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Leroy Van Dyke Opens-Up on His Career, Doubters & the Road Ahead

Feb 16 | Posted by: Leroy Van Dyke
Leroy Van Dyke has been taking his music to the fans for almost six decades now. The veteran performer -- 85 years young -- tells Billboard that the "R" word is not something that is in his vocabulary.

"We've never taken a vacation," he said. "We don't have any hobbies of any importance. I like what I do -- singing songs and telling stories. What do you mean 'retirement?' I'm doing what I want to do now," he says with a smile.

Van Dyke admits that there have been a lot of changes within the country music industry over the years besides the constantly changing styles of the genre.

"Obviously, the technology in music has changed a lot, but even more important, the technology has changed in marketing. It's a very difficult thing now to come out with an album and have it be a hit, with people being able to download it for nothing," he says very astutely. "It causes problems for the people who put the money up to produce the records. You used to be able to go in and cut a demo, and if it turned out very well, you might be able to put it on a label, and if it picked up interest, it would be picked up by RCA or Columbia, and it would become a huge smash record. My first record was recorded in Chicago, and the session had two instruments on it -- no voices, pianos, drums or bass -- and it sold three million records. The whole session only cost one hundred dollars. Of course, that would never happen today. That was "The Auctioneer."

That single, which peaked at No. 9 in 1956, put him on a collision course with the stars. Almost six decades later, he admits that genetics played a role in the song that he was unaware of at the time.

"I was about nine years old when I first heard a professional auctioneer," he recalled. "I didn't know who the guy was, but I hadn't heard anything like it. I remember thinking to myself, 'I need to learn how to do that.' I found out later that the guy I had heard was Ray Sims, a second cousin that I had never met. Later on, I finished college, went to an auction school, and worked for a newspaper, and had the opportunity to work with that same auctioneer at a lot of cattle sales. I wrote the song about him while I was in Korea. I got back here, got it on record, and the rest is history."

He also hit a home run with the success of 1961's "Walk On By," which was named by Billboard as the biggest country hit of all time in the 100th anniversary issue in 1994. Though time has elevated other songs higher on that list in 2015, he remains touched by that honor.

"It was a fantastic thing to get that recognition, which it had nothing to do with nobody voting on anything or music business politics. Billboard Magazine came up with that evaluation of the numbers based on facts," he said. And to think he just about missed the opportunity to record the song. "When I first heard it, it wasn't finished. There was only one verse and about a half of a chorus. The publisher took it home the night after I found it, and wrote the second verse. I changed some of the words, and re-arranged the chorus, and that's what the version you hear on the radio today."

Of course, the smooth production style on the song -- as well as other hits such as "If A Woman Answers" -- was very much in the crossover vein. That put the singer in the spotlight as one of a handful of artists who helped to take the name of country music into more of an urban landscape.

"I was with the CMA board from the very beginning, and they began to notice what kind of show I was doing to get to go to Las Vegas, and they asked me to do shows all over the country. They used those as showcase performances to get advertisers interested in country music. We did shows at the Waldorf in New York, the Conrad Hilton Hotel in Chicago, the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, and a bunch of other shows around Nashville. I was glad to be a part of the movement to show a lot of people about a new way that country music could be promoted."

But, proving that the more things change, the more they stay the same in Nashville, not everyone was impressed. "I won't say any names because the person who did this has now passed away. We were in a CMA board meeting, and he referenced my approach to country music, and he looked at me and said 'You just can't do country that way."

That style is still keeping the singer a favorite on the road among the classic country crowd. "We perform a lot as part of the Country Gold Tour -- a package show of classic country performers that have had million selling records. Gladys, my wife, puts those together. There could be one additional act up to eleven or twelve. Those are about half the dates I do -- mostly state fairs and performing arts centers. It's been very successful, and has gotten a lot of approval with a lot of country music fans."
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