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Hanging on to Sloopy

Information sought for documentary on Steubenville woman behind Ohio’s rock song

April 11, 2010
By JANICE R. KIASKI, Staff writer

Brett Ruland has a relative and residential interest in the 1960s song "Hang on Sloopy."

After all, the 37-year-old has lived his whole life in Columbus, the capital of the state claiming that particular tune as its official rock song, not to mention the signature song of Ohio State University.

But more importantly, the inspiration for the song, so the story goes, is none other than his great aunt, the late Dorothy "Dottie" Sloop, also known as Dorothy Sloop Heflick, a native of Steubenville.

That it is such a wildly popular song in his neck of the woods and that there's a family tree connection to it have put Ruland on an information-seeking mission, his hope to produce a documentary on the relative he laments he never had the opportunity to meet.

"I've always been intrigued about finding out who Sloopy really is," says Ruland, who notes that very few people, especially in Columbus where the song is so embraced, have a clue about the Sloopy referred to in the song. Some even confuse the name, thinking it's Snoopy, not Sloopy.

"The fact that the official Ohio state rock song was written about Dottie and that only a handful of people are aware, to me is a real shame. I hope to change this," he said.

"I would like to help spread the word," said Ruland, who figures he was 16 when he first made the connection. Over the past few years, he has been collecting information and facts about her, a pursuit he plans to finish in the next year or so when work will begin on what he anticipates will be a 30-minute documentary available in some format for public viewing.

"Dottie is the source of great pride in my family, and I wanted to dig deeper and try to find out who she really was," he said.

Ruland's information pursuit included placing an ad in the SuperSaver supplement in the Herald-Star and The Weirton Daily Times: "In search of Dottie Sloop info. For personal documentary of my great aunt, am seeking info, pictures & stories about Dottie Sloop (b. 1913) of 'Hang on Sloopy' fame."

Ruland can be reached three ways - by telephone at (614) 570-3550; by e-mail at brett.ruland@gmail.com; or by regular mail to his attention at 392 Kendall Place, Columbus, Ohio, 43205.

"I'm looking for stories and memories of Dottie from friends and relatives that knew her first hand - people who remember her from school or seeing her perform at clubs in Steubenville," said Ruland, who realizes in hindsight the pursuit might have been more fruitful had he started much earlier. "Better late than never," he rationalizes.

The advertisement has generated interest - several calls "and a few good leads" - and a visit to Steubenville last month was productive, too, especially a stop at the local history room at the Schiappa branch of the Public Library of Steubenville and Jefferson County.

Ruland said Sloop is his great aunt on his father's side - Frederick Sloop Ruland, who was raised in Steubenville. His mother, Margaret Ruland, was Dottie's older sister.

"My whole life I knew there was a tie to the song, but I didn't truly know the story," Ruland said, remembering how he thought it odd that his dad's middle name was his great aunt's surname. "My dad was actually named after Dottie's father."

Ruland's great aunt was born Sept. 26, 1913. "She was a very gifted piano player. Her father, Frederick Sloop, played piano for the silent films in the 1920s in Steubenville and taught her to play when she was very young," he said.

"She joined an all-female group called the Southland Rhythm Girls after high school and toured around the country. Eventually she ended up in New Orleans playing with Dixie Fasnach at Dixie's Bar of Music on Bourbon Street," he continued. She performed using the name Sloopy.

"Legend has it that a young songwriter named Bert Russell Berns saw Dottie Sloop play one evening at the club and wrote 'Hang on Sloopy' about her," Ruland said, noting Berns had written other hit songs, among them "Twist and Shout," which reached the top 40 for the Beatles in 1964.

Ruland theorizes on the origin of the "Hang on Sloopy" words. "She was playing piano and something was wrong with the sound system and customers were getting rowdy, and she was getting frustrated. People were not paying attention, and he (Berns) saw that she was getting distressed, and one of the regulars yelled out, 'Hang on Sloopy,'" he said.

He said his great aunt was aware of her role in the song.

The song was originally recorded as "My Girl Sloopy" in 1964. Berns collaborated with Wes Farrell to write "Hang on Sloopy," a song that became a major hit for the Dayton-based McCoys in 1965. It reached No. 1 in October 1965. That same year it was first performed at the OSU vs. Illinois football game. It became the state rock song in 1985.

A musician himself, Ruland has run a record label since 2003 called Spoonful Records. "I help musicians release and promote their music on radio and Internet stations around the world," he said. A former employee of the Columbus Museum of Art in graphic design, he also is in the process of opening a used record store in Columbus.

Ruland said he's impressed with the musical career his great aunt had from her performances locally around town, including at the old High Hat, to New York, on the East Coast and in the South. She once played for a gathering at the apartment of William Randolph Hearst in the company of many celebrities.

She was best known as a pianist with a number of female jazz bands in the New Orleans area, primarily from the 1930s to the 1950s. She recorded an album, Dixie and Sloopy, in 1957.

"During the war when men were away these all-female groups got a chance to shine. A lot of them were out touring the country," Ruland said.

"I'm fascinated with her story," said Ruland, who has visited New Orleans to the site of where his relative played, the site where the song was inspired. It's now a Subway shop.

Ruland's list of people to connect with includes the lead guitarist with the McCoys and Sloop's daughter.

In her later years, Sloop taught special needs children in St. Petersburg, Fla. Before that she lived in Lubbock, Texas, working at a radio station. She died on July 28, 1998, at the age of 84.

Ruland said his challenge, in addition to gathering information, is to "separate what's interesting to me and what is the story because I am interested in all the information of all the places she played, so I'm trying to figure out how to tell the story. I want it to be interesting to people."

And there is interest in the story, he believes.

"People seem excited and want to know who she is because they know the song, and they want to know more about it," he said.

"It's kind of like her memory lives on, so every time I hear that song I think of her and her life, but I wish I could get to the bottom of who she was, and I feel there are still a lot of people yet to talk to," Ruland said.

"For me it's been like a history lesson."

(Kiaski can be contacted at jkiaski@heraldstaronline.com.)

 
 

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