She is synonymous with Ohio State football and the state of Ohio itself: a sturdy gal who lives in a bad part of town but doesn’t let anyone keep her down.
Immortalized in a No. 1 single by the McCoys, a Dayton rock band, she has enjoyed an enduring pop persona since the first iteration of the song 50 years ago.
The lady needs no surname — as the Beyonce of the Buckeye State, our Madonna.
Still, Hang On Sloopy remains a head scratcher: Who is the red-dress-clad character giving somebody the chills?
“I knew nothing about her,” said Chicago composer John Tatgenhorst, who in 1965 heard the tune at the Ohio State Fair and, soon after, charted the original (and unchanged) Sloopy sheet music used by the Ohio State University marching band.
“Never had the pleasure to meet her.”
Sloopy is indeed real.
As legend has it, the song’s namesake is tied to Steubenville native Dorothy Sloop, who — depending on the story you hear — either struck up a conversation about her name with young men at Dixie’s Bar of Music in New Orleans or, during a difficult moment there onstage, was cheered from the crowd with a kindly “Hang on, Sloopy!”
In 1964, her name would be cemented in history by songwriters Wes Farrell and Bert Russell Berns — the latter a co-author of the Beatles hit Twist and Shout. Both are dead but are thought to have been Dixie’s regulars.
Sloop, who died at age 85 in 1998, would have turned 100 on Thursday.
Hang On Sloopy has since been covered by dozens of artists — from the Smashing Pumpkins to a Yugoslavian band (as Hej, o Slupi).
In 1985, the Ohio General Assembly adopted the tune as the state’s official rock song.
Sloop herself remains a shadow. She has few surviving relatives with no monuments or other public tributes.
“It’s always been an interesting story in the family,” said her great-nephew Brett Ruland, the 41-year-old owner of the Downtown shop Spoonful Records — who, like many others, grew up thinking the lyrics pertained to the cartoon dog Snoopy.
Ruland has spent several years collecting Sloop’s old photos, articles and vinyl albums recorded at Dixie’s.
Still, he said, gaps remain.
“The mystery is part of the allure.”
The namesake’s roots
Sloop grew up in an artistic Roman Catholic family.
Her father — Frederick, the son of a music-store owner — accompanied silent films and played the vaudeville circuit until a stroke at 27 slowed him.
Dorothy tackled the piano at an early age, performing in area theaters beginning at 6 and later joining Steubenville native Dean Martin in concert.
A 1930 Steubenville newspaper story called young Dorothy the “merriest entertainer, the queen of quip and an all-around favorite.”
Contrary to the song’s depiction, “She didn’t live on the wrong side of the tracks,” said her Westerville nephew Fred Ruland, 72. “Steubenville was a pretty nice place at the time.”
After a year at Ohio University in Athens, Sloop decamped to New York, where she played piano for a fiery foursome, the Southland Rhythm Girls.
The women landed gigs in cities such as Miami and Houston. They performed in the Manhattan apartment of William Randolph Hearst. They danced, dined out and acquired fine clothes.
Sloopy let her hair down.
In time, she moved to New Orleans, hometown of Southland leader Yvonne “Dixie” Fasnacht and her namesake bar.
“Business in the club was simply rarin’ to go!” Sloop said in a typed autobiography kept by her sister, Margaret. “Those were the halcyon days.”
An entertainer at heart
Not until many years later, while working for a children’s TV program in Lubbock, Texas, did Sloop hear about Hang On Sloopy, which rose to popularity in 1964 (as My Girl Sloopy) via the Los Angeles soul group the Vibrations — followed a year later by its most familiar form, the McCoys’ rendition.
The discovery warranted just a mention in her brief memoir.
She married Joe Boudreaux, a Navy diver from Houma, La., and returned to Steubenville to finish college. They divorced amid grief over three miscarriages, although they did conceive a daughter, Jane Heflick, whose surname Sloop changed to reflect her grandmother’s maiden name.
Sloop, who never remarried, earned a master’s degree and taught special education for three decades in St. Petersburg, Fla. She sang and played the piano to calm difficult students, niece Dorothy Ruland Lupton said.
Well into her 70s, a still-fiery Sloop performed by night.
The tune’s endurance
The Rulands in Columbus aren’t sure to what extent Sloop knew of her appeal in the Buckeye State.
She didn’t seek royalties or appear at any Ohio State functions, although her daughter said friends would send press clippings.
“That really pleased her,” said Heflick, who lives in Biloxi, Miss.
Paul Droste, director of the OSU marching band from 1970 to ’83, first joined the staff in 1966, a year after Hang On Sloopy was added to the repertoire.
He never heard a word from Sloop during those years, he said.
Yet the song quickly caught on. Beginning with its debut by the band in 1965 — during a home game against the University of Illinois, with a performance that almost didn’t happen because then-director Charles Spohn opposed the rock ’n’ roll track — crowds were enamored.
“They wanted Sloopy,” said Tatgenhorst, 75. “They asked for Sloopy.”
Attempts were made in the 1980s to reduce the band’s Sloopy frequency. They failed.
Conflicting stories are still found.
Rick Derringer, frontman for the McCoys, said he was once told by Berns that “Sloopy” was a colloquialism for a Cuban woman but that he had also read an article decades ago about a man, whose name he can’t remember, claiming to be the song’s real creator.
The 66-year-old remains unsure about the famed subject: “It’s a charming story. I wish I knew more.”
Lupton, Sloop’s niece, thinks her aunt — an outspoken woman who performed with perfect pitch — would chuckle at the incidental fame.
Heflick, who lost her mother’s memorabilia in Hurricane Katrina, hangs onto the memories.
“People always raved about her,” she said. “Mom would have been really pleased to have seen where it went.”
By Kevin Joy - The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio (MCT)
©2013 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)
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