Noisey recently took an in-depth look at a peculiar pairing between a famous fast food chain and an obscure band of young mandolin players, billed as the Colonel’s Mandolin Band, and it’s worth revisiting if you haven’t heard the story.
In 1966, the music of sixth and seventh graders from Finchville Elementary School near Shelbyville, Ky. left an impression on Col. Harland Sanders. He later struck a deal with band director Gene Hall. Sanders would fund a gospel record and purchase a tour van. In exchange, the children would advertise for Sanders’ restaurant by dressing like him.
It hardly proved to be a benchmark moment in the history of gospel music or fast food promotions. Sure, talented children appealed to the masses. But by no fault of their own, the rechristened Colonel’s Mandolin Band weren’t exactly a gaggle of Shirley Temples. The novice pickers had to follow a number system to play along with religious and patriotic selections, making for songs where the mandolin element was way understated compared to Kentucky bluegrass.
The album isn’t terrible when compared to private press gospel recordings from the mid-60s. The difference being, there’s way more copies of this than there are albums by your pastor’s old Southern gospel quartet.
The Noisey headline questions why Sanders funded 30,000 copies of this record. As outrageous as that figure may be, it might be way too low. The back of the album boasts of a promotional plan that placed 30,000 copies in Canada alone. Further, the Colonel gifted the 13 children on the album 100 copies each plus a Bible he personally inscribed. Unless the numerous sealed copies at the original restaurant in Shelbyville once resided in Canada, they might count toward a much larger run.
Regardless of the press run, there’s no shortage of copies in Kentucky. The Shelbyville location sells copies for $5 each. That’s a fraction of the hundreds sought by some sellers online and the $20 average sale price.
KFC acknowledged the mandolin band occasionally in recent years. In 2015, comedian Darrell Hammond’s version of the Colonel sang of “three chicken tenders, taters and gravy” while accompanied by a children’s mandolin band. That callback, plus photographs of the original band at one Roanoke, Va. location, make for a 50-plus year return investment.