< Leon McAuliffe: The Return of a Steel Guitar King (Part II)
Leon McAuliffe, at home in Rogers, Arkansas, in 1978. On the table are records he recorded as a solo artist and as leader of the Original Texas Playboys, with whom he won a CMA Award a year earlier.
FOR THE LAST TIME
They shunned the mainstream, conventional Nashville sound. But many of the musicians, who later became known as “country music outlaws,” had one thing in common: they loved Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. The Texas Playboys continued to perform until the 1960s, despite Wills suffering two heart attacks. But it was a stroke in 1969, leaving Wills partially paralyzed, that signaled that the future of the Texas Playboys was in peril.
Merle Haggard, who was riding high with hit songs “Okie from Muskogee” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” was a diehard Bob Wills fan and was aching to record a tribute album to Wills and the Playboys. He learned to play the fiddle and called in a few of its members – Wills and Leon, however, were not present – and recorded the album, A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (Or, My Salute to Bob Wills).
In 1971, however, Tompall Glaser and The Glaser Brothers recruited Leon as producer for their cover of “Faded Love,” which included fiddler Keith Coleman of the Cimarron Boys, for yet another version of “Faded Love,” which appeared on the album, The Award Winners. “Faded Love” was the group’s chosen single as Leon introduced the song with, “You know folks started dancing to country music a long time ago, and it all started in west Texas …”
The single, labeled as by “Tompall Glaser and the Glaser Brothers with Leon McAulife and the Cimarron Boys,” Peaked at No. 22 on July 3, 1971. Leon was back on Billboard’s Country Music charts.
The same year, and at the age of 54, Leon become a father again. A small birth announcement in the Northwest Arkansas Times noted that the baby boy was born at Fayetteville’s Washington General Hospital, today known as Washington Regional Medical Center.
That fall, Merle Haggard was now calling. He wanted to do another Bob Wills album but, this time, it would be an actual Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys album with the original band members. He flew the musicians and their wives to his ranch in Bakersfield, California. So now two Rogers residents, Leon and Smoky Dacus, headed out west to do their part. They were not told that Wills would also be there. When they arrived, they found Wills convalescing in a bed in a room in Haggard’s house. Leon, Smoky and other Playboys each took turns for an emotional visit with the King of Western Swing. The next morning, they gathered next to Haggard’s swimming pool, supplied with recording equipment from Capitol Records. Wills was wheeled out, donning a white hat and cowboy boots while clutching his fiddle, though unable to play. They had a good time, but the planned album was shelved. The recording, since labeled as Merle’s “housewarming party,” eventually landed on the Bear Family anthology, Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys: Faded Love – 1947-1973.
The original members met again in December 1973 for a two-day recording session in Dallas. Wills, adapting to his new normal, was present to direct his band of musicians. Though unable to play the fiddle, he provided many of his catch phrases and called out “a ha!” to make the recording a true Bob Wills record. This was enough to severely tire him, so he and his wife, Betty, left the recording session. Overnight, Wills suffered a stroke and was unable to return, the future of his health in limbo. The band, certain he wouldn’t last the next 24 hours, went ahead with the planned session. Haggard, who had begged Wills to be on the album, couldn’t make it to the first day of recording, and now he’d have to perform the final day without Wills. Leon and pianist Al Stricklin, with tears in their eyes, forged through the songs “That’s What I Like ’Bout the South,” “Milk Cow Blues,” “San Antonio Rose” and others.
Wills never called out, “Take it away!” to Leon again. Wills remained in a coma when the album, For the Last Time, was released, and he never regained consciousness. Bob Wills, “The King of Western Swing,” died of pneumonia on May 13, 1975.
THE RETURN OF THE TEXAS PLAYBOYS
Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys were no more. But his spirit kept going. In the following months, Waylon Jennings had a hit with “Bob Wills is Still the King” and Red Steagall with “Lone Star Beer and Bob Wills Music.” A plethora of Western swing revival bands were also emerging. Asleep at the Wheel had a hit with “The Letter That Johnny Walker Read,” and Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen were developing a cult following.
Texas music, with the popularity of Willie Nelson, Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and others, was the rage, and a new television series was being developed after the success of a pilot episode with Nelson as its star performer. The producers wanted Asleep at the Wheel and the surviving Texas Playboys to kick off its first official season. Betty Wills now owned the Texas Playboys’ name and agreed to allow the group to reassemble. The band became The Original Texas Playboys Under the Direction of Leon McAuliffe.
The initial plan was for Asleep at the Wheel to perform 45 minutes of the hourlong TV show, while The Original Texas Playboys would get the remaining 15 minutes. This did not sit well with Ray Benson, Asleep at the Wheel’s singer and guitarist. These were his heroes, and they hadn’t publicly performed together in years! Benson persuaded the producer to allot The Original Texas Playboys substantial time on the show. That, alone, caused a logistical challenge – this was an ensemble group with several members, and each took turns in the spotlight, requiring full coordination of different cameras and monitors for the historic event. Lodging for band members would also be costly for the financially strapped, fledgling TV show. Thanks to a fundraiser held at the famous Austin honky-tonk, the Broken Spoke, the Original Playboys’ hotel expenses were covered.
And so there they were, onstage on Austin City Limits. Leon, Smoky Dacus and the other Original Texas Playboys, with the addition of later-era members, including singer Leon Rausch. Looking back at them was an audience who clearly wasn’t their peers – those who attended their shows in the 1930s and 1940s. With long hair, mustaches and T-shirts (nobody dressed up for concerts anymore), they could be their kids or grandkids, even. Asleep at the Wheel, a band whose style was inspired by the Texas Playboys, even looked like these folks!
When the Original Texas Playboys opened their set with “New San Antonio Rose,” the audience applauded, cheered and wouldn’t stop. The band was clearly taken aback. After about 35 seconds, Leon interrupted them. “I’ll tell you what. We’re really, really glad to be here on Austin City Limits, and I can’t tell you just how you make a bunch of old men … “
“Speak for yourself!” interjected fiddler Jessie Ashlock.
“… one or two middle-aged men and one young man feel really good tonight!” Leon finished after carefully choosing his words.
But he couldn’t contain his enthusiasm. “I’ll tell you what,” he told the audience. “You make us want to start playing again!”
He introduced the band but was careful not to associate himself and Dacus with Arkansas. They then pulled out the old familiar standards, including “Steel Guitar Rag,” “Milk Cow Blues,” “Big Ball’s in Cowtown,” “Ida Red” and others.
Rosetta Wills, who attended the show with her stepmother, Betty Wills, claimed in her book, The King of Western Swing, that McAuliffe, Leon Rausch and Al Stricklin were sipping beer from cups onstage, which was edited out of the televised broadcast. Though hardly scandalous, it’s clear there was a party going onstage.
At the closing of their performance, Leon let the cat out of the bag. “If you ever get to Arkansas, I live there … now!”
The Texas Playboys were back!
The concert premiered in early 1976 on PBS and the complete televised concert, though the audio is out of sync, is on YouTube and worth checking out. A two-record album of the concert, Live! from Austin City Limits, was released on Delta Records in 1983.
Sadly, within a year of their Austin City Limits debut, fiddlers Ashlock and Sleepy Johnson passed away. The two losses caused the surviving band members to make a pact: should any of the remaining five original members die, they would discontinue the Playboys. With that plan in place, they performed two other times with Austin City Limits in the following years, including its 10th anniversary show.
The Original Texas Playboys were on fire. They had a new, eager audience and were recording albums for Capitol Records. In 1977, they were nominated for Best Instrumental Group of the Year Award by the Country Music Association (CMAs) along with Asleep at the Wheel, Charlie Daniels Band, Danny Davis and The Nashville Brass and the Marshall Tucker Band. When the Playboys won, the audience jumped up to give them a standing ovation. “Fort-five years in the business and this is the first time winning!” Leon said. Minnie Pearl and Loretta Lynn were in the audience, wiping tears from their eyes. This was not just a recognition of a talented music group. This also marked a departure for the CMAs, which, in previous years, had been the subject of controversy for bypassing established classic country artists for the popular cross-over acts like Olivia Newton-John and John Denver. Sweet justice had prevailed.
That following year, the Country Music Association nominated The Original Texas Playboys for Vocal Group of the Year, a curious designation that saw them competing with the Oak Ridge Boys, Dave and Sugar, The Kendalls and The Statler Brothers. Even Leon scratched his head over this one. “I can’t understand it,” he told a journalist. “We do sing a bit, of course, but we’re not what you’d call a vocal group. … But if they were crazy enough to vote us into the nominations, they might be crazy enough to give it to us.”
The Oak Ridge Boys won.
That same year, the Original Playboys also won Band of the Year (Touring) from the Academy of Country Music, and Leon answered the call whenever needed, such as appearing on Leon Redbone’s 1978 LP, Champagne Charlie, for the tune, “The One Rose (That Left My Heart).”
With newfound successes, including his induction into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame, Leon was also transforming spiritually. He had converted to Christianity after praying with longtime friends Wanda Jackson, who went from performing rockabilly to now doing gospel, and her husband, Wendell Goodman, both devout Christians. Immanuel Baptist Church in Rogers could now claim in its congregation two original members of the Texas Playboys: Smoky Dacus and Leon McAuliffe.
Leon continued to play with the Original Texas Playboys, but he expanded his repertoire to include gospel music. Sometimes he and Jackson, who worked with Leon as a teenager, would perform concerts together or he’d gather some fellow church members for a show. In 1985, he recorded a gospel album titled, Take it Away, Lord, featuring Leon with “his steel guitar and Christian friends.” He enlisted several musicians, including fellow Playboys guitarist Eldon Shamblin and fiddler Gene Gassaway, a later-era Playboy who lived near Fort Smith in Huntington, Arkansas. They recorded classics like “Uncloudy Day,” “Turn Your Radio On” and “Farther Along.” Along with liner notes from his pastor, the LP noted that it was produced and distributed by “McA Ministries, Inc. (A nonprofit organization)” with KAMO’s address listed.
With a renewed interest in the Playboys, they were called to help out with the 1984 movie Places in the Heart, starring Sally Field with a supporting cast that included John Malkovich, Danny Glover and Ed Harris, which was filmed outside of Dallas. Set in the 1930s, they provided music for the soundtrack along with Doc and Merle Watson and even appeared very briefly in a dance scene. The movie was a hit, and Field received an Academy Award for Best Actress and Robert Benton for Best Writer.
The Original Texas Playboys were now expanding their repertoire beyond the songs that made them famous, including with their 1979 album, Original Texas Playboys, Under the Direction of Leon McAuliffe, on Capitol Records, which features two songs cowritten by Levon Helm, who was living in Northwest Arkansas off and on around this time: “Blues So Bad” (with Henry Glover) and “That’s My Home” (with Mac Rebennack, aka Dr. John).
Continue to Leon McAuliffe: The Return of a Steel Guitar King (Part IV) >