R. D. Hendon & his Western Jamboree Cowboys were one of the most popular western bands in South East Texas in the first half of the 1950s. Their renown never really extended much beyond the Houston area, but that sort of regional fame was the norm in an era when the country music scene was far les centralized and national stardom was a far more rare thing han it became in later decades. The group served as training ground for such performers as the great songwriter and singer Eddie Noack and the guitarist-vocalist Charlie Harris – neither a household name then and now, but this is not a reflection of their abilities or relative importance – and also included a number of less known but no less talented performers, such as guitarist-vocalist Harold Sharp, fiddler Woody Carter and guitarist Hamp Stephens.
R. D. Hendon himself was rarely an active participant in the band – he had, by all reports, an almost singular lack of musical ability or talent – though he did in his later stages attempt to drum and sing with the group and recorded a recitation under the name the Western Rambler. Nor were the Western Jamboree Cowboys the smoothest and slickest of Houston’s numerous top-notch western dance bands. They were more a classic honky-tonk band than a western swing band like Dickie McBride or Benny Leaders’ groups ad excelled the closer they stuck to that classic, earthier sound. The Cowboys’ performing days came to an abrupt halt in September of 1956 when Hendon, long a troubled man, took his own life, but in the preceding half decade they laid down a number of fine recordings – including a couple of undisputed classics.
Rigsby Durwood Hendon was born around 1914 in Marquez, Texas, and grew up in the Houston area. He served in the Navy and worked as an oilfield roughneck before entering the night club business. The growing popularity of the house band, the South Texas Cowboys, at his Sprinx Club led Hendon to purchase a larger club, the Old Main Street Dance Hall, better known, as Andrew Brown has pointed out, by its street address, 105½ Main. « Hendon gave the club « a western theme » Brown adds, « and rechristened it the Western Jamboree Night Club. The band’s name change followed suit and, by 1950, the club was drawing huge crowds six nights a week. » The band began broadcasting on Houston’s KLEE, where Hendon also nabbed a slot as a disc jockey, and began recording around the start of 1951.
The band’s first recordings were for Sol Kahal’s local Freedom label (# 5033), which had been in operation since 1948 and began a hillbilly series a year or so later. »Those tears in your eyes » b/w « No shoes boogie » was actually issued under bandmember Charlie Harris‘ name, with Hendon and the band receiving secondary credit. The disc is a classic, « No Shoes Boogie » being, Brown writes, »an excellent example of the hard-rocking, shuffle-beat swing that was common in Texas before rock and roll. » In addition to Harris, who wrote and sang both songs and supplied incisive, hot lead guitar, the band at this time included Johnny Cooper, guitar; Theron Poteet, piano ; Tiny Smith, bass ; and Don Brewer, drums. Regular steel man Joe Brewer was replaced on this session by former Texas Playboy, the legendary and still active Herb Remington, who played one of his most exciting solos here.
Soon after, Hendon & the Cowboys joined a number of other Houston acts – including Jerry Jericho and Hank Locklin – in the stable of Bill McCall, the canny and ruthless West Coast label owner whose long-term relationship with the legendary Houston distributor and record man Pappy Daily yeilded a number of excellent recordings on McCall’s Four Star, Gilt-Edge and associated custom and radio-play labels. From the beginning, the Cowboys’ recordings were generally issued in Four Star’s quasi-custom « X » series, but several issues also wound up being issued on the label’s main series and this saw wider distribution.
The Four Star recordings were inaugurated by another coupling that featured Charlie Harris, who was soon to leave the group. « Oh ! Mr. President » (4* X-20) was a rush-job in the spring of 1951, a rare, overtly political song dealing with the firing of General MacArthur by President Truman. This was followed by an excellent coupling that featured long-time bandmember Johnny Cooper, « The Wandering Blues » b/w « Marking time » (4* X-24).
Cooper was soon replaced by Eddie Noack, already a veteran of the Houston recording scene and by mid-1951 the Western Jamboree Cowboys had settled into a classic lineup. Vocals were divided among Noack, Cecil « Gig » Sparks and Harold Sharp, with the two former supplying rhythm guitar and Sharp playing a sturdy lead. Don Brewer played steel, Tiny Smith played bass (Sparks and Smith had recently joined the band from Leon Payne’s group). A slew of strong recordings followed, including Noack’s classic debut, « I can’t run away » (4* 1590) , and two versions of the pretty « This moon won’t last forever ». The first version featured Harold Sharp (4* X-33) and a guest appearance of one of the song’s writers, trumpeter-bandleader Gabe Tucker, while a remake (4* 1590) marked the brief return of the peerless balladeer Charlie Harris and boasted a fiddle solo by former Floyd Tillman band mainstay Woody Carter, who joined the band for a few months during 1951-52 and was featured on the fiddle tune « Nervous Breakdown ».
Starday sides featured old hands like Harold Sharp and Gig Sparks, but later sides feature new bandmembers Taylor and Jack Rodgers. Hendon had a small hit in 1956 with « Lonely nights » (Starday 248) and another good tune was « Return my broken heart » (# 167).
Hendon’s suicide came not long after the final Starday release and occurred at a time of great musical upheaval. Rock and roll had arrived with a vengeance and it would have been interesting to see if Hendon would have managed to ride the storm of changing tastes – at the same time, the dancehall scene was being decimated by television and other factors. At any rate, Hendon was certainly game to try something new – his second Starday release found him trying his hand at singing rockabilly on the odd, uneven « Big Black Cat »(Starday 194) – although it’s obvious that Hendon was not a talented vocalist, as on the unissued-at-the-time « My old guitar » (during the song he even loses several times the tempo!).
Sources : the main biography went from Kevin Coffey for the Cattle CD 329 (2006), and some additions from Andrew Brown. As usual, a solid help was given by the indefatigable 78rpm-owner Ronald Keppner out of Frankfurt, Germany, thanks to him. Four Star X-20 was given by Steve Hathaway. Then my own researches and archives.
The Honorable ‘Cowboy’ Howard Dean Vokes is born in Clearfield, PA. on June 13, 1931. His father works in the coalmines to provide the needs of his big family, wife, 6 girls and 7 boys.
His mother handles her children in a firm education. Anytime uncles and cousins turn up at the family’s house it’s with their mandolin, harmonica and guitar. No wonder why young Howard
got his inspiration to use a broomstick as a guitar.
In this musical world, the Grand Ole Opry or the Supper Time Frolic shows fit very well the introduction to music of the multi-talented artist to come. He also lends an attentive ear to Buckshot Morgan, Rusty Herman or Slim Bryant on the local radio airwaves.
Howard started to play harmonica when only 6 years old to give it up for guitar 5 years later, right after the Vokes family set up in New Kensington, PA. in 1941.
When 15 years old, he got his first start on local shows and entertained on various radio programs such as WKPA, New Kensington or WAVL, Apollo.
A hunting accident broke his right ankle in 1948 and put him for 6 weeks in a hospital. His personal therapy is in writing songs and improve his guitar playing.
When ready he forms his first own group, The Country Boys. Together they travel throughout northern USA and some parts of Canada.
On March 1955, Wanda Jackson is in the Bradley’s Recording Studios in Nashville with a song written by the young Howard : «Tears at the Grand Ole Opry », issued on Decca 29514.
This same year, he puts his songwriting talents to the service of Hank King (or Russian origin: rn Papalia) for two tracks to appear on the Blue Ribbon label # 1925, « YourAtom Bomb Heart »/« I Want To Know (Why You Don’t Care For me ). They also appear on Blue Hen 223.
Howard becomes their manager and main songwriter. He gets a record deal to his protégés with the Mercury label ; and he decides to handle his own career. So, in 1958 he cuts his very first single in the School House Studio in Jeanette, PA. backed by Johnny Drolz (steel), Skeets Martin (electric guitar) and Bob Rose (bass) issued as ‘Cowboy’ Howard Vokes : « Ghost Of a Honky-Tonk Slave », a pure medium honky-tonker with a strong Hank Williams influence, « This Prison I’m In » is another honky-tonker, but slower and with a more driving vocal. Steel-guitar is omnipresent on both sides of this Del-Ray 204 single.
Real success comes with his second single : « Willie Roy, the crippled Boy », cut in 1959 in Cleveland, OH, with the same musicians as on his first record with additional help from his friend Rudy Thacker on guitar. This leads to many tours throughout the USA and TV and radio shows.
It’s not until 1961 that Howard meets with a second hit, « Mountain Guitar » (Del-Ray 205) after Rudy Thacker, writer of the song, cut the original version on Blue Hen 234. The great Roy Acuff also had his own version on Hickory 1134 in 1961.
On February 1st, 1969, Howard uses the same Starday recording studios for another Country session, backed by DJ.Fontana (drums), Al Gore (flat top guitar), Jeff Newman (steel guitar), Joe « Red » Hayes (fiddle), Bill Linneman (bass). The 12 tracks appear on the « HOWARD VOKES SINGS THE SONGS OF BROKEN LOVE AFFAIRS » (Folk-Variety FV 1212).
Completely devoted to the Country Music cause, Howard Vokes remains the big promotor of this style in the state of Pennsylvania. He launches 2 labels, Vokes and Country Boy, to support new talents without forgetting the old veterans happy to get attentive ears again.
A deserved homage is paid to him in 1987 with a song written by Ray D.Jones and recorded by Mel Anderson, « The King Of Country Music In Pennsylvania » (Country Boy CB-106).
This article was originally written in French, then translated by Jack Dumery.
WADE HOLMES to begin comes from the East coast and was managed by Ben Adelman from Wahington, D.C. He is particular having records released only on (leased masters) Four Star, and budget Spin-O-Rama, Mount Vernon Music and Crown labels LPs, before during the Sixties on several issues on Adelman’s other labels : Sutton and Empire. I’ve chosen first his great rendition of Carl Smith‘s « Go boy go » from 1954 on Blue Ribbon 35-49. It’s pure Hillbilly rock, near Rockabilly. Second we have, from February 1954, the fast honky-tonker « You’re too tired (for me) » (4 * 1656), when Holmes had his own show on WPGC (Washington?). Finally here he comes once more with the superior (a great , great crisp lead guitar) « I’ll just pretend » from 1960 on the Almanac label (# 809), also backed by a fine fiddle (solo), and billed as « The singing truck driver ». No evidence at all he’s had converted himself as such with more truckers’ songs.
From Kansas City , 1950 or 1951 on the copious Red Barn label (# RH 1166)(see Allan Turner’s Hillbilly Researcher‘s blogsite for more info on this label), BOBBY COOK & BUDDY NELSON, « The Texas Saddle Pals » have a brisk duet, with fine fiddle, a guitar solo and even a mandolin in « Big daddy blues ». A very lively track.
From West coast in California in 1954/55, a well-known band leader on the Salinas area (radio stations KDON and KSBW), BASHFUL BOBBY WOOTEN on the Four Star (special serie) P 102, with one high-voiced MARTHA LOU GACHES for « Peeping Tom ». Gaches had also one issue on Pep (Bakersfield) and was at one time associated as vocalist with Big Jim DeNoone.Wooten had also one famous rocker « Goin’ deer huntin’ » in 1960 on the G.R.C. label and had two other issues on this 4* P serie.
From Santa Claus, Indiana, in 1965 or 66, a great country rocker « Snuffy Smith » by JOHNNY ACTON on the Kasko label (# 1644). It has a weird steel solo (too short), good guitar and indeed drums. Acton was also, with the Acton Sisters, on his own (?) label in 1968 (# 703), for a solitary issue (« Just between you and I », a country record), from Indianapolis.
Howdy folks, welcome to newcomers. The aim of this feature is to spread my favorites around…
Let’s begin with a recently covered CLIFF DAVIS, without doubt a Southerner (“& his Kentucky Play Boys” as shown on the label), on the Chicago Jay Jay label (# 161) for this fabulous rendition of a classic, modernized (for 1956…) “Rocky Road Blues“. Fast, call-and-response format, even slap-bass sounding like drums and a superlative guitar. Second, thanks to Youtube chain-owner HillillyBoogie1, who frequently adds gems to his chain, PERRY WASHBURN on the Los Lunas, N. M. Mustang (# 300) label is no exception: on a obliged Indian beat, a very effective medium-paced vocal on perfect backing of steel-fiddle-guitar (nice solos) for “Pocahontas Baby“.
On the Joplin, MO. Joplin label, owned and composed by one Robert T. Nelson, a superior shuffler, “Oklahoma Blond Headed Gal” by deep-voiced SAMMIE LEE. Nice fiddle, steel all along. Year 1958 (issue J80W-3138, RCA pressing). Thanks to Tom Sims for this rare one.
PORKY FREEMAN is maybe the best known of this serie, for a string of guitar-led instrumentals from 1944-1947 on Ara and Four Star labels. Here I offer his “Porky’s Boogie Woogie” (Ara 4009) from September 1945. Red Murrell on rhythm and Al Barker on bass, Porky indeed on lead guitar.
From Chicago or Eastern states come BOB PERRY. On the small Bandera label (# 1301/1303) the fantastic “Weary Blues Goodbye” from 1958. Very strong rhythm, firm vocal, and a FABULOUS steel-guitar solo, which sounds as a slide guitar. I added the flipside, very different, and more countryfied “Can’t Hardly Wait”. Perry had at least another disc on Cool, outside the scope of this site: it’s a late ’50s rocker.
Finally someone I recently put everything I could gather on, the Kentuckian born RAY ANDERSON. In the case you missed him, here is his great “Done Gone Dirty Shame” from 1952-53 on the Illinois Blue Ribbon (B2) label. Nice guitar picking a la Merle Travis.
Finally there is an hidden gem in the podcasts: “Haunted House Boogie” by Jack Rivers, for halloween.
If Joseph Stalin inspired some harsh songs during his lifetime, his death ignited even more vitriol. Anderson’s unforgiving lyrics (“He died with a hemorrhage in the brain, they have a new fireman on the devil’s train“) are set against such a cheerful country melody that someone unfamiliar with the English language might mistake the tune for a square dance record. (more…)