“Smiley Burnette” was born on March 18, 1911 to George W. and Almira Burnett (spelled without final “e”) as Lester Alvin Burnett, in Summum, Illinois. His parents were ministers. Growing up in Monticello, Illinios, he began singing as a child. As fate would have it, he lived next door to Bill and Maude Baird, musicians who kept an array of instruments in their home. Young Lester would borrow an instrument for some time, master it, and then return for another. In this way, he was able to play ten instruments by age 9, and 50 by age 22. He learned to play by ear, never bothering to actually read or write music; in his adulthood, he had learned over 105 instruments, and even invented some of his own. In his teens he worked in vaudeville. He dropped out of school in the 9th Grade to help support his family, as many in his generation did. He dabbled at a number of trades, to include waiter, truck and taxi driver, carnival roustabout, drug store delivery-boy, blacksmith, electrician, and photographer. After that, he seemed to settle into working at a small local radio station in Tuscola, Illinois in 1929. Smiley opened WDZ at 6 a.m. and ran the radio station entirely on his own until 6 p.m. everyday of the week. He performed a gambit of talent on that show, ranging from animal imitations to solos and one-man-band routines. The station was the state’s first commercial radio station, originally formed to announce grain prices for the community.

Fate Walks In
In December 1933, Gene Autry was performing at WLS radio in Chicago and through some twist of fate, wound up short an accordion player for his ensemble. He heard through word of mouth about Burnett and his work at WDZ, and Gene called him, offering him the spot for pay that bested his income at the station. Initially, he thought the call was a prank, but once convinced it was Gene; he jumped at the chance and became a member of the National Barn Dance radio show…

Read more at Guns Of The Old West.


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