Ambrose Haley poses with his backup musicians in this December 1950 publicity photo, taken at the KHMO radio studio in Hannibal, Mo. OTIS HOWELL PHOTO/STEVE CHOU COLLECTION
MARY LOU MONTGOMERY
One of my early and cherished childhood memories is Ambrose Haley singing in our dining room. My brothers tell me that our father was recording the performance on a reel-to-reel tape player, and that somewhere, that tape still exists.
From time to time, my memory replays “Take Our Troubles to Church (Next Sunday)” in Haley’s high tenor, hillbilly-style voice. One recent Sunday during church, a hymn caught my attention. “Ambrose sang that,” I whispered to my brother.
Luckily (thanks to the internet) I don’t have to rely solely upon my memory to write about this talented individual – Bill Spaun’s friend – who was bigger than life during our childhood.
Let me introduce: Ambrose Haley.
In 1927, the introduction of the first “talkie” movie effectively ended the silent film era. Charles Lindberg completed his first solo flight across the Atlantic, and work began on the carving of presidential images into Mt. Rushmore. (www.thepeoplehistory.com)
That same year, back in Mount Ida, Ark., Ambrose Haley launched his music career. He had previously been performing at any venue with a stage in his hometown of Benton, Ark., he said. But in nearby Mount Ida, he felt he had reached the big time. The story, as he told the St. Louis Star and Times for its Sept. 28, 1943 edition:
“This man who owned the show, the hotel, barber shop, bakery and grocery store – all more or less in one building – offered me 50 percent of the ‘take’ for appearing at his theater. I asked for a warm room in the hotel the night I got there, so I was led to the one above the bakery.
“The next night I was out front before my act. The stage curtain was a one piece, rigid affair which was pulled up flat against the ceiling. When it was raised I discovered the back drop consisted of sides of beef and hams hanging all across the stage, along with harness, an old plow and what not. The stage was the storeroom for the town’s industries, it seemed.
“Just before I started to perform, the stage hand decided he wanted a better view so he moved his chair out on the stage to watch. All in all, it was a night to remember!”
Haley’s childhood role model was his older brother, who played the guitar at country dances. With a borrowed guitar, Haley taught himself how to play, and was soon performing along with his brother.
Along the way, he taught himself how to play the hand saw, a one string fiddle and the bass fiddle. After many months of performing “for experience only,” he joined a vaudeville troupe. That experience was short-lived however, because the introduction of live radio soon triggered the end of the vaudeville era.
At the Royal Theater in Garrett, Ind., November 1933, Ambrose Haley was billed as the “Ozark Rambler and little Mary Lou.” Mary Lou was his daughter, and the two sang together and performed a comedy routine. “Two of the most versatile and interesting performers on the air or stage today,” the newspaper reported.
On April 9, 1935, the Times Tribune, Alexandria, Ind., advertised the upcoming performance at the Ritz Theatre of Ozark Rambler and little Mary Lou.
Thinking that radio was a passing fad, he avoided the new venue for awhile, but ultimately went to work in radio for KXOK, St. Louis, in 1933.
In 1943, Haley and the Ozark Ramblers were performing on KXOK radio three times each weekday. The following year, they joined the BLUE network, performing a 15-minute daily show over the national network. The national shows originated from the KXOK studios in St. Louis.
At the time, radio programming was a primary source of family entertainment. Newspapers published radio schedules, just like newspapers of the modern era publish television schedules.
Ambrose Haley left St. Louis in February 1947, moving his band to Topeka, Kan., where he went to work for WIBW, and later WREN Radio. In September 1949, he brought his talent to Hannibal, where he was named musical director and h.b. emcee at KHMO Radio.
The move was noted in Billboard Magazine on Nov. 25, 1950, which also announced Haley’s affiliation with the Sky View Ranch on U.S. 36, (now Route MM) west of Hannibal. He performed a variety country music show, drawing a reported crowd of 2,200 to the outdoor venue. In the spring of 1952, Haley brought to Sky View big name performer Little Jimmy Dickens from the Grand Ole Opry at Nashville.
During the 1940s, a popular trend emerged, combining two favorite pastimes: Baseball and country music. It was typical of the era for a music group to join forces with athletes, creating a baseball team. A group of musicians would perform at a stadium, and after the game ended, participate in league baseball.
Ambrose Haley got on board with this trend, creating the Ozark Ramblers baseball team. According to Billboard Magazine, Mort Cooper, the ex-Cardinal hurler, managed and played with the team.
The best-known baseball team organizer of the time was Bill Monroe, who sponsored two teams: The Bluegrass All Stars, which toured with his band, and the Bluegrass Ballclub, performing exclusively in Nashville.
In 1943, members of the Ozark Ramblers were Dickie Phillips, national champion hillbilly fiddler; Curley Roberts, Ruth Miccolis, Joe Ross, Mary Miccolis, national champion girl yodeler, and Ambrose Haley, master of ceremonies.
Haley recorded “Take Our Troubles to Church” in 1954. The review published in Billboard that February: “Happy ditty, with lift and heat.”
Ambrose Haley died April 13, 1977, in an automobile accident. He and his wife, Alice, were returning to their home in Overland, Mo., after a visit to their country home in Hannibal.
This is a 1933 advertisement from the Times Tribune in Alexandria, Ind., featuring Ambrose Haley and his daughter, billed as Ozark Rambler and little Mary Lou. NEWSPAPERS.COM
Ambrose Haley recorded “Take Our Troubles to Church (Next Sunday)” in 1954. He lived in Hannibal during the early 1950s, and worked for KHMO radio.