Lash LaRue’s Mississippi and Tupelo connections

Johnny Cash, Lash LaRue and Waylon Jennings on the set of Stagecoach (1986).

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, many a boy sat cross-legged in front of a black and white television mesmerized by Lash LaRue and his use of an 18-foot bullwhip.

Some lucky youngsters, those who had 25¢, would go to the Strand or the Lyric and watch the Saturday Matinee with Lash on the big screen.

On June 15, 1917, the whip master was born Alfred LaRue in Gretna, Louisiana (though some records indicate Michigan).

His parents were Louise Busselle and Charles Wilson Johns, who married in Ohio in 1913. At that time, Charles Wilson Johns had dropped the Johns last name and was known as Charles Wilson.

Alfred’s father was a traveling salesman, and the young man spent his formative years moving all across the country. His family finally settled in Los Angeles and he attended St. John's Military Academy and began college at College of the Pacific, intending to study law. At some point he took an acting class there in an attempt to overcome a speech impediment. After college he followed his father into sales and became a real estate agent. Unsatisfied, he switched to hairdressing before falling into acting.

Bob Kenney, of Tupelo, a retired master magician, met Lash at a Memphis Film Festival in the early to middle 1970s. During that same time frame Terry Swindol, also of Tupelo, met the whipster. Both men had grown up watching the western star on TV and at the movies.

Kenney remembered a story Lash related about how the bullwhip came about, “The whip came into being from a writer and producer and director by the name of Bob Tansey.”

Tansey had been considering LaRue for a supporting role in Song of Old Wyoming (1945). This was an important part. It was to be a Cinecolor movie which would be the first starring vehicle for singer Eddie Dean, which made Dean the first series western star to appear in color. Lash was up for the role of the Cheyenne Kid, who would start as the bad guy and Eddie’s rival for the affections of leading lady Jennifer Holt, but would discover the error of his ways and change sides in time to stop a bullet in the final showdown with the baddies.

Tansey had told his secretary that Al (soon to be Lash) LaRue looked the part, but wondered out loud if Al could use a whip. Kenney said Lash said, “I’ve been messing around with one (a bullwhip) since I was a kid (he’d never touched one in his life, but he figured he could learn.)

“I went out and rented a couple of whips, one 15 foot and one 18 foot, and I practically beat myself to death trying to learn to throw it. I finally gave up altogether and the picture started and I thought, well, as soon as they learn I can't handle a whip, they'll throw me out.”

It turned out Tansey was very impressed by Al’s acting, complimented him on the job he was doing, and asked if he would like to do three pictures for three times his current salary.

It was then that the western star felt he had to fess up. “I got to tell you something. Well, I can’t use that whip.”

The producer looked disappointed.

“Now wait a minute,” Lash said. “You doubted if I could act, so I acted just a little bit for you. And I’m sorry about lying to you, but I wanted that part.” LaRue peeled off his shirt and showed Tansey how he'd cut himself up practicing with the whips.

Tansey started laughing and Al said, “He thought it was the funniest thing he'd ever run into.” The studio hired an expert named Snowy Baker to give lessons on the bullwhip, and LaRue proved a good pupil.

So now you know the story.

It was also for that movie that LaRue picked out a black outfit with white trim and a white neckerchief to go with his two sixguns. That look became his trademark and he got more fan mail than any other western star but the letters came addressed to “who wore the black outfit, or the man with the whip.”

So it was no longer Al LaRue, but Lash LaRue.

In 1957, Lash appeared at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show in Tupelo.

Another youngster, from Mississippi, who grew up watching him was Bruce Blackman. Blackman formed the rock band Starbuck, known mainly for the song “Moonlight Feels Right” (1976) but he also penned a tribute to the cowboy “Lash LaRue” which appeared on their debut album Moonlight Feels Right.

Recently Bruce penned the book The Road To Moonlight Feels Right. He was born in Greenville, and attended Mississippi State University.

Today, he is involved in several music projects and continues to write and record as an artist as well as producing other artists.

“I’ve had 30 more years to practice,” Bruce said, “so I guess I should be better now than I ever was.”

Lash like many who came to know fame and fortune acquired an alcohol problem (which he would battle, with varying degrees of success, for the rest of his life). He also had a penchant for marrying pretty much anyone he became attracted to. Some records say he married 10 times.

In 1966, he was arrested for vagrancy in Miami, Florida. It was reported he had 35¢ in his pocket.

In the late 1970s, Bob and his wife Nikki (who was also a master magician), while working for Atlantic Southern Productions, carried Lash with them and did shows where Lash demonstrated the whip and recited poetry.

One of his favorite verses was “I know some day we all will see a world at peace in tranquility, where men will find the time again to voice a praise to God — and then man’s right for life and liberty will never cease. And the whole world will enjoy an everlasting peace.”

After his fall in Florida, Lash was baptized at Shreveport Baptist Tabernacle by pastor Jimmy G. Tharpe. When Tharpe discovered who the fallen man was he declared a “Lash LaRue Day” at his church, where LaRue gave his Christian testimony.

Once again, LaRue had landed shiney side up and in the process got the job of teaching Harrison Ford how to use the bullwhip for his “Indiana Jones” movies.

In the early 1980s, after the shows with the Kenneys, Lash had heard of the remaking of the movie Stagecoach in Arizona.

The film was to star Willie Nelson, Kris Krisofferson, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, all of whom had grown up watching those Saturday Matinees.

Lash got a part and the film released in 1986.

He also appeared, in a photo, for the back of the soundtrack album which featured a song called “Heroes.”

“Heroes” was co-written by Tom Kimmel, who recently moved from to Tupelo to Hattiesburg. Tom also wrote the song “That’s Freedom” (1987) which gave him a Billboard Hot 100 hit as a solo artist.

LaRue died of emphysema in 1996 (age 78) at Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, California, and was cremated at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.

Publisher’s note: It’s my privilege to be friends with Bruce Blackman and Tom Kimmel, and good friends with Terry Swindol and Bob and Nikki Kenney.

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