In 1925, Kasper “Stranger” Malone got a ride that landed him on a street corner in Rome, Ga. – the town that was to see the launch of his musical career as well as his passing some 80 years later at the age of 95. But that makes his story sound simpler than it was.
Born near Paducah, Ky., Oct. 25, 1909, Stranger Malone’s life was a whirlwind journey that took him all over the world, playing music across Europe, parts of Asia and virtually every state in the Union. He was known and regarded as a walking piece of musical history. He’d played in silent movie orchestras, symphony orchestras, studio groups in the early days of radio and even a miniature circus. He played swing before it was called swing, and jazz before it was called jazz. In 1933 he even participated in an experiment for a forthcoming invention called “television,” of which he said that only “under the best of conditions” could anybody identify what was being shown.
But Stranger Malone did not live in the past, choosing instead to think forward to what he could do better, what he could improve on. He already played a number of instruments including clarinet, flute, tuba and his favorite, the string bass, before deciding to learn how to play the guitar around age 82. He wanted to be able to accompany himself, he said.
And he read a lot, well beyond his eighth-grade education – an hour a day, every day – philosophy by Nietzsche, Goethe, Comte, Schopenhauer, Confucius, Gandhi; as well as New England philosophers Emerson, Thoreau and Margaret Fuller. He also practiced his German every day, along with his music. Actually, he had a whole daily routine designed to keep himself sharp, continually stretching himself and striving for improvement.
“I’ve got a little nest where I do my clarinet and flute. And I play my flute first,” he said. “I have one CD with Bach’s violin concerto – a couple of those – and I play along with them. And that’s my first practice. Then I fix a little lunch and I come back and play clarinet and then guitar with Romero, the Spanish guitarist. And then through the day I work on some of my material for what I do over there (at Rome’s Harvest Moon Café). Like some of the songs that I haven’t been using. I’ve got one. We had a request for it, and I thought, ‘Why haven’t I been doing that?’”
Still performing regularly until his passing May 30, Malone had a weekly stint at the Harvest Moon Café, and continued to play music events in Atlanta, Mentone, Ala., and Asheville, N.C., among others. Last February, less than four months before his death, he shared poignant recollections of his own life and commentary on life in general.
“Time is so short,” he said. “You have to enjoy everything.”
How Did Stranger Malone Get into Music?
“Well, you might say I was born into it,” he said. “My family was musical, all of them. My mother and father both played organ. And my older brother was a violinist and played cornet, and he bought a new horn and he gave me the old one when I was 3 years old. And I used it as a toy and also to blow on occasion. By the time I was 4 or 5, I was playing a little bit. And I’ve been at it ever since.”
When Malone got a little older he bought a baritone horn. His brother would play the lead on trumpet and they’d play hymns out of books.
“He taught me to read bass clef,” he said. “And we would just use that as a way of practicing. Of course this was on a tobacco farm in west Kentucky. Actually, times were different then – money was hard to come by. Tobacco and cotton are not the easy way to make it. But we owned our own farm – you might say self-sufficient in that way. But it was bad here in the South during much of that time. There were people working for $9 a week.”
Malone found that “there was no music there for a young boy,” and so he wasn’t inclined to stay on the farm in Kentucky. He caught a ride out of town, eventually stopping at a filling station in Armuchee, Ga., near Rome, where a band was tuning up. “And I said, ‘Well I’ll get out here,’ and I joined in,” he said. “And they needed me. I was guided there. I’ve always been guided.”
It was a different era when Malone got to Rome. Back home he’d had the first radio in his neighborhood – a small set with a single WD-11 tube and a very long antenna.
“I had about 30 feet of wire, way up high. I put one pole and the other end of it to an oak tree.”
But there were no radios when he got to Rome. “Nobody had a radio. Nobody. There wasn’t one in the town.”
He began playing for a uniform band, traveling all over the South, “well paid” at $7 a day plus room and board.
Although his given name was Kanoy, which he later changed himself to Kasper, he was known as “Stranger” most of his life, which was – given his congenial nature – an ironic nickname that he earned when he first came to Rome.
“Well, when I first started playing with that band out there at Armuchee, some hillbilly walked up and he said, ‘Who’s that there little stranger fellow that plays that there big horn?’ And they got a kick out of his way of saying it, so they said, ‘That’s a nickname for him.’”
It’s quite possible Stranger Malone enjoyed the world’s longest recording career. His first recording was in 1926 with legendary musicians Clayton McMichen on fiddle and Riley Puckett on guitar. McMichen had heard about Stranger Malone, how he practiced clarinet all day long and was getting to be pretty good. McMichen wanted an instrument to play a lower harmony to his fiddle, so one day he picked Malone up. With Puckett they formed a trio called the Melody Men, playing mostly ballads. Malone played the clarinet. Their first record together was a milestone. It marked the first time that old-time string music was combined with popular music. That record – “Sweet Bunch of Daisies” – was released on the Columbia Records label (#15111-D) along with “House of David Blues” (#15130-D).
Old-time fiddler Gid Tanner was present during one recording session. It was there that Malone gave him the idea for the intro for “A Day at the County Fair,” which Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers recorded with Malone in 1928. Although that record sold many copies, Malone left the South in 1928 and didn’t hear that recording – along with many of his other recordings – until the 1990s, when his travels brought him back to Rome.
“Of course the birds know when to fly south, and I knew when to fly south,” he said. “And later I knew when to fly west. You can call it superstition or whatever you like, but I was guided right to the only place in the world I fit in.”
And while Malone wasn’t sentimental about his recordings, no one could challenge his memory or mental acuity. Elise Witt, a singer and songwriter from Atlanta who performed with Malone on the road in recent years, said, “Even at 95, if you mentioned any song title, he could tell you, not only the year it came out, but the month, the composer, the performers, and some interesting anecdote about the song.”
Stranger Malone left the South after sound came into the movie industry, and theaters all over the country let their musicians go. This ended his tenure with the silent movie orchestra, and created problems for musicians all over finding work. Malone closed out the ’20s after a brief stint with a theatrical group in 1929, and moved to Kansas with a trumpet player, jobbing around with different bands.
“It was dance time,” he said. “I mean, people were dancing everywhere. And that continued real well for a while. Then I had my own band and that went well for a time, and then it dwindled. And then I went into radio shortly after that and stayed in radio until the war – WWII.”
Of course he did a lot of other things along the way. In the ’30s he traveled west … and north … and east (including a short period on a cruise ship to Shanghai), working from Eagle Pass, Texas, to Kansas City to Minneapolis to Nebraska (where he started playing the string bass), to Yankton, S.D., where he met his first wife and where Lawrence Welk played a daily radio broadcast at noon.
“He offered me a job one time,” Malone said. “‘Well,’ I said, ‘I can’t be jumping around – I just got married.’ He wanted me to play saxophone and I said, ‘Well, Lawrence, I don’t even play saxophone anymore. I don’t even have one.’ And he said ‘I’d buy you one.’ He was a good man. He was a great person.”
By most people’s standards, Malone did a lot of moving around. “Well, you have to,” he said. “The sheep have to change pastures. When the grass gets short over here, why, it grows longer over there.”
In his life, he lived in about 10 or 12 states, and his instrumental versatility gave him more opportunities to work that he wouldn’t have had otherwise.
He left Yankton for Topeka to play for radio station WIPW, where he stayed for four years before moving to Denver in 1941 to play with the Denver Symphony. Money was tight, though, so he left Denver and took a job at the Midway Club in Billings, Mont. It was while he was there that he became interested in American Indian culture, and from that sprang an avid study of history.
“What makes him amazing is the depth of his experience,” said Mick Kinney, a fellow musician who played frequently with Malone over the last dozen or so years. “He was always a teacher and a mentor – always inclusive. He’d play for any cause. He wasn’t really into the money, he just wanted to stay busy.”
Malone went back to the Denver Symphony after a while, and played Western swing for every radio station in Denver. In 1943 he joined the U.S. Maritime Service, a uniformed but unarmed division of the U.S. Navy, where he was stationed for two years on Catalina Island learning how to sail ships.
After the war he went back to Denver before hitting the road with bandleader Pee Wee Hunt’s band, playing Dixieland jazz. After seven or eight months with Hunt, Malone headed to Hollywood. At one point he was hired to play at newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst’s mansion.
“We drove down there and played special parties,” he said. “They paid so well you couldn’t ignore them.”
He also played for a while at the same nightclub as Lil Armstrong, wife of jazz great Louis Armstrong, and from 1953-56 he played string bass with the world-famous jazz band Jack Teagarden and his Orchestra.
When Teagarden’s band dissolved, Malone went to Las Vegas. Everything there was union, so musicians had to register and wait three months before they could take a steady job. They called it “sweating out a card.”
“I had my own little house trailer and I had a good quiet place up on a hill where there were a lot of shade trees,” Malone said. “And for three months during that time I read Shakespeare. I went through his entire work. I sat under this tree and read this big volume of Shakespeare and people thought I was this religious fanatic, sitting out there reading my Bible every day.”
Malone did settle down for a while, taking a job at the University of Arizona, where he taught bass for 13 years. He also played with the Tucson Orchestra as first-chair bass. During this time he attended a series of summer workshops in Monterey, Ca., designed to train orchestra conductors. He was part of a 100-piece orchestra brought in from all over the world, which he said he enjoyed more than anything he ever did.
In 1969, Malone took his flute and backpacked across Ireland. Later he got a Eurail pass and took off across Europe, playing music as he went. He settled in Germany in 1973, where he married his second wife and stayed for 20 years before coming back to the U.S. and eventually returning home to Rome.
Though he never did a lot of songwriting, he discovered while he was in Germany a penchant for writing short stories.
“I’d put on my heavy clothes and go to the woods and walk through the snow drifts,” he said. “And I’d come back and sit down and write a little story. The atmosphere was just right.”
Malone said he’d intended for his stories to be part of a bigger book called Saloon – not a “drinking joint,” but a place where people would get together and talk about life and politics.
“Even though they’re good stories, they would need to be revamped … But they’re about life, about human nature, and some of them I consider to be very good.” He said some of his stories were for children and some were for “grown-up children,” but all of them fiction. “When I wasn’t playing I had time to do that and they just came to me and I did it,” he said.
What has amazed people as much as anything about Stranger Malone has been his longevity. His secret for long life?
“Well it’s loving my work, I think, and staying away from doctors,” he said. “I don’t have any faith in doctors at all. Not a bit. Of course there are good doctors, but I don’t go with them. If I should get sick, I wouldn’t call a doctor. I do my own talking, and I get well. Like the Indian said, ‘I made me sick, now I made me well.’”
His love of music was inarguably key in keeping him going. Kinney said that sometimes at an event he’d get so excited about music that he couldn’t sleep. “As long as I’m playing, I don’t get tired,” he told me. “I can go and go and go and then finally, jetlag. And I sleep like an old possum.”
This past 4th of July would have been the 80th anniversary of Malone’s first-ever paid performance, a political gig in Mentone. He had numerous musical engagements lined up for the rest of the year that will now miss his presence. His last recordings were with Elise Witt in 2003, and two groups from Rome, the Groundhawgs and Little Country Giants, in 2004.
He also played with the symphony until recently. “It’s too much today,” he said. “I couldn’t keep up with the pressure. Of course I’m getting old now, and I’m a little lax on things so that I don’t want to ever have that happen. It means too much to me.”
Russell McClanahan played with Malone every week at the Harvest Moon Café. “The main thing I learned from Malone was that adding years doesn’t necessarily mean getting old,” McClanahan said. “Malone didn’t complain, even when talking about his body giving him trouble. He would just state the facts.
“I often found myself in a funny position with Malone, and this is how it would happen. We would be standing somewhere and a beautiful young woman would come up to me with a really big smile. I, of course, would be flattered and complimented, but the next question would be, ‘Would you take my picture with Mr. Malone?’”
Longevity was also at the heart of Malone’s musical preferences – songs that held up. “I like to choose songs that were popular for a long length of time. I think that the American people have still basically got good music in their hearts. I notice that when I play, I try to play what people enjoy. I do songs like ‘My Blue Heaven’ – songs with an idea, a little heart back in them…. I like the songs with feeling. I like gypsy music. Cole Porter wrote some fine music. I like that little song of his, ‘True Love.’”
There’s so much about Stranger Malone’s life that hasn’t been mentioned – that he was a vegetarian, that he made toys out of wood for children, that he performed eye exercises that actually corrected his own eyesight, that he was concerned about current events, such as the value of U.S. currency, the lack of good public transportation and the lack of motivation with today’s youth. I am told that Malone liked to carry music around to give to people he met. And he liked to buy old instruments, fix them up and give them to young people. This was his legacy of music – keeping songs alive and inspiring others to play them. But what did he think was his biggest accomplishment?
“Well, I don’t know,” he said. “I’m still trying to accomplish anything. I’ve always come just a little short of what I’ve wanted to do. But I keep trying.”
But fellow musicians saw accomplishment where Malone did not.
“He was an unsung hero – the ultimate sideman,” Kinney said. “He was a kind of Renaissance man. I would say that he spans so many generations and was still able to blend into new generations and voraciously hang onto traditions at the same time.”
Stranger Malone died while reading a copy of Life is Worth Living by Bishop Fulton Sheen.
“It’s been a pleasant life,” he had said less than four months earlier, “and I just keep doing what I think I was born to do. And I’ll continue as long as I am able to do so.”