Molly O’Day (1923–1987)

Updated: March 01, 2011

Country singer and banjo player.

Molly O’Day was called “the greatest female country singer ever” by Art Satherly, legendary producer for Columbia Records. Born Lois LaVerne Williamson on July 9, 1923, in McVeigh, Kentucky, near the West Virginia border, O’Day began her radio career in Charleston and Beckley, West Virginia, before moving to WHIS in Bluefield. Lynn Davis, the station’s program director, was impressed by O’Day’s voice and asked her to join his band when she was seventeen. Davis and O’Day married in 1941. They began their recording career as the Cumberland Mountain Folks, with Davis on guitar, O’Day’s brother Skeets on fiddle, and O’Day on banjo and vocals. Between 1946 and 1951, the group recorded thirty-six sides for Columbia Records.

O’Day’s hard-driving banjo frailing closely resembled that of Lily May Ledford, whom O’Day had heard on the radio. One of her most popular recordings, the ballad “Poor Ellen Smith,” provides aural evidence not just of O’Day’s vocal ability but also of her banjo prowess. Once, according to Davis, O’Day beat Earl Scruggs in a London, Kentucky, banjo contest.

O’Day suffered a nervous breakdown in 1949 and there- after shunned secular songs and the music business. After a 1951 recording session, she never again performed publicly, unless it was in front of the congregation pastored by Davis, who had become a Church of God minister. O’Day died on December 5, 1987. In 1992 most of O’Day’s recordings were reissued as a compact disc box set on Germany’s Bear Family label.

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Molly O’Day