Daily Progress, Jacksonville, TX

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December 11, 2011

Bob Bowman’s East Texas

Creating a gospel classic

JACKSONVILLE — Songwriter Stuart Hamblen, the son of an itinerant East Texas preacher, wrote hundreds of successful songs during his lifetime, but his most enduring composition was a gospel classic inspired by, of all people, John Wayne.

Hamblen was born in 1908 at Kelleyville, west of Jefferson, but strayed from his father’s Methodist teachings when he became a western singing success, a radio star, and a Hollywood cowboy

He started drinking, gambling and brawling--a lifestyle befitting his frequent role as a bad guy in films with Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Wild Bill Elliott. His wife Suzy frequently prayed for him and Hamblen experienced a religious conversion at a 1949 Billy Graham evangelism crusade in Los Angeles. Hamblen stopped drinking and ran for president in 1952 as the Prohibition Party’s candidate.

He encountered John Wayne, with whom he had appeared in “Flame of the Barbary Coast,” and Wayne asked him, “What’s this I hear about you, Stuart?”

“Well, Duke,” answered Hamblen, “I guess it’s no secret what God can do.”

“Sound like a song,” said Wayne.

The casual remark provided a creative spark for Hamblen. One night, sitting alone at home, he began writing a song. When he heard a clock strike the hour, he wrote,”The chimes of time ring out the news. Another day is done. Someone slipped and fell. Was that someone you?”

In 17 minutes Hamblen had created. “It Is No Secret,” a gospel classic which would be translated into nearly every language in the world.

Hamblen, who left East Texas in the l920s to attend McMurray College in Abilene, started his career by becoming a singing cowboy on an Abilene radio station. In 1929 he won a talent contest in Dallas, using his $100 cash prize to travel to the East Coast, where he recorded four songs for the forerunner of RCA Victor.

Hamblen then traveled to Hollywood, becoming the lead singer of a radio singing group known as the Beverly Hill Billies. He was soon a West Coast hit, headlining such programs as

Stuart Hamblen and the Lucky Stars, the Covered Wagon Jubilee, and King Cowboy and his Wooly West Review.

Following his success with “It Is No Secret,” Hamblen wrote more than 225 other songs, including “Remember Me” and “Open Up Your Heart and Let the Sunshine In.”

His songs were recorded by Elvis Presley, Eddy Arnold, Pat Boone, Johnny Cash, Hank Snow, and Ernest Tubb.

Next to “It Is No Secret,” his biggest hit was “This Ole House,” which was recorded by Roosemary Clooney. Hamblen didn’t particularly like the way Clooney recorded the song, but it became a leading hit in seven countries and was 1954’s song of the year.

Many people thought Hamblen wrote the song about a deteriorating old country home, but it was actually about the body of an aging Christian.

Hamblen was inducted as a charter member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970, was honored in 1971 by the Academy of Country and Western Music as radio broadcasting’s first singing cowboy, was given a star on Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame in 1976, and received a Golden Boot Award in 1988 for his work in motion pictures.

Hamblen, who made his home on a ranch outside Los Angeles, died at the age of eighty in 1989.

Hamblen was also honored posthumously by the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame in Carthage.

Appearing on stage to accept the award, his daughter Lisa said Hamblen was once approached by a Christian fan who said the East Texan didn’t really write ‘It Is No Secret.” The fan insisted that Hamblen “only held the pen.”

(Bob Bowman of Lufkin is the author of more than 50 books about East Texas history and folklore. He can be reached at bob-bowman.com)

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