Music legend finding new audiences via Subway commercial

“We’re gettin’ that mailbox money now,” country music legend Leroy Van Dyke says of his signature hit “The Auctioneer” being used in commercials for Subway’s new $4.99 “Fresh Value Meal” campaign.

Van Dyke says it was a total surprise to discover that his song, which incorporates the rapid vocal style and chants of an auctioneer, had been selected to appear in the national ads.

“I don’t know how it happened without us knowing in advance,” Van Dyke said while waiting backstage at a concert venue in Jefferson, Iowa, where he was about to appear on a bill with Wynonna Judd.

“But it’s all on the up and up. They did all the paperwork and contracts and the clearances with the publishers. Suddenly, I started getting phone calls from all over the country telling me about this commercial. I said ‘What commercial?’ They said ‘The Subway commercial!’

Van Dyke, 88, is celebrating his 62nd year of performing. “And we’re not slowing down,” the singer told me, his baritone as rich and clear as it appeared on his first hit single back in 1956. “If anything, we’re accelerating. My wife is my booking agent, and we carry a seven-piece band doing concerts all over the country.” 

A U.S. Army veteran, Van Dyke was stationed in Korea when “The Auctioneer” started coming to him “out of the air.” As he kept hearing this song in his mind, Van Dyke says he went back to his tent and began writing it down for posterity.

“The Auctioneer” is the true story of Van Dyke’s cousin Ray Sims, a National Auctioneer Association Hall of Famer. Leroy himself was inducted into the hall in 1996.

“It’s the story of his life,” Van Dyke said. “He passed away two or three years ago at the age of 90. The only part of the song that isn’t true is the first line – ‘There was a boy in Arkansas.’ Actually, he was from Missouri, but nothing rhymes with Missouri (laughing) so I picked the name of state that rhymes with ‘Ma.’”

During the Korean War, Van Dyke was a special agent in U.S. Army Counterintelligence – a member of the 40th CIC, attached to the 40th infantry division. Assigned at Regimental level on the DMZ on the 38th parallel, Van Dyke says he had a squad tent to himself, and on occasion, he would head in to detachment for meetings accompanied by his guitar.

“My commanding officer was a major from Kansas City and we got along real well,” Van Dyke said. “He’d say ‘Van, go get your guitar and let’s have a little music.’” The first time anyone heard “The Auctioneer” was at one of those meetings. Word quickly began to spread among the troops about the singing special agent.

“Later on, the Asst. Regimental Commander – a Lt. Colonel – came into my tent and asked if I would perform for 15 minutes to open up a USO show that was coming through,” Van Dyke recalled. “I asked him who else was going to perform on this show and he told me. It was Marilyn Monroe.”

More than a little nervous at the prospect of trying to appease impatient troops awaiting the hottest female star in the world at that moment, Van Dyke recalled his response: “You’ve got to be kidding me,” before adding “It worked out very well and I guess I’m the only country act to ever open a show for Marilyn Monroe.”

Following his service, Van Dyke recorded “The Auctioneer” for Dot Records. A #9 hit on the Billboard country chart, the song crossed over to the Billboard Hot 100 in November 1956, where it landed at #19, selling three million copies. The song has become Van Dyke’s signature, even though it wasn’t his biggest hit.

Van Dyke set a country music record with “Walk On By,” a colossal hit from 1961. The song spent 19 weeks at the top of the country chart, a feat which remained unchallenged until Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” logged 24 weeks at the top in 2013.

Having performed thousands of concerts since 1955, Van Dyke says he’s enjoyed all of them, including his performances in the state of Maine.

“Maine has a lot of big country music fans,” Van Dyke says. “We’ve played many of the fairs in different towns around the state. The one memory of Maine that stands out the most for me was a concert at an auditorium in Portland. What I remember is that the place had no stage door (laughs). All of the backline, with the amplifiers and PA stuff, and instruments, had to be carried from the street, upstairs, and then down to the seats and the stage. It was almost impossible to get to,” he said with a chuckle.

Sounding much younger than his years, Van Dyke suggests his longevity can be attributed to clean living.

“I just do what you’re supposed to do,” he told me. “I’ve never taken a drink. I don’t even know what beer tastes like. I’ve never taken a drug and I’ve never smoked. And I stay busy. I’m only 88-years old (laughing). The other day, my doctor told me I’m going to live to be 100 and I’m going to hold him to it.”

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