Illinois Birthplace to the Opry

Illinois, Birthplace to the Opry?! Who knew?

On the evening of June 18, 2014, Illinois songwriter Mark Schwendau attended his first Grand Ole Opry ® show. He was surprised to learn it was going to be broadcast live as an AM radio show and webcast Here. He was absolutely shocked when he heard the show begin with the WSM call sign sung to the familiar jingle he had grown up with for Chicago's WLS radio station (C-B-A-E-C) !

WLS Jingle

WSM Jingle

So what was the connection between WLS in Chicago and WSM in Nashville?

Arriving back in Illinois, Mark's research uncovered that the "WLS Barn Dance" (later "National Barn Dance") of April 19th of 1924 of Edgar L. Bill was the first such "old-time music" (country music) show in history. WLS went on to make history again when it built the first 100 seat audience studio on the 6th floor of the Hotel Sherman (above) and moved the National Barn Dance there in November of 1925. These two events made Chicago the first Capitol of Country Music, according to the PBS film "The Hayloft Gang" (2011) and book by the same title (2008).

Also, in April of 1924 a Mr. George D. Hay came from WMC in Memphis to be appointed chief announcer of radio station WLS. He had worked the night shift in Memphis at WMC. At that time he was voted America’s most popular radio announcer in a contest conducted by “Radio Digest” in the summer of 1924. At the request of WLS, Director Edgar L. Bill, originator of the "WLS Barn Dance", Mr. Hay was asked to do the announcing for this very popular live radio show. The following year (1925) Mr. Hay went to Nashville, Tennessee, inaugurating WSM as the broadcasting service of the National Life and Accident Insurance Company in September. One month later Hay joined the station as its first director. Mr. Hay was known for his wooden whistle he would blow as he came on air, a tradition he began in Chicago at WLS and later took to Nashville. This means that the WLS National Barn Dance of Chicago in 1924 was historically the precursor to the Grand Ole Opry ® in Nashville as George D. Hay, the "Solemn Old Judge", began the WSM Barn Dance after he did the WLS Barn Dance!

More Historical Points...

WLS at Sears

WLS began on April 12, 1924, by sponsorship from Sears and stood for "World's Largest Store". Its studio was originally in the Sears Roebuck building on Arthington Street in Chicago. WSM was sponsored by National Life and Accident Insurance Company and stood for "We Shield Millions". Its station was housed in the National Life and Accident Insurance building. WSM began on October 5. 1925. Both were, and are, two of the original 25 low band 50,000 watt class I-A clear channel AM stations. As such, they can broadcast throughout much of North America after dark because AM broadcasts reflect better at night off of the ionosphere when it drops lower to the earth.

WLS Radio Tower

The picture left features the WLS tower located near Crete, Illinois, some 30 miles south of Chicago at a time of almost 100 years ago.

The late Mr. Edgar L. Bill and George D. Hay's ingenuity should never be forgotten. It is to be noted that the first country music show went on air when WLS was only one week old meaning this was part of Mr. Bill's grand plan all along! Mr. Bill and Mr. Hay are the Chicago-Nashville connection in country music.

WLS Postcard

Mr. Hay no doubt took the WLS jingle to Nashville for WSM with the permission of Mr. Bill, but that is pure speculation. Some have suggested that both radio jingles would have been done by PAMS of Dallas long after the two men were gone from WLS and WSM as musical radio jingles did not come about until much later in radio history.

Mark Schwendau would have never learned about this connection were it not for the identical musical call PAMS (Public Address Music Signal) of the two radio stations WLS and WSM. He believes the "Hayloft Gang" book and documentary movie need to be more widely known.

Interesting asides...

Ethel Barrymore

WLS started out as WES (World's Economy Store) during test broadcasts of April 9-11 of 1924 at 500 watts. It officially went on the air at 6:00 the evening of April 12th. Renowned dramatic actress Ethel Barrymore (aunt to actor John Drew Barrymore, and the grand-aunt to actress Drew Barrymore) was to begin the broadcast but, upon seeing the microphone placed in front of her face, she froze up until she collected herself enough to say, "Turn that damned thing off!". Those were the first words officially uttered on WLS!

Sears Aerial View

Also, On December 10, 1927, the phrase, "Grand Ole Opry", was first uttered on-air by Mr. Hay on WSM. Prior to him using that expression, "opry" was just another slang expression such as "hillbilly music". Today, Grand Ole Opry ® is a registered and copyrighted name while "opry" remains in the public domain. There is some evidence that the term "opry" was first used in the late 1800's.

The Hotel Sherman was closed in 1973 and torn down in 1980. The State of Illinois Center was built on the northwest corner of Randolph and Clark Streets in its place. Some of the old Sears Roebuck building on Arthington Street still remains but has been repurposed. At one point in time, during the 1920's, the Sears corporate headquarters was some 50 acres in size!

A list of popular slang expressions of the 1920's is provided here by the American Antique Automobile Club for your amusement.

More WLS history of the 1920's is provided here by Scott Childers.