LOVE SONGS: To hear Almus "Slim" Cox tell the story, he was an "Arkansas boy that they said wouldn't amount to nothin'," just a scuffling small-town kid in a country-music band, when he met a teenage Zella Mae Anderson. For a year-and-a-half they courted, much of that time spent in a cotton patch, where they toiled long hours, dreaming of show business and eating potato sandwiches and pots of beans brought to work in a lard bucket.
"I wasn't much of a cotton picker," Cox remembers. "But I was a fantastic sack dragger. Now, Zella Mae could pick cotton. I might do 50 pounds in a day, but she could do 350 pounds."
Not only that, she could sing, with a golden voice to go along with her strong back. Slim would soon lead an old-time country group called the Foggy Mountain Boys, but here he found both a longer-lasting musical partner and a bride.
To break into the country-music scene, they stood in that cotton patch, singing at the overhead electric wires, hoping their voices would somehow be caught by the cables and broadcast into people's houses and heads. They even did standard introductions, giving their names and other information, though "no one ever called, of course." After all, "they couldn't hear us."
This charming story would have a happy ending, though: For the better part of the last five decades, people have heard Slim and Zella Mae -- often, and in a variety of mediums. Married in 1948 at ages 21 and 17, respectively, in the small town of Monette, Ark., Slim and Zella Mae Cox would find their calling, or multiple callings, really. First they started a family, and a big one at that: four kids, 10 grandkids, seven great-grandchildren. A number of them, over the years, have taken part in Cox radio and TV projects, recordings and traveling road shows.
The pair began the radio part of their lives before they left Arkansas, Slim hosting a show on a local station at 6 a.m. before heading to work in the cotton patch at 7, Zella Mae singing during the last 15 minutes of the show. It was the first of many radio gigs. Their longest stint was one that lasted until about a year ago, broadcasting a mix of evangelical gospel and country on KXEN (1010 AM) for 36 years. After that arrangement ended, the couple switched to WEW (770 AM), and they continue to host there on Saturdays, from 2-4 p.m.
But as all regular listeners know, those shows are taped. It's usually Wednesday morning when Slim and Zella Mae slip into the backroom of the Cox Furniture Co., a packed-to-the-rafters shop at 2831 Chippewa St. on the South Side. If you picture a modern radio station -- with its banks of computers, DATs, satellite uplinks and other toys -- you're thinking of the exact opposite of the Cox studio, where the board has more years on it than your average snot-nosed DJ.
Not much vinyl is played these days, but some old records, lots of tapes and even a few eight-tracks compete for attention with the CDs. Slim writes up the program in longhand each week with the aid of his longtime store assistant, Blanche Drew, who takes requests and organizes the music library. When the taping begins, the fun starts: Slim sets an old Sunbeam clock to the nearest hour mark before pushing all the buttons.
The day of our visit, the pair is in rare form. Though they're quick to cite the Gospel, an interesting streak of personal pride runs steadily through their shows, which showcase the dozen-plus records they've cut over the years. (The show is also bought as a commercial block for the furniture store, neatly tying that part of their lives into the ministerial aspect.) All told, they appear on 11 radio stations and 11 TV stations, which are all affiliated with Larry Rice. Slim says he likes radio better than TV, though: "More freedom."
This time out, the show starts with a cut from one of their albums, "I Want to Go There." Slim's not shy about picking up a tambourine and rattling it with the mic potted up, and Zella Mae will grab a washboard at a moment's notice, adding an odd little touch to even the oldest recordings. Slim's also not shy about praising the duo's skills on-air, adding that a song is "stronger than 10 acres of Bermuda onions." Even better: "If this don't light your fire, you're wood-soggy."
The two have played their songs uncounted times, performing live dates in churches all over town. ("We don't ever turn down a church," Slim insists.) And, for a time, they owned the Midwest circuit; the whole Cox family rode a touring bus from town to town, church to church. They even performed for more than three years at the Grand Old Gospel in Nashville; Slim has the rather skimpy checkbook receipts to prove it.
The rapport they've developed over those years is really something to behold. At one point, Slim decides to start a song. He shouts out for Zella Mae, who wanders back into the cramped studio area. Without so much as a sidelong glance, Slim's got the electric piano plugged in and the pair effortlessly moves into "Walking Our Last Mile Together," Slim's big voice belting through the whole store, Zella Mae jumping in at just the right moment.
During another taping, a couple of days later, that closeness is even more in evidence. Instead of just letting their song "Look at Us" play, they act along, Slim adding some heartfelt counterpoints while holding Zella Mae's hand and she contributing some verses, too. Over the air, the feel is curious, to say the least: The hosts blend their live voices with the taped voices; in the studio, it's a completely different feel: The pair acts like a couple of teenagers, as connected after 51 years as any couple has a right to be. Stories roll through the show, many directly pertaining to the hosts.
Slim, in particular, likes to talk, and he'll entertain you with stories about touring with the kids; about his roles as president of both the Chippewa-Broadway Business Association and the Chippewa Neighborhood Association; about the community garden that Gateway Greening has established with neighborhood resident Mark Rice, just across the street; and even his continuing service as a block captain.
Solidly locked into the neighborhood, Slim and Zella Mae live in a house behind the store and own an old auto lot next door; Slim wavers between wanting to rebuild the furniture store on that space and leasing to a restaurant that would need to be built from scratch. Clearly no one's told him that the neighborhood -- an area he's known intimately since opening the furniture business there some three decades ago -- has lost any of its luster.
The community garden, for instance, is a positive presence, with its local volunteers and 4,000-pound Bob Cassilly frog. This space wouldn't necessarily be the first thing you'd associate with Cox. Instead, you'd probably think of him playing the piano on Channel 24, or his big voice cutting through the vaguely tinny din of WEW. But talk to him enough and you get the idea there's a lot more to Slim Cox than the limiting notion of a media evangelist.
The neighborhood, for example, takes up a big portion of his thoughts: "We're not out in Clayton; we're not out in Ladue. We have to create something that is going to show that there are people here who care," he says. "That garden was a brainstorm of Mark Rice. He leased the lot from the city. Together we went to work. It was made to show that there is someone interested, someone who cares. We've gotten more comments about that, because of the frog. No one's had any objections to it, but people aren't beating down the door to volunteer, either, you know what I mean?
"The garden's not the answer to what's wrong on Chippewa Street. There's buildings to fill up; problems with the landlords who live in the county and don't take care of their structures -- if we got rid of some of them, we'd solve problems. It has changed here. But when I was elected president of the association, I said, 'Some people think that South St. Louis and the 10th Ward have outlived their usefulness, are going down the drain.' And I said, 'That's not true. There's hope.'"
If you need a dose of city confidence, go talk to Slim Cox.
If you want to hear some foot-stompin' gospel, tune in to Slim Cox.
If you need a queen-size bed, talk prices with Slim Cox.
And say hello to Zella Mae! They're quite a team.
HIT PARADE TOP SEVEN: This week, seven more St. Louisans who deserve enshrinement on the Walk of Fame, plus top-notch alternates! Let's pour some concrete down Delmar way!
7. Percy Green (Dave Drebes)
6. G. Duncan Bauman (Jamala Rogers)
5. Delores Shante (Joan Dames)
4. Harold Gibbons (Eric Vickers)
3. Mallarie Zimmer (Charles Klotzer)
2. Sterling Williams (Rich from Maryland Heights)
1. Derek Norton (Eve Abaray)
E-mail tips, quips and sight-'ems to Thomas_Crone@rftstl.com.
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