Owens was born on December 2, 1930 near Oklahoma City and moved with his family to Akron when he was 10 years old. He was the youngest child behind older siblings Dorothy and Johnny Owens.
Although he has no connection to Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens, the youngster from Akron has also excelled in athletics, including the track. At 5-foot-8 and 150 pounds, he was a citywide halfback at East High School, averaging 10 yards per carry. He graduated with honors in January 1950.
As far back as he can remember, he loved to sing. He sang in the bathtub, he sang in the garage. He sang in church, he sang in school.
He was inspired by the phonograph records of baritone Paul Robeson, a former Akron professional football player who enjoyed a successful career in radio and musicals.
“I heard Robeson sing when I was very young,” Owens explained in 1949. “I always wanted to sing like him. It’s as if I’ve been singing practically all my life.
He started shining shoes at the Portage Hotel Barber Shop to raise money for singing lessons and studied for three years with Akron instructor Norah McGonnell.
“Jesse had the equivalent of eight to 10 years of schooling in three years,” McGonnell noted. “He learns very quickly.”
A Portage Hotel barber suggested that Owens audition for Heidt’s show when she arrived at the Akron Armory on January 23, 1950.
More than 120 people tried on January 18 and 19. Talent scouts selected Owens, baritone Glenn Sterling, The Harmonitones and Lazy Joe’s Jug Band for competition.
With a rousing rendition of “The Glory Road”, Owens won the Akron contest. The following week at the Cleveland Public Auditorium, he won the grand prize of $250 with the same song in front of a coast-to-coast audience on CBS radio.
Owens had finished shining shoes. He traveled with Heidt’s troupe from town to town, winning first prize every week with songs such as “Old Man River”, “I Got Plenty o’ Nothing”, and “Short’nin’ Bread”.
By March 19, he had won 12 straight weeks and amassed $2,500 in prize money (nearly $30,000 today), including a $750 quarter-final prize in Minneapolis that qualified him for the December final. in Washington, DC.
Heidt signed a management contract with Owens and took him to Europe in April as the orchestra entertained American troops at 16 bases in programs broadcast back home. He was the first African American to join the show.
“I want to make singing my career,” Owens told the Beacon Journal. “After the Heidt show contest grand finale in December, I want to go to college.”
With Horace Heidt and His Musical Knights, Owens recorded two songs, “Jungle” and “Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego”, which were released by Magnolia Records Co. on a 78 rpm set.
Ebony Magazine did a series of seven photos of Owens.
Singing in front of 10,000 people at Uline Arena in Washington, DC, Owens won a second prize of $1,000, bringing his total earnings to $3,750. The grand prize of $5,000 went to truckers Rudy Varju and Lee Jenner, a harmonica duo from Chicago.
Owens moved from radio to television when Heidt made him a permanent member of the show. Week after week on CBS, Owens competed against young people from other towns, and week after week collected a check for $250 after winning the most applause from the audience.
Performing in January 1951 in Charleston, South Carolina, Owens defeated four white competitors in front of a predominantly white crowd.
“Jesse, I think your victory here tonight is a great tribute and a very big compliment to the South,” Heidt announced on stage. “It shows their fairness, it shows their democratic feelings and their wonderful spirit.”
The U.S. Army recruited Owens when he was on tour with Heidt. He was 20 when he took office in June 1951.
The momentum was lost. After leaving the service, Owens moved to New York and enrolled at the Juilliard School of Music in 1953.
But he gave up soon after.
“He never said why,” said niece Tonya Dillon, 50, of Cuyahoga Falls. “He told me he didn’t really care about Juilliard instructors.”
Owens gave up a singing career and landed a job as a clerk at the U.S. Post Office, riding his bike to work from his home in the Bronx.
He worked there for 30 years, retiring in the mid-1990s and returning home to Akron to care for his aging mother, Cora Kemper, who died in 2006 at the age of 93.
Dillon described his uncle as “very reclusive”.
“He was outspoken and polite, but he wasn’t very social,” she said.
Owens lived alone in an apartment in Tallmadge, preferring not to buy a house as he did not believe in financing. He was a devout Catholic, attending daily mass at St. Anthony of Padua Parish on North Hill.
Well into his 80s, he kept fit through exercise, running 8 km a day.
“There were three flights in his building with eight steps each,” Dillon said. “He did them eight times every morning at 4 a.m. … Then he was getting on the stairs and going on a stationary bike.
Dillon, a respiratory therapist, served as his caregiver and cooked and cleaned for him. While she was changing beds last summer, he toned up in the kitchen by doing squats.
She said her uncle was so humble that he didn’t own any of her recordings. A doctor found a copy of “Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego” for $70 on eBay and gave it to Dillon as a gift.
Owens was skeptical when she told him she had a copy.
“I said, ‘Did you sing a song called ‘Shadrach’? And his head has just been spinning. And I said, ‘How would I know?’ “, she recalls.
A cancer survivor, Owens learned last year that the disease had returned. His health began to decline in October, but he remained in good spirits.
Dillon has photos of the two of them smiling at the camera and sticking their tongues out in the hospital.
“One day out of the blue last December, he started singing ‘Old Man River,'” she said.
At the time, she did not know the meaning of the song for her uncle.
Jesse Owens died on January 21 at the age of 91. In addition to Dillon, his survivors included nieces Shonda Owens and Shirley Kelley. He was buried at Sunset Hills Memory Gardens.
This month, Dillon received a phone call from Hennessy Funeral Home. Gary McLaughlin of the Horace Heidt Foundation was trying to reach her.
McLaughlin works with Horace Heidt Jr., who had archived videos of his father’s T shows in the 1950s. He saw Owens perform and wondered what happened to him.
That’s when they found the obituary that Dillon had written.
“We are all saddened to learn of his passing, but please know that he has a wonderful and rewarding life and was loved, not only by his immediate family, but by all of us here at the Horace Heidt Foundation,” wrote McLaughlin.
He sent her an online link to a 1951 show in South Carolina.
Wearing a long-sleeved shirt and bow tie, 20-year-old Jesse Owens sings “Old Man River” with Heidt’s orchestra, stretching out his arms during the song’s moving finale. Afterwards, he nods politely as the Southern audience cheers him on for victory.
“Oh my God, that’s amazing,” Dillon said. “I was in tears last night.”
Mark J. Price can be reached at email@example.com.
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