I couldn’t resist including the ‘Beverly Hillbillies’ in the title of this piece, but I should confess a couple of things. First of all, I’m not referring to the TV show, but rather a Western swing band that actually called itself the Beverly Hill Billies (although some sources do spell it ‘Hillbillies’). I should also admit that today’s subject, country music pioneer Zeke Manners, actually spent only a small portion of his long career with the group — but it was an important part.
Although he was born in San Francisco, Leo Ezekiel Mannes grew up in Los Angeles. While still in high school he became proficient on several instruments, and within a few years had embarked on a musical career, one that soon led to a something special. That occurred around 1930 when the young performer — now calling himself Zeke Manners — helped a radio station concoct a story about a group of transplanted hillbillies living near Los Angeles. Not surprisingly, a faux backwoods musical group known as the Beverly Hill Billies was soon making a splash in local clubs and on the radio. The guys did pretty well for a while, even turning out some good-selling records, but within a few years things began to unravel. The group itself would continue to do its thing with various members through the years, but Manners packed his accordion and headed to New York.
As it turned out, he was welcomed with open arms by New Yorkers. The sophisticates enjoyed his corn-pone act, and he also appealed to the large number of rural folks who were flooding the city looking for a new way of life. Even though it was all tongue in cheek — he called himself a Jewish Hillbilly — he became very popular on the radio and sold a lot of records. You might say that even though Nashville was the capitol of country music, Manners was the king of New York’s thriving country music scene.
During World War II Manners served in the Army entertainment division, and in the post-war years worked on both coasts in radio and early TV. He also continued to excel as a songwriter, with successes like ”The Pennsylvania Polka,” a big hit for the Andrews Sisters (which enjoyed a revival years later in the movie Groundhog Day). Always a go-getter, as the years passed Manners did everything from stand-up comedy to running a mail order business. He even made a couple of small appearance in movies, one of them his nephew Albert Brooks’ Lost In America. But his most ironic job might have been the one he got by suing the producers of the popular Beverly Hillbillies TV show. To settle the suit, they made him the musical director of the program, and he soon became a friend and musical collaborator of its star, Buddy Ebsen. He finally wound down in his later years, and was 89 when he died in 2000.