The Phelps Brothers (l to r: Earl, Willie, Norman) on the set of their audience show at WTAR, Norfolk, in the late 1950s Photo courtesy Chesapeake Museum
Chesapeake's Museum Presents
the Lives and Careers of the Phelps Brothers
Chesapeake's Museum has established a
tradition of presenting the Phelps Brothers County Music
Collection exhibition and concert each spring. This public
offering of memorabilia commemorates the lives and careers of
local residents, Norman, Willie, and Earl Phelps, who were
from a small town in the Tidewater region.
In the late 1920s, the brothers formed a country
music band, and went on to be cast in movies with early film
legends, George O'Brien, Ray Whitely, Tex Ritter, Martha Raye, and
others. Norman played the bass fiddle and harmonica; Willie played
guitar, and drums; and Earl played the fiddle, mandolin, and
saxophone. The brothers had a natural singing harmony: Norman sang
bass; Willie, a baritone, sang lead; and, Earl, a tenor, also sang
lead. They originally called themselves Norman Phelps and the
Virginia Rounders, and began playing in private homes and local
clubs. After being "discovered," they started performing live on
the radio six nights a week. Before long they were recording
Among their many career highlights was a performance
at the opening of the Texas Centennial at the Cotton Bowl in 1936.
At President Franklin D. Roosevelt's request, they performed "Home
on the Range," and FDR joined in the chorus. Following their work
in Hollywood, the brothers returned to South Norfolk and bought
property which became Fernwood Farms, where they built a recording
studio. The brothers wrote hundreds of songs-one became Gene
Audrey's theme song, and another was recorded by Elvis Presley.
Documentation, which was prepared by Chesapeake's
Museum, includes a detailed text report; 32 photos; memorabilia
including letters, music, and other documents recording their
career; an audio cassette, CD, and video.
Originally submitted by: Norman Sisisky, Representative (4th District).
The Local Legacies project provides a "snapshot" of American Culture as it was expressed in spring of 2000. Consequently, it is not being updated with new or revised information with the exception of "Related Website" links.