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.
He was an enormously successful and popular country music star, a man who recorded over 90 chart hits with a unique style that wasn’t exactly rockabilly, but certainly influenced the shape it hillbilly rockers to come. He was related to hillbilly royalty through his marriage to June Carter, not to mention that his daughter became a country music hit maker in her own right. You know who I’m talking about of course – the one and only Carl Smith. (He also wore black on occasion, but to the point…) Born in 1927, and hailing from Roy Acuff’s hometown of Maynardville, Tennessee, Carl Smith grew up like many Southern boys of the depression, idolizing singing cowboys in the movies and hillbilly musicians on the radio. Acquiring his first guitar at the age of ten, Smith took advantage of any opportunity to play music at local dances, socials and school programs. He found work as a professional musician while he was still in high school in various bands centered around Knoxville and Cas Walker’s radio show on station WROL. But his pursuit of a fulltime music career was temporarily interrupted by his stint in the U.S. Navy in 1945-46.
After returning from the service, Smith found fulltime work as a musician in the Knoxville area where WROL was becoming a triple-A farm team of sorts for the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville and a prime location for record companies to discover up-and-comers in the hillbilly scene. In 1950, with Hank Williams selling records hand over fist for MGM, every major label was looking for stars that could deliver the new, post-war, hard-edged honky tonk style. For Columbia Records, the then 23 year-old Carl Smith was just what they were looking for. Smith found himself in the fast lane to hillbilly stardom, signed to both the Grand Ole Opry and Columbia Records in less than a month. While he might not have been the tortured hillbilly poet that Hank was, Smith had many other assets including a strong, clear voice, his country boy good looks, a head full of wavy hair, and perhaps best of all, he lacked the self-destructive tendencies that were constantly derailing Williams’ career.Smith quickly proved himself a master of just about any form of hillbilly music he set his sights on — from Eddy Arnold-style crooners to Hank Williams-style honky-tonk heartbreakers, to heartfelt gospel that any mother would approve of. But the style that Smith really made his own came from Saturday nights, not Sunday mornings. It was “honky-tonk stomp.” Up-tempo slices of hillbilly bravado and swagger like “(When You Feel Like You’re in Love) Don’t Just Stand There,” “Trademark,” “Hey Joe!” , « Dog-gone It, Baby, I’m In Love » and “Back Up Buddy” where Smith really made his mark on the evolving palette of hillbilly music.
It was a style that Hank Williams had pioneered with songs like “Honky Tonkin’” and “Mind Your Own Business” and that he referred to as “sock rhythm.” But ole Hank’s “sock” was just the 2-4 backbeat that had marked the dividing line between white and black popular music for so long, and that more and more hillbilly musicians were picking up on in the late forties. Smith was a natural for this younger, hipper and hotter form of hillbilly music, but he never came across as the threatening rebel. “The Country Gentleman,” as he became known, could deliver a heartbreaking ballad that brought tears to the eyes of the bluest blue-nose and then toss off a stomper that thrilled the budding teeny-bopper crowd with his down home machismo.
While seldom acknowledged as such, Carl Smith, along with other honky-tonk stompers like Webb Pierce, Faron Young and Hawkshaw Hawkins were adding the final ingredients to the musical gumbo that would spit out rockabilly in just a few years. The young, hot shot attitude, combined with a driving beat and the good looks of many of these honky tonkers provided true swoon appeal to a generation of corn-fed gals, whose younger sisters would be screaming for the “Memphis Flash” and his fellow rockabilly cats in just a few short years. But of course you gotta have a hot band to play hot music, and that’s exactly what Smith assembled with his road band, The Tunesmiths. Featuring top session men like Junior Husky (on bass) and Buddy Harman, but most especially the master steel guitarist, Johnny Silbert (then 17 years old), the Tunesmiths developed a hot style that drew from both Western Swing and the nascent rock’n’roll beat. Other Tunesmiths’ members included drummer Farris Coursey, ex-Hank Williams’ Drifting Cowboys Sammy Pruett on lead guitar or future Jordanaires’ Gordon Stoker on piano. There’s never been any fiddle in Smith’s hillbilly boppers, another sign of him being ahead of his time.
Sammy Pruett left to Hank
A perfect example of the musical style that Carl Smith and the Tunesmiths developed is their 1955 recording of “Baby I’m Ready.” It’s a song that both swings and rocks as Smith declares his readiness to show his lady a hot time on the town. And all with a charm that probably left the young lady’s mother and father smiling and waving from the front porch as that “good boy” took their daughter out for a night of hillbilly whoopee.
Although his hottest period was in the pre-Elvis era, Smith continued to produce solid country hits through the sixties and early seventies. He even managed to hold the strings and vocal chorus of the then popular “Nashville Sound” at bay on his recordings, staying true to a more traditional honky tonk sound. He left Columbia Records in 1973 and after a short stint on Hickory Records made the rare move of voluntarily retiring from the music business in 1978.
He spent his later years enjoying the fruits of a country boy’s dream, on his 500 acre horse and cattle ranch in Williamson County, Tennessee. He was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2003. His wife Goldie, passed away in 2005 with Smith following her in January of 2010 at the age of 82.
Reflecting on his decision to retire from the music business Smith told Tim Ghianni in a 2003 interview for the Tennessean, “I just wanted to play cowboy. My philosophy is doing what I want to do.” A darn good philosophy for a country boy, but of course we can all be grateful that for a time, bringing a hot beat, a snarl and a swagger to country music was just what Carl Smith wanted to do and what he was best at.
Biography and pictures taken from the net. Scans and music mostly from private collections.