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 Ballroom, the venue that would, in turn, be home for the famous group Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys from 1935 to 1942.
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.