(Museum note: Special thanks to Kathi Gulley of the Portuguese Beyond Borders Institute at Fresno State University for asking about Arkie Stark. Bob Pinheiro, Webmaster Emeritus, searched a few hundred pages and found this biography, plus a rare find: A Letter from Arkie’s daughter!
It turns out Arkie was big time! He was friends with Roy Rogers, Smiley Burnett, and Tex Ritter. His close friend was Tennessee Ernie Ford, who spent many nights at Arkie’s Modesto home. Tex Ritter and Ernie Ford arranged for Arkie to take a Hollywood screen test, which he passed, but Arkie’s mother vetoed the lifestyle of “the Hollywood crowd,” so he declined on making movies. One of his biggest fans was California Governor Earl Warren, who had Arkie perform at his Inauguration in 1943! Earl Warren became Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, and we can only hope Arkie’s music was played in the judge’s chambers. And, thanks to Bob Pinheiro, you can read all about it:)
Arkie And His Hillbillies
Arkie Stark was one of the Country Music pioneers of the San Joaquin Valley. Born in Texas, he moved with his family at an early age to Arkansas and took the name ‘Arkie’ in the thirties when he began playing music for dances and on radio shows. In the thirties he had a program over stations KLOX radio in EI Centro, California, Station KEAA in Mexicali, Mexico, and on XEMO in Tijuana, Mexico.
Arkie appeared in and around Modesto from 1940 until he retired in 1954. He and his band broadcast six days a week over KTRB in Modesto, California, sponsored by Sunbeam Bread, Tasty Bakers, and Asbill’s Furniture. He commuted every day to additional programs on KYOS in Merced and KGDM out of Stockton. His favorite program was the ‘Amateur Hour’ from KTUR in Turlock, California, sponsored by Souza’s Furniture.
Arkie appeared often at the old California Ballroom, and Modesto’s Uptown Ballroom as well as Pacific Auditorium in Stockton. Many old timers will remember his favorite stomping grounds, the Riverbank Club House.
Music has been Arkie’s life, and he gave a helping hand to many deserving musicians and singers. Through the years Arkie performed at the Lodi Grape Festival and the Portuguese Festival in Turlock, and many more, too numerous to list them all. He appeared as a guest of Smiley Burnett, Ossie Waters and the Colorado Hillbillies at the San Jose Ballroom. While doing his show on KTRB he was fortunate enough to have the Sons of the Pioneers (Roy Rogers’ band) appear on his show.
Arkie was invited to Hollywood to be a regular, playing the banjo with Glen Strange and his Texas Longhorns (Glen Strange was the bartender on the TV Show,”Gunsmoke“),
Arkie declined because of family and other duties. Arkie not only excelled on the fiddle, his favorite instrument; he also played great banjo, guitar, mandolin, and ukulele.
Juanita (Stark) Coburn, his daughter, played with him for four years. She retired from music to devote her time to rearing her family. She is retired, and lives in Hughson, CA.
(Juanita (Stark) Coburn of Hughson was asked to tell of her life which was made joyful with hillbilly music. Her father, Louis Stark, a fiddle, guitar, banjo and stand-up bass player, organized his group, “Arkie and His Hillbillies” in the 30s.)
Here is her story:
Lewis Stark began his musical career performing with Lula Belle and Scotty, members of the Grand Ole Opry, when they lived in Calexico, across the border near EI Centro, California. Lewis played the 5-string banjo, his favorite instrument at that time, but he could play any stringed instrument, the mandolin, violin, guitar, steel guitar.
In 1938 “Arkie and his Hillbillies” started performing on KTRB, Modesto, in the central valley of California. The leader of the band was Louis Stark, a fiddle, guitar, banjo, stand-up bass player. His was the first western band that played on KTRB in the early days of western hillbilly music from the rural Modesto radio station, and his music roused the farmers and farm workers with his daily show at six am.
Many happy memories are associated with this band, recalls Juanita (Stark) Coburn of Hughson. Juanita was a young girl at that time, too young to be allowed to follow the band where her father played. He wouldn’t let her join the party audience “out front” and she followed Daddy’s orders to stay on stage behind the curtain during intermissions.
Juanita said, I wanted to play with my Daddy’s band, but he was against it, saying I was too young and should not be mixing with the people who came to hear the band. My Grandfather interceded and told my Dad that if the audience wasn’t right enough for me that it wasn’t right for my Dad either. So my Dad agreed to let me sing and play with the band; but I had to remain on stage, behind closed curtains at intermissions, and not mix with the crowd as I was only 14 years old. It was exciting and fun to hear the music and watch the performers.”
Louis Stark in 1938 started his band “Arkie and His Hillbillies.” This was before “Maddux Brothers and Rose” began. Later “The Happy Hayseeds” with Roy Sanderson, and other bands also played over KTRB radio in the early morning hours. Members of “Arkie and His Hillbillies” were Arkie Stark, (fiddle); R. A. Andrews (lead), Hoot Stark (bass), Uel Lloyd, rhythm guitar, Lois Stark, vocalist; and Juanita Stark, lead guitar and rhythm.
Juanita recalls, “I remember Dad saying that during the winter people would come to our house and play music all night.” In 1938 Daddy started playing on KTRB radio station where Bill Bates was owner and MC. I think KTRB was Modesto’s only radio station then. Bill Bates was not enthusiastic about hillbilly music, said he didn’t know anything about it; he played accordion. Bill allowed Daddy to play that first week if Dad would pay for the time. So Daddy paid the first week, then hustled around and found sponsors for his hillbilly band on KTRB Modesto.
“Dad got so many requests during that first week that he was able to find a few sponsors to help cover broadcast expenses,” Juanita recalls. Bill Bates told Dad, “Arkie,” I don’t care for Hillbilly music myself, but since you have so many people willing to sponsor you, you can keep playing on KTRB. You have a big following.” Some of the first sponsors were Asbill’s Appliance Company of Modesto, Tasty Bakers, Sunbeam Bread Company, and Souza’s Furniture of Turlock.
Juanita (Stark) Coburn, recalls: Dad played for the inauguration ceremony of Governor Earl Warren in Sacramento, January 4, 1943! Dad had a manager during the years he played at KTRB and he was contacted through KTRB in Modesto. Dad was a “cut up” and Earl Warren was a fan of his from hearing him over KTRB and he requested that Dad play at his inauguration. All went well and everyone including the Governor enjoyed the music. A funny incident occurred during the formal dinner when Lewis was thirsty and didn’t see any water so he drank from the finger bowl, much to the delight of his fellow musicians, except his little brother Hoot, who was the announcer of Dad’s radio show. Hoot got disgusted with his brother’s behavior in using the finger bowl as a drinking glass, and he left the party and wouldn’t come back to finish the program after the finger bowl incident. I played the guitar, Dad played the violin, Roy Honeycutt played steel guitar, brother Hoot played bass. Dad sent me to get Hoot, but he wouldn’t face the music, so we finished two more numbers in great style anyway as a three-piece band for the Governor.
Uncle Hoot was a serious man and unbending, whereas Dad’s sense of humor and joy kept his spirit ever fresh and welcome so that he inspired others around him with a zest for life. Dad was always generous, offering a helping hand to those in need. He was like a magnet, and our home was a refuge.
Dad and Tennessee Ernie Ford were good friends. Ernie had a radio program in San Francisco, and would come to Modesto KTRB Radio to visit, and he stayed overnight with us in our home and talked music and played; he sang and Dad played guitar. I was just a kid. He would pat me on the head as a “hello” and “goodbye,” and we all enjoyed his singing and kind personality. I loved hearing him sing gospel songs which he did so well; his beautiful bass voice still echoes in my ears even now.
Tennessee Ernie Ford and Tex Ritter came to our house and asked Dad to take a screen test for the movies. Tex Ritter and Tennessee Ernie Ford arranged the screen test for Dad. He passed the test, but Mother did not approve of the Hollywood crowd, so a movie career went by the wayside. His family came first even though music flowed in his veins.
Daddy knew Roy Rogers when he lived in Roswell, NewMexico.
Dad was also a friend of Tex Ritter. When Tex first started TV about 1937 or ’38 he played old songs, and his son John made movies and starred in a series on TV called “Three’s Company.” They were good friends.
Daddy had a guest, Dan Bonds, on his program, and said “he was a good little musician, and you can tell he’s from Arkansas because he just pulled a turnip out of his pocket.” Dan has been a true friend for so many years, it seems like we all grew together with music as the thread that held our generation together. Dan Bonds, now of Hilmar, California, played country music with his group, “Country Roads” band, and continues to this day (2005) He has been compiling his memoirs in a book about his experiences in valley music and tree farming for pioneer Dave Wilson Nursery, helping farmers along the way. Dan still has a western band with violin, bass fiddle, fiddle, banjo. His vocalist Pauline and he have been making music together for over 50 years, celebrating their Golden Wedding Anniversary a few years ago.
The Hillbilly tunes from recollections in Arkansas and the central valley of California heartland were favorites of many who came from Arkansas, Oklahoma, and the dust bowl. Our music captured the hearts of farmers and the “salt-of-the-earth” folks in the valley. Juanita said, played guitar and sang with Daddy’s band during 1938 and 1939, and I married in 1940. The old tunes are loved and I still play with a little group for friends and folks at senior citizens’ rest homes and convalescent homes. ”
On his last day Daddy told the nurse who interrupted his nap to give him some medicine, “Girl, leave me alone, I want to rest.” It was shortly after that remark that Lewis Stark entered his final rest, with a song in his heart and ours.
The memory lingers of my Dad. As I recall another day just after Dad died while we were playing a hymn with Dan Bonds’ group, “Yesterday’s Country Roads,” the tears just flowed in bitter-sweet recollection. The music is and was part of the bond between us. Daddy was my “Rock of Gibraltar” and foundation for life, made sweet by his music and loving character.