Saturday, October 31, 2009

Mac: More on Sunbrock and Natchee


I've found a bit more about notorious promoter Larry Sunbrock and Natchee the Indian.

On the left is a photo (click to enlarge) of the Skillet Lickers in 1931 when they appeared on WCKY Covington. This was the group Larry Sunbrock promoted and managed that led him into music/event promotion.
From left to right: Bert Layne, Riley Puckett, Clayton McMichen and Slim Bryant.

Even though the Skillet Lickers had broken up (Gid Tanner and McMichen never played after the last 1931 Columbia session), for promotion purposes the Skillet Licker name was used on WCKY on radio and by Larry Sunbrock for road shows. After all, Bert, Mac, and Riley were three former members. The Skillet Licker name was used again for the 1934 Bluebird recordings even though Mac didn't play.

As I said in my earlier blog Natchee the Indian's real name was Lester Vernon Storer. Storer was a trick fiddler that played "arranged" fiddle competitions against Clayton McMichen, Curly Fox and other fiddlers. Larry Sunbrock was the promoter for the arranged contests and the first prize was awarded based on audience approval. Sunbrock would place his hand over the head of each finalist and whoever received the loudest response won. Whether they won or lost the fiddlers received a flat fee from Sunbrock.

The contests, held in the 1930s, were promoted on radio and drew huge crowds. Merle Travis reported a crowd of around 5,000 at one contest between Mac and Natchee. Larry Sunbrock reported that in St. Louis they drew 24,000 people in one day.

Curly Fox said Natchee the Indian had a "capitivating style but he only knew ten tunes." Not much is known about Natchee (Lester Storer). Records indicate that Lester V. Storer died Dec. 21, 1970 in Santa Clara. What he was doing or how he ended up in California I don't know.

In the 1930 census Lester V. Storer's home was Springfield, Clark County, Ohio. He was 16 and his birth year was 1913 or 1914. He lived with his mother Anna L. who was 61 (born about 1869) and his older brother John E. Storer who was 19. At the time Lester was a laborer in pump shop. His father, George V. Storer must have died by 1930 or left the household.

In the 1920 census his name is listed as Lester T Stoves [Lester V Storer]. The middle intial should be a V and the last name was illegible. They lived in Bratton, Adams County, Ohio. Lester was 6 years old and his brother John was 10. His father, George V. was 46 and his mother, Anna L. was 50. Both parents were born in Ohio. A Charles E, Messinger, who was 16, lived with the family.

Clearly Sunbrock, who reported that Natchee (Storer) was 3/4 Apache, was doing this as a publicity stunt. In 1947 Nachee was still being promoted by Sunbrock. [See: Billboard‎ Magazine - Jan 25, 1947 - v. 59, no. 4] Banjo Murphy teamed with Nacthee and his Arizona Indians, a show being managed by Larry Sunbrock. They traveled from coast to coast, putting on fiddle, yodel, banjo and singing contests. Members included Cowboy Copas and Red Herron.

Natchee drifted around after the 1940s and little is known about him. He reportedly lived in Chicago in the 1950s and turned up in Kentucky- dirty, broke and hungry- at Bert Layne's house [Juanita Mcmichen Lynch]. According to John Harrod, Natchee had a son that lived in California and he moved out there. He died there in 1970. Anyone that has more info let me know.

Lawrence Henry Sunbrock AKA Larry Sunbrock was born around 1912. Records show Larry divorced his wife Georgia Sunbrock in 1952 in Orange County. Sunbrock, who was based in Orlando Florida promoted rodeo shows, circus shows, rock concerts, sporting events, race track events, country concerts, country jamborees and fiddle contests.

I have a copy of Robert Shelton's 1966 The Country Music Story which has one of the few printed reports from Sunbrock about his role in promoting country events on page 221:

One of the old-timers in country music promotion is Larry Sunbrock, now based in Orlando, Florida. He wrote me:

"In 1930, I was running, at eighteen, The Metropolitan Theater in Cincinnati and starving during the Great Depression, taking in about $20 a night at the movies. Then I heard of the skillet Lickers playing at WCKY [McMichen, Layne, Riley Puckett, this was in 1931] I booked them into the theater and grossed $400 a night for three nights. I took them on the road as manager and we played theaters, armories etc. for several years. In 1933 Natchee, the Indian (whom I named) played a fiddlers' contest against Clayton McMichen and Natchee won. I lined them up again in Louisville, Nashville, Cincinatti, Atlanta and elsewhere and made a barrel of money and friends. In St. Louis I had 24,000 people turn out for two shows in one day of a band, fiddlers' and yodelers' contest.

From such sucesses I started barn dances all over the midwest, but never had enough sense to capitalize on it. In 1935 Cowboy Copas joined me and Natchee and we then used Curly Fox as a fiddling champion against all comers.

I was the first to take hillbilly music out of the barns and put it in auditoriums. Oscar Davis and Joe Franks all followed me."

It was Sunbrock's promoting skills that led to Mac, Bert and Slim landing a better paying position at WLW in Cincinnati. For a short time there were two Skillet Licker bands playing at rival radio stations- Mac, Bert and Slim (with Johnny Barfield) playing at WLW and Riley and Gid Tanner playing at WCKY.

Sunbrock went on to promote many different events. He seemed to become entangled in legal disputes wherever he went.

Billboard Magazine Dec. 13, 1947: Larry Sunbrock was brought up for trial in Special Sessions Tuesday in a caase stemming from the short-lived Big Top Circus he promoted here (Orlando) in 1943. [Sunbrock filed bankruptcy papers to avoid paying the debts he incurred. After negotiations he was ordered to pay $10,000]

Here's a report from an Orlando Paper dated Sept 1959 (perhaps date should be Sept 1948)

[[• An Attorney representing Lawrence H. Sunbrock said there was “no Florida law on which to base a misleading advertising charge” on the Orlando promoter.

The claim was made by attorney Harry H. Martin in motions filed in Criminal Court to quash two charges brought against the 48-year-old Sunbrock by the Duval County Solicitor’s Office.
The charges against Sunbrock alleged that on the past Dec. 30 he caused to be published in local newspapers advertisement of the public performance of a rodeo which contained “untrue, deceptive and misleading assertions.”

Sunbrock was arrested the night of Dec. 31 shortly before his widely advertised “national championship rodeo” was slated to open a four-night run with three afternoon performances at the Gator Bowl (now Municipal Stadium).

Local authorities did not allow Sunbrock to present the show whose performers were to include Dennis Weaver, who played “Chester,” Marshal Dillon’s sidekick, on the television series “Gunsmoke.”

Martin’s motions to quash included a ground that the charges were not founded on any Florida criminal law. In other words, he explained, there was no Florida statute covering the situation alleged in Sunbrock’s case by the County Solicitor. Martin also said the charges written by the solicitor failed to allege what claims in the newspaper advertisement were false. ]]

I'm currently trying to gather more info on Larry Sunbrock. I know he owned some property in the Orlando area (Rodeo Ranch). According to Billboard‎ Magazine - Aug 18, 1956 - "Off the road for the first time in 25 years, Larry Sunbrock, veteran rodeo and thrill show owner, is now operating two speedways in Florida."

If anyone has info on Sunbrock please email me.


1 comment:

Katie C said...

I don't know Mr. Sunbrock, but I did come across some of his promotion posters at an estate sale. I bought 4 of them. 2 of them of are circus posters and the other 2 are rodeo promotion posters. They date back to to 1947. Thank you for the interesting background history on the "notorious" promoter."