Leon Chappel remains a sadly unrecognized progenitor of western swing, later recording a clutch of singles for Capitol that are fascinating for their mutant hillbilly-blues approach.
Born Horace Leon Chappelear in Gilmer, TX, on August 1, 1909, he dropped his first name by 1929, when he teamed with friends Joe and Bob Shelton (later Shelton Brothers) to form the Lone Star Cowboys. After launching their career at Tyler, TX, station KGKB, the three relocated to Shreveport, LA, where they signed to station KWKH. Sans his fellow Lone Star Cowboys, Chappelear made his recorded debut for the Gennett label with 1932’s Jimmie Rodgers-inspired “Trifling Mama Blues” before reuniting with the Sheltons in mid-1933 to back singer Jimmie Davis on a session for Bluebird. Davis helped land the Lone Star Cowboys a deal with Victor, resulting in seminal early western swing sides like “Deep Elm Blues” and “Just Because.” Musical differences nevertheless prompted Chappelear to split with the Sheltons soon after, and after forming a new group he christened Leon’s Lone Star Cowboys, his music swerved even closer to jazz, spearheaded by the kinetic fiddle playing of his nephew-in-law Lonnie Hall and a series of clarinetists.
Leon’s Lone Star Cowboys signed to Decca in mid-1935, recording just a handful of sides for the label before tragedy struck: while returning from a September live date, the vehicle carrying Chappelear crashed, and he was hospitalized with severe head injuries. Although he survived the incident, there is much conjecture that he never fully recovered, as evidenced by the erratic course of his remaining years; nevertheless, within six months Leon’s Lone Star Cowboys were again recording for Decca and playing live on KWKH, although the group relocated to Shreveport station KRMD soon after, reportedly due to subpar performances. Chappelear took the opportunity to shuffle the roster, creating a new 12-piece lineup that was in many respects his tightest and most dynamic, but after a final 1937 session, Decca terminated the band’s contract. The next decade of Chappelear’s life is in large part a mystery — he effectively retired from music to become a policeman, but his law enforcement career ended in ignominy when he was convicted of accepting bribes, possibly resulting in a prison sentence. From there, he worked for several years as a pipe fitter.
By the time he resurfaced in the late ’40s, Chappelear had abbreviated his surname to “Chappel,” and was playing in a new honky tonk outfit called the Lone Star Ramblers. Somehow he reconnected with Jimmie Davis, fresh off his first stint as governor of Louisiana, and was invited to join Davis’ backing band, the Sunshine Boys. After signing to Capitol, Davis called in a few favors and landed Chappel a Capitol deal of his own. His first two cuts for this label were made in Hollywood in March 1950, in the middle of a marathon, five-hours Jimmie Davis session. Indeed Davis used the best musicians around : there was Tex Atchison on fiddle, Jimmie Widener(not the ex-Bob Wills’ Playboys member) on guitar, and Cliffie Stone on bass. « True Blue Papa » (Capitol F 1008) was an engaging bluesy debut for Chappell and co-written by Davis, without doubt returning the latter the favour of getting him the contract. Although later dates would include piano, all sides would be dominated by lowdown, bluesy fiddle lead, with no sign anywhere of steel or lead guitar.
In June 1950, he was back for his first full-fledged session and cut four more hokum blues. The stand-out track is “Slow Down Sweet Mama,” (# 1447) so was to be his latter-day music : an almost anachronistic sound marrying bluesy, boozy juke-joint country with trace elements of his western swing roots. He seems to have returned to Shreveport afterwards. According to musician contemporaries, he remained as charismatic as in his mid-’30s heyday, despite subsequent travails. Even « Country Song Roundup » echoed this sentiment, characterizing Chappelear as a « handsome fellow with a smile as ‘big as Texas.’ » He also had some impact on local musicians, particularly the up-and-coming young Frankie Miller, who would later commemorate his brief friendship with Chappelear by recording a fantastic version of « True Blue Papa », released as the flip-side oh his 1959 hit « Blackland Farmer » on Starday.
June 1951 saw him recording, this time, apparently at Sellers’ Studio in Dallas, TX. Despite the added piano, the sound was still spare and unique, and the material was similar to previous sessions. Self-penned “I’m a Do-Right Daddy” (# 1756) should have convinced Capitol that Chappelear had song-writing potential, so allowing him to find material from other sources, and for the first time, Chappell chose to issue back-to-back two Tennessee label’s artists songs : Billy Wallace‘s « Gonna Turn You Loose »(# 1862) and Mississipi Slim‘s « (I’m A) Long Gone Doggie »; in the latter track, he even tried a sort of Hank Williams-inspired twists and yodels. On the other way his records must have been selling sufficiently well, so that his label permitted him (under the guidance of the new Capitol Country A&R man Ken Nelson) an eight song session that fall, probably in Dallas : some of the singer’s best postwar work. In the meantime Chappell seems to have been still working as a pipefitter.
So later that year 1951 (November) he recorded the novelty « Automatic Mama » (# 2167) (original from 1949 by the Sons Of The Soil, with a very young Don Gibson as lead singer). Interesting too is the lowdown »You’re A Lovin’ Woman » (# 1954). Other sides included the fabulous « True Detective » (# 2065), taken from Big Bill Lister’s pen. Then Chappel dipped way back in his ’30s songbook for original material : he had recorded « Little Bitty Blues» (# 2065) in 1937 (under the title « She’s Got Me Worried ») ; « Lowdown Lonesome Blues » (# 2167) was actually a slowed-down « Mistreated Blues » from 1935 – apparently same melody as « Deep Elem Blues ». Two more originals, still rooted in the ’30s, were « Booger Blues » (# 1954) and « Don’t Dog Me ‘Round » (# 2611). His sidemen are uncertain : maybe Paul Blunt on piano, maybe Georgia Slim or Chappell’s nephew-in-law Lonnie Hall on fiddle.
1952 was an empty year, and Chappell dit not record until April 1953, and by most accounts, he spent the long layoff as a truck driver and pipe layer. When he entered the studio again, he adopted the same pattern (piano and fiddle leading) but with a much jazzier approach, a sort of honky-tonk swing. The highlight of the session was the pumped-up original « Double Up And Catch Up » (# 2526), which also featured one of Chappelear’s best vocal performances. His final single released did offer « New Do-Right Daddy » (# 2611), a song he had originally cut in 1937.
After Capitol dropped his contract, he returned to Shreveport, working as a superintendent at the city dog pound. Health problems dating back to his earlier car crash continued to plague Chappel throughout his life, and after the disintegration of his marriage, he slipped into a deep depression, finally committing suicide while visiting his sister in Gladewater, TX, on October 23, 1962.
Notes from rockabilly.nl, and additions from Kevin Coffey story in the BF issue (1999). Additions also from bopping’s editor. Sufficient Capitol records sales did apparently not mean GOOD sales: Chappel’s sides were not common and label scans have been difficult to find.