|It was "Spade" Cooley who, in the early 1940's, coined the term
'Western Swing'. Before that, the music had been called everything from
'Hillbilly' (a definite misnomer) to 'Texas Swing' (more correct). "Spade"
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. It
all ended for "Spade" when he forced his young daughter 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 in prison (after being on release to play for
a Sheriff's benefit concert). During the heyday of Western Swing, there
were thousands of bands playing all over the West. Yet it was only a handful
of bands, playing predominantly in southern Oklahoma and Northeastern Texas
that had formed the 'genre'.
For most people, the word 'Swing' evokes memories of the great Big
Bands that played all over America in the late 1930's to 1950s. But to
millions of Americans, there was still another 'Swing'. Western Swing was
played in the roadhouses, county fairs and dancehalls of small towns throughout
the Lower Great Plains.
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, and most
often 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 were playing, 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
guitar, or 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 wifes, all could spend some time listening, drinking and dancing the
weekend nights away.
'String Bands' fathered the music which we now call Western Swing.
It originated in the Texas and Oklahoma lower Great Plains area. These
early String Bands often consisted of just a Mandolin, Banjo, a standard
6-string Guitar, and a 4-string "tenor guitar" (Baritone Ukelele - still
popular in the Southwest and in Mexico). By and large, the music (in a
European style) consisted of just instrumental "breakdowns" because vocalists
could not be heard clearly above the noise (microphones were not yet in
wide use). 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.
The Southwest population consisted of a good sprinkling of German
Irish, English, and many French emigres. 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 neighborhood 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 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 all over the West.
So we can say that continuing from the early and mid-1920s 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 ensemble 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 dichotomy to this new age of Recordings. On one
hand, it broke the racial, religious, and social barriers that had existed.
But, 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'
records, and 'Western Swing' were newly formed market niches. There was
an unfortunate aspect to all this. Folks who didn't consider themselves
to be Black, or Hillbillys or Westerners tended to avoid buying such records.
Because of this, Western Swing never become very popular in the sophissticated
East Coast markets, but was. indeed, extremely popular throughout the West
and West Coast.
Probably the best known of the 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 a modicum of fame even if in
just their own regional area. In time, many of the 'old timers' died, but
Western Swing would survive.Some
of Wills' sidemen, such as his guitarists Tiny Moore and Eldon Shamblin,
along with his fiddler Johnny Gimble, continued the Western Swing tradition
inspiring future generations. 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 band training with Paul Howard's
Arkansas Cotton Pickers. Other examples are Benny Golson's Killer Joe coming
out of Gimble and The Nashville Pickers; Vassar Clements cut two albums
of 'Hillbilly Jazz', and Roy Clark formed his own big band.
And now 14 "hot" Western-Swing numbers:
||"Liza, pull down
Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, 1938
"Oh! Swing it"
Johnnie Revard (voc) and
his Oklahoma Playboys, 1938
||"High falutin' Mama"
Bill Nettles (voc), 40s
"In the Mood"
Johnnie Lee Wills, late 40s
||"Devil with the Devil"
Roy Newman and his Boys, 1939 (voc:
"Garbage Man Blues"
Miton Brown (voc) and his
Musical Brownies, 1934
||"I'm an old Cowhand"
The Sons of the Pioneers, 1936 (voc:
Roy Rogers / Tim Spencer)
"Easy ridin' Papa"
Miton Brown (voc) and his
||"Far(r) away Stomp"
The Sons of the Pioneers, 1936
"Tom Cat Rag"
Light Crust Doughboys, 1938
Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, 40s
"Keep them cold icy fingers off
Pee Wee King, 1947 (voc: Tommy
Bill Haley (voc) and his
Four Aces of Western Swing, 1948
"The Rhumba Boogie"
"Spade" Cooley, late 40s (voc)