Leroy Van Dyke remembers his hotel-room phone ringing in the middle of the night—six o’clock a.m., which, for a working entertainer, was the middle of his night. “I was asleep in a casino in South Dakota,” Van Dyke recalls. “Phone rang. It was my wife. She knew better than to call me that early in the morning, [that I was] trying to keep my pipes in shape, working at night. She said, ‘I apologize for waking you up, but I don’t think you’ll mind.’”
The news Van Dyke received that morning in 1994? His 1961 No. 1 Mercury single, “Walk on By,” had been determined by Billboard magazine to be the biggest country record of all time, based on a combination of airplay, sales and total weeks (19) at the top of the country chart. “Walk on By,” an internationally popular stone-country shuffle that rings with Van Dyke’s commanding baritone and the matching low-end twang of now-legendary Nashville guitarist Hank Garland, also reached the Top 5 on the pop chart at a time when country crossover hits were still relatively rare.
While Van Dyke’s memorable pair of multimillion-sellers themselves (the first being the good-natured novelty “Auctioneer,” a Top 10 country and Top 20 pop hit) enjoyed across-the-board success without making any stylistic concessions to pop-weaned ears, the entertainer did play a significant early role in polishing country music’s image, proving it could reach a broader audience. Having learned what he refers to as “the vagaries of the music business” in the midst of his own rise to fame, Van Dyke watched industry trends and did the math.
“Pee Wee King probably sold 100,000 copies of ‘Tennessee Waltz,'” reckons the entertainer. “Patti Page sold nine million. Hers was the name in lights in the big cities.” Pop covers of modestly selling country hits by the likes of King, Marty Robbins and Ray Price were regularly exceeding the sales of the original versions, a fact that led the entertainer to an astute conclusion. “My whole premise is, and was, if our music is good enough to go to the bright lights, then the performers who created the music should be good enough to go there, too.”
Van Dyke opened at Las Vegas’ Sahara in February of 1969, winning the admiration of critics and showgoers with a sophisticated country music show that didn’t rely on anyone outside of Van Dyke’s own organization. “We put everybody in tuxedos, and we became the first self-contained, choreographed, staged country show to go to the Strip. And it worked.” He was later asked to take the show to major cities including Nashville on behalf of the Country Music Association, which in 1967 awarded him the Connie B. Gay (now the CMA Founding President’s) Award for outstanding service to the association. The honor was co-awarded that year to producer/choreographer Gene Nash, a longtime Van Dyke colleague whom he had initially enlisted to format his groundbreaking Vegas show, complete with dancing girls. “A lot of people back then looked down on country music” Van Dyke points out. “Hillbillies [they thought]. But they never called me a hillbilly, because we didn’t do it that way.”
A farm-born-and-raised Missourian and part-time rancher whose sturdy work ethic is still visible in everything he does, Van Dyke is as likely these days to appear onstage at county or regional fairs as in an uptown theatre or casino. While that may seem a contradiction, it’s entirely consistent with his upbringing around livestock, which lies at the roots of his 1956 breakthrough hit, “Auctioneer.” Like a crop that somehow planted itself, the song sprung up unbidden during Van Dyke’s stint serving in the U.S Army counterintelligence corps in Korea (where, memorably, he was asked to perform a short opening set for fellow soldiers at a USO show featuring Marilyn Monroe). Astonishingly, his first million-selling single was the only song he has ever written, and one he insists was “given” to him in a manner he still regards as mysterious. The song tells the story of his cousin, auctioneer Ray Sims, with one bit of artistic license: “The only thing in it that isn’t true,” he explains, “is the word ‘Arkansas,’ because you can’t rhyme anything with Missouri.”
In the same way that Van Dyke helped country music overcome a negative stereotype, his “Auctioneer” ultimately heightened respect for the auctioneering profession, one that was formerly regarded as “a subhuman category,” he says, laughing. Van Dyke, a licensed, practicing auctioneer himself who is widely known and acclaimed in that industry, was inducted into the National Auctioneers Association Hall of Fame in 1996. He’s been known to turn up in livestock barns to auction off four-legged champions at the fairs where he’s been scheduled to perform. He relates an occasion in Indiana when he got carried away and “sold 85 head of hogs, just ahead of a show. That’s not a good idea,” he says, “because my voice was about shot by the time I got ready to do the show. But I got through it.”
Now 85 and entering his 59th year in show business, Van Dyke admits he’s been late for a few shows over the years, owing to weather conditions and circumstances beyond his control, but he’s never actually missed a show. “I’ve rented cars, leased buses, chartered planes, and even walked into a dealership and bought a new Suburban in order to get where I’m going.” Combine that commitment to professionalism with the fact that he’s never tasted liquor or beer, and you have a country entertainer who resides at the opposite end of the spectrum from the legendarily unpredictable George Jones: the anti-Possum, if you will.
He’s currently busy hosting and performing on a package show called the Country Gold Tour, booked and managed by his wife of 35 years, Gladys. Their son, Ben, is the lead guitarist in his dad’s band, completing the close-knit unit Van Dyke calls “The Three Musketeers.” A seamless show boasting top classic-country talent and no downtime between acts, it continues in the tradition of the slickly produced Las Vegas shows envisioned long ago by Van Dyke—who, when he’s not busy raising the bid, is still busy trying to raise the bar.