Van Dyke prepares for a performance during a sound check at
the Hall of Fame Theatre in Branson. The Missouri resident rose to country
music stardom with the hit single "Auctioneer" in 1957. Another
Van Dyke recording, "Walk on by," has been called the No. 1
country song of all time.
When the words
and melody first came to him, Leroy Van Dyke paid no attention.
up and down the roads of South Korea’s Chorwon Valley in
1953, just south of the Demilitarized Zone, the words and melody
came to him a second time. Again, Leroy, a special agent with the
U.S. Army’s 40th Counter Intelligence
Corps detachment, paid no attention.
When the words
and melody came to Leroy a third time, then a fourth, he finally
decided he’d better
Inside his canvas
squad tent, sitting on the edge of his canvas folding cot, he plucked
out a toe-tapping melody on the Sears and Roebuck guitar his mother
had sent him from back home in Missouri. Under his breath, Leroy
softly sang the words he had hastily scribbled out.
not a songwriter, but I wrote a song,” he recalls. “I
had no intention of writing a song. It just came to me.”
song was “Auctioneer,” the story of a young man who dreamed
of and became an auctioneer. Three years later, it would launch Leroy’s
career as an entertainer and become his signature hit.
From Nashville to Branson to the Missouri State Fair, Missouri
native Leroy Van Dyke has performed his classic country hits for
thousands of fans.
After more than
a half-century in the music industry, Leroy is still going strong.
Living on a 1,000-acre ranch south of Smithton with his wife and
business manager, Gladys, he still performs more than 100 concerts
each year nationwide.
Leroy never dreamed
of becoming a country music icon. As a young boy in Pettis County,
he assumed he’d become
a livestock farmer like his father.
When Leroy was
about 10 years old, a trip with his father to nearby Sedalia for
a livestock auction at the MK&T Stockyard would prove to be a
know anything about auctioneers, but there was a guy selling that
day who just really pinned my ears to the wall,” says Leroy,
who turns 78 in October. “I’d never, ever, heard anything
like it. It sounded like a machine gun. I decided I had to learn
how to do that.”
that day was Leroy’s second
cousin, Ray Sims, also a Pettis countian. More than a dozen years
later, as Leroy sat in his squad tent in Korea, Ray’s life
story would become the basis for “Auctioneer.” However,
in the song, which contains actual auction calls, Leroy made
Ray an Arkansan because he could think of nothing to rhyme with
fascinated him, Leroy didn’t
learn the trade until after he’d spent three years studying
animal husbandry and journalism at the University of Missouri
thing was just haunting me, so after my junior year, I went to Reppert’s
School of Auctioneering in Decatur, Ind.,” says the
Central Missouri Electric Cooperative member. “I
came back and finished college, then Uncle Sam pointed
a finger and said, ‘I need you.’”
|Van Dyke signs autographs for fans following a Branson performance.
returning from Korea, Leroy moved to Princeton, Ill.,
and joined the Chicago Daily Drovers Journal, a livestock
newspaper, as a fieldman. He traveled the country,
mainly the Midwest, covering purebred livestock sales.
began singing “Auctioneer” in talent contests and winning
often. When he heard of a contest at WGN Radio/TV in
Chicago, he decided to make the 120-mile trip. He auditioned and
was accepted to compete on the live, on-air show.
I was third, but it didn’t make any difference
because the phone started ringing before I got out of the studio,” Leroy
two weeks, I had a record. In three months, I’d
sold a million records. Just boom, boom, boom,
all of a sudden, Leroy’s in show business.”
next few months proved awkward. Unwilling to
leave Drovers without a fieldman during the busy fall
season, Leroy stayed on, although he admits that
for his singing career, he should have moved
to Nashville right away.
“Here I was,
on the radio with a million-seller record, working these sales all
over the country,” he says. “It
really became quite a thing because everybody there knew I’d
had the record. Most of them had bought the record.”
a Top 10 hit, and Leroy would eventually leave Drovers in the
summer of 1957. After a few weeks on a county fair tour with Tex
Ritter, he joined the Ozark Jubilee TV show with Red Foley in Springfield,
Mo. When that show went off the air three years later, he headed
to Nashville, signing with Mercury Records.
|After a half century in the music business, Van Dyke still performs
more than 100 shows a year.
The summer of 1961
would see Leroy catapulted to the top of the country music stratosphere.
His second Mercury release, “Walk On By,” the story
of a man struggling to hide a love affair,
skyrocketed to No. 1 on the country charts, where it stayed for 19 weeks. It
also crossed over to the pop charts, where it climbed to No. 5.
In all, “Walk
On By” charted for 42 weeks. Instantly Leroy was a
star, joining the Grand Ole Opry in 1962.While
he’d only chart one more Top 5 hit, Leroy’s place in country
music was guaranteed. Dubbed the “World’s
Most Famous Auctioneer,” his
celebrity status led to opportunities
in film, TV and on the radio, where he
co-hosted the popular syndicated show, “Country
In 1994, Billboard
magazine in its 100th anniversary issue
On By” the biggest all-time country
better than getting Entertainer of the Year,” Leroy
always be the biggest country single
for the simple reason that it was
predicated on number of plays, number
of sales and number of weeks in the
been songs with more sales. There have been
some that have stayed in the charts
just as long. But the three of
those things combined? It’ll
never happen again.”
into the Missouri Country Music
Hall of Fame and the National
Auctioneers Association Hall of Fame, Leroy continues
to tour, both as a solo act and as the
headliner for the Country Gold Tour,
which features classic country singers
including Bobby Bare, Rex Allen Jr.,
Moe Bandy and many others. The youngest
of Leroy’s four children, 25-year-old son, Ben, joins him on stage as
his lead guitarist.
|Van Dyke shares
a moment with fellow musician Ronnie Prophet prior to a performance.
Leroy says the
secret to success in any profession is to find something
you like to do so much that you’d do it for nothing, then learn to do
it well enough that someone will pay you for it. In the music industry, that
means learning to be an entertainer.
“A lot of
people in the entertainment business never really learn their job,” he
says. “They have hit
records and while the records are hot, they get along pretty well. But after
the records cool off, they can’t
entertain the people anymore.
don’t want to let
it get to that point. You
have to develop your ability
to keep on entertaining
those people even though
have a No. 1 record. Some
never learn that. They
go up like a rocket and
down like a rock.”
after more than 50 years
in the industry, Leroy’s
star continues to shine.
He jokes that his idea
of retirement is when
he falls over on stage.
long as I can do it,
and as long as I’m
able to perform and get
paid for it, I’m
gonna keep doing it.
I’m never gonna
Leroy Van Dyke
will perform at the Missouri State Fair on Aug. 14-15. Visit www.leroyvandyke.com for
Leroy’s complete touring schedule.