Elton Britt (1913–1972)
aka: James Elton Baker
Elton Britt was a popular country singer of the 1940s, with a yodeling style most often compared to Jimmie Rodgers. His most popular song, “There’s a Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere,” was the first country performance awarded a gold record for selling more than a million copies. Britt also was a heavy influence on most subsequent yodelers in country music.
James Elton Baker was born on June 27, 1913, to James M. Baker and Martella Baker in Zack (Searcy County), a small community in the Ozarks. He was the youngest of five children and was plagued with heart trouble most of his life. Because he was not expected to live, his parents did not name him until he was a year old. He was named after his father and Elton Wilson, a local doctor who was able to keep him alive during his first year of life. Because his health was so delicate, he was pampered by his family, who called him “Cute,” a nickname used throughout his early years.
Baker acquired a love of music from his family. At the age of ten, he purchased his first guitar, a $4.95 instrument ordered through the mail from Montgomery Ward. A short time later, he heard the records of Jimmie Rodgers and was so impressed that he learned to yodel. He reportedly learned breath control while swimming underwater for several minutes at a time, which enabled him to sustain his yodel for an unusually long time.
In 1930, Baker was asked to replace his friend Hugh Ashley, another young yodeler from Searcy County who worked under the name of Hobart Walton in the Beverly Hill Billies, a popular group broadcasting almost daily over KMPC in Los Angeles, California. Although he was only scheduled to stay in Los Angeles for six weeks, this step eventually took Baker from Hollywood to New York City and other places during his long musical career. Glen Rice, an employee with the McMillan Oil Company that owned KMPC, decided that James Elton Baker did not sound hillbilly enough, so he gave him the name Elton Britt.
During his stay with the Hill Billies, Britt entered into the first of his four marriages. In February 1934, he wed Margaret Scott, a fifteen-year-old relative of his brother Vernon’s wife. Seven months later, in September 1934, Margaret was killed in an automobile accident in Cleveland, Oklahoma. In l935, Britt married Jeannie Russell, a Canadian citizen who died two days after the birth of their second child on June 9, 1937. In 1942, he wed his third wife, Penny, a long-time Britt fan; this marriage lasted until 1958, when the couple divorced. Finally, he married Janet Counts, a woman twenty-five years his junior, staying with her until 1970. Britt had children by each wife except the first, but none followed him into the world of music.
Britt’s first recordings were probably made with the Beverly Hill Billies, but it is impossible to determine on which of their several discs he appeared. His first documented recordings came in August 1933 for the Conqueror label as part of a group called the Wenatchee Mountaineers. About a year later, in June 1934, Britt made his first significant recording, “Chime Bells” (which later became a signature song), with his brother Vernon, with whom he recorded off and on for several years during the 1930s. The piece showcased his trademark yodeling. Later versions were recorded in 1939 and 1948, the latter making its way onto the Billboard charts.
Britt recorded with RCA Victor from 1937 to 1956, during which time he had several hit singles. These include “Someday” (1944), “Detour” (1946), “Candy Kisses” (1949), and “Quicksilver” (1950). His biggest hit by far was the patriotic wartime number, “There’s a Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere” (1942), with estimates of its sales ranging from one to four million.
Britt appeared in at least two movies. His performances in The Last Dogie (1933) and in the Charles Starrett western Laramie (1949) did nothing to advance his career. He may also have appeared in Universal’s The Prodigal Son (1949), but there is no evidence it was ever released. He received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960.
During the 1950s, Britt made a habit of retiring and coming out of retirement. When he retired in 1960, it was to wage an unsuccessful campaign for president of the United States on the Democratic ticket. This was generally viewed as a publicity stunt dreamed up by Aubrey Mayhew, his sometime manager. Shortly afterward, he returned to entertaining, and he had his last major hit with a seven-minute yodeling song, “The Jimmie Rodgers Blues,” in 1968.
On June 22, 1972, Britt suffered a heart attack while driving his car and died in a McConnellsburg, Pennsylvania, hospital the next day. He is buried in the Odd Fellows Cemetery in Broad Top, Pennsylvania. Later, a monument listing many of his hit songs was erected over his grave.
For additional information:
Cochran, Robert. Our Own Sweet Sounds: A Celebration of Popular Music in Arkansas. 2nd ed. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2005.
“Elton Britt.” AllMusic.com. http://www.allmusic.com/artist/elton-britt-mn0000176830 (accessed May 16, 2016).
McNeil, W. K., and Louis Hatchett. “There’s a Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere: The Story Behind Its Success.” In Country Music Goes to War, edited by Charles K. Wolfe and James E. Akenson. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2005.
W. K. McNeil
Ozark Cultural Resource Center
This entry, originally published in Arkansas Biography: A Collection of Notable Lives, appears in the CALS Encyclopedia of Arkansas in an altered form. Arkansas Biography is available from the University of Arkansas Press.