NORMAN — “You are My Sunshine” is a musical favorite that always draws applause for members of the Golden Okies Band.
Band members Don and Alleen Chesser, Roy and Loretta Wilkerson and Nadine Followwill volunteer their time and talent to entertain at the Norman Veterans Center, churches and retirements homes.
Don Chesser is 84, a retired pastor who brings words of encouragement as well as music to people he meets. He said he remembers clearly the day that music came into his life to stay.
“My first love of music came the day I won a prize at Jefferson School when I was in the fourth grade,” he said. “I played the harmonica at the school talent show and I won first place. I played ‘Red Wing,’ and my prize was to play on WKY Radio in Oklahoma City with Dixie Boy Jordan.”
Jordan was one of the Wiggins Hollow folks at WKY Radio, and the opportunity for a nine-year-old boy to play with them was an amazing prize.
The day finally arrived, and the boy and his harmonica were ready to go to the radio station. Suddenly, everything changed when dark clouds began to form.
“My dad said I couldn’t go,” Don Chesser said, noting that the deep disappointment he felt decades ago is still a clear memory.
He said his dad had been through a tornado in Beaumont years before, and his house was blown off the foundation. The experience stayed with him, and he refused to give in to his young son’s pleas to go to Oklahoma City.
His music stayed with him, though he never became famous.
Alleen Chesser, 89, said she organized The Golden Okies many years ago, and she played off and on through the years. At times, some of the band members played with the Cleveland County Entertainers.
Music brought Alleen and Don together, and they married in 2000.
There are days when it is difficult for them to get their instruments together and go out and entertain. Don Chesser said he fell recently and had trouble playing the guitar, but he keeps going, grateful for his recovery from a stroke a few years ago.
“You gotta love these people and playing this music, or we couldn’t do it,” Don Chesser said. “I tell people they don’t have to live on the edge. God changes people and you don’t have to wait until you are old. Jesus is a wonderful friend.”
Alleen Chesser said her Papa was a fiddle player and she began playing the guitar at an early age. One of seven children, she remembers playing the guitar on the school bus from Little Axe to Norman, and all the children sang along.
“We paid $2 for my guitar,” she said. “We bought it from Orion Wilkerson. We used flour sacks and chicken feed sacks to make clothes because we were too poor to buy clothes from the store. I told my mom I wanted a pair of panties that didn’t say ‘Shawnee’s Best,’” she said.
Their audiences enjoy the little jokes and stories mixed in with their music.
Loretta Wilkerson, 70, is the youngest band member. She began taking fiddle lessons in 1998, and she said her fiddle teacher told her to get out and learn to play with other people.
Roy Wilkerson, 72, plays the bass guitar and sings. He said he thought he would never sing in front of people. Now, he finds it rewarding.
“I see people who never speak a word,” Roy Wilkerson said. “And when we play an old favorite song, I see them singing.”
He said music shapes a young life and brings joy to others. He said his dad, Kenneth Wilkerson, is 91, and his mother, Eulene, is 92, and they sang together in Meeks Chapel. He said he has always been around music and was influenced by his grandmother, Lucy Wilkerson, who was a piano teacher. Wilkerson has passed the joy of music on to his son, Phil Wilkerson, band director at Rush Springs.
Followwill is the piano player. She is 82 and is new to the group but not new to music. Her friends tease her about being a favorite of the veterans.
She, too, has stories about the influence music has had in her life.
“Miss Sarah Bowen taught the third- and fourth-grade class at Jefferson School to read music,” Followwill said. “I went home and told my mother I could read music, but she didn’t believe I could. She got out an old songbook, put it on the piano and I played it.
Followwill said she agreed to play with the Golden Okies at the request of her aunt, Alleen.
“This band is her life,” Followwill said. “It means so much to her.”
Loretta Wilkerson said the music they play means a lot to the people they visit, too. Many are often lonely, depressed and sick. For a short time, they can sit back and enjoy the music of Bob Wells, Patsy Cline and old Gospel hymns.