Harland "Colonel" Sanders' famous 11 herbs and spices recipe for Kentucky Fried Chicken is one of the best-kept secrets in the history of American fast food. Figuratively locked away from public knowledge, the secret recipe has been sought after from eager competitors since Sanders created it in 1940, even forcing Sanders' nephew Joe Ledington to clam up after possibly revealing the recipe last year. But piles of boxes inside a KFC storage warehouse in southeastern Kentucky hold one of Sanders' other unique creations, and possibly his strangest.
In 1966, Colonel Sanders agreed to fund the pressing of 30,000 vinyl records for a children's Christian mandolin band, who then returned the favor by billing themselves as "The Colonel Sanders Mandolin Band" and dressing up like him—all in the Colonel's famous white suit and black string tie—for live performances.
"Around here, he was a pretty famous fella, so everybody was glad to act like they either knew the Colonel or that they had something to do with him," says Frances Hall, the widow of band leader Gene Hall, who founded the band of his sixth and seventh grade students from Finchville Elementary School outside of Shelbyville, Kentucky. It was in that town, 30 miles east of Louisville, that Gene realized the financial benefit to be gained by teaming up with Colonel Sanders, who moved there after opening KFC and later grew the company into an international phenomenon starting in the late 60s.
The group's only record, a 15-track self-titled album that runs under 25 minutes, is still available at the original KFC location in Corbin, Kentucky, having had a treacherous sales history since its pressing and distribution in the mid-60s. Throughout the album, the direction often turns into a hilarious representation of southern cliché: the band of young Christian school kids plays songs from "Amazing Grace" to "America, The Beautiful" while vocalist David Arnholter occasionally drops in to rain praise to Jesus Christ. The major difference, which created public draw at the time, was the fried chicken funding behind the record.
Colonel Sanders tried his hand in a wide-range of fields throughout his life. He had a now infamous failed career as a lawyer, a brief tenure that ended after an in-courtroom fight with his own client. The perpetual businessman also spent most of his adult life as a salesman of all sorts, from insurance to tires. Sanders didn't strike gold until his mid-60s when he created his KFC recipe, a fact most Colonel fans point to as a story of hope that there's more left in life. It's easy to say The Colonel Sanders Mandolin Band was yet another one of the fried chicken king's unsuccessful attempts at something outside his culinary league, given the scope Sanders set for himself with thousands of records left unsold and never opened. Locally, though, people like Frances Hall and Michael Swigert, who played in the band when he was in sixth grade, say the group was just another well-respected piece of the Shelbyville community's southern tapestry.
"We were just playing church hymns to church people," Swigert simply puts it. His small, 11-year-old frame appears on the far-right of the album's cover. The former mandolin player says the Colonel gave each kid in the band 100 copies of the record and a personal bible with a note from Sanders inside. He hasn't thought about it much since he grew up, Swigert says. And his mandolin hasn't done much more than collect dust since he quit the band when he began high school.
When Gene Hall taught the kids to play the mandolins The Colonel bought for them, he didn't know how to teach them to read traditional sheet music. Instead, the school teacher created a numbering system, labeling their fingers and strings certain numbers and then calling out literal numbers for them to play. That innocent playing style is apparent on the record. The music slowly trudges on through classic church hymns, as it's apparent there's a lot of effort going into playing chords that wouldn't normally take much thought. That slow style gives the music an unnerving, haunted feel, almost like the soundtrack you'd hear in a horror movie with some sort of murderous jack-in-the-box waiting to pop up. But at certain moments throughout the album, the mandolins all crash together with waves of beautiful tremolo much like the way classical guitars are utilized as a choir of voices in traditional Italian folk music.
Those undeniable portions of the record might be why the Colonel believed his mandolin band's potential to be far more successful than it ever was. It also played well to crowds at church, with many of the tracks utilizing a deeply resonating organ like you'd hear at a Sunday mass. With that confidence, Sanders planned to put most of the records on sale in his Canadian franchises—a tid-bit that even appears in the album's description on the back of the record. But the only product he was able to continue moving was his fried chicken.
KFC's corporate office doesn't know for sure how many records Sanders managed to sell and are only aware of "several hundred" in existence, purchased by a former executive of the restaurant's Corbin franchise. But employees at the same restaurant say there's a warehouse where most of the original 30,000 records Sanders had pressed are still unopened.
Ashley Overbey, an assistant manager at the KFC in Corbin, struggled to even guess how many records they exactly have in both their storage space and their attic while on the phone with Noisey, so she asked a co-worker named Joe next to her: "How many of those records do you think we have?" Joe sighed and claims there's still 20,000 to 30,000 copies of the record still in storage. "We don't have that many," Overbey laughed. "You think there's 30,000?" He adamantly replied, "Yeah, we do! That whole wall is filled with 'em," describing the seemingly countless stacks of boxes against the wall of their storage space. Eventually, the two agreed there's probably about 20,000 still unopened in their warehouse.
The Corbin restaurant currently still sells copies of the record for $5 at the front register, alongside memorabilia like buttons with a classic caricature of Colonel Sanders' face proudly saying, "I ate where it all began!" If you ask for a copy of the record, the KFC crew members need go up into the attic above the kitchen and find one of the dusty boxes where the records are poorly kept, most unconserved and bent beyond playability.
"Honestly, we just keep them in the boxes and they're just stacked up against the wall in the warehouse," Overbey says, pointing out that there's no extra attempt to protect the vinyl records any more than they would a box of commemorative pins or t-shirts.
But occasionally—about once a week—customers do purchase the record, despite the visible wear and tear. Overbey, herself, has a copy of the record at home "just to have it" but has never actually listened to it.
"I don't think I even took it out of the package," she says. "I just think it's neat. I collect weird things, you know, anything that has to do with history. I just thought it was cool to have."
That's the same case for Rob Ring, a Canadian video producer who bought the record during a stop at the Corbin restaurant in late August. Ring wasn't sure how many copies of the record were in existence when he purchased the album, and the faded yellow of the cover art and the way the packaging still smelled like an unfinished basement convinced him to not rip it open after buying it. "Rare or not, it's definitely not something one comes across easily," Ring says, with the same indecisiveness most owners have: Is this really worth something?
The album isn't rare in quantity, especially when there are tens of thousands sitting in a warehouse in southeastern Kentucky. But as Ring points out, it's rare unless you find yourself in Corbin. At the store, it's a meager $5 to buy the album, the same price as one of KFC's heavily marketed $5 fill-ups. Copies of the record for sale online are quite the different story, though. There's less than a handful of them currently on sale on eBay and they range from $69.99 to $251.99, a nearly 5,000 percent markup.
Hall says people occasionally tell her they found the album, a record once one of the greatest prides of her husband's life, at the bottom of boxes at places like garage sales, or boxed away in an attic in Corbin.
"We didn't make any money on it," says Hall, laughing at the thought. "People that had them are basically giving them away now. They're not very valuable."
But 30,000 records are still a pretty penny to make. Vinyl expert Stephen M.H. Braitman, who is an accredited senior appraiser at musicappraisals.com, estimates that Colonel Sanders spent somewhere around $70,000 on pressing the 30,000 copies of the album. Braitman's estimation includes pressing the album on 150-gram vinyl, standard plating, basic labeling, plain inner sleeves, assembly costs and shrink-wrapping. Braitman says the estimate doesn't include tax or shipping.
But Sanders poured much more than just that into the band. In addition to purchasing their instruments and paying for the recording, he also bought the band a large white passenger van, on which the kids aptly painted THE COLONEL'S MANDOLIN BAND INC., and they toured in it. Hall says Sanders would also take the entire band and everyone traveling with them out to KFC after each show, like a little league team pizza party on a summer afternoon.
At the band's live church performances, Sanders would get up before the band played and "give his testimony about how he was saved" and would then leave a "big donation" for the church, Hall remembers. Hall laughs when she thinks about it all now: "That's why all the churches were inviting the group of kids to play and bring The Colonel with them."
In 2015, KFC celebrated its 75th anniversary with a nod to the Colonel Sanders Mandolin Band in a commercial featuring actors dressed up as the members of the band as they were depicted on the album's front cover, including comedian Darrell Hammond playing The Colonel. A KFC representative told Noisey that the point of the commercial was to bring the company's brand back to its original roots, which "starts and ends with Colonel Harland Sanders."
James Wimberley, a Los Angeles musician who was recruited to perform as one of the band members in the ad, points out that bluegrass music originated in Kentucky, making all this even more fitting.
"One of the lines in the commercial is when Colonel Sanders says that, 'Mandolin music is America's favorite music,'" Wimberley remembers. But outside the 2015 ad—a deep reference likely missed by the majority of KFC's customers—The Colonel Sanders Mandolin Band album's memory remains largely in photos and poorly kept vinyl records. The legacy it earned among locals for simply being involved with Colonel Sanders, however, has been something of a unique badge of honor.
Gordon Parker, a Las Vegas realtor who grew up in Shelbyville, Kentucky at the same time the mandolin band was playing around town, owns one of the mandolins Sanders originally bought for the children and still calls it one of his "most prized possessions" to this day. Parker often saw the band perform live between the time he was nine and 10 years old. "It was just great," Parker, 68, says, sighing in a wave of nostalgia. "How many mandolin bands have you heard of in your life?" That odd curiosity, which got him so interested in the mandolin band as a child, echoes the same interest that draws most customers at the original KFC in Corbin to the decision to buy the record and check it out themselves. Whether it's a vinyl copy of the Colonel Sanders Mandolin Band or one of the actual instruments used to record it, those who own a piece of it all speak with pride for owning a piece of history tied to one of Kentucky's most legendary cultural figures.
"The only reason I have the mandolin is because [the saleswoman] told me it came from Colonel Sanders Mandolin Band," Parker admits. "I couldn't even tell you what I paid for it. I didn't care what it cost. I bought it for the story."
Sean Neumann is on Twitter.