Starlight Ball features Sons of the San Joaquin

By Reggie Ellis

In show business, connections are often made through the strangest coincidences. After all, it's not what you know, but who you know.

Booking Country Western favorite Sons of the San Joaquin to perform at the Starlight Ball, the annual benefit for the Exeter Boys & Girls Club, was no different. Sons of the San Joaquin is comprised of brothers Jack, Joe Hannah and his son Lon Hannah who all live in the Central Valley, but their manager is based out of Colorado. Randy Cox, board president for the club, tried for two years to get in touch with the manager but needed that personal connection to get the show business ball rolling. Last year he discovered he had a friend who knew the Hannah boys personally.

Leamon Smith, owner of Smith Family Funeral Chapel, mentioned that he has known Joe Hannah for 25 years. Joe was a teacher at Divisadero School in Visalia, which Smith's three children all attended.

"It was because of Joe that our kids got involved in choir," Smith said.

Joe, who still lives in Ivanhoe, also sang at funerals before hitting it big with his brother and nephew. At that time, Smith, an Exeter native, had moved his family to Visalia after taking a position with Millers Funeral Home.

So Smith called Joe and asked him to play the Starlight Ball. After running it through their manager, the club was able to get Sons of the San Joaquin to come to Exeter.

"We had to move the date of the Starlight Ball to make it work but it's a done deal," Cox said. "I've seen them play three to four times and it is worth it. I can't imagine anyone bigger coming to Exeter."

The Starlight Ball is sponsored by the Exeter Kiwanis Club and will begin at 6 p.m. on Feb. 21 at the Exeter Veterans Memorial Building and end at midnight. Tickets for the event are $60 and can be purchased at the Exeter Boys & Girls Club, Exeter Chamber of Commerce, NSE Insurance Agencies and the Bank of the Sierra in Exeter. Table sponsorships are also available. Each table seats eight people. The Denzel Washington table is $800, the Colin Powell table is $1,000 and the family table is $600. For more information call 592-2711.

Sons of the San Joaquin

The Western harmony of the Sons of the San Joaquin is being heard in a lot more places these days. A rich, burnished vocal blend, it's a distinctive sound that has carried the Hannah boys from local church and community gatherings to concerts around the world.

The Sons of the San Joaquin sound first began to take shape when the Hannah family migrated to the Central Valley from Missouri during the Great Depression.

"There were some cattle ranchers there," Jack said, "and that's where our romance with cowboys began."

Jack said he and Joe's father was a fan of The Sons of the Pioneers -- a trio of Roy Rogers, Tim

Spencer and Bob Nolan back in the 1930s.

"He'd sing a lot of those songs at home," Jack said of his father. "We learned a lot about harmony singing in church."

Lon, Joe's son, said the group celebrates and pays tribute to its classic country roots.

"There are some early recordings by them that are just phenomenal. When The Sons of the Pioneers were a trio there was an innocence and exuberance to their sound that was just incredible. We try to incorporate that emotion and feeling that the earlier trio had."

Soon Joe and Jack were in great demand as a vocal duo in the Central Valley. But their musical career had to be put on hold while they pursued their second love, baseball. From 1950 to 1962, the Hannah brothers played professionally -- Joe catching for the Chicago Cubs organization and Jack pitching for the Milwaukee Braves organization (now the Atlanta Braves). Once their baseball careers had concluded, Jack became a high school counselor and coach and Joe became a high school teacher, coach and music director.

In 1987, Lon, who taught elementary school and sang in church and local theater, approached his father and uncle to sing some cowboy songs for his grandfather's birthday party. Almost by accident, the Sons of the San Joaquin were born.

The trio got its big break when they were invited to perform at the 1989 Elko Poetry Gathering. Their appearance there caused a sensation. In the course of a weekend, they vaulted from total obscurity to sharing the main stage with Michael Martin Murphey, who immediately asked them to join him on his first Cowboy Songs album. In 1992, Warner Bros. Western label released The Suns first song "A Cowboy Has To Sing." They followed it up with "Songs of the Silver Screen," which reviewed B-movie soundtracks recorded by Sons of the Pioneers, in 1993. In 1995, Warner Bros. Western released "From Whence Came The Cowboy, a career milestone that featured Jack's praised original songwriting. The title track became a critically-acclaimed video.

Since then, the Hannahs have appeared on stage at the Grand Ole Opry, Austin City Limits and the House of Blues in Los Angeles where they were introduced by long-time supporter, actor Ed Harris. Joe's solo, "Wyoming on My Mind," was written by Charlie Daniels, and has become one of the group's signature pieces. Jack, now recognized as Country Western's No. 1 songwriter, has won repeat Songwriter of the Year awards from the Western Music Association. Jack also received an award the industry's top honor, the Wrangler Award, from the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. The Cowboy Hall of Fame has been recognized by the Cowboy Hall of Fame for his children's series "Read, Rite & Recite." The series of books, CDs and videos feature Dusty Trails (Dr. Gary Sells), who has appeared in local McDonald commercials, as well as actors Jack Palance (City Slickers) and Danny Glover (Lethal Weapon).

Lon's lead vocal and pure high harmony is sometime substituted by Hannah family friend, Bill Thornbury, which allows Lon to teach school part time and be involved with his own son's blossoming baseball career. Bill's resume includes singing and songwriting for 20th Century Fox and MTM Records in Nashville. The group also features fiddle player Tim Johnson.

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