Rockwood Club in 1953: Take it Away, Leon

Before rock ‘n’ roll became all the rage in the Ozarks, Western swing was king in Northwest Arkansas, especially for its proximity to Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was home to Cain’s BaGhosts of the Rockwood Clubllroom, the venue that would, in turn, be home for the famous group Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys from 1935 to 1942.

Rockwood Club - Leon McAuliffe
A 1953 advertisement for Leon McAuliffe and his Western Swing Band at Fayetteville’s Rockwood Club.

When Wills formed his group in 1935, he hired a promising 18-year-old steel guitarist named Leon McAuliffe. With McAuliffe and other talented musicians on board, the Texas Playboys popularized Western swing, which became a predecessor to rock ‘n’ roll by blending country and western and a number of other genres including boogie-woogie, blues and jazz. “San Antonio Rose” was their signature song, and in many of their musical compositons, Wills would announce the steel guitar solo by calling out, “Take it away, Leon!”

That would be Leon McAuliffe.

McAuliffe stayed with the band until 1942, when he served in World War II. Following his military service, McAuliffe formed his own musical group called Leon McAuliffe and his Western Swing Band and, later, Leon McAuliffe and the Cimarron Boys. He had a big hit in 1949 with “Panhandle Rag” with lesser hit songs in the 1960s and 1970s.

In 1954, McAuliffe gave the city of Rogers its first AM radio station as co-owner of KAMO. By the late 1960s, McAuliffe would also call Rogers home. No stranger to the area, he had already made frequent visits to the area, such as his 1953 performance at Fayetteville’s Rockwood Club. (Johnnie Lee Wills, brother to Bob, was also a member of the Texas Playboys and, when he broke away from the group, was a frequent visitor to the Arkansas Ozarks. You can read an earlier blog posting about him here.)

Following Bob Wills’ death in 1975, McAuliffe fronted the Texas Playboys in reunion performances. McAuliffe also saw the need to preserve and educate others about Western swing by teaching in a music program at the Rogers State College (now Rogers State University). He also had his own music label, Cimarron Records (In the early 1960s, a popular local group, The Emcees, would record on McAuliffe’s label and perform at the Rockwood Club as well).

McAuliffe died in 1988 in Tulsa.

Shown at the top of the page is a performance by McAuliffe and the Cimarron Boys, date unknown but likely around 1960, with the TV show Town Hall Party, a music variety show in Los Angeles.

12 thoughts on “Rockwood Club in 1953: Take it Away, Leon”

  1. Great post! I’ve got all but a couple of those Cimarron singles. a couple of notes to add:
    –Leon released a bunch of different stuff on Cimarron records. His singles range from pop country to R&B inflected pop to killer Western swing instrumentals to novelty songs. Other cimarron singles include one by Rhythm and blues shouter Piney Brown, a country number by Floyd Tillman, a couple of western swing ballads by Ben Jack (of Ben Jack’s music) and a killer single by The Four Imps, an organ-sax instrumental combo that sounds a little like an early Booker T & the MGs.
    –I’ve always been intrigued by what the KAMO call letters stood for: Kansas, Arkansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma. I think it really gets at Northwest Arkansas’s unique geographic setting: at the intersection of The South, the West, and the Midwest. I think that he also employed some of his former bandmates at KAMO.
    –I’ve seen references, though I haven’t found anything that verifies them, to both Leon Russell (very early on) and Junior Brown going through Mcualiffe’s program at Rogers and of Brown teaching out of there before his musical career took off. I contacted Rogers State once trying to find out if there were any records associated with the program but they weren’t able to find anything.

  2. Yes, I read about him teaching at the college in Claremore as well. I would also like to know more about the program. Here’s a 1977 UPI article about the program:,2527016

    I almost posted this video, which is more rockabilly, but refrained because he wasn’t playing the steel guitar, but you can definitely hear rockabilly in this one (this is from the Ozark Jubilee, or one of its later incarnations in Springfield, Missouri):

    1. I think that Claremore Junior College became Rogers College. I also think that Leon was teaching there well before 1971. He would have had to have been for a young Leon Russell to be part of it. I was working on an arrticle about Leon and Cimmarron a while back. I’ll see if I can dig up the links I had.

  3. Ok- so any Leon Russell connection seems to be a mirage. It looks like they met once in Los Angeles and that’s it. But, according to a Junior Brown article I found, He, Leon McAullife and eldon Shamblin were all three teaching guitar in Claremore in the early 70s. That’s just outrageous.

    Also, I remember reading that there was some kind of TV or radio show broadcast out of the college studio. If true, that’d be quite a find.

  4. Let’s not forget Smokey Dacus on drums for Bob who also worked at KAMO for years. Brother Al Strickland on the piano spent the rest of his years in the newspaper business in Cleburne, Texas. Brother Al told me the best piano player he ever heard was Floyd Domino who played for years with Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel.

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