Bonnie Owens, the singing cocktail waitress of Bakersfield's honky-tonk heyday, died Monday afternoon in Bakersfield. She was 76 and in recent years had suffered from Alzheimer's disease.
Owens, born Bonnie Maureen Campbell in Blanchard, Okla., died exactly 30 days after the death of her first husband, Bakersfield country-music icon Buck Owens.
She had the distinction of being married to both of Bakersfield's most famous singers of the late 20th century, having married Merle Haggard a decade after her divorce from Owens. She performed with Haggard's band, the Strangers, until the late 1990s, long after they were divorced.
"She was pretty close to being an angel," said Jim Shaw of Buck Owens' band, the Buckaroos. "She had that wonderful sparkle in her eye. She was always glad to see you.
"I know of nobody who loved life like she did," said Shaw, who is serving as family spokesman for Buck and Bonnie Owens' sons Buddy Owens and Michael Owens, who buried their father April 2.
Haggard was performing on tour in Memphis with Bob Dylan Monday night and was unavailable for comment, but his road manager, Frank Mull, said the singer had learned of his ex-wife's death and was grieving the loss of a woman who had been "a friend, lover, sister and mother" to him for the past four decades.
"She was the backbone," said Phyllis Owen, who was with Bonnie Owens when she passed away at 4:28 p.m. Monday. "She never tried to stand out. She would stand back and let others take center stage, but her whole life was entertaining people. Other than her boys and her grandchildren, her life was being on stage, being on the tour bus, riding to the next show."
Phyllis Owen said she was her friend's manager only by virtue of the fact that about 15 years ago Bonnie presented her with business cards that said so. She had been Owens' frequent companion since the singer moved back to Bakersfield three and half years ago.
"She felt like this is where she needed to be," said Owen, whose husband Charles "Fuzzy" Owen was Haggard's longtime manager.
Bonnie Campbell's family settled in the Phoenix area when she was 12. Then, three years after marrying Alvis Edgar "Buck" Owens Jr. in 1948, they moved to Bakersfield, where she wrote songs and performed in local clubs -- including some where she was simultaneously working as a cocktail waitress. She was known to jot down song lyrics on cocktail napkins as they came to her.
Her appearances in the clubs helped her land a semi-regular gig on Cousin Herb Henson's "Trading Post" television show starting with its debut in September 1953.
It was on that show in the early 1960s that she met Haggard, who was putting in a guest appearance.
Soon afterward, Fuzzy Owen, with whom she was long acquainted, suggested that Bonnie and Merle record the song "Just Between the Two of Us," and in 1964 they did just that.
"We'd sent records to disc jockeys all over the country, and we'd include hand-written notes in each one," Bonnie said in a 1997 interview. "I was in touch with every disc jockey in the country. When we started doing it, we'd put Merle's record in with mine. It wasn't long until I was putting my record in with Merle's."
"Just Between the Two of Us" was their first and only hit together, spending 26 weeks on the charts before it was overtaken by "(My Friends are Gonna be) Strangers," which proved to be Haggard's breakthrough song.
She and Haggard were married later in 1965 and divorced a decade later.
"I had a lot of fun being married to Merle, but we never should have been married," Bonnie said in that 1997 interview. "We were too good a friends. I was older, seven years older, and there was like a big sister thing going on. But there was a lot of mutual respect, too."
Bonnie Owens received several industry awards. She was named the Academy of Country Music's top female vocalist in 1965 and shared the award for the ACM's best vocal group in 1965 and 1966. In 1967 she and Haggard were named the ACM's best duo.
Bonnie Campbell was born to a pair of sharecroppers, the fourth of eight children. She first got to know Buck Owens at the Mazona Roller Rink in Mesa, Ariz., in about 1945. "He was a pretty good roller skater," Bonnie, just 15 or so at the time of their meeting, said in 1997. "But I liked him because he played guitar."
The two dated, but Buck, who was six weeks older, was surprised nonetheless when she showed up for his daily 15-minute radio show, "Buck and Britt," co-starring Theryl Ray Britten, and there was Bonnie. "What're you doin' here?" he asked, assuming she'd come to watch him. "Singin'," she answered. He didn't even know she could carry a tune.
In 1947, Buck helped Bonnie get a job singing with him on another radio show, this one starring Mac MacAtee and the Skillet Lickers.
By January 1948, they were married. Son Alan Edgar "Buddy" Owens arrived on the scene five months later, and Michael Lynn Owens, their second son, was born in March 1950. Buck picked oranges; Bonnie stayed home with the kids.
But by 1951 the marriage was having problems. Bonnie and the two boys left for Bakersfield, moving in with Buck's favorite aunt and uncle, Vernon and Lucille Ellington. Buck arrived soon afterward, soon followed by his parents.
Buck set out to look for work in the local saloons, and it didn't take long for him to hook up with steel guitarist Dusty Rhodes and, four months later, Bill Woods and the Orange Blossom Playboys.
It wasn't quite so easy for Bonnie, who had to take a job carhopping at a hamburger joint at Union and Truxtun avenues. Buck's aunt took care of the boys while Bonnie served up chili dogs and chocolate malteds.
Buck and Bonnie remained legally married, though they were separated, because neither could afford a divorce.
"And besides," as Bonnie said in 1997, "we had one good thing in common. That was Buddy and Mike. We both wanted to make sure they had adjusted minds. It was a friendly parting."
One day, Thurman Billings, the owner of the Clover Club, came into the drive-in with his wife and asked if Bonnie would like to be a cocktail waitress. They knew Bonnie already, having seen her sneak her way onto the Clover Club stage more than once to sing alongside Fuzzy Owen and his cousin, Lewis Talley. He knew she had also sung a little at the Blackboard, with Bill Woods' permission. "Anytime you want to sing," Billings told Bonnie, "you get up and sing."
And so she did, setting down her cocktail tray once or twice a night to perform next to Fuzzy, Lewis and other performers: Sometimes fiddler Jelly Sanders, sometimes guitarists Billy Mize or Roy Nichols. She did the same at the Blackboard, where Woods was the boss up on the stage and senior cocktail waitress Anna Mae Carlson was boss down on the floor. Bonnie's sister, Betty Spence Bryant, was one of the veteran waitresses.
When Henson, a prominent local disc jockey and occasional honky-tonk piano player, landed his "Trading Post" TV show on KERO in 1953, the entire Clover Club band, Bonnie included, became the program's house band.
Bonnie sometimes picked up her children from school and brought them to the television station for the live broadcast, which started at 5 p.m. Afterward, she'd go home and cook dinner for the boys before leaving for her waitressing job.
Bonnie eventually recorded songs on the Mar-Vel label with sometime boyfriend Fuzzy Owen and his band, the Sun Valley Playboys. She later cut a well-received duet album with Owen on Lewis Talley's label, Tally Records (later released on Capitol Records), titled "Just Between the Two of Us."
But even after she began placing records on the charts, she continued waitressing at the Clover Club and the Blackboard when she wasn't out performing on the road.
In 1961, while slinging screwdrivers and Schlitz beer at the Blackboard at night, she caught a young singer she'd seen once before, at a Lefty Frizzell concert at the old Rainbow Gardens dance hall. It was Haggard, whom Frizzell had allowed up on stage that night in 1953. But Haggard had been out of circulation for a while, with good reason -- he was just a few months out of San Quentin prison, having served a 21/2 year sentence for burglary.
She introduced herself to Haggard that night, but the two didn't get to know each other well until Haggard appeared on "Trading Post."
Haggard got the attention of Ken Nelson, the A&R man for Capitol Records and, in April 1965, with Fuzzy's blessing and encouragement, Haggard signed with the label. But not all was well with Haggard. His marriage to Leona Hobbs was in a shambles, and his four children were living with Merle's mother. Bonnie was touring in Alaska, and Haggard missed her. He flew to Seattle and called her: Could he visit, and maybe look for some club work? She said OK. Two weeks later, they were married in Tijuana.
Bonnie had remained good friends with Buck, touring with his band on at least one occasion, in 1963. In 1965, the two crossed paths again, professionally speaking, when the newly formed Strangers (Merle, Bonnie, Fuzzy, Roy Nichols, bassist Jerry Ward and, soon afterward, "girl drummer" Helen "Peaches" Price, from Wynn Stewart's band) signed with Omac Artist Corp., a booking agency owned by Buck and his manager, Jack McFadden. Merle and the rest of the Strangers agreed they could do far worse than to retrace the footsteps of Buck Owens, who by this time was an undisputed chart-buster.
Bonnie admitted their fans no doubt wondered about the trio's apparently overlapping love lives.
"I was broken up with Buck long before I ever met Merle, and there was a whole lot in between," Bonnie said in 1997. "I can't fathom either one, Buck or Merle, even thinking about (the outwardly odd circumstances)."
Bonnie had done some songwriting before she married Haggard, but under his tutelage, she began to blossom. She wrote whole songs, partial songs, small pieces of songs -- and sometimes even got composer credit for writing nothing at all.
"Merle wrote every verse of the song, 'Today I Started Loving You Again,' but he had another verse there that I thought didn't add anything," Bonnie said. "In fact it took something away. I talked him out of putting in those four lines, and he gave me half-writer credit."
Their marriage lasted until 1978, although it was as good as over in 1974, when Bonnie stopped touring with the Strangers. The two separated for good in 1975.
When Merle married Leona Williams in October 1978, the ink on his divorce decree barely dry, Bonnie was a bridesmaid. She eventually resumed touring with the Strangers.
In the early 1980s she married Ridgecrest native Fred McMillen and lived in rural Missouri, not far from the Arkansas line. She moved to Bakersfield a few years ago, after Alzheimer's took hold. In the final weeks of her life she was under hospice care.
She enjoyed touring with Haggard's band until about the age of 70, flying from Springfield to whatever city kicked off the tour; she then hopped aboard the band's tour bus and slept in her own hotel room. Her husband Fred understood.
She was thoroughly and genuinely modest about her own contributions and her own career, which included six solo albums and two duet albums with Haggard, including one of gospel songs, as well as Haggard's staggering catalog of recordings, most of which include her backing vocals.
"I was a follower; Buck and Merle were leaders," she said. "I did what was needed and I did what I could. It was a great time, though. We thought we were as big as Nashville. We didn't have their recording studios and we didn't have the big radio stations, but we had the thing that was more than anything: We had the music."
She admitted her diary could be a hot-seller, given her intimate association with Bakersfield's two most prominent musicians. But she remained unimpressed with herself and with the two best-known instigators of a 20-year music phenomenon, both of whom she happened to marry.
"I'm very honored to be friends with both of them," she once said. "But I never knew they'd be big stars, and I didn't care. When I like somebody, I like 'em all the way."
A public memorial service will held at 11 a.m. Thursday at Greenlawn Mortuary Southwest, 2739 Panama Lane in Bakersfield. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to Hoffmann Hospice.