Ives, Burl (Icle Ivanhoe)

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Ives, Burl (Icle Ivanhoe)

Ives, Burl (Icle Ivanhoe), American singer, guitarist, and actor; b. Hunt Township, Jasper County, Ill., June 14, 1909; d. Anacortes, Wash., April 14, 1995. A folksinger, Ives also succeeded as an actor on Broadway, in films, and on television; he appeared on radio and made numerous recordings, some of which became hits on the pop, country, and easy-listening charts. The most popular of these were “On Top of Old Smoky” “A Little Bitty Tear” and the Grammy-winning “Funny Way of Laughin’.”

Ives was the seventh child of tenant farmers Frank and Cordella White Ives. He learned folk songs from his parents and from his maternal grandmother. He first earned money for his singing at a picnic when he was four years old. Taking up the guitar and banjo, he earned money performing while in high school. Upon graduation he enrolled at Eastern III. State Teachers Coll., where he spent two years. He dropped out to travel around the country collecting songs. Settling in Terre Haute, Ind., he attended Ind. State Teachers Coll., sang over the local radio, and studied voice with Madame Clara Lyon. In August 1933 he moved to N.Y. He attended N.Y.U. and the Juilliard School of Music, studying voice with Ella Toedt and acting with Benno Schneider. He performed folk music with such associates as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, sometimes singing for left-wing causes such as benefits for the Loyalist forces in the Spanish Civil War.

In the summer of 1938, Ives made his first professional stage appearances at the Rockridge Theater in Carmel, N.Y. He made his Broadway debut in the Richard Rodgers-Lorenz Hart musical The Boys from Syracuse (N.Y., Nov. 23, 1938), which ran 235 performances. In June 1940 he made his network radio debut as a singer, and by 1941 had his own 15-minute show, The Wayfaring Stranger.He also began to make nightclub appearances.

With the U.S. entry into World War II, Ives joined the army in 1942. He appeared in Irving Berlin’s service musical This Is the Army (N.Y., July 4, 1942) and made broadcasts for the Office of War Information until he received a medical discharge in 1944. He returned to Broadway in the folk- oriented musical Sing Out, Sweet Land! (N.Y., Dec. 27, 1944), which ran 102 performances, and for which he won a Donaldson Award (precursor to the Tony Award) for Best Supporting Actor. When Decca Records recorded the cast album to the show, it also signed Ives to a recording contract, his first with a major label.

Ives made his concert debut at Town Hall in N.Y. on Dec. 1, 1945. Five days later he married his former radio scriptwriter, Helen Erlich. They had a son. He made his feature-film debut as a singing cowboy in Smoky, released in June 1946. From 1946 to 1948 he again had a 15-minute network radio series, The Burl Ives Show. He sang again on film in Green Grass of Wyoming, released in June 1948, and also appeared in Station West, released in September. But his breakthrough film appearance came in the Disney children’s musical So Dear to My Heart, released in January 1949, in which he sang “Lavender Blue (Dilly Dilly)” (music by Eliot Daniel, lyrics by Larry Morey), which became his first hit on both the pop and country charts. He followed it with “Riders in the Sky (Cowboy Legend)” (music and lyrics by Stan Jones), which hit the country Top Ten and reached the pop charts in the spring of 1949.

Ives again sang in the film Sierra, released in September 1950, and he made further appearances on Broadway, but his career ran into trouble in the early 1950s due to the anti-Communist witchhunts that targeted his left-wing associations of the 1930s. In 1951 he testified as a friendly witness before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which earned him the enmity of his old friends in the folk music community but allowed him gradually to revive his career.

The folk song “On Top of Old Smoky,” credited to Percy Faith with Burl Ives, became a Top Ten pop hit in May 1951. In the summer of 1952, Ives and Grady Martin reached the country Top Ten and the pop charts with “Wild Side of Life” (music and lyrics by William Warren and A. A. Carter). But Ives spent the rest of the decade establishing himself as a straight actor, beginning with an appearance in a Broadway revival of Show Boat in May 1954. He returned to film-making in the drama East of Eden, released in March 1955, then memorably created the role of Big Daddy in Tennessee Williams’s play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (N.Y., March 24, 1955), which ran 694 performances. He turned to television with the original drama The Miracle Worker (Feb. 7, 1957), next appearing as a panelist on the quiz show High-Low, which ran during the summer of 1957. He continued to appear on television frequently for the rest of his career.

Ives focused on Hollywood in the late 1950s, and among his notable film appearances were a recreation of his stage role in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, released in September 1958, and a performance in the drama The Big Country, released in October 1958, that won him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. In the early 1960s he established himself as a country music star, beginning with “A Little Bitty Tear” (music and lyrics by Hank Cochran), which made the Top Ten of the pop and country charts and went to #1 on the easy-listening charts in the winter of 1962; it earned him Grammy Award nominations for Best Solo Vocal Performance, Male, and Best Country and Western Recording. The album The Versatile Burl Ives!, which contained the song, spent more than seven months in the charts. He followed it with “Funny Way of Laughin’” (music and lyrics by Hank Cochran), which reached the Top Ten of the pop, country, and easy-listening charts in the spring of 1962 and won the Grammy Award for Best Country and Western Recording. The LP It’s Just My Funny Way of Laughin’ spent eight months in the charts.

Ives continued to record country music successfully for the next couple of years, but increasingly he turned his attention to children’s projects in the 1960s, notably appearing in the Disney comedy Summer Magic, released in August 1963, and narrating the animated television special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in December 1964. He earned his next Grammy Award nomination in 1964 for Best Recording for Children for the LP Burl Ives Chim Chim Chereee and Other Children’s Choices.

For the rest of the 1960s and through the 1970s, Ives primarily spent his time recording music and acting in film and on television. He starred in the situation comedy O.K. Crackerby! in the fall of 1965 and returned to Broadway in the play Dr. Cook’s Garden in 1967. He starred in the dramatic series The Lawyers for three years, starting in September 1969. In 1971 he married his second wife, Dorothy. He earned another Grammy Award nomination for Best Recording for Children in 1974 for America Sings. He appeared in the successful television miniseries Captains and the Kings (1976) and Roots (1977). He was less active in the 1980s; he made his final film appearance in Two-Moon Junction (1988) and in the fall of 1988 launched a one-man touring show, The Mystic Trumpeter: Walt Whitman at 70, which he had written with his wife. He released his last album, The Magic Balladeer, in 1993. In 1995 he died of mouth cancer and congestive heart failure at the age of 85.


The Wayfaring Stranger (N.Y., 1948); The B. I. Song Book (N.Y., 1953); B. I.’ Sea Songs of Sailing, Whaling and Fishing (N.Y., 1953); More B. I. Songs; Tales of America (1954); B. I. Book of Irish Songs (1958); The Wayfaring Stranger’s Notebook (1962); Sailing on a Very Fine Day (Chicago, 1954); Song in America: Our Musical Heritage (N.Y., 1962).

—William Ruhlmann