Saturday, November 02, 2013

One of Our Own

"Music bubbles out of me..."
[Poster created by Nancy Ansari]

Cleo Bee [Wang] Jones is a St. Vincent native.  Cleo's grandmother was a Lang, and her mother was a Turner. The Langs and Turners, much like the Gambles, left big footprints on St. Vincent and its history.  In her own right, Cleo became more than the little village could contain.  Rightly so, she went out into the bigger world and shared her gift - her "Great Voice"...

[The following is an excerpt from a 2012 article]

Cleo Bee has something to look forward to: On Sept. 9, 2012 she will be inducted into the South Dakota Country Music Hall of Fame. This will be her second such honor — she was inducted into the Minnesota Rock and County Hall of Fame in 2007.

Cleo, 72, was born in St. Vincent, Minn. (population 64) and sang all over the country before she moved to Hayward with her husband, when he retired in 2006. She has a voice and a talent — and most of all, a love for song.

Her gift became apparent in second grade when her teacher asked the class if they knew what a four-leaf clover was. Before anyone could answer, Cleo stood up and said it was a song. Then she sang “I’m Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover.”

“I sang and they clapped and that’s all it took to start the whole thing,” said Cleo, who has never had a voice lesson in her life.

In high school she sang in a dance band, recalling Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” and Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” But she said she was most influenced by the powerful voices of Kay Starr and Mahalia Jackson, before rock ‘n roll arrived on the music scene.

Also while in high school, she said she was snuck in the back door of the Eagles Club to perform onstage with a group that was there from Arkansas. She was 16.

Cleo won a talent contest that year and went to New York City to audition for the Ted Mack Amateur Hour. Her two aunts traveled with her. There were about 500 contestants, she said, and she waited for hours before it was her turn to get onstage where she sang “Mr. Wonderful” and “On the Street Where You Live.”

“I didn’t make the cut that night,” she said, but shortly thereafter she won third place in the 1957-58 finals Amateur Show sponsored by the Associated Canadian Travelers and held in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Cleo said she was the only winner from the U.S.

Cleo married, had two daughters and moved to Minneapolis, where she soon became a popular singer.

Her big break came in 1968 when she joined the Sherwin Linton Show, entertaining in ballrooms, nightclubs, lounges and touring the country in the band bus. The Golden Nugget in Las Vegas was often their venue.

Cleo said that over the years she worked with George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Dottie West, George Hamilton, Tex Ritter and Buck Owens.

In 1977 Cleo wrote a song and sang some of her favorites, along with duets with Linton, on a cassette, which was later released on CD. Some of the selections were recorded live at the South Dakota State Penitentiary on Aug. 9, 1971.

When she left the Sherwin Linton Show, tired of the travel, Cleo became the featured singer at Louie’s Inn in Dresser, Wis., and the house band was soon named “The Honeycomb.”

“No more buses but we sometimes performed six nights a week,” she said.

Cleo kept that pace for four years and then remarried and moved to Rochester, Minn. She stopped singing in 1980 and said she missed it terribly.

“It was horrifying. I would sing in the car on long trips, in the house, anyplace — it drove my husband nuts,” she said.

Twenty years later she performed again with the Sherwin Linton Show and repeated those performances a few times in cities in Minnesota and North Dakota.

She said one of her most memorable performances was at her mother’s memorial service which was scheduled on Sept. 11, 2001, the day terrorists attacked New York City and the Twin Towers fell.

“Mom wanted me to sing at her funeral, and after all that had happened that day, I sang ‘America the Beautiful.’ There wasn't a dry eye in the place,” she said.

Cleo Bee, as she is today...
Cleo still sings locally. She has guested with “Molly and the Danger Band,” has sung at the Stone Lake Cranberry Luncheon and the Hayward High School 50th Reunion with some members of The Honeycomb.

Music has made her life rich, she said, through travel and meeting wonderful people.

“Music and opportunities — that’s who I was and who I am. Music bubbles out of me,” she said.