Known by such nicknames as the Yodeling Blonde Bombshell,
Westerns First Lady and the All-American Girl, Carolina Cotton came from humble
beginnings and became a prolific entertainer in the Golden Era of Western Swing
music and B movies, soundies, radio shows and early television. Her fun, lively
"pretty little girl next door" personality made her a favorite with
Western fans worldwide. She made numerous live appearances, including parades
and rodeos. Her countless contributions at charity benefits had earned her the
title of "Miss Good Samaritan". Most of all, she was known for her
unique style of yodeling, and was considered a World Champion by many in the
Carolina Cotton was born Helen Hagstrom on October 20th,
1925 and raised on the family farm in her native town of Cash Arkansas. The
family relocated to San Francisco by 1937. As a youngster she joined the
O'Neille Sisters Kiddie Revue, and started performing at the Golden Gate
Theater. She went on to sing, yodel and play a few instruments in Dude Martin's
Roundup Gang, performing on Bay Area stations KPO and KYA. Martin encouraged
her to change her name to "Carolina".
A chance meeting with Johnny Marvin in Los Angeles led to
Carolina relocating to Hollywood in 1944, and joining the Spade Cooley
Orchestra, where she was the featured female vocalist/yodeler. She was only
known as "Carolina" at the time, and still needed a last name.
Cooley's manager, Bobbie Bennett (who also later became Cotton's manager) held
a contest to pick a last name for the Yodeling Blonde Bombshell, and Cotton was
the winner. The band played regularly at LA's Riverside Rancho club, and
appeared on the popular radio show "Hollywood Barn Dance", on local
station KNX. That same year she appeared in the B Western films "Sing
Neighbor Sing" for Republic Pictures (Roy Acuff), Universal's "The
Singing Sheriff" (Bob Crosby) and PRC's "I'm From Arkansas"
(Slim Summerville). In 1945 she signed with Columbia Pictures, filming
"Outlaws of the Rockies", (one of 3 Durango Kid/Charles Starrett
pictures), and "Texas Panhandle" At that time Carolina also made
several film shorts and soundies with Cooley and Merle Travis.
After filming "Outlaws", Carolina realized she
should learn to ride horses. Like anything else she did, she gave it her all,
and soon became an Outstanding Horsewoman, and appeared in several equestrian
events...rodeos, horse shows and parades. She often rode as Grand Marshalette.
In 1945 Carolina secretly married Cooley bassist Deuce
Spriggins. The two left the band, and formed Deuce Spriggins Orchestra (several
of Cooley's band members also migrated to this group). The new band also
featured Andy Parker and the Plainsmen Trio. They performed nightly at Santa
Monica Pier's Western Palisades Ballroom, one of the largest dance halls on the
West Coast. Like the Spade Cooley Orchestra, they made soundies, shorts and
appeared in 4 films: "Song of the Prairie", "That Texas
Jamboree", "Cowboy Blues" and "Singing on the
Trail"...all with Ken Curtis, and the Hoosier Hot Shots. They recorded 1
release for Mercury Records, "What's the Matter With You" / "I
Been Down in Texas". But by 1946, Cotton and Spriggins had divorced, and
the Spriggins Orchestra dissolved.
Carolina briefly performed with Hank Penny in '46 back at
the Riverside Rancho, and soon signed with King Records. The session produced 2
of her self-penned signature songs, "Three Miles South of Cash in
Arkansas", and "I Love to Yodel". She appeared on the Armed
Forces Radio Service show "Ranch House Party" along with Ken Curtis,
Cottonseed Clark and others. Carolina eventually guest starred on several radio
and early television programs (some were her own shows).
In 1947, she toured with Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys,
and made another film, "Smoky River Serenade" (Hoosier Hot Shots).
Among her radio appearances was on the long-running series "KMPC
Westerners" (featuring Red Rowe, Pappy Cheshire, and the Plainsmen). 2
songs for Crystal Records were released, "You've Got Me Wrapped Around
Your Finger" / "Chime Bells".
By 1948, Carolina went on the road with the Sons of the
Pioneers. She became the only "daughter" of the group. "Smoky
Mountain Melody" (Roy Acuff) was her next movie. She also became one of
the first (possibly THE first) female disc jockeys in the country, spinning
records on Long Beach station KGER. Carolina also guest starred on the KTLA-TV
show "Sunset Ranch".
Carolina made another film in 1949 (briefly leaving
Columbia for Astor Pictures), "Stallion Canyon" (Ken Curtis), and
released 2 more records for Mastertone, including "Put Your Shoes On
Lucy", "Hoosegow Serenade" and "The Old Square Dance is
Back Again". She also made a picture back at Columbia with Eddy Arnold,
"Feudin' Rhythm". She was a radio guest on the AFRS show "Redd
Harper's Hollywood Roundup", and featured on KLAC-TV's Ranch Time.
By 1950, the Yodeling Blonde Bombshell a second film with
Arnold, "Hoedown" (Jock Mahoney). A new recording contract with MGM
Records produced several memorable songs, including "I Betcha I
Getcha", "You're Gettin' a Good Girl" and the spectacular
yodeling tune, "Nola". Plans were made for Carolina's own TV Western
adventure series, "Queen of the Range". Unfortunately, it never
materialized. By December, she was on her way overseas, to entertain at
military bases in Europe. This was the first of many such tours, mostly with
the USO, to Korea and the Far East. In Germany, Carolina received the title
"Deputy Provost Marshal"...the only citizen to receive such an award.
Carolina made a wide variety of personal appearances over
the years, including the Out Of This World Series (celebrity baseball game), St
Mary's All Western Days fiestas in San Diego, the All-Palomino Horse Show in
Ohio, the Helldorado celebrations in Nevada, and the Sheriff's Annual Rodeos at
the LA Coliseum. One of her most unusual feats was in December 1951, when she
helped place a real "pole" at the North Pole. As a publicity stunt
for Alaskan Airlines, the candy striped pole was filled with letters to Santa
Claus, and was to be flown over the North Pole, and dropped by Carolina and
Alaskan DJ North Pole Nellie. A huge celebration was held in Fairbanks, but at
the last minute, Carolina and Nellie were barred from the flight, as the crew
had to refuel at a restricted all-male military base. As a tribute to the 2
girls who couldn't attend the historic event, the crew on the plane yodeled, as
they dropped the Pole into position.
The Yodeling Blonde Bombshell recorded 4 more MGM songs in
'51, with Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys: "You Always Keep Me in Hot
Water", "Cause I'm In Love", "I'm All Alone" and a
remake of her song "Three Miles South of Cash". She also guested on
Hedda Hopper's radio program, among others.
Carolina co-starred in 3 films in 1952, coming into her own
as a leading lady. In "Apache Country", she worked with Gene Autry
and Pat Buttram, playing an adventurous cowgirl, much like the role she would
have played in "Queen of the Range". She made another movie with Jock
Mahoney, "Rough Tough West" (also featuring her long-time friend
Smiley Burnette). Her final film was the Autry picture "Blue Canadian
Rockies", playing opposite Gail Davis. This was also the year she made her
last recordings for MGM, which included Yodel Yodel Yodel, from
Carolina continued her many personal appearances. She took
over Doye O'Dell's kiddie amusement park in Compton, and renamed it
"Carolina Cotton's Tiny Town". While on a USO return visit to Korea,
Carolina was honored to have a tank named after her: Miss Carolina--The Cotton
Between 1953-55, Carolina was still doing guest spots on
radio and television. The AFRS aired "Carolina Cotton Calls", heard
by Armed Forces personnel worldwide. She continued making guest appearances at
rodeos and special events. And she made one last tour overseas in June 1956, to
Johannesburg South Africa, to visit hospitals of children with cerebral palsy.
It was then that Carolina told herself that if she ever left Show Biz, she
would become involved in helping those with disabilities.
By the mid '50s, Western Swing and B Movies started
becoming more and more of a thing of the past. In August 1956, Carolina had
married Bill Ates, nephew of the character actor Roscoe Ates, with whom she did
many shows over the years. She began concentrating on her home life and family,
and had 2 children: son William, and daughter Sharon. But the marriage didn't
endure into the 1960s, as Carolina and Bill divorced. Carolina remembered her
promise to help disabled children...she became a teacher, and earned her
Masters degree in Special Education, as well as traditional education.
Over the years, Miss Cotton taught at different schools.
She moved to Bakersfield CA in the early 1970s, where she taught for many years
at Mt Vernon Elementary School. Always the type to be "on the go",
she took on another job at a local department store (Brocks, later renamed
Gottschalks). After her kids were grown, Carolina began showing up at jam
sessions at Bakersfield's local Grange Hall, making music with some of the
pioneers of the Bakersfield Sound of country music, including Bill Woods.
Beginning in 1984, Carolina Cotton was a favorite Guest
Speaker at several Western Film Festivals, most notably in Charlotte NC,
Memphis TN and Little Rock AR. She enjoyed reminiscing with her friends from
the good old' days of Show Biz, and loved connecting with fans old and new.
Sadly, in 1994, Carolina was diagnosed with Ovarian Cancer.
In spite of enduring treatments, she carried on with a smile, and the same
enthusiasm she was known for. She continued teaching and working at the
department store, attended a Film Festival or two, and managed to enjoy summer
visits to Europe. She retired from teaching in March 1997, and entered the
hospital in April, where she passed away the morning of June 10th, 1997.
Carolina Cotton lives on in the legacy she left behind, and
in the hearts of her fans. She is fondly remembered in her Western Swing
recordings, B Western movies, radio and television shows which, luckily, still
survive in one form or another. Like other Western stars of the era, Carolina's
films and recordings are in the midst of restoration, much to the benefit of
generations to come. Carolina Cotton's story is assured a future, as a pioneer
in the Golden Age of Western Entertainment.
Signed in Blue felt tip pen.