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Q: Biography of famed guitarist "Sunny Joe Wolverton," Where is he today? ( Answered 5 out of 5 stars,   3 Comments )
Subject: Biography of famed guitarist "Sunny Joe Wolverton," Where is he today?
Category: Arts and Entertainment > Performing Arts
Asked by: micheleleigh-ga
List Price: $50.00
Posted: 20 Mar 2003 22:18 PST
Expires: 19 Apr 2003 23:18 PDT
Question ID: 179044
I am very interested in "Sunny" Joe Wolverton, one of the most
talented guitarists ever....mentor to Les Paul (of Les Paul and Mary
Ford duo)...I don't want to know more about the mentorship of Les
Paul.  That I have found... What I can't seem to find is information
about the guitarist, Joe Wolverton, himself.  The most recent biog.
information I have on him is that he performed in the early 1960's at
the Golden Nugget Casino, in Las Vegas, Nevada,...but, I  do not know
where he performed after that.  Is he still living?  Did he make any
recordings?  Can anyone tell me if he wrote music in addition to
mentoring other rising guitarists?  Where is Sunny Joe Wolverton
today?  I have heard that he was from somewhere in Indiana...Hammond
or Gary...but, I don't know for sure?  Does anyone have biographical
and current information on guitarist Sunny Joe Wolverton? Most
importantly, is he still living and where can you see him perform?
Subject: Re: Biography of famed guitarist "Sunny Joe Wolverton," Where is he today?
Answered By: markj-ga on 21 Mar 2003 07:52 PST
Rated:5 out of 5 stars
micheleleigh --

Although online information about Joe Wolverton is somewhat sparse, I
have been able to find a significant amount of material in response to
your questions.

Joe Wolverton was born on July 8, 1906, and died on August 27, 1994. 
His real name was "Ralph Edwin Wolverton."  I have not found his exact
place of birth, but his first social security card was issued in
Illinois.  Although his last place of residence was Yavapai, Arizona,
he is buried on North Union Cemetery in Parke County, Indiana.

The primary sources for this information are the following websites:

Source for birth/death dates, given name and burial site:
NORTH UNION (alphabetical listing)

Wolverton's social security registration and last residence were found
using the Social Security Death Index, found here:
Social Security Death Index (enter "Wolverton" and "Ralph" in the name

Most of the online references to Wolverton appear in references
primarily concerned with his relationship with Les Paul.  Since you
are already familiar with that relationship, I will not summarize it
here, but you can find information on that subject using a simple
Google search using the following search terms:
"Joe Wolverton" "Les Paul"

A very interesting summary of Wolverton's performing career can be
found here, at the website of the All Music Guide, an invaluable
resource for music-related information of all kinds:
All Music Guide: Joe Wolverton|AM&sql=B39fexqu0ldje~C

Although you will certainly want to review this article by Eugene
Chadbourne carefully, a brief outline of the information may be
convenient for you here:

The article begins: "Every person who straps on a Les Paul guitar owes
a debt of gratitude to Joe Wolverton, got that?"

A youthful Les Paul first encountered "Sunny Joe" in a Western band
and was "drooling" at Wolverton's ability to play "above the third
fret."  Chadbourne then summarizes the rest of their relationship
(with which you are already familiar).

Wolverton split with Paul because "Sunny Joe" wanted to pursue a
country and acoustic career.  That career consisted largely of 
recording with a singer named "Polly O'Neal," who also used the name
"Polly Possum."  He then went to California and backed up a country
singer named "Betty Bennett."

The next chapter of his career involved playing guitar with Spike
Jones and the City Slickers from 1943-45 and again in 1946. Chadbourne
credits Wolverton with giving Spike Jones the fateful idea for his
"new kind" of band combining goofy humor with virtuoso musicianship. 
Indeed, Wolverton, who shared Jones's offbeat sense of humor, had
founded a similar group called the "Local Yokels."

Following the Spike Jones stint, Wolverton continued his unusual
career by joining an otherwise "all-girl" orchestra called the Polly
Ship.  Later in the 50's Wolverton, described by Chadbourne as "a
single guy," toured military bases in Asia and then worked in Las
Vegas until the early 60's.

You asked whether Wolverton was also a songwriter.  Although I found
no online references to Wolverton as songwriter, I searched the ASCAP
and BMI databases and found one composition under his name (i.e. Ralph
E. Wolverton).  It is called "Joe's Blues."   Here is the source for
that information:
BMI: Repertoire

You also asked about any recordings that might have been made by Joe
Wolverton.  The  authoritative All Music Guide does not include any
references to LP or CD recordings that include Wolverton vocals or
guitar work, but the Chadbourne article refers to the fact that his
radio work with Spike Jones on the Bob Burns show in 1943 "was
recorded for the 'Standard Transcription' library and later released
on CD anthologies."  There are many, many CD compilations of Spike
Jones recordings.  Several of them are compilations of radio
transcriptions, which may well include some of those 1943 sessions. 
Here is a link to a list of 46 of those CD compilations at Spike Jones

Also, as the Chadbourne article notes, some of Wolverton's country
recordings "were issued by labels such as Columbia on various 78s and
45s, and are said to be an interesting blend of country and western
swing."  There seems to be a market for these recordings.  Here is an
example of the online offerings of one of them:

Possum, Polly & Joe Wolverton:
Sad Singin', Slow Ridin'/Don't Cry, Baby ... CBS 20908 With The Dog
Patch Boys.
Little Big Store: Country & Western 78s

And here's an offer of the 45 rpm version of the same recording:
World Wide Wax

Additional Site:

Here is a reference to a Wolverton/Wolfe gig at the Nevada Club in
1958 or 1959

Las Vegas Strip History (about 3/4 down the page)

Search Strategy:

Initial Google searches revealed mainly sketchy information about the
Les Paul connection:

"Joe Wolverton"

The one clue that resulted from this initial search was a reference
(with birth and death dates) to a "Joe Wolverton" who was a banjo
player with Spike Jones:
Daves Datebook (alphabetical listing)

This prompted a search for further biographical information with a
Google Search using the following search terms:
joe OR joseph OR "j." wolverton 1906 1994

This led to the cemetery listing that revealed his real name to be
"Wolverton, Ralph E. ('Joe')."  This in turn led to the Social
Security listing and BMI songwriter listings under his real name.

Finally, I always check the All Music Guide to attempt to fill out
information on musical artists.

This has been a fascinating question to research.  Although there is a
gap in Wolverton's researchable biography between his 1960s Las Vegas
club gigs and his death, it seems very likely that his performing
career ended in the 60s as suggested by the biography in the All Music

I was pleased to be able to come up with timely answers to your
several specific questions, including your "most important" one as to
whether he is still alive and working.  The unfortunate answer to that
is "no".  If any of the information is unclear or if any of the links
don't work, please ask for clarification before rating this answer.

micheleleigh-ga rated this answer:5 out of 5 stars and gave an additional tip of: $20.00
I cannot thank you enough.  This is really for my 86 year old
father...a very gifted guitarist...whom Joe Wolverton "took under his
wing" when I was a little girl in the 1950's.   I remember meeting Joe
when my parents stopped by Las Vegas on the way back from a tour in
Hawaii in Dec. of 1959.  Joe and dad were great admirers of each
other's musical talent... Joe strongly urged my father to move our
family to Las Vegas so that my dad could pursue a full time career
working with him (with Joe) in Las Vegas.  My dad was a career
military man who elected to finish out his service so that he could
retire with full benefits....alas...that's the last that my dad knew
of Joe. Dad has quite an interesting history himself.  He was also a
personal friend of Hank Williams Sr. before and after he became
famous.  One of my dad's oldest living friends is R. D.
original member of Hank's back up band... Hank asked dad to join that
band...but, dad didn't want to be on the road... electing, instead, 
to work and play music in the Birmingham area before going back into
the Air Force in the late 40's.  Dad has backed the likes of Hank
Snow, Hank Lochlin, Lefty Frizzell, Mama Maybelle and the Carter
Sisters(before June was married to Johnny Cash)...Charlie Pride and
many more big Grand Ole Opry stars from the 50's and 60's... How? 
Because, wherever dad was stationed, the booking agent for the bases
would snag my father to be the lead guitarist for the back up
band..(both in Hawaii and in Germany),  because it was cost effective
for those stars to have a good on-site backup band touring the
military clubs and other local gigs in Hawaii and Germany.
mom and I were often given the responsibility of picking these country
and western stars up from the airport in Hawaii..  I was too young to
realize how special they were... It would be after I was an adult that
I began to fully understand how lucky I was to be around those
outstanding artists...each with their own unique talent.  Dad recently
made a trip to Las Vegas for the first time since the 1960's...and
part of the reason for going was to find out what happened to Joe
Wolverton.  So, I cannot thank you enough... Bill Gautney (my
father..another Joe Wolverton protoge), who now resides in San
Antonio, Texas, will be so pleased to get the information you
provided.  This is a real blessing for Dad.  You are a wonderful
researcher !!!!!!

Subject: Re: Biography of famed guitarist "Sunny Joe Wolverton," Where is he today?
From: clouseau-ga on 21 Mar 2003 08:07 PST
Nicely done search, markj!

Subject: Re: Biography of famed guitarist "Sunny Joe Wolverton," Where is he today?
From: markj-ga on 21 Mar 2003 16:09 PST
micheleleigh -- 

Thanks for the 5-star rating, the more-than-generous tip and the
wonderful story about your dad.  The classic country stars you
mentioned (along with Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills) are among my
musical heroes.  I will keep an eye out for any further questions you
might pose to bring back some more musical memories for your dad.

Subject: Re: Biography of famed guitarist "Sunny Joe Wolverton," Where is he today?
From: bear35-ga on 27 Jun 2004 08:23 PDT
Thanks for the 5-star rating report, the very informative and 
wonderful story about your dad. I have 2 pic's of Joe & Polly singed
by them from 8/30/52 holding 2 old guitars. Dad and Mom liked them
very much.

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