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Fiddlin’ Bob Larkan was a well-known country fiddle player whose Music Makers band played on the radio stations of charlatan medical messiahs Dr. John R. Brinkley and Norman Baker and made a number of recordings. The group’s song “Higher Up the Monkey Climbs” became notorious for its suggestive, ribald lyrics. Although “Larkan” was the correct spelling of Bob Larkan’s name, record companies and even his hometown newspaper in his obituary rendered the name “Larkin.”
Robert William (Bob) Larkan was born on November 18, 1867, in New York City, his father having migrated from Ireland and his mother from England. A musical child, he learned the violin, banjo, and guitar. The family moved to Boone County, Missouri, by 1870. In 1888, he married a woman named Hattie (Harriett) and moved first to Tollville (Prairie County) and then settled in Hazen (Prairie County). His wife played the organ, and their nine daughters and five sons formed the base of a well-known local band. Larkan acquired the nicknames “Fiddlin’ Bob” or “Uncle Bob” after winning a number of fiddling contests. On one occasion, his winning prize consisted of twelve dollars, a barrel of flour, and twenty-six chicks; the chicks he raised in a box by his bed. In 1927, he was proclaimed the champion fiddler of the state of Arkansas after being picked by listeners in a fiddle contest held by KUOA, at that time the radio station of the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County). According to the news release, Larkan was also a composer, played on a Stradivarius violin, and held the title of the state’s champion live-bird shooter. In 1928, he won the fiddling contest for a second time.
With the advent of radio, the group began playing on local stations. The notorious quack doctor John R. Brinkley created station KFKB in 1923 in Milford, Kansas, and used country music to attract a large audience and to lure patients to his hospital. By 1925, Fiddlin’ Bob Larkan & His Music Makers were playing two morning shows and another in the afternoon, accounting for two and a half hours of air time. The family was still living in Milford in 1930. After Brinkley was forced off the air in Kansas and opened XER in Mexico, the group briefly followed. They also played for another infamous medical entrepreneur, Norman Baker, on his radio station, XENT. The group probably disbanded before 1940 as Larkan’s asthma worsened.
Their enduring fame came from the twelve songs they recorded for the OKeh and Vocalion record companies in February and November of 1928. The Music Makers consisted only of family members, with Larkan’s son Forrest playing the piano, and his daughter Alice and her husband, William Sherbs, on guitars. In addition to “Higher Up the Monkey Climbs” (also known as “The Seneca Square Dance”), in which Larkan also sang the lyrics, and the risqué “The Women Wear No Clothes At All,” the group also played tributes to Arkansas with “Arkansas Waltz” and “Prairie County Waltz.”
Bob Larkan died of asthma on January 23, 1942, at his home in Hazen. The local newspaper described him as a “retired farmer and sportsman,” mentioning that he had run the state’s trapshooting contest for the Peters Ammunition Company. He was survived by five sons and seven daughters and is buried at DeValls Bluff (Prairie County). The Arkansas Gazette seems not to have mentioned his death.
For additional information:Juhnke, Eric S. Quacks and Crusaders: The Fabulous Careers of John Brinkley, Norman Baker, and Harry Hoxsey. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002.
Russell, Tony. Country Music Originals: The Legends and the Lost. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
———. Country Music Records: A Discography. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Michael B. DouganJonesboro, Arkansas
Last Updated 8/21/2013
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