Mary Joan Okum (née Kath; October 27, 1924 – December 8, 2015), known by her performing name Bonnie Lou, was an American musical pioneer, recognized as one of the first female rock and roll singers.
She is also one of the first artists to gain crossover success from country music to rock and roll. She was the "top name" on the first country music program regularly broadcast on a national TV network. Bonnie Lou was one of the first female co-hosts of a successful syndicated television talk show, and a regular musical performer on popular shows in the 1960s and 1970s. She "was a prime mover in the first days of rockabilly," and is a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
Bonnie Lou's real name was Mary Jo Kath, and she was born in 1924 in Illinois. Mary grew up listening to Patsy Montana and her band "The Prairie Ramblers", and was greatly inspired by her. Mary learned how to yodel, which was from the help of her Swiss grandmother. As a child she learned how to play two instruments, the violin and guitar. By the young age of 16, she was singing and performing on a local radio show in Bloomington, Illinois. By age 18, Mary went on a bigger radio show, which aired in Kansas City, Missouri.
Her exposure on this radio show in Kansas City, helped her land a job as a singer on WLW Radio in Cincinnati, Ohio, where station executive Bill McCluskey hired Mary as a singer a yodeller for his radio show called Midwestern Hayride Country & Western Radio Program. McCluskey was the one who gave Mary Jo the stage name she would be known by for the rest of her life, "Bonnie Lou". While on the radio show in Cincinnati, Lou performed regularly with Country Music girl group the Girls of the Golden West, which Lou listened to as a child.
Bonnie Lou continued radio performances until the end of the 1940s. Her radio performances were even cut to acetate and released to the public. However, Bonnie Lou never truly broke as a recording artist until the 1950s.
Soon, Bonnie started recording Rockabilly or Rock & Roll. In 1954, she recorded the song "Two Side Step", which was written by Murray Wilson, who is the father of The Beach Boys, Carl, Brian, and Dennis. In 1955, she released her first Rock & Roll record called "Daddy-O". The song was a Top 15 Pop hit that year, and turned Lou into a major Rock & Roll star overnight. The song was later covered by The Fontaine Sisters on the Dot Records label.
It wasn't until 1958 though that Bonnie had another hit, this a duet with Rusty York called "La Dee Dah". They soon recorded a Teen Pop song together called "I Let the School Bell Ding-a-Ling". Soon, Lou left the King label for another Cincinnati record label called Fraternity. She released several different singles for Fraternity, one of which were as successful as her singles for the King label.
Bonnie spent more and more of her later career on television, co-hosting the Paul Dixon Show in Cincinnati. But in keeping faithful to her Country Music roots, she also became a regular on WLWT's Midwestern Hayride, (a show inspired by the legendary Shreveport-based Louisiana Hayride) until it went off the air in the early 70s. After Dixon's death in late 1974, Lou quietly went into retirement and settled in Cincinnati, with her husband Milt, who she has claimed as one of her biggest supporters. She then moved out of the city with husband Milt, making commercials for his furniture shop and hosting a radio show.
Bonnie Lou died in her sleep on the morning of December 8, 2015 at Hillebrand Nursing And Rehabilitation Centre in Cincinnati, Ohio, aged 91. She had dementia and was in hospice care.
(info edited mainly from Wikipedia)
Bonnie Lou was a long-time favourite singer on WLW radio and TV out of Cincinnati, Ohio, where she gained a big following on shows like Midwestern Hayride, Ruth Lyons' 50-50 Club, Bob Braun Show and Paul Dixon Show. Her recordings for King Records made her an international star with hits like Seven Lonely Days and Tennessee Wig Walk, which earned her an induction into the Rock-a-Billy Hall of Fame. Here Bonnie is seen live at The Ohio State Fair before an audience of thousands, where she sings a medley of Proud Mary & Behind Closed Doors.