< Leon McAuliffe: The Return of a Steel Guitar King (Part I)
‘SWEETEST MUSIC THIS SIDE OF HEAVEN’
Leon loved the big bands and pop music. Performing in a country and western band provided a good living, but he was ready to branch out to other genres. His experience with Wills while in the Navy gave him enough confidence to strike out on his own. Now married, he returned to Tulsa and told a reporter with the city’s newspaper he was done with Western bands. He had been in New York, supervising a naval show, and observed the orchestras of Tommy Dorsey, Woody Herman and Vaughn Monroe while there. In Tulsa, Leon hired a group of musicians – many of whom, like Leon, were World War II veterans – and formed a dance orchestra.
At first, people came to see Leon and his group, “playing the most popular music nightly,” an advertisement read. But when they realized there would be no “San Antonio Rose” at his shows, the audience began to dwindle. He stayed with his big band concept for about eight months and finally relented. He fired most of his horn section, hired a few fiddlers and kept the drums. The cowboy hats and bandanas came back and the crowds did as well. Then, in 1949, he scored a big hit with “Panhandle Rag” on Columbia Records, which was listed as by “Leon McAuliffe and His Western Swing Band.” The song, Leon’s most famous following his departure from Wills, became a steel guitar standard, much like “Wipe Out” is for drums and “Orange Blossom Special” for fiddle. Some have recorded it on steel guitar as well as other instruments, including The Ventures, Ernest Tubb and His Texas Troubadours, Gene Krupa and Hank Thompson.
Now that Leon had a successful band, he bought the old, ornate Akdar Temple Theater in downtown Tulsa, which he converted into a performance venue and dance hall that he renamed the Cimarron Ballroom. For years to come, this was home base for Leon McAuliffe and his group’s radio show, which aired on KVOO, the same stationed that Featured the Texas Playboys. His guest stars were a mix of artists that included both big band and country with the likes of Jimmy Dorsey, Count Basie, Stan Kenton, Harry James, Don Gibson, Jim Reeves and Johnnie Horton.
Leon presented himself as a band leader by playing his lap steel guitar standing up with his band behind him, which he did for the remainder of his career. Check out this performance of “New San Antonio Rose,” circa 1959, which gives a glimpse of what a show at the Cimarron Ballroom may have been like. Keith Coleman, a former Texas Playboys member, performs an over-the-top Bob Wills Impersonation as Leon, now a seasoned entertainer, serves multiple roles: announcer, steel guitarist and singer while stepping back to allow various band members time in the spotlight. Throughout the song, Coleman tries his best to crack up Leon … and Leon eventually breaks. (And why couldn’t this be in color? Look at Leon’s suit!)
As the country music industry transitioned to pedal steel guitar, Leon did not. But his steel guitars kept growing necks, sometimes as many as four, whether it be on the Rickenbackers, Bigsbys or Fenders he played. Leon and his special guests were a popular draw to the Cimarron Ballroom. He also had a locally television show and performed through the region, including Northwest Arkansas. During the 1950s, he accepted invitations to perform on the Grand Ole Opry – including a 1950 appearance with a bill that featured Hank Williams – and television variety shows.
He championed others, including an eight-year-old girl named Lorrie Collins, who had won a talent contest sponsored by Leon. He urged her parents to move to California, where Lorrie could establish a career. They did, bringing along Lorrie’s younger brother, Larry. The sibling duo became teen rock ’n’ rollers, The Collins Kids, who enjoyed a cult following. (Years later, Larry co-wrote the hit songs “Delta Dawn” and “You’re the Reason God Make Oklahoma.”)
Before Patsy Cline was severely injured from a car accident in 1961, she was booked to perform at the Cimarron Ballroom. (Cline’s accident was referenced in the Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn biopics, Sweet Dreams and Coal Miner’s Daughter respectively.) While she canceled all other performances following her accident, against her doctor’s orders, she kept the one at the Cimarron Ballroom – she was that eager to perform there. Leon and the Cimarron Boys were more than happy to serve as Cline’s band in her first public performance after the well-publicized accident. Walking on crutches, and her gashed face not fully healed, she positioned herself on a stool and sang to an enthusiastic crowd. In between songs, Leon is heard in the background, making a request. “The boss just gave me an order,” Patsy Cline tells her audience. “My, my. Well, I’ll tell you one thing: Honey child, you can boss me anytime you want. I’d like to work for him all the time. As I’ve told you before, this is the sweetest music this side of Heaven.”
RADIO COMES TO ROGERS, ELVIS COMES TO TULSA
Leon wasn’t just a musician. He branched out in different business arenas, which included a music instruction school in Tulsa and, in 1954, a radio station about 100 miles east of Tulsa in Rogers, an Arkansas town with a population of about 5,000. The radio station, a first for Rogers, was a combined effort of Leon and his manager, G. Don Thompson, who left his job after working in television in Tulsa. They hired a disc jockey to give the new station personality: Leon’s old bandmate, William E. “Smoky” Dacus, the Texas Playboys’ first drummer – and the first to be used in a successfully commercial string band – who left the group when the band headed to California. (Early recordings of the Texas Playboys feature Wills’ calling out Smoky by name.)
KAMO – which stood for Kansas, Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma for the station’s broadcast range – hit the airwaves on September 16, 1954. With his professional music career behind him, Northwest Arkansas knew Smoky Dacus more familiarly as the voice of KAMO – back when disc jockeys not only spun records but announced the news, covered community events and did their own radio advertising as well.”
The station was launched just as a new music genre was gaining popularity – rock ’n’ roll. It was also a big part of the reason why Leon couldn’t score a big hit since “Panhandle Rag” in 1949. In fact, Western swing and country musicians in Nashville, Tennessee, were all feeling it. Much of their problem could be attributed one person: Elvis Presley.
Elvis, the Mississippi-born singer who meshed blues with hillbilly was, in many ways, inspired by some of the same types of music that drove Bob Wills to set up his Western swing band. But Elvis’ greasy hair and pelvic gyrations were a far cry from Frank Sinatra, the last major performer to cause teen girls to lose their minds. And now Elvis would be coming to Tulsa to perform. Leon was asked to not only emcee the concert but serve as an opening act as well. Leon obliged.
Two concerts took place on April 18, 1956. The first concert, as reported by Tulsa World, consisted of thousands of anxious teenagers who flocked to the Tulsa Fairgrounds Pavilion, and Leon and his Western swing band were assigned the task of warming up an audience that didn’t need it. The cheers and screams the band received were superficial; audience members were watching the rear of the stage, anticipating a glimpse of Elvis. The opening acts, which included the Farmer Boys and singer Wanda Jackson, a diehard Texas Playboys fan, continued their sets as the restless crowd began chanting, “We want Elvis!” Police officers brought in rope and wire to serve as a barricade as the crowd hurled small objects at the stage. Leon came out and finally announced the man they all came to see. The screams were so loud, Elvis couldn’t be heard during his first few songs.
This was rock’n’roll, and it made an impression on Leon. None of it good. But Leon was a businessman, and rock ’n’ roll was here to stay. He knew that if he wanted his career to survive, he would have to cave, so he hired a young man who could sing tunes by The Everly Brothers and others to join The Cimarron Boys.
Leon and Thompson had another venture: a record label they called Cimarron Records, which featured Leon, and signed several others from established acts like Floyd Tillman to Arkansas acts such as The Emcees, a popular band with University of Arkansas students, and Ben Jack, the latter of whom was best known for his chain of music stores in western Arkansas.
Though Cimarron was a small record label, Leon had two hit country songs in the early 1960s. One of them, “Cozy Inn,” had a lot going for it besides being catchy – it was penned by songwriting powerhouse Harlan Howard and included supporting vocals by The Jordanaires – the same outfit who backed Elvis. The song became the title track of an album released on ABC-Paramount that featured a plethora of tunes sung by Leon with his steel guitar cast aside. Now in his 40s, it was quite clear that Leon could roll along with the times and have an ear for what was commercial. The single led to the album, Cozy Inn, and featured countrypolitan, rock ’n’ roll and blues. Missing on the album: his steel guitar, an instrument now low in demand, cast aside for the more modern and complex pedal steel.
McAuliffe – for a time, showing as “McAuliff” on his records – released on Cimarron an interesting instrumental version of “Faded Love” with a haunting, reverberated fiddle fade-in and fade out. The tune, which was a 1950 hit for Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, was also a hit for Leon in 1962. (Patsy Cline would also have great success with the tune in 1963 – six months after she died in a plane crash in 1963.)
In 1964, Cimarron Records had run out of gas. Starday Records, which specialized in country music, bought select recordings by Leon, Floyd Tillman and The Country Gentlemen for future rereleases. That same year, Leon squeezed out a minor hit song, though it barely creeped into Billboard’s Country Music Top 40 chart, with “Shape Up or Ship Out” on Capitol Records, and he also managed a guest appearance on the nationally televised program, The Jimmy Dean Show.
By now Leon and the Cimarron Boys had toured extensively. Years earlier, he purchased an airplane (with the words “Take it Away, Leon” emblazoned on it) to shorten travel time, though it did little to lessen the strain his career placed on his marriage. In 1966, Lucylle McAuliffe – his wife of 28 years and mother of his two children – filed for divorce on “grounds of incompatibility.” By asking for “reasonable” alimony, custody of their teenage daughter (their son was 24) and child support, the action suggests that Lucylle’s filing was more out of resignation than malice. The Associated Press deemed the event newsworthy enough for a small story.
Leon, who remarried shortly after his divorce, moved to Rogers, Arkansas, where he had family as well as friends G. Don Thompson and Smoky Dacus. He could keep an eye on his radio station, maybe do a little fishing on Beaver Lake or go play a round of golf while gathering up the Cimarron Boys to play the occasional show. Or be amused how, in 1969, “New San Antonio Rose,” a tune he adapted on Steel Guitar with Bob Wills, was blasted inside Apollo 12 as it orbited the moon.
Then, as the 1970s neared, an “outlaw country” movement was emerging. It changed the course of Leon’s retirement.
Continue to Leon McAuliffe: The Return of a Steel Guitar King (Part III) >