< Leon McAuliffe: The Return of a Steel Guitar King (Part III)
FOR THE LAST TIME (PART II)
In 1986, pianist Al Stricklin, 78, died after two-year battle with bone cancer. Holding firm to the pact the original Texas Playboys made a decade earlier, it was time to retire The Original Texas Playboys.
With only four original members remaining – Leon, Smoky, Eldon Shamblin and Joe Ferguson – they scheduled their public farewell performance for the afternoon of November 16, 1986, at the Bob Wills Auditorium in Fort Worth, Texas, with proceeds to benefit the Bob Wills Museum in Fort Worth. Newer members, Leon Rausch, Bob Boatright, Gene Gassaway and Clarence Cagle (also once a Rogers, Arkansas, resident), filled in the gaps. Betty Wills was in the audience, seeing them through.
Video footage of band members visiting with each other before the concert shows them to be at peace with their decision.
Unlike their Austin City Limits debut, the band appeared less energetic and the crowd more subdued. The shadows from the poor stage lighting made the scene even more dramatic, as seen here. After opening the show with the “Texas Playboys Theme” and “Big Ball’s in Cowtown,” Leon addressed the audience:
“It’s really great to be here. It’s sad to be here under certain conditions, and we thank you all for coming. Of course, we’re going to be kind of choked up all through this because we loved Al Stricklin. We loved each other for 51 years, and there’s a lot going through our hearts.”
Eldon Shamblin sang, “There’ll Be Some Changes Made.” Leon narrated “Faded Love.” They rocked out to “Milk Cow Blues” and “San Antonio Rose.” They performed a new song called “Keepin’ Bob Wills’ Music Alive” before ending with an upbeat rendition of the “Texas Playboys Theme.”
“Not much more to say, friends,” Leon said as they closed the show, his voice cracking as the band kept playing. “Thank you from all of us. God bless you. Thank you for the support, loyalty and love we shared – all of us with all of you for a lot of years. It may end physically, but it will never end in our hearts. I tell you, for sure. … From all of us, to all of you: Goodbye. God bless you.”
The band picked back up with Leon Rausch singing, “We’re the Texas Playboys from the Lonestar State!”
When the song ended, the band took off their cowboy hats to a standing ovation. The show was over.
The Playboys’ peers, however, weren’t going to let them ride off in the sunset just yet. A couple of weeks later, the Original Texas Playboys gave a televised farewell performance for a PBS special titled Country Music Legends. The atmosphere was more jubilant, especially when Willie Nelson joined them onstage to perform “Milk Cow Blues.” It was evident that McAuliffe and Nelson both held a mutual admiration for each other – Leon was performing and recording Nelson’s music back in the early 1960s when Nelson was known more as a Nashville songwriter and a member of Ray Price’s band. As the song wound down, Leon gleefully whooped out a holler. This is how you sign off.
With the Texas Playboys declared “over,” save for a concert with one or two of the original members, Leon was already transitioning to his new calling: adjunct music professor. In early 1986, the high school dropout began teaching at the Hank Thompson School of Country Music, a program developed at Rogers State College in Claremore, Oklahoma. Named for Oklahoma country musician Hank Thompson, it aimed to not only teach students how to be better country music performers but also about the music business itself. Leon had just sold KAMO, which now consisted of both an AM and FM station, and turned around and contributed $25,000 for the installation of a professional recording studio, which would allow for students to have quality demo tapes of themselves upon graduation. Leon, however, didn’t want any credit given to him for his donation. As a quiet nod of thanks, an instructor stitched notes that contained two bars of “Steel Guitar Rag” on the carpet squares that soundproofed the studio’s walls.
Leon had seen and done it all and was now teaching a class titled The Music Industry, where he gave students practical advice based on his 50-plus years in the business. “They don’t realize that every time they step out the door, there’s another snake waiting for them,” Leon said in 1987. “They don’t know to read the fine print. That’s how I got my knowledge, getting taken every step of the road.”
For those who wanted to learn steel guitar, a young musician by the name of Jamieson Brown filled that role at the college. He had his own odd hybrid guitar-steel guitar contraption he created he dubbed the “steel-guit.” Today, that musician performs as Junior Brown.
And if Leon wanted someone to go to lunch with, he did not have to look far. Eldon Shamblin, fellow Playboys bandmate, taught guitar at the college.
With such a sense of purpose, Leon moved to Claremore. He performed in the area with his group of students he called “The New Cimarron Band.” He even emceed a local television show produced by the country music school, Oklahoma Swingin’ Country, which provided him an opportunity to champion the local talent. Leon makes an appearance at the 1:53 mark.
Leon even managed to trek to Tennessee to serve on a panel of judges, which included musician Tom T. Hall, for The Nashville Network show, You Can Be a Star, with Arkansas native Jim Ed Brown as host.
Leon’s work was far from over. His mission for a quality country music school was as strong as ever. For the Hank Thompson School of Country Music program to reach its full potential, Leon told The Daily Oklahoman in 1988 it needed about $10 million for an adequately equipped building, which would include an Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame that celebrated superstar Oklahoma musicians who performed all genres – not just country. He was making plans to contact a plethora of people for financial help, such as the Oklahoma governor to musicians like Merle Haggard, Roger Miller, Roy Clark and Gene Autry.
However, Leon wasn’t well. On an undated 1988 episode of Oklahoma Swingin’ Country, with Leon noticeably absent, the fill-in host announced that Leon was recuperating at a heart institute in Texas. Though the host said Leon was expected to make a full recovery, he had a turn for the worse by late summer.
Leon McAuliffe, 71, passed away on August 20, 1988, in a Tulsa hospital. News outlets didn’t give a cause of death other than he died “following a lengthy illness.” The director of the country music school, however, told a reporter that Leon succumbed to kidney and liver failure related to a heart condition. He was survived by his wife Eleanor of 21 years, three children and several grandchildren.
His funeral took place on Saturday, August 27, 1988, at the First Baptist Church of Tulsa at 12:15 p.m. – the time when Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys broadcast their daily radio show from Tulsa station KVOO (and, later, when Leon had his own). People, some dressed formally and others in Western garb, took to their seats in the church. A recording of Bob Wills calling out, “Take it away, Leon!” preceded samples of his signature songs, including “Steel Guitar Rag,” which filled the sanctuary. The congregation listened to a recording of Leon talking about the life-changing event that took place in 1978 when he prayed with Wanda Jackson and her husband. Jackson, who was at the funeral, sang “Precious Memories” and “Because He Lives.” Five members of The Original Texas Playboys served as pallbearers as Leon’s casket was transported to Memorial Park Cemetery in Tulsa. He was buried in an unmarked grave.
After McAuliffe’s passing, Smoky Dacus continued to grant interviews about his time in the Texas Playboys. He died on October 9, 2001, at the age of 90 and is buried in Benton County Memorial Park in Rogers.
Shortly after Leon’s death, The Hank Thompson School of Music announced it would continue with Leon’s dream to expand its facilities, including a hall of fame, which would have been named The Leon McAuliffe Music Building. But without its high-profile mentor, along with a dwindling enrollment, the program was dissolved in 1991.
However, an Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame was established in Muskogee – the town his friend, Merle Haggard, made famous through song – with dozens of inductees that include not only McAuliffe and Bob Wills but a diverse group as well, such as Woody Guthrie, The Flaming Lips, Reba McEntire and The Gap Band.
In 1999, musician Chris Isaak inducted Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys in the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame for their early influences on rock ’n’ roll. The members inducted were Wills, McAuliffe, Tommy Duncan, Johnny Gimble, Joe “Jody” Holley, Tiny Moore, Herb Remington, Eldon Shamblin and Al Stricklin. Smoky Dacus, the band’s first drummer, was not included.
The Grammy Hall of Fame inducted “Steel Guitar Rag,” listed as by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys Featuring Leon McAuliffe, in 2011.
While the AM station no longer exists, KAMO-FM, 94.3, has since passed through several hands before its current owner, Cumulus Media, purchased it. The studio is now based in Fayetteville, and the station is branded as “The Nash Icon” with its classic country music format.
The demand for the Texas Playboys, however, never waned. The Bob Wills Estate granted Tommy Allsup (who also played guitar with Buddy Holly) and Leon Rausch permission to select a new group of Texas Playboys in which they would also serve as members. This method allowed for a legacy that can be traced back to Wills. One of their picks was Jason Roberts, who performed with Asleep at the Wheel and assumed the role of Wills in the band’s production of A Ride with Bob.
After Allsup passed away in 2017 and Rausch in 2019, the group now performs as Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys Under the Direction of Jason Roberts. Together, they keep the music alive for the older folks while introducing to new generations the magic of “San Antonio Rose” and “Steel Guitar Rag” and the musicians who made it happen.
Leon McAuliffe: The Return of a Steel Guitar King (Bibliography)>
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