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Community Roots: Selections from the Local Legacies Project
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Phelps Bros. on set of their show at WTAR, Norfolk, late 1950s
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 records.

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).

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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.

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