Rural Missouri Magazine

Raising the bid
The world's most famous auctioneer calls Missouri home

by Jason Jenkins

Leroy Van Dyke prepares for a performance during a sound check at the Hall of Fame Theatre in Branson. The Missouri resident rose to country music stardom with the hit single "Auctioneer" in 1957. Another Van Dyke recording, "Walk on by," has been called the No. 1 country song of all time.

When the words and melody first came to him, Leroy Van Dyke paid no attention.

Driving up and down the roads of South Korea’s Chorwon Valley in 1953, just south of the Demilitarized Zone, the words and melody came to him a second time. Again, Leroy, a special agent with the U.S. Army’s 40th Counter Intelligence Corps detachment, paid no attention.

When the words and melody came to Leroy a third time, then a fourth, he finally decided he’d better pay attention.

Inside his canvas squad tent, sitting on the edge of his canvas folding cot, he plucked out a toe-tapping melody on the Sears and Roebuck guitar his mother had sent him from back home in Missouri. Under his breath, Leroy softly sang the words he had hastily scribbled out.

“I’m not a songwriter, but I wrote a song,” he recalls. “I had no intention of writing a song. It just came to me.”

The song was “Auctioneer,” the story of a young man who dreamed of and became an auctioneer. Three years later, it would launch Leroy’s career as an entertainer and become his signature hit.

From Nashville to Branson to the Missouri State Fair, Missouri native Leroy Van Dyke has performed his classic country hits for thousands of fans.

After more than a half-century in the music industry, Leroy is still going strong.
Living on a 1,000-acre ranch south of Smithton with his wife and business manager, Gladys, he still performs more than 100 concerts each year nationwide.

Leroy never dreamed of becoming a country music icon. As a young boy in Pettis County, he assumed he’d become a livestock farmer like his father.

When Leroy was about 10 years old, a trip with his father to nearby Sedalia for a livestock auction at the MK&T Stockyard would prove to be a formative event.

“I didn’t know anything about auctioneers, but there was a guy selling that day who just really pinned my ears to the wall,” says Leroy, who turns 78 in October. “I’d never, ever, heard anything like it. It sounded like a machine gun. I decided I had to learn how to do that.”

The auctioneer that day was Leroy’s second cousin, Ray Sims, also a Pettis countian. More than a dozen years later, as Leroy sat in his squad tent in Korea, Ray’s life story would become the basis for “Auctioneer.” However, in the song, which contains actual auction calls, Leroy made Ray an Arkansan because he could think of nothing to rhyme with Missouri.

Although auctioneering fascinated him, Leroy didn’t learn the trade until after he’d spent three years studying animal husbandry and journalism at the University of Missouri in Columbia.

“This auction thing was just haunting me, so after my junior year, I went to Reppert’s School of Auctioneering in Decatur, Ind.,” says the Central Missouri Electric Cooperative member. “I came back and finished college, then Uncle Sam pointed a finger and said, ‘I need you.’”

Van Dyke signs autographs for fans following a Branson performance.

After returning from Korea, Leroy moved to Princeton, Ill., and joined the Chicago Daily Drovers Journal, a livestock newspaper, as a fieldman. He traveled the country, mainly the Midwest, covering purebred livestock sales.

Leroy also began singing “Auctioneer” in talent contests and winning often. When he heard of a contest at WGN Radio/TV in Chicago, he decided to make the 120-mile trip. He auditioned and was accepted to compete on the live, on-air show.
He lost.

“I think I was third, but it didn’t make any difference because the phone started ringing before I got out of the studio,” Leroy says. “In two weeks, I had a record. In three months, I’d sold a million records. Just boom, boom, boom, all of a sudden, Leroy’s in show business.”

The next few months proved awkward. Unwilling to leave Drovers without a fieldman during the busy fall season, Leroy stayed on, although he admits that for his singing career, he should have moved to Nashville right away.

“Here I was, on the radio with a million-seller record, working these sales all over the country,” he says. “It really became quite a thing because everybody there knew I’d had the record. Most of them had bought the record.”

“Auctioneer” became a Top 10 hit, and Leroy would eventually leave Drovers in the summer of 1957. After a few weeks on a county fair tour with Tex Ritter, he joined the Ozark Jubilee TV show with Red Foley in Springfield, Mo. When that show went off the air three years later, he headed to Nashville, signing with Mercury Records.

After a half century in the music business, Van Dyke still performs more than 100 shows a year.

The summer of 1961 would see Leroy catapulted to the top of the country music stratosphere. His second Mercury release, “Walk On By,” the story of a man struggling to hide a love affair, skyrocketed to No. 1 on the country charts, where it stayed for 19 weeks. It also crossed over to the pop charts, where it climbed to No. 5.

In all, “Walk On By” charted for 42 weeks. Instantly Leroy was a star, joining the Grand Ole Opry in 1962.While he’d only chart one more Top 5 hit, Leroy’s place in country music was guaranteed. Dubbed the “World’s Most Famous Auctioneer,” his celebrity status led to opportunities in film, TV and on the radio, where he co-hosted the popular syndicated show, “Country Crossroads.”

In 1994, Billboard magazine in its 100th anniversary issue named “Walk On By” the biggest all-time country hit single.

“It’s better than getting Entertainer of the Year,” Leroy says. “It’ll always be the biggest country single for the simple reason that it was predicated on number of plays, number of sales and number of weeks in the charts.

“There have been songs with more sales. There have been some that have stayed in the charts just as long. But the three of those things combined? It’ll never happen again.”

An inductee into the Missouri Country Music Hall of Fame and the National Auctioneers Association Hall of Fame, Leroy continues to tour, both as a solo act and as the headliner for the Country Gold Tour, which features classic country singers including Bobby Bare, Rex Allen Jr., Moe Bandy and many others. The youngest of Leroy’s four children, 25-year-old son, Ben, joins him on stage as his lead guitarist.

Van Dyke shares a moment with fellow musician Ronnie Prophet prior to a performance.

Leroy says the secret to success in any profession is to find something you like to do so much that you’d do it for nothing, then learn to do it well enough that someone will pay you for it. In the music industry, that means learning to be an entertainer.

“A lot of people in the entertainment business never really learn their job,” he says. “They have hit records and while the records are hot, they get along pretty well. But after the records cool off, they can’t entertain the people anymore.

“You don’t want to let it get to that point. You have to develop your ability to keep on entertaining those people even though you don’t have a No. 1 record. Some never learn that. They go up like a rocket and down like a rock.”

Even after more than 50 years in the industry, Leroy’s star continues to shine. He jokes that his idea of retirement is when he falls over on stage.

“As long as I can do it, and as long as I’m able to perform and get paid for it, I’m gonna keep doing it. I’m never gonna stop.”

Leroy Van Dyke will perform at the Missouri State Fair on Aug. 14-15. Visit for Leroy’s complete touring schedule.

Rural Missouri | June 2020 Issue

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