Elton Britt was born James Britt Baker — some say Elton was the middle name — on June 27, 1913, to James and Martella Baker’s already musical Searcy County family. He came to be regarded as one of the world’s best yodelers — and was the first country and western musician awarded a gold record.
Britt’s childhood interest in swimming helped with breath control for another childhood activity — yodeling. Patsy Montana, the first female million-seller in country music (profiled last week), called him “my Arkansas hero.”
He sang and played guitar as a youth and idolized Jimmie Rodgers and other singing cowboys.
While Britt was still an Arkansas teen-ager, he joined the Beverly Hill Billies as a vocalist, and appeared with the band in the 1933 movie “The Last Dogie.” The Beverly Hill Billies were one of the most popular country and western groups in Southern California in the 1930s — and successfully sued the CBS sitcom of the same name for infringement in 1963.
By the mid-1930s, Britt had become a solo artist. He signed with RCA Victor in 1939, for which he would record for nearly 20 years — while he established his reputation and nickname as the “world’s highest yodeler.”
Britt’s “There’s a Star-Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere” in 1942 became a gold record, selling a million copies. Swept up in the patriotic fervor of U.S. involvement in World War II, the song’s success landed Britt a visit to the Franklin D. Roosevelt White House to perform.
Through the 1940s, Britt became a consistent hitmaker, scoring other hits on the country charts such as 1943’s “Gotta Get Together With My Gal,” which reached No. 4; 1944’s “Someday,” topping out at No. 2; 1947’s “Chime Bells,” hitting No. 6, and 1949’s “Candy Kisses,” reaching No. 4. With his wartime fame, Britt also rerecorded some of his 1930s songs. There was an Elton Britt Fan Club based in Bridgeport, Conn., according to the fall 1945 Happy Trails magazine.
After trying his hand in film again, appearing in the movies “Laramie” and “The Prodigal Son” in 1949, Britt spent the 1950s in and out of the music business.
In 1960, he unsuccessfully campaigned for the Democratic nomination for president.
After recording through four decades, Britt scored another achievement, the late-career hit: Britt’s1968 tribute to his childhood yodel-ing inspiration, “The Jimmie Rodgers Blues.” It was his first hit song in nearly 20 years — and was also his last big hit.
On June 22, 1972, Britt died of a heart attack in McConnellsburg, Pa. He is buried in the Independent Order of Odd Fellows’ Cemetery in Broad Top City, Pa. Some of Britt’s achievements are noted on his cemetery monument, but many of his recordings remain out of print.
• “I’m a Convict With Old Glory in My Heart”
• “Patent Leather Boots”
• “Cannonball Yodel”
• “They’re Burning Down the House (I Was Brung Up In)”
• “The Skater’s Yodel”
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