Marshal Andy’s secret: Our favorite cowboy got his start as a jazz singer

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A while back, I got a surprising phone call from an old friend.

I’d been writing some about some legendary jazz-era icons who I’d just learned, thanks to Papers to Pixels, had been repeat performers in Knoxville venues. Erskine Hawkins, the popular black trumpeter of the ’30s and ’40s who performed here maybe more than a dozen times, from small alley clubs to big mainstream places like the Riviera Theatre; and Gene Krupa, the hard-driving, genre-changing jazz drummer who sometimes played at Whittle Springs or Chilhowee Park.

Those guys died decades ago, and I would not have guessed anyone in my 2017 circle would have met either of them, much less performed with them. But I do, and his name is Marshal Andy.

He was happy to talk about all that. With Father’s Day coming up, I couldn’t think of a better subject. Everybody’s dad likes the marshal. He’s the fellow in the white cowboy hat who’s been representing the cowboy virtues to East Tennessee, in one way or another, for almost half a century.

Every Saturday morning at 10:30, thousands of East Tennessee viewers, perhaps fathers, fellows you’d expect to be in the workshop or in the garden on a Saturday morning, instead turn on the television. What they find there is Marshal Andy himself, with a friendly grin and a white hat, some Western-swing guests and musical performers, always including his own band. And the main feature, which is an old B-movie, usually black and white, usually from the ’30s or ’40s.

In the realm of Western fans, the letter B does not connote second rate. Real cowboy fans may prefer the B Westerns to the A ones. Justice is more certain to prevail, the heroes are stronger and truer, the sidekicks are funnier, and the bad guy gets a better whipping. And in B Westerns, the cowboys sing much better than in any fancy big-studio movie.

He thinks his show, Riders of the Silver Screen, may be the longest-running TV show in Knoxville history. I can’t argue. At 34 years and counting, I do think it has topped even Cas Walker’s Farm and Home Hour.

Marshal Andy turns 88 next month. He’s never lived on the range, but Andy has wandered more widely, across geography and genre, than most cowboys ever did.

He did grow up riding horses, back when he was known as A.J. Smalls. His father was a saltwater fisherman outside the colonial seaport town of Georgetown, S.C., and also had a small farm a few miles inland, and Andy was well acquainted with the work horses.

Like most imaginative kids who grew up in the middle part of the last century, he wanted to be a cowboy, but also a pop singer, but also a football player. Unlike most kids, he’s done some version of all those things. What appeared to be a line on a screen test in Hollywood didn’t work out, he says, because of the decline of cowboy movies in the late ’40s. Instead, Andy Smalls became the second-best thing to a cowboy, a linebacker for Clemson. He made some key tackles in the days when Doug Dickey was quarterback for Florida. Andy played in the heart-stopping 1951 Orange Bowl, a one-point win over Miami for the Tigers.

That same guy, though, was also a big-band singer whose hero was jazz crooner Billy Eckstine (who performed in Knoxville occasionally, at the black club on Charles Street, the alley between State and Central). Andy worked up several of his favorite songs, like “Sentimental Journey,” some Sinatra hits like “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” and “I’ll Never Smile Again.” And especially “Blue Moon,” which became his signature.

For eight years, he was a regular with bands along South Carolina’s Grand Strand, including the elegant Ocean Forest Hotel, north of Myrtle Beach, which Andy says was “like a Hollywood dream”—and, every summer, at the Pawley’s Island Pavilion, the rougher-edged popular dance spot built over the marsh. Although for the last half century, the Pavilion has existed only as some scorched pilings, it’s a fond memory to dozens of older Knoxvillians who summered there.

He had a reputation not only as a good singer but, thanks to his football acclaim and rugged stage presence, as a popular guy who could stir up the crowds. Some touring big-name bands would invite him up to sing a tune or two. Twice, at Clemson dances, he sang “Blue Moon” and others with Erskine Hawkins’ band. “He was a cool gentlman, used to be real open and friendly towards me,” he says of Hawkins. “He thought it was kind of cute to bring up this football player up on stage.”

When Gene Krupa played at the Armory in Georgetown, Andy sang “Blue Moon” and another song he doesn’t remember now.

He was never part of a famous big band, but performed several times with nationally popular bandleader Charlie Spivak’s shows in Greenville and Columbia and elsewhere.

At the beginning of that spell that he met and married a Charleston beauty, Kathryn. They’ll be celebrating their 60th anniversary next month.

While he was singing swing, he started drifting more and more toward Western Swing, and was especially influenced by Eddy Arnold, who later became a personal friend.

Meanwhile, raising a family, he had to make a paying career. He the Turners in Atlanta when cable TV was new, and came to Knoxville on a mission from them in the ’60s, and liked the proximity to the mountains, which had always seemed refreshingly exotic to a Low Country boy.

He stayed near the fringes of show biz, making a career in marketing. Sometimes writing and singing jingles, “Meet me at the Waffle House…”

He lived in New York for a while, Atlanta for a while, but came back to Knoxville to work for Charlie Tombras, who was connected to a new venture called The Lost Sea, and needed some help promoting it.

“I never got deep enough to jump into a career,” he says, without any tone of regret. “I was always right on the edge, where it’s safe.”

When he first put on a cowboy hat, it was a black one, because he was a bad guy, at a resort in North Carolina about 100 miles southeast of here. He wrote cowboy scenes and acted them, always as the bad guy who gets shot.

By the time he started hosting old movies on TV and hosting Western conventions, he had changed his ways and become a good guy. His white-hat persona dates to the early ’80s. Andy Smalls became Marshal Andy, at the behest of popular orchestra leader Al Curtis, with whom he often sang at the old Hyatt.

I’ve been honored to be a guest on his show several times over the years, talking about everything from downtown Knoxville gunfights of the Wild West era to my Tennessee Theatre book, which has a good deal about cowboy-movie culture, including a 1932 mini-rodeo led by Tom Mix, in person, at his considerable height, but Western stars like Lash Larue wouldn’t be part of the theater’s history if not for the fact that Marshal Andy organized visits from these legends during their retirement years.

With the help of his son, Drew, and writer Jack Pennington, his life story, The Knoxville Cowboy, is out. The story of his unique life acknowledges but doesn’t much dwell on the tragedies of his life, including the deaths of two children, one who drowned as a small child, one who died as a young adult in a car accident. He prefers, in the words of a song he sang long ago, to accentuate the positive.

He and Kathryn now live in Loudon, an old-fashioned small town with a waterfront that he says reminds him of Georgetown.

For years, he’s been known for his homecoming-style shows at Bearden Banquet Hall, coinciding with his and Kathryn’s anniversary in late July. Today he says he’ll do it just one more time, this July 25. His voice is still deep and strong, and his memory is sharp, but he’s having trouble getting around, and he thinks it’s time to close that one chapter. He’ll keep coming into town to the ETPBS studio on Magnolia Avenue, to record a few more episodes of Riders of the Silver Screen.

He closes every show the same way. “If you don’t have a white hat, please wear a smile, so we can tell you from the bad guys.”

Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.

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