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Indiana TV star’s killing remains unsolved, 6 decades later

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EVANSVILLE, Ind. (AP) — You could see them every weekday at 4 p.m.

They were six men in screamingly loud western shirts and big Stetsons that slouched across their heads. They played fiddle, stand-up bass, banjo, guitars and lap steel, their country warbles swarming into your living room from a black-and-white TV.

They called themselves the Dixie Six, and they were the stars of “Hillside Hoedown” – Channel 50’s popular program that also beamed live from the Agoga Tabernacle in Evansville every Saturday night in the mid-1950s.

Doug Oldham led the band, alongside a rotating cast that featured “Rustyneck” Pendergraff, Bob Berry, Harold Redforn, Roy McCarty and the spectacularly named Little Jack Little.

Then there was the lead singer. Clocking in at a scrawny 120 pounds, he was about as wide as a No. 2 pencil, with dark hair and a smirking face that looked like the miracle offspring of Elvis Presley and Andy Griffith.

His name was William Shelton, but everyone knew him as Curley (or sometimes “Curly”). Women liked the way he looked and loved the way he sang. He’d step to that fat microphone with those grinning teeth all in a row and let his voice unfurl in a deep whine.

Have you seen my baby?

Have you seen my baby?

I get mighty lonesome

Where could my baby be?

All good country songs are a stew of truth and lies, and this one was no different. Curley may have gotten lonely, but he never had any trouble finding his baby.

Love letters filled his mailbox, some of them written by married women, police would later claim. And station workers at WEHT said the dapper bean pole often squired women around the “Hoedown” studios, rarely bringing the same woman twice.

Some called him a “ladies’ man,” while others preferred the term “heavy dater.” And if you asked then-Henderson County Sheriff Lee Williams, that penchant for women is what got him killed.

On Dec. 5, 1957, Curley’s destroyed body was found folded in the front seat of his car outside the VFW Club just south of Henderson, Kentucky.

Some enraged person had beaten him to death with their bare fists. His once-handsome face was bloodied and swollen past the point of recognition. It was so bad police initially thought he’d been shot.

The discovery erupted a mystery that encased the Evansville area and sent rumors swirling like black smoke from a chemical fire. Police questioned hundreds of possible suspects and witnesses. They ranged from a 16-year-old girl to Curley’s own bandmates.

None were ever charged.

“Shelton was caught (at the VFW) with a woman by a man – maybe the woman’s husband – and the man simply beat him to death,” Sheriff Williams told the Evansville Courier at the time. “That’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it.”

Working on that narrow premise, which some of Curley’s friends would later dispute, authorities repeatedly told local media that a break in the case was coming soon. That whoever beat this beloved musician and television star to death would soon be dragged into a courtroom and heaved into jail.

That still hasn’t happened. And 62 years later, with memories evaporating and any possible suspects aging or dead, it looks like it never will.

“How old is Curley Shelton, and what is his real name?” someone asked the Evansville Press on July 5, 1957.

“His real name is Curley Shelton,” the paper wrote in its “Ask the Press” column. “And he wishes not to divulge his age.”

Here’s a truer answer to that question.

In July 1957, Curley was just a few months shy of turning 32 years old. And his real name wasn’t Curley. Just imagine a mother staring at her nuzzling newborn baby and saying, “Aww, he should share a name with a member of the Three Stooges.”

William Arles Shelton was born on Nov. 1, 1925. Drawn to music, he picked up a guitar and honed a voice that sounded like Hank Williams with some glorious cold.

He played all around the area as a young man, sometimes dipping into Nashville, Tennessee, or Illinois to sell a few records at barn dances.

His biggest break came in 1955 when, as a member of the Dixie Six, he became one of the stars of “Hillside Hoedown” – a hillbilly variety show that entranced local viewers and made everyone involved a local celebrity.

Other acts included Junie Dee, the Foggy Mountain Girls and Lunella Prune.

The weekend Hoedown concerts at the Agoga Tabernacle became community events. Anyone was welcome, including kids. In 1955, they hosted a Halloween costume contest, offering “50 silver dollars” to the winner. Children who showed up in costume got in for free.

Curley and the Dixies attracted fans wherever they went. And in ’57 they released a record under Curley’s name – with backing from “Doug Oldham and His Dixie Six.”

“Have You Seen My Baby,” written by Pendergraft and Berry, came out on the local imprint Falcon Records, with an a-side called “Stop Stay Away.”

That musician lifestyle both helped and hurt Curley. According to media reports, he loved to drink heavily and didn’t hesitate to flush his money into a booze bottle, despite the debt problems that nagged him.

But according to anybody who knew him, it was clear he possessed a massive talent. And almost everyone seemed to like him.

“(Curley) was something else,” local tavern owner Oswald “Poss” Coomes told The Gleaner’s Frank Boyett in 2007. “He sang those old love ballads, and women just went crazy. He had no trouble getting all the women he wanted.”

And according to Sheriff Williams, that led to some problems.

Sometime in 1954, Williams was strolling down Main Street in Henderson when Curley approached him.

The suave musician was nervous. A man he declined to name “is after me and wants to kill me,” he told Williams. “What can I do?”

“Why is the man after you?” Williams asked.

“Because I been with his wife a bunch of times,” Curley reportedly said.

Williams shook his head and offered some simple advice.

“Leave the woman alone and keep out of the man’s way,” he said.

Maybe Curley took Williams’ advice in that particular situation, and maybe he didn’t. But the sheriff was certain it did nothing to cool the musician’s affinity for married women. To him, Dec. 5, 1957, was proof of that.

Minnie Shuttleworth was sitting in her home just across the street from the VFW Club that day when her 10-year-old son walked through the door.

He and a friend had been playing at the establishment’s back parking lot when they noticed two ominous items peaking from an unruly tangle of weeds: an empty wallet and a single black shoe.

Minnie wasn’t too happy. Take those things back this minute, she said. Some hunters probably left them behind and would be back to collect them.

“But mom,” her son said, “there was some blood on the ground, too.”

She quickly followed the two boys across U.S. 41A and into the VFW parking lot.

There, they found a Ford convertible. Its driver’s door was flung open, and weird stains zigzagged across the hood.

“I walked toward the car, and when I got pretty close, I looked in,” Shuttleworth told the Courier then. “I saw enough to tell me (the man inside) was dead.”


Source: Evansville Courier & Press


Information from: Evansville Courier & Press, http://www.courierpress.com

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