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David Akeman (June 17, 1916–November 10, 1973), better known as Stringbean, was an American country music banjo player and comedy musician best known for his role on the hit television show, Hee Haw. A member of the Grand Ole Opry, Akeman and his wife were murdered by burglars at their rural Tennessee home in 1973.Read More...
Early life and career
Born in Annville, Jackson County, Kentucky, Akeman came from a musical family and was taught to play banjo by his father. He acquired his first real banjo when he was 12 years old in exchange for a pair of prize bantam chickens. He began playing local dances and developing a reputation on the instrument, but could not earn a living as a musician. Instead, Akeman worked for the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps, building roads and planting trees.
Later he entered a talent contest that was being judged by singer-guitarist-musical saw player Asa Martin, and won. Afterward, he was invited to join Martin's band. During one performance, Martin forgot Akeman's name and introduced him to the crowd as "String Beans." With his tall, thin build, the nickname stuck and he eventually was known by that moniker.
At first, Akeman only played banjo in the group, but when another performer failed to turn up for a show, he was pressed into service as a singer and comic, and the act caught on. From that day forward, Akeman divided his time between comedy and music. He also appeared on WLAP-AM in Lexington, Kentucky, and played with various groups during the late 1930s.
During this time, Akeman also played semi-professional baseball. It was as a ballplayer that he first came to the attention of bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe, who fielded a private semipro team. Monroe eventually learned of Akeman's other talents and from 1943 until 1945, Akeman played as banjoist for Monroe's band, playing on such recordings as "Goodbye Old Pal". Akeman also spent some of his time during this period teamed with Willie Egbert Westbrook as String Beans and Cousin Wilbur, a comedy duo who often worked on the same bill with Monroe's outfit. Akeman left Monroe in 1945 and was replaced by Earl Scruggs, a banjoist with a radically different technique.
In 1945, Akeman married Estelle Stanfill. That same year, he teamed up with Lew Childre to form a comedy duet, and the two were successful enough to be invited to perform on the Grand Ole Opry. During 1946, Akeman also began working with Grandpa Jones, a fellow old-time banjoist and comedian. Jones and Akeman continued to work together on the Opry and later on the Hee Haw television series. They also became neighbors near Ridgetop, Tennessee. Akeman also became a protégé of Uncle Dave Macon, one of the biggest Opry stars. Toward the end of his life, Macon gave Akeman one of his banjos.
Later life and career
Akeman, known by this time only as Stringbean, was one of the Opry's top stars throughout the 1950s. During this period, he adopted a stage costume that comically accentuated his height, consisting of a shirt with an exceptionally long waist and tail, tucked into a pair of short blue jeans (from Little Jimmy Dickens) belted around his knees. The costume made him look like a very tall man with very short legs and helped contribute to the illusion of Akeman towering over his fellow performers. This kind of costume had many antecedents, including Slim Miller, a onetime stage comedian who was said to be Akeman's direct inspiration. The costume became synonymous with the Stringbean persona known to his audience.
Stringbean did not begin recording as a solo artist until the early 1960s, when he signed to the Starday label. By that time, Earl Scruggs, Akeman's replacement in the Bill Monroe band, had emerged as the premier figure in banjo playing, especially among younger listeners, and Scruggs-style playing became the predominant style for country and bluegrass banjoists. Akeman and Jones remained as two of the most celebrated performers of "old-time" banjo playing, also called "clawhammer" or "frailing." Akeman's musicianship is still much admired by aficionados of the old-time style. Akeman is listed along with Uncle Dave Macon, Grandpa Jones, and Ralph Stanley, as among the great old-time style banjoists.
Akeman still found an audience for his older style of playing and his mixture of cornball comedy and song. He had country-chart hits with "Chewing Gum" and "I Wonder Where Wanda Went". He recorded seven albums between 1961 and 1972. The first of those albums, Old Time Pickin' & Grinnin' with Stringbean (1961), was representative of his milieu, containing folk songs (especially humorous animal songs), tall stories, and jokes.
Akeman remained a star of the Grand Ole Opry for the rest of his life. In 1969, Akeman, along with Jones, became founding members of the cast of the television show Hee Haw. One of his regular routines was to read a "letter from home" to his friends (similar in style to American comedian "Charley Weaver"). When asked about the latest letter, Stringbean would reach for it, stating that he carried it right next to "his heart" (his upper overalls pocket). Not finding it there, he would proceed to quickly check all his other pockets, saying "heart" on each check until he found the letter, usually in his hip pocket. He was also known for being the scarecrow in the cornfield who would shoot off one-liners before being shouted down by the prop crow on his shoulder.
A modest and unassuming person, Akeman enjoyed the simple life of hunting and fishing. Accustomed to hard times during the Great Depression of the 1930s, Akeman and his wife, Estelle, lived frugally in a tiny cabin near Ridgetop, Tennessee—their only indulgence, a Cadillac automobile. Depression-era bank failures also inspired Akeman, like many others of his generation, to not trust banks with their money. It was general gossip around Nashville that Akeman usually kept significant amounts of cash on hand, despite his not being terribly wealthy by entertainment industry standards.
On a Saturday night in November 1973, the Akemans returned home after performing a show at the Grand Ole Opry, and were shot dead upon their arrival. Thieves had lain in wait for hours. The Akemans' bodies were discovered the following morning by neighbor and fellow performer Grandpa Jones (Louis Marshall Jones).
A police investigation into the double homicide resulted in the conviction of cousins John A. Brown and Marvin Douglas Brown, both of whom were 23 years old at the time of the murders. At trial, it was revealed that the two had ransacked the cabin and then killed Stringbean. Estelle shrieked when she saw Stringbean hit with the bullets. A few moments later, after begging for her life, she was gunned down as well. The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals described the scene, "Upon their return, Mr. Akeman spotted the intruders in his home and evidently offered some resistance. One of the Brown cousins fatally shot Mr. Akeman, then pursued, shot and killed Mrs. Akeman. At their trial, each defendant blamed the other for the homicides."
The thieves left with nothing more than a chain saw and some guns. In 1996, 23 years after their murders, $20,000 in cash was discovered behind a brick in the chimney of the Akemans' home. The paper money had rotted to such an extent that it was not usable. (the United States Consumer Price Index indicates that the purchasing power of $20,000 in 1973 would be equivalent to the purchasing power of some $98,565 in 2008.)
Marvin Douglas Brown fought his convictions in the Tennessee appellate courts. On September 28, 1982, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the trial judge's order denying a new trial. Marvin Brown ultimately granted an exclusive interview to Larry Brinton of the Nashville Banner. In the interview, he admitted his participation in the burglary and murders, but contended that John Brown fired the fatal shots. Since Brown, by his own admission, committed burglary, and that burglary resulted in death, Brown is guilty of murder, regardless of who fired the fatal shots.
Marvin Brown died of natural causes on January 8, 2003, at the Brushy Mountain Prison, in Petros, Tennessee. He is buried in the prison cemetery. John A. Brown remains incarcerated in a Tennessee Special Needs Facility. In July 2008, the Tennessee Parole Board deferred parole for 36 months. He is next eligible for parole in July of 2011. The A&E cable television network profiled the case on a 2003 episode of its City Confidential series.
David and Estelle Akeman are buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Gardens in Goodlettsville, Tennessee. During the run of Hee Haw, after Stringbean's death, the scarecrow was left as a memorial.
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