Note: This is the first of a four-part series.Embed from Getty Images
Undated publicity photo of Leon McAuliffe.
When Leon McAuliffe settled in Arkansas, he was that guy who was somebody from way back when.
The old-timers remembered him best. Before Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys went to Hollywood in the 1940s, they played Northwest Arkansas frequently in between gigs from their home base of Tulsa, where they had a radio program on KVOO, which reached the Arkansas Ozarks. A high point of any show were the moments when Wills, known as “The King of Western Swing,” called out, “Take it away, Leon!” and McAuliffe would make his steel guitar wail. The instrumental “Steel Guitar Rag” was his signature song and is a country and western standard today. In fact, Leon McAuliffe is largely responsible for making the steel guitar a standard in country music. Without his influence, it’s quite plausible that Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart” or Buck Owens’ “Together Again” would be punctuated with fiddle solos instead.
McAuliffe had a successful run with Bob Wills until leaving the group when World War II beckoned. When Leon was discharged from the Navy, instead of rejoining Wills, he returned to Tulsa. He ran his own venue (The Cimarron Ballroom), formed his own group (The Cimarron Boys) and created a hit-making record label (Cimarron Records). He performed regularly in Northwest Arkansas, whether it be an annual barbecue in Decatur, a roller rink, armory or nightclub, before abandoning it all – save the occasional performance at private parties and special events.
In 1967, “The Summer of Love,” McAuliffe moved to Rogers when country music was far from cool, and the country rock sounds of The Byrds and The Band were still a couple of years away. At 50 years old, he could keep an eye on radio station KAMO, which he owned, relax a little and be closer to family while starting a new one.
Then, just as Leon had freed himself from smoky dance halls, recording studios and TV performances, he made a realization. Retirement would have to wait.
FROM DOUGHBOY TO PLAYBOY
The music came from a magic box called a radio, and it captivated young William Leon McAuliffe, who was born on January 3, 1917, in Houston, Texas. This new invention was capable of broadcasting so many melodies and sounds. Those with guitar especially got to him. When, at the age of 14, he saw a $7 guitar for sale at the local pawn shop, he pointed it out to his mother, who bought it for him. The moment mapped out the rest of his life. It was his obsession. He took lessons and didn’t need to be cajoled to practice; that’s all he wanted to do with chores and schoolwork serving as annoying interruptions. After mastering his weekly assigned song, he would come up with a few more for his next lesson, sometimes loosening the strings on his guitar and placing a nut on the neck so he could play it as a lap steel like the Hawaiians did.Embed from Getty Images
Leon McAuliffe (left) played his lap steel sitting down when performing with Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys.
Bored that his assignments were doled out at a slow pace, Leon quit his lessons and taught himself through books and other musicians. In just a couple of years, he reached the point where he could play professionally. He dropped out of school and performed on a local radio station. Though he received no pay, the radio show allowed him free advertising and he was able to pick up gigs at private parties and dances. He eventually gravitated more toward the steel guitar while becoming a fan of a Fort Worth outfit called the Light Crust Doughboys, which featured a fiddler named Bob Wills and had a popular syndicated radio show sponsored by a flour mill company. Leon could walk a few blocks to the grocery store and hear the entire show broadcast from radios along the way.
In 1933, when Leon was 16, Bob Wills quit the Light Crust Doughboys and took several of the band members with him, including steel guitarist Bob Dunn, who played an electric steel guitar with an amplifier. (Dunn had, on at least one occasion, let Leon play it while Dunn slipped away during a show to get a drink.) Leon was hired among the replacements, earning $10 a week. He moved to Fort Worth and was provided with his own Doughboy outfit – a white shirt, pants and cap. The show broadcast six days a week, but Leon was allowed only one steel guitar solo per show. The flour mill company’s owner didn’t see this as a good use of a $10 weekly salary and Leon was canned. He returned to Houston, where he picked up jobs and made more money than the $10 Doughboy salary.
But the flour company had a change of heart. They wanted him back, and he didn’t want to return. His mother, however, urged him to take the job as it was one of the best listened to radio programs in Texas and would provide him exposure. She was making sense, and so he went back. He was allowed more guitar solos and, as his mother predicted, it opened up doors. Bob Wills, who headed a new band called “The Texas Playboys,” was in dire need of a new steel guitarist after just losing his. Wills sent a representative to lure Leon away with the offer of a $30 a week – great pay for a teenager during the Great Depression. With the promise of a tripled salary, it didn’t take much thought. In March 1935, Leon promptly headed to Wills’ home base of Tulsa and never looked back.
A NEW SOUND FOR STEEL
Aside from the Hawaiian-styled popular songs of the day, the lap steel guitar hadn’t been fully integrated into what is now known as country music when Leon began playing. Though Leon McAuliffe was a pioneer in the field, it was Bob Dunn who got the fire started. Dunn had moved on to play steel guitar with Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies, which brought the instrument to a forefront in the 1930s.
After leaving the Light Crust Doughboys, Bob Wills wanted to provide an alternative to the hillbilly image of musicians like Uncle Dave Macon and The Carter Family. He initially dubbed the band “The Playboys,” adding “Texas” after relocating to Oklahoma to avoid confusion with any other groups carrying the “The Playboys” name. He outfitted his band in matching uniforms and incorporated drums – his first drummer was Smoky Dacus, who spent much of his life in Rogers, Arkansas – and horns as well as fiddles and guitars (they had no idea that this would lay down the foundation for rock ’n’ roll decades later). This allowed for the ability to perform everything from jazz to blues to hillbilly (though Wills hated that term) that became known as “Western swing.” But for a time, the Texas Playboys stood in the shadows of Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies – the group that included steel guitarist Bob Dunn. In fact, Brown might have been known as “The King of Western Swing” had he not been killed in an automobile accident in 1936. (In 1944, an organization called The Boots and Saddle Fan Club voted Spade Cooley as “The King of Western Swing,” a term Cooley adopted for himself. Cooley, however, never sustained the same level of fame as Wills and spent his later years in prison for murdering his wife.)
When Leon arrived at Tulsa, he suggested that Wills should get an electric steel guitar for the band. It didn’t take much persuasion. Wills went to the local music store and paid $180 cash for an electric steel guitar, which had to be special ordered as the instrument was that new. McAuliffe also performed for Wills “Steel Guitar Rag,” which Wills added to the group’s song list. They performed the song on Leon’s first broadcast with the Texas Playboys on Tulsa radio station KVOO from Cain’s Dance Academy.
“Steel Guitar Rag” was a mash-up of sorts of Sylvester Weaver’s “Guitar Rag,” which Weaver recorded on Okeh Records in 1923, and the Hawaiian song, “On the Beach at Waikiki.” (Much discussion has taken place through the years about the originality of the song, with different versions recorded by others before Leon presented his arrangement to Wills. One account is that Leon first heard a variation of the tune from a friend.) When the group later recorded the song, Leon was caught off guard by Wills’ calling out Leon’s name. After Leon strummed the first cord. “Now friends, here’s Leon. Take it away boys, take it away!” The 1936 recording featuring a 19-year-old Leon took place in Chicago for Vocalion Records.
“Steel Guitar Rag” became one of many of the Texas Playboys’ signature songs with Leon at the helm, and he would help with others, such as “San Antonio Rose,” the song best associated with the band. This lineup would be considered by many the golden age of the band’s career, consisting of several musicians including Wills, Tommy Duncan (singer), Al Stricklin (piano), Johnnie Lee Wills (Bob’s brother and banjo player), Eldon Shamblin (lead guitar) and Smoky Dacus (drums).
Leon, of course, was on hand with his steel guitar, which he played while seated. His guitar solo begins at about the 0.58 second mark:
Though in full throes of the Great Depression, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys were high in demand, and their recordings received substantial airplay nationwide. In between radio shows and performances from Cain’s Dancing Academy in Tulsa, the group toured the region, often performing in Northwest Arkansas. Before Leon joined the Texas Playboys, members of the Disabled American Veterans’ Fayetteville chapter were already making plans to hire the band for a series of benefits at the National Guard Armory, located between what was then the Washington County Courthouse and Washington County Jail on North College Avenue. The band played several performances for the organization in addition to playing elsewhere in the area from 1935-41.
The numerous local performances slowed down substantially when Hollywood called. The boys headed out to California and made cowboy films with Tex Ritter, Glenn Ford and, most frequently, Russell Hayden. Here’s a clip of Leon (far left) showing that in addition to playing steel guitar, also had a fully capable singing voice, taking lead vocals in a song called “Toodleumbo” from the Columbia motion picture, Saddles and Sagebrush (Two more tunes follow in the video).
In 1942, and after the band was finished filming its last movie, World War II beckoned. Wills, Leon and other band members reported to the military and the group disbanded. Leon, who had taken flight lessons, was assigned the role of flight instructor for the Navy before serving active duty. To fulfill his need to perform, he took his steel guitar with him and accompanied bands at naval stations and was a member of the naval band led by Tex Beneke, saxophonist for Glenn Miller and His Orchestra. When the war ended, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys had moved to California. Leon had other plans.
Continue to Leon McAuliffe: The Return of a Steel Guitar King (Part II) >
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