Ives, Burl, 1909-1995

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1909-06-14
Death 1995-04-14
Americans

Biographical notes:

Carl Sandburg once called Burl Ives "America's Great Ballad Singer." From the 1940s to the 1960s, his diverse talents and spirited performances made him one of America's best-loved entertainers. The traditional repertoire of American folk tunes represented in his performances was considerably different from the popular music of the day. His presence on the musical scene not only served to sustain an awareness of neglected American folk songs, but would contribute to the resurgence of interest in folk music that occurred in the early 1960s. Burl Icle Ivanhoe Ives was born on June 14, 1909 in Hunt City Township, Jasper County, Illinois. He was encouraged in his musical interests by his family, especially by his grandmother. Throughout his youth he sang at church functions and performed in community productions. After studying at Eastern Illinois State Teachers College (1927-29), Ives travelled throughout the United States for almost two years, finally settling in New York City, where he studied at Juilliard and began singing professionally. Minor Broadway roles drew the attention of Rodgers and Hart, who wrote a role for Ives in The Boys from Syracuse (1939). During World War II, Ives played a leading role in Irving Berlin's This is the Army (1942) and acted in minor film roles, while developing his folk singing persona, "The wayfaring stranger," in radio and concert appearances. In the 1950s and 1960s, Ives appeared regularly on television and radio and toured abroad promoting American folk music. Throughout this time, he continued to pursue his career in theater, receiving acclaim for his performance as Big daddy in the film version of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a hot tin roof, and winning an Oscar for his performance in the film, The Big country. Ives also published a number of books, including an autobiography The Wayfaring stranger.

From the description of Burl Ives collection, 1940-1960. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 71060103

Although perhaps best remembered for his work on Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the multitalented folk singer Burl Ives (1909-1995) also achieved considerable success as a recording artist, actor, and author.

Born in Hunt City Township, Illinois, Ives learned American folk songs at an early age, accompanying himself on the guitar and the banjo. After three years at Eastern Illinois State College, he embarked on a cross-country trip to collect traditional folk songs. In 1933, Ives moved to New York, where he attended both Julliard and New York University, studying acting and voice. He made his Broadway debut with a small role in The Boys from Syracuse (1938), appeared in This is the Army (1942), and later earned a major role in Walter Kerr's folk music revue, Sing Out, Sweet Land! (1944), for which he won a Donaldson Award. Ives' singing career also built steadily through radio appearances and a recording contract with Decca. As a recording artist, he promoted American folk songs and produced an impressive catalogue of hits, including Blue Tail Fly (1949), Lavender Blue (1949), and A Holly Jolly Christmas (1964). Ives would continue to record music in a wide array of genres, including children's albums. He made his film debut as a singing cowboy in Smoky (1946), but his breakthrough role came with the Disney film, So Dear to My Heart (1949). Ives' stage career flourished during the 1950s, culminating in his role as Big Daddy in Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955). This performance proved Ives' ability as a serious actor and it led to more prestigious film work, including East of Eden (1955) and The Big Country (1958), for which he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. He also worked steadily in television during the 1950s and 1960s, most notably as a voice actor in the animated holiday special, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), and eventually starred in his own situation comedy, OK Crackerby! (1965), created by Cleveland Amory. In later life, Ives continued to make recordings, as well as act in film and television, but slowed his pace, settling in Anacortes, Washington, where he remained until his death.

From the description of Burl Ives papers, 1913-1975. (New York Public Library). WorldCat record id: 84646953

Burl Ives was born in Hunt City Township, Illinois on June 14, 1909. Growing up in a rural farming family, Ives’ learned American folk songs from his parents and grandparents. He sang from an early age and learned to accompany himself on the guitar and the banjo. In high school, he earned money as a musician and showed talent as a football player as well. He entered Eastern Illinois State College, studying to be a football coach, but he simultaneously nurtured his singing talent by studying voice and performing over the college radio station. And after three years, he left college to pursue his love of folk music, embarking on a cross-country trip to collect traditional folk songs. This phase of Ives’ life inspired his nickname, “The Wayfaring Stranger,” a title he used for his radio show, several albums and his autobiographies.

In 1933 Ives moved to New York, where he attended both Julliard and New York University, studying acting with Benno Schneider and voice with Ella Toedt. Ives established himself singing at various benefits around the city and acting in upstate New York summer stock productions. He made his Broadway debut in 1938 with a small role in Rodgers and Hart’s hit musical, The Boys from Syracuse and had another small role in the short-lived play, Heavenly Express (1940). During World War II, he was in the army for 2 years, during which he appeared on Broadway in Irving Berlin’s all-soldier revue, This is the Army (1942). In 1944, Ives had a major role in Walter Kerr’s folk music revue, Sing Out, Sweet Land, for which he won a Donaldson Award.

Ives’ singing career built steadily throughout the forties, from his network radio debut in June of 1940 to his radio show, The Wayfaring Stranger in 1941, as well as regular nightclub appearances. Ives signed a recording contract with Decca, after they put out the cast album of Sing Out, Sweet Land (1944) and on December 1, 1945 he made his New York concert debut at Town Hall. Ives had a regular network radio show, The Burl Ives Show, from 1946-1948, but also found time to launch another career, making his film debut as a singing cowboy in Smoky (1946), which was followed with other small roles in Green Grass of Wyoming (1948) and Station West (1948). His film breakthrough came in 1949 with the Disney film, So Dear to My Heart, which also provided him with a major song hit, “Lavender Blue.”

Each facet of Ives’ career flourished in the 1950s and 1960s. As a New York theater actor, he had several notable roles in the 1950s, replacing James Barton as the star of Paint Your Wagon and subsequently starring in the national tour in 1952-1953, and then playing Cap’n Andy in the 1954 revival of Show Boat at City Center and culminating in his most famous role as Big Daddy in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955). This performance proved Ives’ ability as a serious actor and it coincided with more prestigious film roles, including re-creating his performance in the film of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), as well as playing supporting roles in East of Eden (1955) and Desire Under the Elms (1958). Ives won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in The Big Country (1958). He also worked steadily in television, with appearances on General Electric Theater in 1956 and 1959, Playhouse 90 in 1957, Zane Grey Theater in 1960 and The Bell Telephone Hour (1963-1965). Ives continued to work in television, starring in his own sitcom, OK Crackerby! (1965).

As a recording artist, he produced an impressive catalogue of hits, including “Blue Tail Fly” in 1949, “On Top of Old Smoky” in 1951, “Wild Side of Life” in 1952, “A Little Bitty Tear” in 1962 and “It’s Just My Funny Way of Laughing” which won Ives a Grammy Award for Best Country and Western Record the same year. The recording for which Ives is, perhaps, best remembered today, “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” came from the soundtrack of the TV special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which first aired in 1964.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Ives continued to record music in a wide array of genres, including folk, country/western, religious music, children’s albums and even an album of contemporary pop songs, The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1968). Ives received Grammy nominations for his children’s recordings, Chim Chim Cheree and Other Children’s Choices (1964) and America Sings (1974). Ives continued to act in film and television, though his career slowed down in the late 70s and 80s and his final film appearance was in Two Moon Junction (1988). His last album, The Magic Balladeer was released in 1993.

In 1945 Ives married one of the writers of his radio show, Helen Erlich. Until their divorce in 1960, Helen Ives was deeply involved in her husband’s career. They had one son together, Alexander. Ives married his second wife, Dorothy Koster Paul in 1971. He retired to Anacortes, Washington and passed away there on April 14, 1995.

From the guide to the Burl Ives papers, 1913-1975, (The New York Public Library. Billy Rose Theatre Division.)

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Subjects:

  • Voice actors and actresses--United States
  • Actors--20th century
  • Voice actors and actresses
  • Motion picture actors and actresses
  • Folk songs
  • Folk singers--United States
  • Television actors and actresses
  • Television actors and actresses--United States
  • Folk songs--United States
  • Folk singers--Biography
  • Folk singers
  • Actors--United States--20th century
  • Motion picture actors and actresses--United States

Occupations:

  • Actors
  • Folk singers

Places:

  • United States (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)