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A Lot More Western Swing

By Leocthasme



It has been some time since my last article on the History of Western Swing, the first article appeared in October 2000 followed by two more in subsequent issues of Pencilstubs.  Click on the URLs below if you want to refer to them.



Since the last article appeared, I have had many letters, e-mails, and comments about the articles and have been asked to continue with more information on this genre by those who wrote to me, e-mailed me, and sent first hand information and family pictures of the stars from their personal collections.


Beside Bob Wills, and Hank Thompson to whom I have given much space in the previous articles, many others of note had much to do with Bob Wills’ Western Dance Music, as he termed it, and Western Swing as it was named by Spade Cooley, who called himself ‘The King of Western Swing’.. Cooley coined the term 'Western Swing'.  Before that, the music had been called everything from 'Hillbilly', a definite misnomer, to 'Texas Swing', which is much more correct.

"Spade", given the nickname from his poker playing habits, had everything going for him. He owned a 20 acre 'ranch' on Ventura Boulevard in Los Angeles, a 15 million dollar fortune in 1961, America's largest Swing band, the longest running Television show, and he was probably the most popular entertainer west of the Mississippi River.

In 1961, it all ended for "Spade" when he forced his young daughter, Melody, to watch as he murdered his second wife (Ella Mae Evans) because he thought she was having an affair with cowboy film star Roy Rogers. Eight years later, he died of a coronary while still serving time, after being on release to play for a Sheriff's benefit concert.  More on Spade Cooley as I give a bit of history of the most popular bands. 

During the heyday of Western Swing, there were thousands of bands playing all over the West. Yet, there were only a handful of bands, playing Western Swing, predominantly in Oklahoma, Texas, and California.  For most people, the word 'Swing' evokes memories of the great ‘Big Bands’, so named because of their size and sound that played all over America from the late 1920s on through the 1950s. However, to many hometown Americans, there was still another 'Swing', Western Swing.  That was played in the roadhouses, county fairs and dancehalls of small towns throughout the Lower Great Plains.

The music was strictly for dancing, and included mostly the simpler one and two step dances with quite a few foxtrots along with both "cowboy" and "Mexican" waltzes. Vocals were handled by a group of the sidemen, but most often, it was the leader's job. In fact, the popularity of the Leader/Singer usually determined the band's success. These local bands could play the same music that the big bands played, but because of the smaller instrumentation, and "local style", the music had a different "feel", it wasn't a Big Band sound, it was much more ensemble playing, often with a guitar, or a violin predominating. The folks who came to the roadhouses were of course, all the 'locals', everyone knew everyone else, and their ages ran from the young folks to the old-timers, friends and neighbors, husbands and wives, all could spend some time together listening, drinking, and dancing the weekend nights away.  Here is a picture of a typical dance hall of the 30’s.

'String Bands' fathered the music, which became known as Western Swing. It originated in the Texas and Oklahoma lower Great Plains area.  These early String Bands often were composed of just a Mandolin, Banjo, a standard 6-string Guitar, and a 4-string "tenor guitar" (a Baritone Ukulele - popular in the Southwest and in Mexico).  Mostly, the music consisted of just instrumental "breakdowns" because the vocalists could not be heard clearly above the noise. The local dancehalls didn’t have, nor could they afford big mikes and speakers.  Folks who were either too poor to afford Dance Hall admissions, or too far away from one, would hold weekly "house" parties where local bands performed very much like the "rent" parties of the 'Jazz Age' generation in Chicago.  They would roll up the rug, throw some cornmeal on the living room floor, and invite every neighbor they knew, for a weekend-long party. There were no admission charges, it was simply a form of low cost entertainment and everybody ‘pitched in’ for the refreshments. 

The Southwest population consisted of a good sprinkling of German Irish, English, and many French emigrants.  The music was representative of an area's ethnic and economic background. At first, the songs and the "Hot Licks" were passed along between just the local musicians.  Even the early radio and recording industry contributed to the "localization" of the music. The recording company executives felt that playing records on the air would hurt their sales.  And so, during radio's, so-called, golden era, much of the music played was by live bands in the radio studios.  Since the music was heard only by people in the station's listening area, the region's musical identity was thus codified.  Later, mass marketing of Records and newer radio broadcasting made the music and styles of all areas available to musicians in all localities.

We can say that continuing from the early 1920’s on, the music, which probably best reflected the local ethnicity, slowly began to resemble first "Country" music, and finally mirrored the music that the Big Bands were playing.  It differed from the Big Bands in that the instrumentation was not the same, and the style was more ensembles playing for the simpler 1 and 2 step dances. Following this same pattern, Western Swing would later have elements of Bop and then Rock and Roll. The Western Swing we know today evolved from this breaking down, via Records and Radio, of "Regional Area only" entertainment.

There was a curious series of events for this new age of Recording.  On the one hand, it broke the racial, religious, and social barriers that had existed.  But, on the other hand, due to marketing techniques, new "artificial" boundaries were created.  Recording company executives felt that 'markets' existed for 'specialized' music forms, and so, 'Race Records' (for Black listeners), 'Hillbilly' (for the rural listeners), and 'Western Swing' (for the Western states, Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, and California, where most of the former ‘Okies’ moved to), were newly formed market niches. There was a very unfortunate aspect to all of this. folks who didn't consider themselves to be Black, or Hillbilly, or Western, tended to avoid buying such ‘labeled’ records. Thus, Western Swing never really caught on in the sophisticated East Coast markets, but was extremely popular throughout the Southwest and the West Coast.

Probably the best known of the very early Western Swing bands were Milton Brown and his Brownies, and Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys, but there were hundreds more who managed to achieve some fame, even if in just their own regional area.  In time, many of the 'old timers' died, but Western Swing survived.  Most of Bob Wills' sidemen, such as his guitarists Tiny Moore and Eldon Shamblin, along with his fiddler Johnny Gimble, continued the Western Swing tradition. There were such rock-era bands as 'Commander Coty's Lost Planet Airman'; Alvan Crow's 'Pleasant Valley Boys', and 'Asleep At The Wheel'. In addition, there was a great deal of "cross-over" performances.  From the Jazz world, Stan Kenton recorded with Tex Ritter, while Charlie "Yardbird" Parker jammed with Ray Price's 'Cherokee Cowboys'. Jazz vibrophonist Gary Burton and Bassist Steve Swallow went into RCA's Nashville recording studios. It worked in reverse too. Such well known Jazzmen as Hank Garland and drummer Joe Morello had their early training with Paul Howard's Arkansas Cotton Pickers. Other examples are Vassar Clements who cut two albums of 'Hillbilly Jazz', and Roy Clark who formed his own big band.

Any listing of ‘Western Swing Bands’ should include:

The Light Crust Doughboys, 1930  -  The Southern Melody Boys 1931  -  Milton Brown and His Brownies, 1932  -  The High Flyers, 1937  -  The Tune Wranglers, 1935  -   Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys  -  Adolph Hofner and His San Antonians, 1946  -  Bill Boyd (1910-1977) and The Cowboy Ramblers  -  Spade Cooley and His Orchestra  -  Tex Williams (1917-1985) and The Western Caravan  -  "Texas" Jim Lewis (1909-1990) and His Lone Star Cowboys 
Hank Thompson (1925- ) and His Brazos Valley Boys  -  Bill Haley (1925-1981) and His Comets.  A brief history of these bands  is included

The music started to metamorphose in the late 1950s. A form of music arose called Western Bop, and then Rockabilly, which had roots in Western Swing., then just ‘down to earth’ Honky Tonk, which was a form of Western Swing played by 3 or 4 piece bands in the big city beer joints, and then new Aftro-American BeBop rhythms.  Neither BeBop nor Western Bop lasted very long.  Less than half a decade later, BeBop had become discredited as a musical form, and Western Bop had been replaced by a slightly different music known as Rock and Roll.  You can still hear ‘Honky Tonk’ in a lot of neighborhood bars on a Friday or Saturday night, played by local musicians, mimicking the popular recordings, a sort of Western Swing that most folks can dance to, or listen to and cry in their beer over ‘lost love’ lyrics.

The 1950's were a historical moment. A gap began to form between the generations. The Rock and Rollers wanted nothing to do with the musicians that preceded them, a palpable sign of ignorance.. 1951 saw the creation of a group called Bill Haley and The Saddlemen, which later became Bill Haley and The Comets.  Still, Western Swing's influence was felt in the popular recordings of the day.

In the 1960's, the acoustic folk music movement and 'Rockabilly' groups such as 'The Stray Cats' kept Western Swing alive.

In the 1970's, there was still another resurgence of Western Swing. Austin, Texas became a major music center where the music of Bob Wills and Milton Brown was continued by men such as Willie Nelson of Abbott, Texas and Waylon Jennings.

The Austin scene is alive and well. thanks to the annual 'South by Southwest' music festival.  In the late 1980's, the band 'Asleep At The Wheel' became highly successful due to their ‘Austin City Limits’ TV show, on which the band played the great Western Swing tunes, often featuring many of the old-timers of Western Swing.

Today, the name 'Western Swing' still evokes nostalgic images of Cowboys with Fiddles, steel Guitars, and Drums, touring the countryside in buses and vans. And, even though that era has ended, the influences of those early musicians can still be heard in today's Country Music.


And the Beat Goes On!

Leo C. Helmer


And now, so that you don’t have to go through the database of Band Names I have picked out the ones that I mentioned above and here is a bit of history on each one.  You can get all sort of information if you so desire. At this site,

The Light Crust Doughboys.  In hindsight, we can now see how a band with the curious name of 'The Light Crust Doughboys' came into being.  Their radio sponsor was the Burris Flour Company.  They were the first regional band to appear in a Hollywood film, they had a future Texas Governor as one of the group, and two of the original members went on to form famous bands of their own; Bob Wills and Milton Brown.  Hank Thompson, who was with the Doughboys much later, also formed his own band; one that continued the Western Swing tradition beyond its golden era.  In the late 1920's, ‘Barty’ Brown and his two sons, Milton and Derwood would often entertain their Fort Worth neighbors. It was Brown's first band, 'The Aladdin Laddies', that became the "Light Crust Doughboys". The 'Doughboys', a string band, formed in 1930, first consisted of Bob Wills (violin); Truett Kimzey (their announcer); Milton Brown (vocals), and Herman Arnspiger (guitar).  The history of this band is inextricably bound up with the person of W. "Pappy" Lee O'Daniel (1890-1969). O'Daniel had been elected to the board of directors for Burris Mills Flour and he conceived the thought of sponsoring the band on a local radio station as a means of increasing the firm's sales of flour.  O'Daniel’s interest in the group was life-long. It lasted though the band's early years to his ownership of his own Flour Company, and on to his becoming Governor of Texas.  Texans loved the Doughboys, and this admiration for the band rubbed off onto "Pappy" O'Daniel.  They saw him as an entrepreneur who really cared for the 'common man'. O'Daniels later used this admiration to help him win the Texas Governorship. But the Public's image of O'Daniel as an entrepreneur who could be trusted by the 'common' folk, was quite different from reality. O'Daniel kept the Doughboys salaries below the poverty line, and was not at all liked by the bandsmen. The band was 'officially' formed in 1930, and O'Daniel placed them on local station KFJZ. It is safe to say that Milton Brown's vocalizing made the band an instant success. So, O'Daniel’s bet that the band's popularity would increase Burris Flour sales had paid off. He then changed Radio Stations, going from KFJZ to KTAT, where O'Daniel secured the band's announcer job for himself, dismissing Truett Kimzey. Except for Brown's singing, no member of the band was permitted to speak 'on air', just O'Daniel.  Milton Brown, the band's talented singer, contributed greatly to the band's early success. He even brought in his (underage) younger brother Derwood as an unpaid guitarist. In 1932, he asked Pappy O'Daniel for a raise, or failing that to pay Derwood a salary. O'Daniels refused forcing Brown to resign. Milton and Derwood left the "Doughboys"; formed another band, and returned to KFJZ, where they became a powerful competitor to the Doughboys.  O'Daniel brought in Tommy Duncan as Brown's replacement singer. The band's style now changed drastically. Bob Wills started doing some comedic routines in between band numbers. He was a real crowd pleaser and a rivalry (decades long) between him and O'Daniel ensued (eventually landing them both in court). Duncan's singing (similar in style to Jimmy Rodgers, "The Blue Yodeler", was also very well received by the public. Eventually, Wills, and much later, Hank Thompson also left and formed their own bands. The orchestras of Milton Brown and Bob Wills were the first 'Western Swing' bands. They set the patterns that others would follow. And, O'Daniel became popular enough to become Governor of Texas.  Another, later, member of the Doughboys, Hank Thompson, would form his own popular band and carry the tradition forward until even now.

The Southern Melody Boys  1931 (Based in Ft. Worth, TX)  An early band that featured two fiddlers, often in a "Dueling Fiddles" style.


Milton Brown and his Brownies.  1932 (The First Western Swing Band) Upon leaving the 'Light Crust Doughboys', Milton, and his younger brother Derwood, formed their own band, returned to Station KFJZ, and became both a formidable rival to the Doughboys and North Texas' most popular band.  Over his career, Milton Brown brought many innovations to the old string bands of the late 1920s and early 30s. So many in fact, that musicologists now acknowledge him to be the "Father of Western Swing". It was Brown who introduced the electrified Pedal steel guitar, the upright Bass, and the piano to the early bands. Later, Western Swing bands would go on to include instruments such as Trumpets, Accordions, and even Harps (still an extremely popular band instrument in Mexico). He also relied on tunes with formal lyrics, rather then the older instrumental only tunes. Additionally, it was Brown's concept of having the Bass 'slapped' rather than bowed that effectively made the Bass a 'rhythm' instrument, which in time replaced the 4-string Baritone Uke as a percussive instrument.  Brown's pianist was Fred "Papa" Calhoun (b. Chico, TX, 1904) who was originally a drummer with his own 16 piece Jazz and Dance band. Calhoun switched to piano when the pianist left town. Calhoun loved the music of Earl "Fatha" Hines and listened incessantly to Hines' recordings.  The band's bass player was Wanna Coffman. Originally, a baritone Uke (tenor guitar) player, he was surprised when Brown asked him to play the Bass Fiddle. It was only after Coffman realized that the 4 strong Tenor guitar and 4 string Bass Fiddle both share the same tunings did he agree. After months of practicing his "slaps", often with bleeding fingers, Coffman became a competent, and for Western string bands, innovative Bassist.  But the best known of Brown's innovations was the use of the Lap Steel Guitar. He brought Bob Dunn into the band. Bob had invented the instrument, and was its finest player. Bob had a real passion for both the instrument and for booze. But, in later years, he settled down, owned his own music shop in Houston, TX, and even received a degree in Music.  The band also began to feature Twin Fiddles (dueling fiddles), as did other Western Swing bands including The Tune Wranglers and The Southern Melody Boys. Near the end of his life, Brown's 18 year-old wife bore him a son, Buster. Just before his death, in a car crash in 1936, she divorced him, but kept his name for the rest of her life, even though she was to remarry several times (including twice to Bob Wills).  At Brown's funeral, there were 3000 cars following the hearse in the cortege.  The 1934 band, 'Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies' consisted of: Milton Brown, leader and vocals; Derwood Brown, Guitar; Bob Dunn, Steel Lap Guitar (inventor);  Fred Papa Calhoun, piano; Cecil Brower, fiddle; Jesse Ashlock, fiddle (orig. with Southern Melody Boys); Ocie Stockard, banjo; Wanna Coffman, bass.  Marshall Pope was the band announcer at station KTAT.

The High Flyers 1937.  This small Fort Worth, TX based group followed Milton Brown into the Western Swing genre. They, along with other early bands used an upright Bass fiddle which was always bowed, thus accentuating the music's chordal progression (called by some musician's, "the Pad" and by Black musician's, "the Changes"). The founding group consisted of Al Stricklen (who died Oct. 15, 1986, Cleburne, TX) piano; Elmer Scarborough, banjo/tenor guitar; Willie Wells, bass, guitar and vocals; Fred Dean on guitar; and Ocie Stockard on banjo. (Ocie later left to join the Brownies), In time, the band added Hardy "Jiggs" Harvey on sax, Homer Kinnard on drums, kpat Trotter on fiddle, and  Landon Beaver who took over the piano chores when Stricklen joined Bob Wills’ band.  During their first full year together, they played on Dallas radio KFJZ. Pianist Al Strictlen has said that the station put them on the air 3 times a day under different names, while at night, the band played the Cinderella Roof. In June 1937, they cut 7 records. Of the 14 sides, two were a Trio version of the band, and 5 were instrumentals. One of the sides was their hit "A Little Green Mill". Later that year, the group disbanded. Scarborough and Wells went to work for the famous Mexican radio station XEPN. In 1938, they did some recording as a "Pickup Group" but did actually reform, the next year in 1939 as a true band, making Oklahoma City and radio station KOMA their new home.

The Tune Wranglers, 1935  In 1935 Leader/singer/songwriter Buster Coward, Tom Dickey (fiddle); Charlie Gregg (bass), and Eddie Fielding (banjo) began touring the small towns of Northeast Texas. By 1936, they were recording for Bluebird Records (Feb. 27 & 28 - with their first big hit "Texas Sand") and playing regularly on San Antonio radio station WOAI. During the summer of 1936, Eddie Duncan, a steel guitar player and vocalist, joined the band as did pianist George Timberlake (replacing pianist Eddie Whitley who had gone over to Jimmy Revard and His Oklahoma Playboys). Duncan sang the 'Pop' tunes while leader Buster Coward handled the 'Blues' vocals. It's interesting to note that there was  quite a bit of 'crossover' between the Tune Wranglers and Revard's Playboys. Eddie Whitely left the Wranglers to do the vocal honors on early Revard recordings, and when he left Revard to return to the Tune Wranglers, Curly Williams, who in turn had been recruited into the Tune Wranglers by Whitley, switched places with him taking over the vocal duties with Revard. (Art Francis - one time member of the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra - also joined Revard as the pianist.) He was later replaced by another ex-Tune Wrangler, George Timberlake. Another interchange between the two bands saw Revard's fiddler, Ben McKay, replaced by Wrangler Leonard Seago. On October 24, 1936, they had their second recording session (cutting 16 sides and their 2nd big hit "The One Rose In My Heart"). In early 1937, they had their 3rd recording session, cutting 12 sides. In October of 1938, the band had its final recording sessions, cutting - of all things - mostly Hawaiian numbers including "Hawaiian Honeymoon". Among the sidemen in the band at that time were Leonard Seago and Noah Hatley who handled the "dueling fiddles". The twins Neal (banjo) and Beal (reeds) added their own unique sounds to the band. One source (Rural Radio Magazine - May 1938) reported that the band was visiting over 200 different small towns, and traveling over 100,000 miles yearly. During the following two years, Tom Dickey died, and Bill Dickey retired to Kingsland, Texas. Charlie Poss., went on to play piano for Adolph Hofner, in San Antonio. They disbanded, in common with most other bands, with the advent of World War 11.

Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys.   Bob Wills, born, March 6, 1905 Kosse, TX, USA. died, May 13, 1975, Ft. Worth, TX, USA. Given name,: James Robert Wills.  Here's a photograph of Bob Wills. And, here's another photo of Bob Wills and Kay Kyser. Kyser is on the left, and on the right is W. B. Way, VP and General Manager of Tulsa, OK, radio station KVOO. (Photo courtesy of Univ. Of Maryland - Library of American, Broadcasting.) It was Wills and Brown who really set the pace in the early going. When Wills started his 13 piece band in the 1930’s, it was radical, a "Western" band with horns and drums! The musicians union in Tulsa, Oklahoma once refused to accept Bob Wills' players for membership on the basis that what they played wasn't music and, therefore, they weren't musicians. During his many recording sessions, he laid down such diverse tunes as Handy's "St. Louis Blues"; his own "Osage Stomp"; "Basin Street Blues"; "Trouble in Mind", the Original Dixieland Jazz Band's "Bluin' The Blues", and even "Mexicali Rose". He even had several hits on the 'Pop' Charts before becoming paralyzed from a cerebral Stroke. Nevertheless, he continued on with his career (from a wheelchair), and continued recording until 1973. In 1975, he suffered another, and this time fatal, stroke. Bob Wills was often called the 'King of Western Swing', but it should be noted that the title first belonged to Spade Cooley, and only went to Wills on Cooley's death. Originally, the band was called 'Bob Wills and His Playboys', but Jimmy Revard, whose own group was called, Jimmy Revard and the Oklahoma Playboys, convinced Wills to rename his group the "The Texas Playboys".  He was born on a small farm near Kosse, Limestone County, Texas. On the day Bob was born, his dad (a champion fiddler) is reputed to have said, "I'll make a fiddler out of you, son", and he did. By the time Bob was ten, he was playing guitar and mandolin accompaniment for his father, - even filling in for him at times.  Wills left home at age sixteen and supported himself by doing everything from picking cotton to preaching, with the fiddle always at his side.  In 1931, he was part of a band that found success as  ‘The Light Crust Doughboys’.  But by the next year, a rift developed between Wills and the band's sponsor, - W. Lee O'Daniel, who ran the Burrus Mill and Elevator Company (and eventually became governor of Texas). The break, when it came, was bitter, and O'Daniel eventually drove Wills out of Texas to Tulsa, OK.  There Bob formed his 'Bob Wills and His Playboys' band and continued to develop the music that became known as Western Swing. With vocals by Tommy Duncan and "hollers" by the cigar-chomping Wills, the Playboys (later called The Texas Playboys) combined jazz and string band elements into danceable fun like "Take Me Back To Tulsa," "Right Or Wrong," "Bubbles In My Beer" and perhaps his biggest hit, "San Antonio Rose."  Married and divorced five times between 1935 and 1942, Wills himself was larger than life. Over the years, The Texas Playboys had: many different versions (some as large as 22 men); hired more than six hundred musicians; introduced more than five hundred songs, and had a repertoire of thirty-six hundred tunes. They were seen in the movies and their records sold more than twenty million copies.

Still, on October 18, 1968 when Tex Ritter and Roy Acuff announced his name as the newest member of the Hall of Fame, Wills was not in his seat. He figured he was such a long shot to win the honor that he was backstage chatting with his buddies. Felled by a series of strokes, Wills died in Fort Worth, Texas on May 13, 1975. He had almost single-handedly created what we today call "Western Swing".  The Big Bands Database Plus thanks Mr. Verne Buland for these notes on Bob Wills.

Adolph Hofner and His San Antonians.  June 8, 1916, Moulton, Texas, d: June 2, 2000, San Antonio, Texas. (Almost 84) Adolph was still playing and wowing audiences in San Antonio, TX, almost to the day of his demise, although his health had deteriorated somewhat.  Hofner became, in his own words, "a confirmed Hillbilly" after listening to Milton Brown and His Brownies and has continued the Western Swing tradition for over 50 years, - longer than any other band. The original San Antonians consisted of Adolph's brother Emil; Leonard Seago (formerly with the Tune Wranglers); Bert Ferguson, and Floyd Tillman, who later became a well-known songwriter.  During WW2, as with the other bands, some of his best men went into the Armed Forces. Still Hofner was able to find such replacements as former Tune Wrangler Eddie Duncan and Leonard Brown. He also began adding Brass players (fiddlers were becoming scarce).  In 1945, when WWII had ended, Hofner moved to California where the band was employed on the Foreman Phillips Country Barn Dances for two consecutive years. It was during this period that the band recorded their hit tunes "Sagebrush Shuffle" and "Alamo Rag" for the Columbia Label. In 1949, the band returned to San Antonia, TX where they were employed by the Pearl Beer Company, and are now called The Pearl Wranglers, who at one time used both of Adolph's daughters as singers and drummers.  Over his career, Adolph was Elected to the Texas Western Swing Hall of Fame, Country Music Association of Texas Hall of Fame, Country Music Hall of Fame --Nashville, Washington Western Swing Hall of Fame, and was the Recipient of the Encore Award--Texas Music Association, as well as a Recipient of Western Swing Society Hall of Fame award. During his long and illustrious career, at one time or another, he was called "The Dean of Country Bandleaders," "The King of South Texas Swing", "The Sultan of Swing,", and "The Prince of Polka." Once, he was even billed as the "Bing Crosby of Country."

Bill Boyd (1910-1977 ) and the Cowboy Ramblers.  Music historian Tom Dunbar, has tagged Bill Boyd "King of the Instrumentals".  Bill and his young brother Jim formed a band that would become one of the legends of Western Swing.  Among their more than 250 recordings, are such hits as "Goofus"; "Over The Wave Waltz"; "New Spanish Two Step"; "Fort Worth Rag"; "Beaumont Rag"; "Palace in Dallas"; and perhaps their most famous recording "Under The Double Eagle". Bill Boyd went on to star in such films as 'Along the Sundown Trail', and 'Tumbleweed Trail'.  Bill's father owned a 320-acre combination cotton farm and cattle ranch in Fannin County, Texas.  The 11 children grew up in a happy home, and helped out with the farm chores.  In 1926, when Bill was just 16 years old, he and his 12-year-old brother Jim, and two neighbors, brothers Howard and Bill Staley, formed a band and began performing on the Greenville TX radio station KFPM. They would have continued with their music except that their father's sudden death ended this and the youngsters returned to help keep the family farm going.  However, the great depression of 1929 forced the sale of the property, and Bill and Jim took up residence in Dallas, TX.  Bill worked at whatever job  he could find, while Jim became a student at the Dallas Technical High School.  At this school, Jim became friends with another student, fiddler (mandolin/clarinet) Aubrey "Art" Davis, and the two would often play at school functions.  In 1932, Bill, along with Red Perkins on Mandolin and O. .P. Alexander on French Harp formed a trio that found work on station WFAA, remaining there for 2 years.  Later in the same year, after his graduation, brother Jim joined the group, making it a quartet, which was promptly named 'The Cowboy Ramblers'.  August 1934 saw the group cutting their first recordings. But, in 1936, they began recording for the RCA Victor label, eventually cutting over 250 sides. At one time or another, the band had such sidemen as Bill's young brother John Boyd; Milton Brown Alumni Cecil Brower; Jesse Ashlock, and Fred Calhoun, while former 'Doughboys' Milton Montgomery and Kenneth Pitts were also with the band.  Jack Adams, the Cowboy Ramblers' manager, was not only a film distributor, but also a 'Producer's Releasing Corporation franchisee. With Jack's help, Bill Boyd became an overnight success as an actor, appearing in six PRC "B" cowboy films. Some of those films also featured Art Davis, who had earlier (1938) left the Ramblers so that he could work with famed Hollywood Cowboy star Gene Autry.  During WW2, Bill entertained servicemen and helped in War Bond Sales. When WW2 ended, Bill and his brother Jim re-formed the Cowboy Ramblers, which remained active until finally disbanding in the mid 1950's.

Spade Cooley and His Orchestra.  b. Dec. 17, 1910, nr Pack Saddle Creek, OK, USA. d. 1969, in prison.  Given Name, Clyde Donnell Cooley. Tag: ‘The King of Western Swing’.
This son of migrant Anglo-Indian workers was born in a Storm Cellar. As a child, he attended Indian Public Schools. Most of his fans thought of him as Caucasian but under law, he was considered to be 25% Indian. His first wife was a Native American, and Cooley was hard put to support her and his son.  He got his nickname 'Spade' due to his penchant for gambling.  In Los Angeles, Spade managed an introduction to Roy Rogers, and convinced Roy to help him get a job in the movies. Neither man could then see that someday, the meeting would cause Spade to murder his wife, and send him to jail, where he would die. During the day, Cooley did his film work, and during the evenings, he found jobs as a fiddler. One day, the manager of the Venice Pier Ballroom advised him to form a band. Spade did, and in just a few months became a phenomenal success.  So much so, that he first leased his own club - the 8000 square foot Riverside Rancho, which proved to be too 'small' to hold the crowds. He then transferred the band to the Santa Monica Ballroom.  Here is a photo of the Spade Cooley Band, with vocalist Carolina Cotton in the center and Cooley on her left side. Carolina Cotton sang with the band for a while, and even appeared with them in a film, 'Outlaws of the Rockies'. Later, she left Cooley and went with Tex Williams at the time when he also left Cooley and formed his own band.  In private correspondence, Carolina Cotton's daughter (Sharon Marie) has provided some further interesting history on her mother.

"When she joined Spade's band in 1944, she was just known as 'Carolina'. Soon afterward, the last name  'Cotton' was added. For a time she played bass fiddle and singing/yodeling with the band. She left the group in 1945, as she married Deuce Spriggins from the band (he's on the far left in the photo, on the end).  He left Cooley and took several band mates with him. The marriage between my mom and Deuce didn't last and they divorced in 1946." Carolina made a few soundies (Scopitone videos) with both Spade and Deuce's groups. She had also made a few records, many in the Western Swing vein. She recorded 4 tracks with Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys ("3 Miles South of Cash in Arkansas", "Cause I'm In Love", "All Alone", and "You Always Keep Me in Hot Water"). If there are any surviving recordings with Cooley, they would be radio transcriptions. With 'Deuce' Spriggins she recorded "What's the Matter With You", and "I've Been Down in Texas". She made at least 17 films, the earlier ones with Spade, then with Deuce's band. As most Western performers back then, she did a little of everything --radio, movies, stage shows, records and television."

Curiously, while Spade Cooley  was finding public success, his marriage was coming apart at the seams. His first wife obtained both a divorce and custody of their son John. During this same time, he hired Ella Mae Evans to be his vocalist. She would later become his second wife, - the one he would murder because of an assumed affair. Here's a photo of the Spade Cooley Band with Ella Mae  In 1946, Cooley's "Western Swing" band started playing Rumbas, Boogie Woogie, and even the Blues, all of which furthered his popularity. In 1949, he started his own Television show - that would last for more than 10 years. He had not only scored the music for several films, but he had also starred in some of them.  He was immensely popular and had purchased some land in the Mojave Desert for an amusement park, when it all ended.  On April 3, 1961, thinking his wife was having an affair with Roy Rogers, he murdered her, in front of their daughter, Melody.  His daughter's testimony helped send him to prison where he eventually died of a massive coronary (his fourth). He had served 8-1/2 years of his 25-year sentence, and was scheduled to be released.

Tex Williams (1917-1985) and The Western Caravan.  This nine-piece band was a cooperative, formed in 1946, and the members elected Tex Williams to front the orchestra. The bandsmen had left Spade Cooley's orchestra, convinced that Cooley was drifting away from his hillbilly roots.  Of all the bands, it was The Western Caravan that carried on the true Western Swing traditions, in their commitment to using string players primarily. Tex was on guitar, and the other pieces consisted of two more guitars; fiddle, stand up bass, electric steel lap guitar, vibes, accordion, and drums.  The new band found work immediately after their formation with a job at a Roller Rink on Glendale Boulevard in Los Angeles. So popular was the group, that not only was the Rink jammed to capacity on the weekends, but there was also a very substantial crowd on weekdays.  Even though Capitol Records also signed them immediately, they had to wait two long years before their first big hit "Smoke, Smoke, Smoke That Cigarette" went to the top of both the Country and the Pop charts, and earned the band a 'Platinum' record.

"Texas" Jim Lewis and The Lone Star Cowboys. b: Oct. 15, 1909, Meigs GA, d: Jan. 23, 1990. This "Western Swing" style musician grew up in Fort Myers FL, USA. 1928 found him in Texas working as a farm hand and factory worker, all the while dabbling in music. In 1931, he relocated to Detroit, MI, joining his family there. He and his half-brother Jack Lewis teamed to play in "speakeasies". In 1932, he joined the 'Swift Jewel Cowboys' in Houston, TX. In 1934, he returned to Detroit and became a member of radio station WJR's 'Jack West and his Circle Star Cowboys' show. With the show's close, he formed his own 'Lone Star Cowboys', a group that worked mainly in and around New York. From 1937-'39, he recorded for Vocalion, helping to popularize the 'Western Swing' genre in the eastern USA. In 1940, he signed with the Decca label. His 1944 Decca release of "Too Late To Worry, Too Blue To Cry' was perhaps his biggest hit. During WWII, he was drafted into the U. S. Army, and his band was taken over by Spade Cooley. After his Service Discharge at the end of the war, he relocated to California and recorded such hits as "Leven Miles From Leavenworth' and "Squaws Along The Yukon' (later revived by Hank Thompson). In 1950, he moved to Seattle, WA, where he had his own radio shows. With the introduction of Television, he was seen on the KING-TV 'Ranier Ranch' shows. During 1950-'57, he starred in 'Sheriff Tex's Safety Junction', a children's show, and also recorded some Children's records. In the 1960s, he again formed a Western Swing band that played local club dates well into the 1970s. During his career, Lewis also appeared in 11 Hollywood films. In 1937, he appeared in the film Drug Store Follies, where he played himself as the leader of the Lone Star Cowboys Band. He went on to appear in 10 more films, including All Aboard (1937), Swingin' in the Barn (1940) , Bad Man from Red Butte (1940), Carolina Moon (1940), Down Mexico Way (1941), Pardon My Gun (1942), Old Homestead, (1942), Stranger from Ponca City, (1947), Law of the Canyon (1947), and a one-reel Short Subject Screen Snapshots: My Pal, Ringeye (1947). In these films, he almost always appeared as himself, the Leader of the Lone Star Cowboys Band. Happily, shortly before his death, he had gained a long-overdue recognition as a pioneer in the 'Western Swing' genre.

Hank Thompson (1925) and His Brazos Valley Boys.  Another of the Light Crust Doughboys that included Wills, Brown and Thompson.  Hank began his career, in his hometown of Waco, TX, playing on a cheap guitar that his mother had bought for him. While still in High School, he landed a job with radio station WACO, where he played as "Hank, the Hired Hand". He continued his singing career even while attending Southern Methodist University and the University of Texas. Globe Records signed him to a contract, and paired him with a group known as The Brazos Valley Boys. Two of his Globe releases, "Whoa Sailor" and "Swing Wide Your Gate of Love" - both of which were his original tunes, brought him to the attention of Tex Ritter and Hank and the Band were signed by Capitol Records. For the next 20 years, Hank and The Brazos Valley Boys turned out one hit after another, including such tunes as:
"Humpty-Dumpty Heart" ,"Today", "The Wild Side Of Life" , "Six Pack To Go"  You can find a lot of Hank’s recordings at his website

Bill Haley (1925-1981) and His Comets. 

Originally called Bill Haley and the Saddlemen. In the 1950's, a Michigan resident, Bill Haley, was the first 'Western Bopper'. 

In 1951, Haley and The Saddlemen (later renamed The Comets), recorded "Rocket 88". Here is a photograph of Bill Haley and the Comets, Bill at top.  Then in 1954, their "Rock Around The Clock" was a huge hit - one full year before famed DJ Alan Freed started to promote his music tours with the term 'Rock and Roll'.


The End.


Researched and Composed by

Leo C. Helmer.


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Reader Comments

Name: Tom Bingham Email:
Comment: The term "Western Swing" is generally credited to Foreman Phillips (who handled Spade Cooley's career and bookings at the time), FOR Spade Cooley, not by Cooley himself. The information you appended from the site, while incomplete, is noteworthy as one of the few articles on w.s. to come from a jazz/big- band source. Tom Bingham School of Music SUNY Fredonia



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