Marvin Rainwater, a square-jawed, buckskin-wearing country music baritone who had several hit records in the 1950s, died of heart failure Sept. 17 at Abbott Northwestern Hospital. He was 88.
Rainwater was best known for the songs he penned and performed including “Gonna Find Me a Bluebird,” which was a No. 5 country hit in 1957, but also crossed over to the pop charts, cracking the Top 20 and selling more than 1 million copies.
He also had a tougher rockabilly side, scoring a No. 1 hit in Britain with “Whole Lotta Woman,” which was later sung by Lynn Redgrave in the 1966 film “Georgy Girl.”
Born July 2, 1925, in Wichita, Kan., he grew up in Depression-era Oklahoma. He later retired in 1974 to garden and enjoy the woods of Aitkin in central Minnesota, though he continued to perform until several years ago.
Rainwater’s lifelong affair with music began when his mother took in washing so he could take classical piano lessons. After the tip of his right thumb was lopped off in a garage accident, he switched to the guitar while serving in the Navy during World War II.
In a 1998 interview with Minnesota Public Radio, Rainwater said the accident, “wrecked all that fancy playing. … But when I went in the Navy, I was so lonesome for my music, and I couldn’t have it, see, because of my thumb.”
Although Rainwater majored in math at Washington State University, his career in music took off after he placed first on Arthur Godfrey’s “Talent Scout” show in 1955. He won national exposure and a recording contract as a result.
He became a regular on Red Foley’s series “Ozark Jubilee,” and appeared on the “Ed Sullivan Show,” “American Bandstand,” and at the Grand Ole Opry.
For a bit, a young Roy Clark played guitar in his band, before he struck it big on his own. In 1957, Rainwater recorded a duet,“The Majesty of Love,” with Connie Francis.
Rainwater often performed wearing a fringed buckskin outfit and a beaded headband, and was known for telling jokes on stage that were a bit corny.
“I must have played at least a hundred shows with him through the years,” said Minnesota’s own country vet, Sherwin Linton, in an e-mail. “He was a good entertainer, and was known for telling many good and BAD jokes as well as singing a lot of funny songs.”
Rainwater left MGM Records in the early 1960s and eventually founded his own label, Brave Records. Later, he was inducted in the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
“He loved to sing; that’s the way he told his story,” said his daughter, Judi Rainwater, of Wenatchee, Wash.
Rainwater is survived by his wife of 30 years, Sheree, of Aitkin; children, Jim Rainwater of Alabama, Wade Rainwater of Puerto Rico, Lora Rainwater of Minneapolis, and Barbie Rainwater of Coon Rapids; 11 grandchildren; 11 great-grandchildren; five great-great-grandchildren; a brother, Bob Rainwater of Texas, and sister, Patsy Rainwater of California.
A celebration of Rainwater’s life will be held from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 12, at The Landing in Aitkin.
Star Tribune staff writer Tim Campbell contributed to this story.