An interesting one, this. In 1993, my then-agent Tony Secunda hatched the notion of pairing me with cowboy legend Roy Rogers, to write his life story. Roy seemed interested, so we piled into a hired car and drove from San Francisco to the Rogers museum in Victorville, CA… joking all the while about another Thompson, gonzo author Hunter, making a similar trek into the desert on his way to writing Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas. we doubted that anything so tumultuous would emerge from our trip, although I did get to witness the unparallelled ferocity of a very drunken Secunda harassing all-comers for whatever reason had most recently come into his head, while discovering the multitudinous obscene usages to which the word “earwig” could be put.
The meetings with Roy went well, and thse with son Dusty went even better. But Dale Evans was another matter entirely, and we drove home at the end of the week in the knowledge that the book probably wasn’t going to happen. But a few afternoons in the Roy Rogers archive, some long conversations with Dusty, and some more with his Uncle Don Wilkins, gave me the idea for at least one article, which was duly published in Discoveries magazine a year or so later.
ROY ROGERS AND THE SONS OF PIONEERS: THE EARLIEST YEARS, AND A GOOD OLD-FASHIONED LOVE STORY
Hollywood could never have scripted it better, could never have found two less likely co-stars, and certainly could never have dreamed a more ingenuous storyline. It was as if fate had already decided what would become of the boy from Duck Run and, determined to get a headstart on the myth-makers, conjured a romance which would have challenged the credulity of even the most creative publicity agents. At the time, however, Leonard Slye would have been pleased merely to have a full stomach. The fact that a beautiful girl was helping her mother serve the meal was simply an unexpected bonus.
The International Cowboys waved goodbye to their radio work at KGER and KRKD in June, 1933, and swept out of Southern California with their heads held as high as their hopes. While Tim Spencer and Slumber Nichols schemed about how they’d spend the “big dough” which would soon be rolling Cowboywards, Slye was content simply to dream of the new pair of trousers he’d soon be able to buy. He left L.A. with but one pair to his name, and they were two sizes too small. The remainder of the group, Cactus MacPeters, and a Kansasªborn fiddle player named Cyclone, was more down to earth about the Cowboys’ prospects, a heady brew of fatalism and experience combining to balance some very wise heads on their young shoulders. But even they could not help getting carried along by their bandmates’ euphoria. If nothing else, they joked, the tour would get them away from earthquake country!
On March 10, 1933, the Cowboys were booked to perform at the prestigious Warner Brothers Theater. The
compere introduced them, and they were just about to launch into their opening number when the entire building gave a dramatic, and sickening lurch to one side. Panic erupted, and though geologists later issued their calm assurance that, at a mere 6.2 on the Richter scale, the Long Beach Earthquake was a comparative toddler, to the audience caught unawares within the violently swaying theater it was as though the world was ending. Above their heads, the grand old theater’s massive chandelier was swinging “like a watch on a chain,” as Slye recalls, while outside, the people who exploded out of the venue ran directly into a hailstorm of flying masonry. “There was just one guy left in the audience, and he was the smart one,” Slye continues. “A couple of people that had run out got hit in the street by falling cornices and killed. We didn’t quite know what to do, so we swung into our act!”
Neither was Mother Nature the only power which seemed to be ranged against the International Cowboys. Cupid had it in for them as well, and if anybody doubted that, they had only to ask after Benny Nawahi, who created the band in the first place, then quit when the proverbial good-looking blonde spirited him away “for parts unknown”, or ask after Slye’s own wife, Lucille. Marry in haste, repent at leisure was a cliche they could both identify with.
“Earthquakes and babes – we’re well away from both of them!”, someone laughed as Cyclone’s 1923 Pontiac left L.A. behind it. And the Cowboys let loose with an impromptu song – which died on their lips the moment they caught a glimpse of their first gig. The economics of the International Cowboys’ tour, spelled out by a smooth-talking agent named Uncle Joe, were simple. All the group had to do was eclipse each individual theater’s “average” take, and they would receive a full 50% of the profit in cash, and that was the magic word, “cash”.
It was just three months since President Roosevelt closed down every bank in the nation for four full days, and America, in the thrall of a financial crisis so severe it had been declared a national emergency, responded by all but outlawing checks from everyday life. Southern California still buzzed sympathetically with the sorry tales of bands who accepted their payment in the form of a check, only to find that the issuing bank had gone under. “Every cent you take will be cold, hard cash,” Uncle Joe reassured the Cowboys. “Every cent above the average take’.”
Unfortunately, nobody cared to ask him what an “average take” was, or if they did, he was able to sell them
another line altogether, about how some of the towns they’d be playing were so hungry for genuine talent (“and you fellahs have enough of that!”) that they’d have people queuing up to pay them. Only when they hove into Yuma, Arizona, did Tim Spencer realize, “you can starve to death on a deal like that.” To make matters worse, the group arrived five days ahead of schedule, to discover that no-one in Yuma had ever even heard of them, let alone made arrangements for them to play there! So much for Uncle Joe’s promise that he would be going on ahead of the band, to confirm their bookings and lay out the red carpet.
Suddenly, the International Cowboys had a very bad feeling about the entire venture, but like so many other bands, before them and after, they weren’t going to let a little thing like reality impair their tenacious ambition.
“If Uncle Joe’s not going to do it,” they swore, “we’ll do it ourselves.” And since they never made a nickel in Yuma, the Cowboys piled back into their increasingly belligerent Pontiac, and commenced the weary drive north to their next alleged engagement, in Miami, a copper mining town some 75 miles due east of Phoenix.
Checking their itinerary, it was obvious that once again, they were running dramatically ahead of their schedule. Rather than roll into Miami just yet, then, the Cowboys figured they’d stop off in Phoenix first, and try to pull in some extra work. Talking themselves into some airtime at a local radio station, the Cowboys spent the next week advertising their upcoming Miami shows, at the same time as draining the last of their spending money on accommodation. Somehow, though, they believed it was worth it. Mining towns, Uncle Joe told them, have the most appreciative audiences around. Assuming, of course, that there’s an audience left in them.
Miami, Arizona, doesn’t show up on too many maps today, but in 1933, it was a fair-sized dot on the Sunset Land’s eastern flank, a relatively new town on the banks of the Bloody Tank Wash, the scene of a massacre of Apache in 1864. It was only when you rolled into town that you noticed how silent the streets were, how quiet the mines. In every block, buildings stood blindly shuttered, and those that weren’t seemed cobwebbed and quiet.
“It’s like a goddamned ghost town!” Cyclone roared; then, as the car made its way deeper into the community, he corrected himself. “I’m sorry; it is a goddamned ghost town.” The band checked into what was possibly the last operational auto©court in town, and began spreading the word about their arrival. They did not have far to spread it. Slye later guessed that the city’s entire population barely topped 25, and the Cowboys quit town the moment they could. And far from having made back all their expenses, they’d just racked up another one.
Rather than spend the $9 they made from the show (the promotor took another $5), Slye handed over his wristwatch as payment for their room. “To make the whole thing an even worse fizzle,” Tim Spencer later laughed, “some girl took what you might call a shine to Leonard.” He’d rejected her advances in town, but she figured he might not be quite so fussy when he was out on the road. Hijacking a neighbor’s car, the tenacious young lady trailed the Cowboys into the desert, cornered her hero at the first opportunity, and pulled every trick in the book to persuade him to take her along with him. Tim continued, “he had the devil’s own time convincing her that she should get that stolen jalopy back before the sheriff set a posse on her.”
“There probably aren’t a lot of people in the country who can tell you much about the little community of Safford, Arizona,” Slye later recalled of the tiny town, named after territorial Arizona’s third governor, Anson P. Safford, which lies about 90 miles south©east of Miami. “But to this day it remains one of my favorite spots. It was there, after all our dead ends, that we found a paying job.” Though they ended up paying their hotel room with the Pontiac’s only spare tire, “our performance netted us four dollars apiece, and to the man we were certain we had at last found the mother lode.”
All the Cowboys’ early excitement returned, and with it the confidence that, despite Uncle Joe, they were going to return to L.A. in clover. It was in the spirit of that belief, the knowledge that they really could make it on their own, that someone suggested that the Cowboys change their name. The International Cowboys was Benny Nawahi’s name, and when the band returned as superstars, there’d be nothing to stop him from grabbing it back. Better to forestall him, and make a fresh start now.
As the Arizona landscape sped by, and with the bills nestled in their pockets like lucky rabbits’ feet, the Cowboys set their brains to thinking up a new name they could live with. “And it doesn’t matter what we choose, because whatever it is, it’ll work. We’re on a lucky roll right now, the people will love us whoever we are.” For reasons which the band members themselves had forgotten by the time they next stopped the car, the International Cowboys shuffled into the past somewhere between Safford and Willcox. In their place there stood the O-Bar-O Cowboys.
In actuality, the Cowboys had all the reason in the world to expect great things from Willcox. Cactus Mac was born and bred in the town which had sprung up around a Southern Pacific Railroad camp, and the O-Bar-O Cowboys rode into town to see their leader receive a hero’s welcome. The streets of the town were festooned with banners, each broadcasting the news: “Hometown Boy Makes Good in Hollywood”, “Welcome Back, Cactus Mac”, and so on. It was enough to turn any body’s head, and Cactus Mac was no exception. Overwhelmed by his reception, he resolved overnight to quit the music business, and return to live in Willcox.
Meantime, the Cowboys still had a gig to play, and with their fortune having already made one abrupt about-turn, it was inevitable that things could only go downhill from there. Willcox proved no more profitable than any other gig the Cowboys had played, and that despite the band following their scheduled show with a riotous square dance which lasted till two in the morning. Heaping the rickety stovepipe theater’s folding chairs into one corner, the band members themselves waxed the old wooden floors, backbreaking work which left them exhausted before the dance even began. And while “plenty of customers came to the dance,” Tim Spencer reflected, “the expenses raised ned with the profits.” Small wonder, then, that as the evening drew to a close, and the band members sat desultorily jangling their meager split of the proceeds in their pocket, Cyclone announced that he, too, had had enough. And as he owned the car, he presumed the rest of the Cowboys were going to follow him home.
Spencer admits that both Slumber Nicholls and he were tempted. For all Uncle Joe’s high-falluting talk, and with their own earlier optimism lying crushed beneath their feet, the individual Cowboys had made less money on this trip than at any other time in their professional career. Some things just weren’t meant to be… and the O-Bar-O Cowboys were one of those things. Slye, however, was not in the mood for quitting. “Ah, come on. We stuck it out this long, why quit now?”
Cyclone snorted. “I’ll tell you why. This buggy has just enough gas left in it to get us home to California. One more week and who knows?”
He was determined, but Slye was even more so, and would have stayed up all night to prove his point if he’d had to. As it was, dawn was still some way off when Cyclone finally saw the wisdom of his words, or grew so tired, he thought he saw it. The tour continued on to its next port of call, and they would see how things went on from there.
With a population of over 13,000, Roswell, New Mexico, was more than twice the size of any city the O-Bar-O Cowboys had visited in the past. The New Mexico Military Institute was located there and so, throughout the 1930s, was the workshop where the renowned rocket scientist, Dr Robert Goddard, conducted his first private experiments. And there was more, particularly for an enterprising bunch of singing cowboys. John Chisum, the legendary rancher, once lived nearby, and a short way up the river lay Fort Sumner, where Pat Garrett finally laid out the outlaw Billy the Kid. Just four short years later, Leonard Slye would himself briefly portray the baby-faced bandit, in his second feature movie. Right now, he was content simply to walk the streets the Kid had walked, and immerse himself in the legend.
The O-Bar-O Cowboys had precisely 50 cents apiece in their pockets when they arrived in Roswell; what they didn’t have was a show. Roswell had just one theater, the Yucca, and it was booked solid. Resigned to starvation, the Cowboys had no alternative but to hightail it down to the local radio station, to see whether there were any jobs available. Their luck was in. As Tim Spencer later put it, “nothing world-shaking happened in Roswell”, and the group was given all the air time it wanted. So they told jokes and sang, and when the hunger pangs grew too great, and Slye noted with concern that he now fit precisely into those tiny trousers he’d been living in, they would broadcast the same urgent requests for food that they’d perfected back in California. And while they awaited the hoped-for dividends, they fell back upon their own, increasingly ingenious, devices.
Borrowing a gun from the radio station manager, the Cowboys would head out into the surrounding countryside and take potshots at the wildlife. The first day, they did well, and dined heartily on rabbit. But the bunnies learned fast, and one evening, not one showed its face. Suddenly, Slye spotted a hawk atop a telegraph wire. None of the band had ever eaten hawk before, but it was meat and right now, nobody cared for anything more than a full stomach. Taking careful aim, Slye fired his last bullet into the breast of the bird – and it dropped like a stone. Trouble was, boiled on the hotplate in their motel room, it tasted like one as well, and its gravy was so tough, Slye complained, “that you could bend a fork with it.” By the time the Cowboys got onto the radio the following morning, their rumbling stomachs were even louder than their voices.
Which is when Grace Arlene Wilkins walked into their lives. She’d been listening to the O-Bar-O Cowboys ever since the afternoon, a few days before, when she’d spun the radio dial and caught Roy’s rendition of “The Swiss Yodel”. Arlene (nobody called her Grace any more) was captivated, and she’d tuned in every day since then, in the hope of hearing it performed again. Finally, after three or four days of disappointment, she decided to take matters into her own hands. She made up her mind that the next time the band asked for food, she’d be ready.
She did not have long to wait. The O-Bar-O Cowboys were despondent – or worse. Cyclone’s premonition about running out of gas (“and being trapped in the desert forever”) suddenly seemed nightmarishly self-fulfilling. Throwing himself to the ground with something less than well-staged mock anguish, Cyclone could wail nothing more than “I told you so, I told you so!” before finally announcing, “I wish I was dead.” Spencer and Nicholls could only stand around, watching in silent sympathy. Always ready with a brave face, Slye tried soothing him, “oh hey, it’s not so bad. I reckon we should just stick around and put on those square dances. They’re sure to pick us up some change.” And though every fiber in his body called him an idiot for doing so, Cyclone shrugged and said “okay.” What difference would another week or so make? They were going to die out here regardless.
By now, of course, the Cowboys had their pleading, starving, banter down pat, not only hinting at their urgent need for food, but suggesting that a little loving wouldn’t hurt either: “Me,” one Cowboy would begin, “I’m an apple pie demon”; “I’d rather have me a big, juicy steak”, someone would reply, and then a third voice would chime in, “And I’d take Hedy Lamaar over everything.”
“Between songs, the subject of food came up right on cue,”Slye remembers, “and I said something like ‘I’d just about give my left arm for a piece of lemon pie like Mom bakes back home.” Across town at the Wilkins house, Arlene turned to her mother and said, “Those boys sound real hungry, mom.” Lucy Wilkins reacted in exactly the way her daughter had hoped. “Well, the poor lambs. You ring up that radio station and tell them we’ll be down with a couple of lemon pies. There’s no need for anyone to go hungry with all this food around.” Arlene agreed, but she was going to make sure the boys earned their meal first, by singing for their supper. The way Slye remembers it, “no sooner were we off the air than a young lady called and said if I would do ‘Swiss Yodel’ on the air the following day, she would come running with a whole lemon pie.”
Slye was up all night practicing the song, and the following afternoon – in the hope of hastening the arrival of the pie – he opened the show with it. With remarkable candor he admits, “it probably wasn’t the best rendition of the song ever done, but I bet it’s never been done with more enthusiasm. Boy, did I yodel my lungs out!” But where were the pies? They weren’t there when he finished the song, they still weren’t there when the Cowboys ended their show. With Cyclone still wishing he was dead, and everyone else simply groaning with hunger, the band headed back to the Second Street motor court where they were staying, there to be greeted by a woman and a young girl, smilingly clutching a steaming lemon pie each. Piling ingenuity upon ingenuity, Arlene had called the radio station to find out where the band was staying, and learned it was almost exactly across the street from where she lived.
The woman introduced herself. “I’m Mrs Wilkins from across the street, and this is my daughter Arlene, who called you at the station. She loved your ‘Swiss Yodel’.” Remembering the way Slye would look from her face to the pies, then back to her face, his eyes growing wider with every circuit, Arlene later remembered, “he seemed kind of flustered, kept stammering ‘thank you’. Kind of bashful, too. But not so bashful he didn’t ask where we lived, so he could return the tins the next day.”
The following morning, he delivered the empty pie plates back to the Wilkins’ house, and had already worked out an introduction, only to lapse back into tongue-tied shyness the moment Arlene swept into the kitchen, and he came to the conclusion “that she was even prettier than I had first thought.” Standing around in the Wilkins’ family kitchen, the couple introduced themselves to one another. Arlene was 18, and attended business school in Roswell. She hoped – and when he heard it, so did Slye – that she would be able to move out to Los Angeles the following year, to complete her studies. She loved music, of course, and she sang and played the piano a little. And, of course, she could cook.
By now, Lucy Wilkins was well aware of what was brewing between the two youngsters, although she did entertain some reservations. By his own admission (and the Cowboys’ constant requests for food), Leonard Slye was hardly the kind of match mothers dreamed of, financially if nothing else. “He came to town pretty destitute,” Arlene’s brother Don remembers. “Practically penniless, in fact!” But he was charming, polite and very, very shy; Lucy figured that it wouldn’t hurt to encourage his ambitions a little. “We’re having fried chicken for dinner tonight, and there’s more than enough to go round. Why don’t you and your friends drop by for a bite?”
Slye didn’t need to be asked twice. Stammering out his gratitude, he hared back to the motor court to tell the rest of the Cowboys, “things are finally looking up!” Gazing into his wide eyes, and living with his dreamy expression for the rest of the day, the Cowboys weren’t quite sure exactly what “things” he meant – his hopes? Or his heart?
In actual fact, he meant both. In short succession, the O-Bar-O Cowboys found themselves being fed by a friendly family, whose daughter was quite plainly falling in love with Slye, and being applauded by a friendly city. The local Lions Club booked the group to stage a couple of square dances, and by the time the O-Bar-O Cowboys were ready to move on to their next gig, they had $97 in the pocket, enough to pay the bill at the tourist court, buy food and gasoline for the journey, and convince themselves that this time they really had made it.
They had driven scarcely a hundred miles before they realized the error of their ways. As it crossed into the Texas Panhandle, ”en route• for Lubbock, the weary Pontiac finally gave up the ghost. It took almost all the band’s capital to have the old thing repaired, and the O-Bar-O Cowboys reached Lubbock in what Slye recalls was “a now familiar state; so poor we couldn’t pay attention.”
It was time for another change of name – and hopefully, change of luck. “When in Texas, do as the Texans,” Tim Spencer jokingly drawled, and overnight the Cowboys became the Texas Outlaws. Slye began billing himself as Mesquite, in the hope that this additional touch of local color might detract people’s attention away from other, somewhat less-than-traditionally Texan, aspects of the group. Unfortunately, neither this, nor his dogged insistence that the East produced far better cowboys than the so-called Wild West, made much headway amongst the disinterested locals.
The Lubbock shows earned just enough money for the band to get home, and waving goodbye to Slumber – who landed a job at a Fort Worth radio station – the Outlaws cranked up the Pontiac one more time, and began the weary trek westwards. Tim Spencer later described the journey, conducted in self-absorbed miserable silence, as the low point of his entire career.
The band returned to Los Angeles in early September, three months older, and barely three dollars richer than when they’d departed. The group disbanded the moment Cyclone switched off the car’s engine. Their future plans were hazy, to say the least: Slye, of course, intended pursuing his musical dream, and Cyclone, whose spirits had lifted the moment the Pontiac wheezed into L.A., was quietly planning to return to the desert, haul Slumber Nicholls out of his self-imposed retirement, and embark on a south-western tour of his own.
Tim Spencer, however, didn’t care if he never saw the business-end of a microphone again. He even got himself a real job, returning to the local Safeway’s warehouse, where he dreamed of the only thing that had made the trip to Texas worthwhile. Like Slye in Roswell, he had met the girl who would soon become his wife, and like Slye, he wouldn’t be content until he saw her again.
Spencer was half-expecting Slye to come round to see him; half-expected, too, to be invited to form a new group. He just didn’t think it would happen so quickly. The Outlaws disbanded in early September; by the middle of the month, he and Slye were driving out to the exclusive Bel Air Country Club, to buttonhole a songwriter they’d worked with in the past, Bob Nolan. Like Spencer, accustomed again to the sensation of eating regular meals, Nolan enjoyed his job, caddying rich golfers around the Club’s luxurious golf links. He had a nice apartment in West Los Angeles, and because his work was essentially dependent on the weather, he found that he also had a fair amount of time to himself. “Hardly a day went by while I was employed at the country club that I wasn’t working on a song.”
It was during one of those breaks, a chilly fall afternoon when even the wind had nothing better to do than chase leaves around the streets, that Nolan wrote what was to become the best-loved song in his entire canon, “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” – only then, it was called “Tumbling Leaves”, and had nothing whatsoever to do with roving cowboys or riding all day long. That was to come later, added by an enterprising publisher some months after Slye and Spencer cornered Nolan on the golf course, and asked him to throw away his golf cart and get back out on the road, as a member of the Pioneer Trio.
Nolan wasn’t at all certain. His time with their last group, the Rocky Mountaineers, scraping from gig to gig with the minimum of money, had left a bitter taste in his mouth; and if the competition for work had been tough back then, it was likely to be even tougher a full year later. New bands were forming all the time; the competition for even the least prestigious spots was fierce. Southern California was awash with musicians, all bent on proving that if conventional industry had ground to an economic standstill, music was still the food of life. The most popular sound at the time was what listeners and musicians alike dubbed “cowboy” songs, a vast body of work which encompassed both traditional western music, and the wealth of custom-built efforts being churned out by tunesmiths like Bob Nolan.
It was the era of the Carter Family, picking their assiduously melodic way through a repertoire of mountain songs and gospel; of Jimmie Rodgers, a tubercular railroadman who picked the blues and had, by the time of his death in 1933, already established within the western tradition a taste for the extraordinary and esoteric. If the Pioneer Trio didn’t perform his “Texas Yodel”, it was only because most every other group in town had already hijacked it. Further afield, unsung, unknown, and in the rarified atmosphere of southern California, unwelcome even after Woody Guthrie and his cousin, Oklahoma Jack, arrived in Los Angeles, the mid-west’s dustboy cowboys picked their songs in private, as they rode the rails to the promised land. Closer to home, riding the airwaves with the same air of studied ease, the Beverley Hillbillies, the Arizona Wranglers and the Texas Ramblers fought tooth and nail to maintain the stranglehold they had placed on the ears of the city. “With all the yodeling and barbershop quartet harmony, it sounded more like Switzerland than Texas,” wrote Joe Klein in his biography of Guthrie, A Life, “and you couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing… some group crooning a love song to their cattle.”
The Pioneer Trio were just one more clutch of struggling cowpokes, hanging around the edges with their hats outstretched to catch some crumbs. Spencer, Slye and Nolan, however, weren’t prepared to accept mere crumbs. Their sights were set for the top of the local tree; they would be content with nothing less than toppling the Beverley Hillbillies from their lofty perch.
The Hillbillies had arrived on the Los Angeles scene in 1930, courtesy of the Beverley Hills radio station KMPC. The station manager, Glen Rice, claimed he had discovered the group living wild in the Beverley hills; in actuality, Henry Baleholder (“Hank”), Leo Mannus (“Lem”), Cyprian Paulette (“Ezra”), Stuart Hamblen (“Zeke”) and Aleth Hanson (“Dave”) were all accomplished studio musicians, brought together by Rice (“Mr Trailfellar”) for the express purpose of jumping aboard the burgeoning western bandwagon. And so successful was his gambit that throughout the early 1930s, the Beverley Hillbillies were unquestionably the most popular group in southern California. Only the Lucky Stars, led by one of their own former members (“Zeke” Hamblen), came close to touching them. And that was what the Pioneer Trio aspired to eclipse?
Years later, Bob Nolan would admit that having taken the plunge, the rehearsals which followed were the most uncertain period of his career. His savings, assiduously built up over a year of caddying, were disappearing at a frightening pace, and it didn’t bolster his confidence any the day Slye rushed in to announce he’d got them a radio gig. There wouldn’t be any pay – they were performing their songs for free.
Over the past month or so, throughout the Pioneer Trio’s lengthy gestation, Slye had been performing on the L.A. station KFWB as a member of Jack LeFevre and his Texas Outlaws. Theirs’ was a name which never failed to break Slye and Spencer out in a cracked, secret smile. “They’re not going to go far with a name like that. We jinxed it for them long ago!”
But the Outlaws paid Slye a wage, and that in turn maintained the Pioneers in their present surroundings – a one level boarding house near Carlton and Bronson, in the downtrodden heart of Hollywood. It was the perfect hide©out for three impoverished cowboys: bed and board cost just $9 apiece, but more important than that, the building had once been owned by the actor Tom Mix. If just a spark of his brilliance could ignite the Pioneer Trio, just a hint of his cowboy swagger could rub off on them, they’d be well away.
The Pioneer Trio made their first appearance alongside Lefevre’s Texas Outlaws in early October, 1933, and within a month, Slye was writing to tell Arlene that the group had already started getting its name about. Bernie Milligan, a columnist for the Los Angeles Examiner, had caught their segment of the show, and was suddenly describing them as one of his “Best Bets of the Day”, a prestigious niche which for many people dictated their entire day’s listening.
Around the same time, on November 14, 1933, another writer – the pseudonymic Ray De O’Fan – dropped the Pioneers’ name into his daily column, and a few weeks later, on December 8, reported that another radio show, “Circus” had signed them up, as part of the Outlaws, to perform one song that evening. Proudly, Slye clipped every mention the Pioneer Trio received, and included it with his latest letter to Arlene; equally proudly, she filed them carefully away with all her other keepsakes. And watching indulgently, her parents admitted that their early misgivings about Slye’s choice of career might just have been unfounded. If the young man didn’t go all the way to the top, it wouldn’t be through lack of attention!
The source of this initial outburst of press attention was a song called “The Last Round-up”, a melancholy air which had recently attained immense popularity in the region. Slye remembers one columnist reckoned it had been performed so often that he was actually sick of hearing it, while the ubiquitous Ray De O’Fan prophecised that “one of these days, we’ll forget about ‘The Last Round-up’”, lacing his prediction with such irony that it’s certain he did not believe it.
What set the Pioneer Trio’s version of “The Last Round-up” aside was the startling arrangement they grafted onto it. As the band’s principle songwriter (he had composed all eight of the songs the Trio performed at their KFWB audition), Bob Nolan had established for his group a distinctly individual sound, based around both three part harmonies and yodelling. This process was then transformed, principally by Slye, into something which remains unique even today, long after the rudiments of the Pioneer sound were absorbed into the musical mainstream.
According to musical historian Robert Coltman, “…the Pioneers created a western yodeling trio sound far beyond anything that had arisen before. The elements were at hand in the Swiss-Austrian-Bavarian yodeling styles, and the [infusion of blues disciplines] that had been Jimmie Rodgers’ contribution; but the Pioneers put yodeling on a new plane. It was, indeed, as far beyond cowboy style as it was beyond Swiss.”
It was Slye, Coltman continues, who brought to the Pioneers the range of outside material which they performed, with the greater portion of these songs being ones “to which he could add a yodel. He was the creator of a romantic new style of western singing that hovered between taut and mellow. His yodeling was equally pure… and well adapted to the stylistic demands that radio performance was making on the innovative country musicians of California. In the startling fusion of western, country and jazz music which the Pioneers demonstrated, Slye was the one who pushed yodeling to its heights.”
Author Ken Griffis documents the actual mechanics of this sound in his acclaimed biography of the Pioneers, Hear My Song: “The keystone of their eight song repertoire was [Nolan's] ‘Way Out There’. The trio worked out a fancy trip hammer arrangement in which they would modulate from one song to another. When they hit ‘Way Out There’, it was so impressive that they had to move it to the very end of the sequence, as the response to this song (the KFWB shows were performed in front of a live audience), with its precise yodeling, really caught the attention of the listener.”
It was these same tight harmonies, and their spirited unconformity, which the Pioneers brought to their rendition of “The Last Round-up”, and which – possibly to the chagrin of Bob Nolan, whose own songs could at least hold their own against even that musical monster – in turn brought the Pioneer Trio to the attention of a wider world. By Christmas, stunned but gratified by the explosion of interest the Pioneers had created, KFWB had given the group its own showcase program, airing between 5 and 6pm, and generously sponsored by the Farley Clothing Company.
They collected a second wage, of $37.50 apiece, from KFWB itself, signing on to the radio station’s own musical staff, and appearing on other programs throughout the day, beginning with the prestigious breakfast slot, between 8 and 9am, and winding up with a late night broadcast alongside the Jack Joy Orchestra. They kept the two careers separate by adopting a new name for their Farley performances, the Gold Star Rangers.
As their fame grew (and Slye’s letters to Arlene grew increasingly thickened by newspaper cuttings), so the Pioneer Trio began to expand their act, both musically and visually. Slye, for instance, assumed the part of the group’s clown, or Toby, appearing on stage in a disheveled wig and a blacked out tooth, a prescient parody of the Funny Man roles his later success would delegate to the likes of George Hayes and Pat Brady.
Of greater immediate importance, however, was the recruitment of a fourth member of the band, fiddler Hugh Farr. As the Trio’s workload increased, inexorably throughout the winter of 1933, so the strain on the members’ voices increased likewise. They were appearing on the radio upwards of twenty times a week, and were rapidly reaching a point where even the briefest respite was welcome. The addition of an instrumentalist, who could at least contribute the occasional solo, was of even greater importance than the Trio itself would admit.
But even at their most throat-rasping desperate, they were not going to rush into any rash decision-making. They already considered themselves the best vocal group in Southern California; as the best fiddle player in the region, Farr was the only name on their shortlist. A brilliant player since childhood, Farr was well into his mid-twenties before he finally decided to seriously attempt a musical career, turning up at the Hollywood home of band leader Len Nash to see if there was any work for two hopeful young musicians; characteristically, Hugh was accompanied by his younger brother Karl – himself as adept on the mandolin, guitar and drums, as Hugh was on the fiddle.
Nash was blown away by the duo, and from 1929 to 1933, the Farr brothers all but dominated the weekly KFOX broadcast, ”Len Nash and his Country Boys’ Barn Dance•. From there, they graduated to the shortlived Haywire Trio, with Ira McCullough, before Hugh was invited to join Jack LeFevre’s Texas Outlaws, around the same time as the Pioneer Trio struck out on its own.
The invitation to join the Pioneer Trio, early in 1934, did not come as a complete surprise to Farr. The group had already made tentative enquiries, late the previous year, but Farr thought he had made his position clear when he told them, “you may need me, but I’m really not sure I need you.” Tim Spencer, who both on and offstage had assumed the position of the Trio’s leader, was not put off, however, and finally the group cornered Farr at the radio station. More than thirty years later, Farr told Ken Griffis, “I had heard the guys, of course, but I guess I really hadn’t paid that much attention to them. You have to remember, in those days you really had to hustle to make a living.
“Anyway, Tim Spencer asked if I would let them give me a sample of their singing. I said ‘sure’. With that, the fellows broke into their act, and man, before they were finished, the hair was standing up on the back of my neck. They were that good. So I said, ‘I’m your man’.”
Farr’s induction into the band made an immediate difference to their sound. No longer an ”a cappella• harmony act, they now grasped the opportunity to expand their horizons way beyond the comparatively tight strictures of the western ballad. Robert Coltman, describing Farr’s fiddle playing as “avant-garde”, compared the group’s new sound to jazz, at least in terms of its phrasing and dynamics, before concluding that “the yodeling harmonies were as letter-perfect as any conventional close-harmony singing, but featured all the zip and synco pation that was to characterize a parallel development in western music, the rise of what was to be called Western Swing.”
Although numerically, it was clearly no longer suitable, the Pioneer Trio retained their familiar name for some weeks after Farr joined, in January, 1934. The members had talked about making a change, but once again, they had no intention of being rushed into making up their minds. When the decision was apparently made for them, then, their initial reaction was of indignant outrage.
One afternoon towards the end of February, the Trio was waiting in the wings for the opening of their next KFWB show, while the station announcer, Harry Hall, maneuvered through his introductory spiel. Quite what was running through Hall’s mind at the time has never been fully explained, although afterwards he was at least able to mollify the band’s stunned outrage: “you boys all look so young,” he told them. “No way do you look like Pioneers. Rather, I’d say you were the sons of Pioneers.” That is how the name with which he introduced the band, and that – the Sons of the Pioneers – is what they became. (Tim Spencer later claimed that the name was adopted to honor Hugh Farr, who was of “old Oklahoma stock”. The Harry Hall story, however, is the more generally accepted one.)
The first published notice of the band’s new name came in a newspaper log dated March 3rd; four days later, the quartet itself gave their new name the seal of official approval when they signed a recording contract with Decca Records. They would become only the third act, after Bing Crosby and the former Hillbilly Stuart “Zeke” Hamblen, to record at the label’s newly opened west coast facility.
The contract to which the Pioneers were signed was typical of the era’s standards, vesting in Decca all rights, title and ownership of everything the group recorded. The label maintained absolute control over the group’s material, including the unqualified right to “discontinue the manufacture and sale of any records [which] are no longer satisfactory” – a clause which was itself dependent upon the Pioneers continuing to fulfill another: “It is agreed that our [recording] services are of a special and peculiar nature and value, are extraordinary and unique and are not replaceable.” In other words, were the Sons of the Pioneers to undergo any substantial line-up changes, Decca would be perfectly within their rights to abandon them. For their services, the group were to be paid a princely two cents royalty on all “double disc” (two-sided) records “containing on both sides selections recorded by us”; one cent for “single disc” (one sided) “or double disc records containing on one side selections recorded by us.” Clearly, the quartet was not going to be getting rich quickly from this deal, although in those days, records were very much secondary to the real moneyspinners of the music industry, song publishing, and the sale of sheet music.
It was with this firmly in mind that the Pioneers went into their debut recording session, on August 8, 1934, to tape their first two records. Of the four songs they laid down that day, three were Bob Nolan compositions (“Way Out There”, “Ridin’ Home” and the recently retitled “Tumbling Tumbleweeds”), the fourth was a joint Nolan \Spencer effort, “Moonlight on the Prairie”. (Another of Spencer’s compositions, the plaintive “Will You Still Love Me When My Hair Has Turned To Silver”, which he wrote for the girl from Lubbock, was recorded by the Pioneers the following year, but it was to be three years more before Lenny Slye finally won his first composer credit, when the Pioneers recorded his “My Saddle Pals and I”.
Shortly before this, in 1936, Nolan’s publishers, American Music Inc., published eighteen of Bob’s songs in Bob Nolan’s Folio of Original Cowboy Songs; twenty-two years later, Nolan sat down with his publisher to catalog every song he had ever written. “We gave up at 1,200!”)
Although the group’s Decca contract bound them exclusively to that label for commercial purposes, they remained free agents in terms of their radio work. Shortly after signing that first deal, then, the Pioneers inked a second pact, with KFWB program director Gerald King’s newly founded Standard Radio transcription service.
The Pioneers themselves were offered a 20% royalty rate on the deal, which eventually called for them to record close to 300 songs. The first series of releases alone amounted to 102 separate recordings, spread across sixteen 12″ discs, and drew not only from Nolan and Spencer’s burgeoning catalog of compositions, but also offered up a veritable history of the western song – a chronicle which the Sons of Pioneers were now extending towards an entire new generation.
In his University of Illinois study of the western tradition, The Whorehouse Bells Were Ringing, published in 1989, Guy Logsdon remarks that Nolan’s “Sky Ball Paint” (or “Old Sky Ball Paint” as it appears on the transcription disc) has “already… entered cowboy tradition, [to be] sung by singers who do not know who composed it, or when. It’s just another old song to them.” Logsdon furthermore comments upon latter-day troubadours Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie’s inclusion of “Way Out There” in their repertoire, and notes Hank Williams’ use of Nolan’s “Happy Cowboy” as his theme song. Both of these songs, too, were included in the initial transcription series.
Of more interest than their own compositions, however, is the sheer wealth, and enduring diversity, of the other songs in the Pioneers’ repertoire, drawn as they were from sources as disparate as negro spirituals (“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”), and their societal opposite – the cute animal songs which were so in vogue during the first decades of the American republic (“Listen to the Mockingbird”).
From “Shamus O’Brien”, which more than half a century previously had been described, by Lippincourt’s Magazine, as “the cowboy’s favorite”, to the mournful “Old Paint”, first popularized by an ex-slave, Charley Willis, who joined the burgeoning ranks of Afro-American cowboys in Texas around 1871, the Sons of the Pioneers ranged effortlessly through the western songbook, and when that was exhausted, they simply moved elsewhere.
“Auld Lang Syne”, the neo-traditional Scots lament best associated with the passing of the old year, rubbed shoulders with “Buffalo Gals”, a traditional Ozark square dance; the Southern anthem “Oh Susanna”, was paired with a playful “Old MacDonald”, complete with animal noises from Slye. And, of course, there was always the ubiquitous “The Swiss Yodel”. Also included in that initial batch of transcription service recordings was an early rendition of a song which, though it did not spring from either of the songwriting Sons’ pens, was to become one of the most popular numbers in their catalog, “The Strawberry Roan”.
“The Strawberry Roan” is a typical example of how a song can come to be altered, in substance and style alike, once it has attained a certain popularity – a process which itself lies at the very heart of the traditional music ethos (and which has, sadly, been cruelly forestalled by the 20th century’s obsession with “definitive” recordings). The song was written, by Curly Fletcher, in 1914, and was published the following year (in the Arizona Record) under the title “The Outlaw Bronco”. Over the next two decades, Fletcher, the Hollywood songwriters Nat Vincent and Fred Howard, and countless unsung (and unknown) “collaborators” added to the original piece, with Vincent and Howard contributing, for the first time in the song’s history, a chorus, in readiness for its inclusion in Ken Maynard’s 1933 movie The Strawberry Roan.
According to Fletcher family legend, Curley himself hated this latest addition, considering it an unforgivable corruption of his original song. He vowed revenge, and at the height of “The Strawberry Roan”s popularity, he published a new lyric for the song, one which would retain both its title, and arguably, its subject matter, but which was guaranteed to outrage anybody who drew close enough to hear it.
Cleverly, he even maintained much of the song’s original language: it was the imagery he twisted around, the exact nature of the “wild ride” which the song’s braggart cowboy protagonist experiences, for instance. The archetypal horseback song became the archetypal sex song – with a second contextual double-meaning thrown in for good measure. In cowboy lore, castration is the last resort of a man who cannot break an unrideable horse by any other means. In Fletcher’s new text, it is the horse which castrates its owner: “just then I heard one of them bloodªcurdling squalls, and I looked and the roan had the boss by the balls.”
The version which the Sons of the Pioneers recorded in either late 1934 or early 1935, remained true to the “respectable” Hollywood rendering (and was reprised by a later Pioneers line-up in 1964). In 1943, however, six years after Leonard Slye left the group (but at a time when the band’s name was still indelibly associated with him), the latest incarnation of the band rerecorded “Strawberry Roan” in its full, obscenity-laded, glory. The session ended with Pat Brady (who replaced Slye in 1937) uttering a full-blooded “whoa, you son-of-a-bitch”, countered by Hugh Farr’s cry of “Oh horse shit.” Hardly surprisingly, although this astonishing performance was released to the general public, it neither appeared under the Sons’ own name, nor on their customary record label!
The first series of Sons of the Pioneers transcription discs was placed on the market in May, 1935. Standard Radio had six salesmen dividing the United States between them; there were further representatives operating in Canada and Europe, co-ordinated by offices in Hollywood and Chicago. The company’s library, opened with just 200 selections from the likes of the Pioneers, the King’s Men and the Kay Kyser Orchestra, eventually swelled to more than five thousand.
However, whenever the Sons of the Pioneers broached the subject of sales with Gerald King, his response was never less than dismal. Without ever saying as much, he conveyed the distinct impression that the transcription service – or at least the Pioneers’ share of it – was a disaster. For further details, he directed the group to Milton Blink, Standard Radio’s Vice President.
Blink had not wanted King to bother with the Pioneers in the first place, and later recalled a most memorable exchange between the two of them. Blink demanded that King give him one good reason why the Pioneers should be recorded. The only response King could come up with was, “but Milton! They yodel in harmony!”
Now King appeared to be saying that harmonic yodeling was not, after all, the unstoppable seller he had originally envisioned. Rather than keep the Pioneers tied to a contract which might never pay the dividends they deserved, then, he was offering to buy them out, with a lump sum of $600 apiece. The Pioneers by now were a quintet, having added Hugh Farr’s brother, Karl, to their ranks in anticipation of the second of the transcription service series. A total of $3,000 was being dangled before their eyes, and as the group’s resident financier, Tim Spencer had no hesitation in taking it.
Listening to King talk, it might have taken a lifetime to recoup a similar sum from their original percentage deal. Of course King was taking the Pioneers for a ride – and not for the first time. When Karl Farr joined the group, King had refused point blank to entertain the notion of adding him to KFWB’s wage bill, even though he knew that the young guitarist would unquestionably add a new dimension (and, once word of his prowess spread, a new audience) to the Pioneers’ sound. Instead, he suggested that the group make its own financial arrangements with the newcomer, a situation which resulted in Karl becoming the highest paid member of the Pioneers. Every week, his bandmates would hand him $10 apiece from their own pockets – reducing their salary to $27.50, while Karl collected a kingly $40!
As far as the transcription service was concerned, one can only speculate as to King’s motives for selling the Pioneers so dramatically short. Perhaps he was already anticipating the not-too-distant day when he would be able to resign from his position at KFWB and devote all his energies to Standard Radio. Or maybe he realized that the Pioneers’ fame was now escalating at such a rate that the group itself was not likely to remain with a relatively lowly station like KFWB for long. He was aware, too, that sooner or later, the Pioneers would need to employ a manager (until now they had been exclusively self-managed), who would employ an accountant, who would… and so on, until every last nuance of the Standard Radio Transcription Service accounts had been laid bare. Better to kill the deal now, while he was still ahead of the game.
In the event, the Pioneers did eventually discover King’s subterfuge, but beyond subjecting Tim Spencer to some mild ribbing (“some financial wizard you turned out to be!”), they were content to let the matter rest. King may have feathered his own nest in the short term, but overall the Sons of the Pioneers came out on top. The massive nationwide exposure afforded them by the transcription records established the group as a household name in communities the band members themselves had never even heard of, an invaluable support base for their rapidly broadening future.
The first suggestion of this future came early in the new year of 1935, when the band was invited, by Liberty Pictures, to appear as a group of singing cowboys in actress Mary Carlisle’s latest venture, The Old Homestead. This wholesome tale, as it was described even by contemporary reviewers, was itself the Pioneers’ third cinema feature, following soundtrack contributions to El Brendel’s Radio Scout and a Universal cartoon, Bronco Buster.
”The Old Homestead, however, marked the first time the group would actually appear on screen, performing three songs: “There’s A Round-up In The Sky”, “Happy Cowboy” and “That Old White Mule of Mine”. The Pioneers followed The Old Homestead with parts in the MGM short Slightly Static (starring Thelma Davis), the Mack Sennett produced Way Up Thar, and Warner Brothers’ musical short Romance of the West. Their biggest break, however, came with their association with Tumbling Tumbleweeds, Gene Autry’s debut for the newly amalgamated Republic Studios. Who could have realized, back then, just how large both Autry and Republic would soon be looming in Leonard Slye’s life?
Tumbling Tumbleweeds‘ title song, of course, was composed by Bob Nolan, and it is this which has led many latter-day chroniclers to include the movie within the Pioneers’ own filmography. In actual fact, they merely provided the title music – the first time, incidentally, that outsiders had been involved in scoring one of Autry’s movies. ”The music in my previous films,” he recollects, “had been supplied by Smiley Burnette, myself, and a few, uncredited, back-up musicians.” Given Autry’s imminent pre-eminence in the realm of western musicals, Tumbling Tumbleweeds was a remarkably low-key feature upon its initial release. It was only later, after Autry wrested the title of King of the Cowboys from Ken Maynard, that the true significance of Tumbleweeds – for the Sons of the Pioneers – was appreciated. For the Pioneers themselves, greater things were already afoot.
They had been invited to appear alongside Charles Starrett in Gallant Defender. They offered up two songs, “The New Frontier” and “Covered Wagon (Westward Ho)”, and made such an impact that Columbia immediately offered the band a contract to appear in several subsequent Starrett vehicles. The group accepted, and by the early summer, were filming Starrett’s next movie, Mysterious Avenger. The film was released in early July, and within two weeks, Leonard Slye was the proud recipient of his first ever piece of fan mail! On July 9th, a Mrs J.A.Pent Jr., of Little River, Florida, saw The Mysterious Avenger and just had to write the studio to tell them how much she admired the Pioneers’ yodeling guitar player. Mark my words, she cautioned Columbia, that young man will go far.
The Pioneers’ workload as 1935 wore on beggars description. They were recruited for a third Charles Starrett movie, were booked to appear alongside Bing Crosby (in the following year’s Rhythm on the Range), and in August, were personally invited by Will Rogers to perform alongside him at a Salvation Army benefit in San Bernadino. Like Gene Autry, and most every other American of their generation, Slye idolized Will Rogers, and in later life credited the Oklahoma born comedian with inspiring some of the most momentous decisions in his own life: his stage name, of course, but also the lifetime of hoarding which later exploded into Slye’s own Roy Rogers Museum.
Shortly after arriving in California, the young Slye visited the Will Rogers Museum. It was, he later confessed, one of the greatest disappointments of his life. The building, which he had envisioned as overflowing with Rogers memorabilia, was all but empty – Will had kept nothing of his past, and the Museum stood not as a testament to the man’s life, but as a monument to his popularity. There was nothing there to see, but still people flocked to see it. On the spot, Slye vowed that he would hang onto everything he owned (which back then, wasn’t that much!), so that if ever the day came when he became as famous as Will, and opened his own personal museum, no-one would ever feel as let down as he had.
The benefit went famously, and after the show, the performers stood around congratulating one another, and discussing their own upcoming schedules. “Finally,” says Slye, “Will said he had to be going. ‘Got to get some rest. Me and Wiley Post are taking off for Alaska tomorrow.” The following evening, the King of Comedy and the master aviator were killed when their red Arctic sky cruiser slipped and fell fifty feet nose-first into a river bank. The 550 hp engine, driven back into the fuselage by the force of the impact, killed both men instantly.
The shock of Will Rogers’ death, so soon after the Pioneers had witnessed first-hand the sheer vivacity of the man, devastated them, just as it did millions of other people. Looking back, however, it is clear that Rogers’ death was simply the most concrete of several setbacks the Pioneers were to receive, mentally if not physically, as this otherwise stunningly successful year rolled past.
Although time (and, no doubt, fame) swiftly healed the wounds, there was a sense of growing friction within the band’s ranks, particularly between Bob Nolan, who as principle songwriter, could afford to lose the $10 a week which Karl Farr gratefully pocketed, and Slye, who had formed the Pioneers in the first place, but now found himself relegated to that lowliest of musical companies, the “funny man” or comic.
He would have been the first to admit that it was his own crippling shyness which had forced him to don those ragged clothes and blacked-out teeth in the first place, just as that same quality – so integral has it become to Leonard Slye’s makeªup that it could never be described as an impediment – persuaded him to adopt a stage name. Sometime during 1934, Leonard Slye became Dick Weston, a more suitable name for a cowboy to be sure, but more importantly, another mask for the little boy from Duck Run to hide himself behind.
Yet it was because role-playing came more naturally to Slye than actually being himself, that he now felt himself growing increasingly estranged from the rest of the group. For Nolan, and to a lesser degree, Tim Spencer and the Farr brothers, the movies, the records, and all the other paraphernalia of fame, were simply extensions of their other talents – songwriting (by the end of 1935, the Pioneers had recorded five of Spencer’s titles, and a folio-full of Nolan’s) and multi-instrumentalism (the Farr brothers had their own series of transcription discs being aired across the United States).
Slye, however, believed that stardom, and the chance to live within that stardom, was all he had. Complimented on his remarkable singing abilities, he would simply smile and mutter something about there being “lots of singers out there.” And while future historians would make much of his genius as a musical arranger, for Slye the real talents were the people who wrote the songs in the first place. He just mucked them about a bit, till they were right for him to sing.
Sometimes, even the knowledge that, artistically unsatisfying though it sometimes seemed, his audience genuinely delighted in his jackanaping, was not sufficient to keep him from boiling over with frustration; it had not, for instance, escaped his notice that one reason for Karl Farr’s induction into the Pioneers had been to compensate for his, Slye’s, own less than spectacular guitar playing, and over the next two years, Slye would make a number of increasingly pronounced attempts to escape from beneath his bandmates’ shadow – and from what he, in his modesty, considered the crushing anonymity of his own identity.
Solo roles within Charles Starrett’s movies were accompanied by bit-parts in Bob Livingstone’s Wild Horse Rodeo (in which he appeared as a cafe singer), and Gene Autry’s The Old Corral, and it is with a wry smile that Autry recalls, “in one scene I fought with a rude fellow… [and] at gun point I forced him to sing a song, a humiliation one and a half times worse than death.” That “rude fellow” was Dick Weston.
Slye let off more steam by hunting in the hills around Los Angeles, and by dropping into the clubs he found in the backwoods, to relax with the music he found there. One night in late 1935, he found himself in Sam’s Place, a club in Sunset Beach. He’d had a good day in the hills, and hadn’t bothered changing out of his hunting clothes. That’s what drew Bob Brady’s attention to him from the stage, and when the skinny little hunter turned up a few weeks later, Brady instinctively nodded a greeting.
After the show, Slye ambled over and, having complimented Brady on his band’s performance, introduced himself. Brady was flattered, but had to admit, he was a jazz fan himself. Even when the Sons of Pioneers themselves performed at the club, a near impromptu show which went down a storm, he remained unimpressed. In particular, he didn’t like Bob Nolan’s trademark vibrato, and confessed (although not to Nolan himself) that he didn’t see how it could be considered an advantage to the group. It was only two years later, when Bob Brady, or “Pat” as the band insisted on calling him, was invited to replace Slye in the Pioneers, that he learned to love that pesky warbling!
With so much activity, professional and otherwise, constantly erupting around them, the Sons of the Pioneers could easily have been forgiven if they’d placed their own personal lives on hold throughout this period. Their Decca recordings, and the hijacked Standard Radio transcription series, had brought them a larger audience than they ever dreamed possible; the group won the National Hillbilly championship; Hugh Farr alone was elected National Hillbilly Fiddling champion at a competition held in L.A.’s Olympic Auditorium. Sometimes, they wondered if the pace would ever let up.
But still Tim Spencer found time to marry Velma Blanton, the girl he had met during that abortive trip to Lubbock in 1933, Bob Nolan wed his sweetheart, Clara, and Slye kept on writing to Arlene, long letters which interspersed his declarations of love with accounts of his increasingly hectic schedule. If, in the course of reading and responding to her letters, he maybe missed a few hints, it is only to be expected. One afternoon during the fall of 1934, Slye had just come off the air after a solo rendition of the ever-popular “Swiss Yodel”, when a telephone call came through for him. He picked up the receiver and a familiar south-western drawl at the other end told him, “Thanks. It was an appropriate reception.” It was Arlene.
She had finally enrolled in a college in the city, journeying in with her mother. She was now fully in favor of Leonard and Arlene’s dreams; may even have been hoping this excursion might hurry things along a little. Besides, she smiled once the youngsters had extricated themselves from one another’s arms, “you’ll save a fortune on postage stamps!”