Susie Sang Her Way Through St. Louis Radio
She was known as Susie, The Gal from the Hills, but the simplicity of the name was misleading. This was a woman who knew music!
Born in 1919 and named Mary Louise Wesnitzer, the Casey, Ill., native was playing classical piano by age 9. Three years later, she developed a fondness for what she called “simple home folk songs,” and that was the basis for her long career as a radio performer.
In 1937, fresh from graduation at East St. Louis High School, she began hosting a regular program over WTMV called “Can You Stump Susie?” The premise was that this teenage girl knew over 5,000 songs, so it was unlikely her listeners could come up with one she didn’t know. A gifted musician on piano, harmonica, mandolin, Gibson guitar, banjo and bass, Susie kept the listeners of WTMV entertained for six years.
Those years at WTMV had sown the seeds for Susie’s national prominence. She was named the National Hillbilly Association’s female champion vocalist in 1938. A year later she was asked to be a part of the Hillbilly Stars’ Championship Jamboree. She’d formed a band, The Sons of the Ozarks, in 1939. It consisted of five men and Susie, but World War II forced a breakup when most of the men were called to the service.
Susie moved her radio show across the river in 1942, appearing on WEW. By 1943, she was a regular on KWK’s Shady Valley Gang program, which also meant national exposure over the Mutual Network. An unexplained wanderlust took hold in 1944 when she left the St. Louis area for a radio job in Baton Rouge, but she returned to the Shady Valley gig by the fall of 1945.
That affiliation was officially terminated by the end of the year. By this time she had written over 30 songs. This was an era when songwriting could lead to a substantial income stream, with writers getting fees from sheet music publishers as well as record sales. It appears she also did a lot of club appearances while actively seeking another job on the radio.
That job came at WTMV in 1948, where Susie landed a Sunday afternoon request show. That exposure led to a job offer from WIL in 1949, which was apparently patterned after the WTMV program.
It was at WTMV that Suzie displayed a sort of copycat creativity in which she took a cue from Les Paul (a former St. Louis radio personality on KMOX.)
As described by writer Chuck Acree: “Suzie, the ‘Girl of the Hills’ on station WTMV in East St. Louis, has added to her program the trick of singing a duet with herself. The trick is accomplished by means of a recording. Suzie sings the melody of a song and it is recorded. Then the recording is played on the air and Suzie sings harmony.
“Suzie planned on building herself up to a quartet by this method but the station management squelched the idea on the basis that she might demand a quartette’s pay.”