Courtesy of Leroy Van Dyke
Leroy Van Dyke
Celebrated country singer Leroy Van Dyke takes his Country Gold tour on the road.
By Alex Stewart
The musical stylings of an auctioneer might not sound appealing, but the qualities of a talented auctioneer and a skillful singer are somewhat related. Case in point: Leroy Van Dyke’s 1956 “The Auctioneer,” a ditty that combined storytelling, music, and auctioneering into a chart-topping hit that sold millions.
The breakthrough hit about a man who grew up to be an auctioneer wasn’t written in a studio. It wasn’t even conceived in the United States. It was born in Korea, where Leroy was serving in the Army as a counterintelligence agent during the war. The lyrics came to him like a fever dream as he took care of his routine military duties.
“As I kept driving up and down those roads, the words and music kept coming to me,” he says. “After three or four times I said, ‘Someone is trying to tell me something.’ ”
So one day he sat in his tent and furiously scribbled the words to a song in his head, having no aspirations up to this point to perform or sing in front of anybody.
Before the words to “The Auctioneer” beckoned to him, Leroy was a small-town country boy born in a farmhouse south of Sedalia. He worked on the family farm alongside his father, a cattleman and truckline operator who frequently took him to livestock auctions. After seeing his cousin Ray Sims run an auction at a breakneck pace, Leroy was inspired. Between his junior and senior years at Mizzou, Leroy attended auctioneering school. Since then, he’s auctioned everything from buffalo to bulldozers.
His more glamorous life as a country star has been dubbed “countrypolitan” by some. But viewing that as a slur would be a mistake; Leroy introduced country music to the Las Vegas Strip, performed at the Grand Ole Opry, and broke country music records. He just doesn’t look like a hillbilly—his word—when he does it.
“After selling millions, I noticed a peculiar phenomenon,” he says. “Ray Price would have a number one song that would sell 75,000 records, then someone would cover it in the pop field and sell millions. I came up with the premise that if our music is good enough to go to the Strip, then the artist who created it should be good enough to take it there.”
He dressed up his performance like a true Vegas showman. The song was fast and slick, and he sported combed hair and a silk tie.
“We don’t dress like we’re catching hogs,” he says. “But we could.”
As in many instances of a succeeding generation evolving a genre, Leroy isn’t pleased with where today’s artists have taken country music.
“I don’t care much for new country,” he says. “A lot of the new country records would make good background noise for tire changing. I like to be able to understand the story. Now, quite often, it’s a loosely connected group of words that don’t tell a story.”
Leroy is fond of the golden age of classic country music—the late-fifties, sixties, and seventies. Gene Autry, Hank Snow, Eddie Arnold, and Red Foley all served as early influences on Leroy’s musical style, and he decrees the late Merle Haggard the genius of the last fifty years in music.
At eighty-six, and after sixty years in the business, Leroy has one of the longest-running careers in country music. His Country Gold tour has been stopping at county and state fairs across the United States, bringing together the best country music names and its loyal fans. At many of these events, when he’s done singing hits like “Walk On By” and “The Auctioneer,” you may want to stick around, as he’s often asked to run an auction as its guest star.