Tanner ‘n’ Texas TNT-1003 – Red River Dave – 1953

One of the true blue, larger-than-life Texas characters, Red River Dave McEnery tried his hand at just about every occupation that appealed to him at one point or another: prolific songwriter, blue yodeler, rodeo cowboy, television personality, real estate agent, Shriner, ventriloquist, fine artist, truck stop preacher, and many, many more.  This brief article can only scratch the surface of the multifaceted entertainer’s storied life.

Red River Dave McEnery, as pictured on a promotional handout, c. 1940.

David Largus McEnery was born in San Antonio, Texas, on December 15, 1914, one of at least six children born to Gerald and Stella McEnery.  As a youth, he began his entertaining career partaking in Texas’ national sport—rodeo—by spinning a rope and singing cowboy songs, drawing inspiration for the latter from the early greats of country music like Jimmie Rodgers and Vernon Dalhart.  While still in his teens, McEnery made his radio debut on KABC in San Antonio, before going on the road at sixteen to strike it big as a cowboy star.  He made his way to the East Coast, where he earned the nickname “Red River Dave” from his frequent performances of “Red River Valley” on Petersburg, Virginia’s WPHR.  In 1936, he began his ascent to fame when he yodeled cowboy songs from the Goodyear blimp over WQAM in Miami, Florida.  He arrived in New York around 1938 and remained there for several years, broadcasting over stations WOR, WMCA, and WEAF.  During those years, he officially endorsed the Gretsch Synchromatic guitar, and for a while the company offered a signature “Red River Dave Special” archtop years before Chet Atkins’s association with the company.

Foreshadowing his later output, McEnery wrote “Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight” in tribute to the lost aviatrix following her 1937 disappearance, which won him greater fame and remains one of his most popular and best known compositions to this day.  He sang that song on a pioneering television broadcast at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, becoming—as he would later bill himself—the “world’s first television star.”  While in New York, Red River Dave began his recording career on January 18, 1940, for Decca, going on to cut fourteen titles for the company over the course of that year.  Subsequently, he recorded more prolifically for the Musicraft, Savoy, Continental, and M-G-M labels from 1944 into the early 1950s.  1944 brought him another song success in the form of the patriotic wartime number “I’d Like to Give My Dog to Uncle Sam” (also known as “The Blind Boy’s Dog”) on Savoy.  But it was surely his radio performances that won Red River Dave his greatest fame during his life.  After World War II, Dave returned to home to Texas, where he began an association with the long-running western swing group the Texas Top Hands.  In the middle of the 1940s, he broadcast for a time on the Mexican border blaster station XERF in Villa Acuña, just across the border from Del Rio.  He also ventured to Hollywood, where he appeared in the feature films Swing in the Saddle and Echo Ranch, as well as a series of soundies.  In his hometown of San Antonio, he hosted regular radio and television shows on WOAI.  Beginning in the mid-1950s, most of his recording activities were conducted with local Texas labels such as Tanner ‘n’ Texas.  Thereafter, his musical output began to shift away from the traditional cowboy and hillbilly material that  and toward his own brand of eccentric and often rather morbid topical songs about current events.

Over the course of the 1950s, his repertoire evolved from standard material such as “San Antonio Rose” and “Cotton Eyed Joe” to the likes of “James Dean (The Greatest of All)” and “The Ballad of Emmett Till”.  His songs increasingly reflected his patriotic, conservative, and staunch,y anti-communist politics, as heard in such numbers as “The Bay of Pigs”, “The Great Society”, and “The Ballad of John Birch”.  For a time in the mid-1960s, Dave turned his attention toward being a “dynamic real estate salesman,” even billing himself on contemporaneous records as “Singing Cowboy Realtor.”  Though sales of his private press 45 RPM singles were usually fairly poor, Dave continued to record and publish his old-time yodeling songs about current events all the way into the 1980s, with numbers like “The Pine-Tarred Bat (Ballad of George Brett)”, “The Ballad of E.T.”, and “The Night Ronald Reagan Rode With Santa Claus”.  In total, McEnery penned more than a thousand songs over the course of his life, many of which were never commercially recorded, and are now likely lost to time; in one 1946 publicity stunt, he wrote fifty-two songs in twelve hours while handcuffed to a piano.  Later in his life, he broadened his horizons to include oil painting, usually western landscapes, which he sometimes sold.  At the age of eighty-seven, David McEnery died in his native San Antonio.

Tanner ‘n’ Texas TNT-1003 was probably recorded in late 1953—presumably in San Antonio, Texas—and was released in November of that year.  The same coupling of songs was later issued on Decca 29002, featuring a different take of “The Red Deck of Cards”, but seemingly the same take of “Searching for You, Buddy”.  Those recordings were reportedly made on December 22, 1953, but it is unclear if that date produced the TNT or Decca take..

On “The Red Deck of Cards”, Dave re-worked the classic “Deck of Cards” war story popularized by T. Texas Tyler into one of the earliest of his anti-communist pieces, marking a shift in his recording career from (frankly sometimes rather bland) western themed “citybilly” songs towards the frequently politically-charged topical folk songs for which he would become known in later years.

The Red Deck of Cards, recorded 1953 by Red River Dave.

Dave sings on the B-side, a war song also of his own composition: “Searching for You, Buddy”. Though contextually connected to the Korean War, the song makes no reference to any conflict in particular, the song could easily apply to any war.

Searching for You, Buddy, recorded 1953 by Red River Dave.

Royalty RR-906 – “Stick-Horse” Hammond – 1950

Another one of those hidden figures of the blues who made a few records at one session and promptly disappeared into obscurity, few details are concretely known about the life of Texas-Louisiana musician “Stick-Horse” Hammond, who made a small handful of records in 1950 demonstrating a gritty and rather archaic style of rural blues.  As such, the facts presented within this article should to taken as tentative, at best.

One of at least five children of B.B. and Laura (spelling uncertain) Hammond, “Stick-Horse” was born Nathaniel Hammond in Palestine, Texas, on April 16, 1896, (according topublic records), though a date in the preceding month has also been proffered, as well.  According to a draft card presumably attributable to the same Hammond, he was of medium height with a heavy build as an adult.  Per the same source, he worked on the Union Pacific Railroad around the time of the First World War, and was at the time living in Denver, Colorado.  Perhaps resulting from that profession, he purportedly lost a leg (much like his white contemporary “Peg” Moreland), and ostensibly adopted the nickname ‘Stick-Horse” from the peg-leg he relied upon thereafter.  Later in life, he reportedly turned to life as a traveling musician, playing around his home state before settling in Taylortown, Louisiana, in the vicinity of Shreveport, where he began farming on the share.  Around 1950, Hammond was “discovered” by country singing star Zeke Clements—who was then appearing on the KWKH Louisiana Hayride—and brought to town to cut a record for former disc jockey Ray Bartlett.  Clements later recalled that “they drove around for two or three days getting him drunk enough to record.”  In all, Hammond produced six sides for Bartlett’s “Job” label, four of which were picked up by larger record companies (Royalty Records of Paris, Texas, and Gotham Records of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, respectively).  Sometime later, the plantation on which Hammond farmed was visited by record executives Stan Lewis and Leonard Chess in hopes of signing the bluesman to the fledgling Chess Records.  Unfortunately for the songster, the big boss ran off the city slickers with a shotgun, swiftly snuffing out any hopes for the continuation of Hammond’s brief career as a record artist.  Remaining in Taylortown for the rest of his life, “Stick-Horse” Hammond died in Shreveport on May 27, 1964.

Royalty RR-906 was recorded at the J&M Record Shop presumably at 728 Texas Street in Shreveport, Louisiana, sometime in the year of 1950.  It was originally released on Job 105.  “Stick-Horse” Hammond sings the blues and accompanies himself on electric guitar.

On the “A” side, “Stick-Horse” sings a low-down country blues rendition of fellow Texan Curtis Jones’s “Highway 51”. Having been born in 1896, Hammond was among the same generation of blues musicians as Blind Lemon Jefferson and Mance Lipscomb, though each artist’s recording career occupied a different era.

Highway 51, recorded 1950 by “Stick-Horse” Hammond.

On the reverse, Hammond sings “Too Late Baby”, taking after the Black Ace’s (and others’) “You Gonna Need My Help Someday”, and continuing in the popular mold of “How Long—How Long” and “Sitting On Top of the World” influenced melodies.

Too Late Baby, recorded 1950 by “Stick-Horse” Hammond.

Star Talent 770 – Slim Willet – 1950

With his uniquely characteristic songwriting and unparalleled instrumental sound, the renown of Abilene, Texas, disc jockey, television host, music impresario, and honky tonk hero Slim Willet surely deserves to be as big as his own name-belying size—and perhaps it would have been had he gone to Nashville or Hollywood—yet sadly he has been relegated to little more than a footnote in the annals of country music.

Slim Willet, as pictured on the original sheet music for “Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes”.

Winston Lee Moore was born on December 1, 1919, in Victor, Texas, a tiny, no-longer-existent town a a mile south of “Hogtown”—a big country oil boom-town better known as Desdemona.  As a teenager during the Great Depression, he reportedly spent a short time working in the CCC, before being drummed into Army service during World War II.  Upon his discharge, he settled in Abilene and attended Hardin-Simmons University, earning a journalism degree in 1949 (though in later years, he jokingly claimed to have studied “how to be a hillbilly disc jockey”).  Thereafter, he went to work as a promoter and disc jockey for local radio station KRBC, hosting his own Big State Jamboree.  On the air, he adopted the stage name “Slim Willet”, taking the sobriquet “Slim” ironically—he really was quite the opposite—and borrowing the name “Willet” from the comic strip Out Our Way.  The year of 1950 proved a professionally momentous one for Willet, for it brought his breakout into the recording industry.  In April of that year, his composition “Pinball Millionaire” was recorded by rising country star Hank Locklin for 4 Star Records, placing Willet’s name on a record label for the first time.  Soon after, Willet’s own first recordings as a singer were released on the Dallas-based Star Talent label.  He went on to cut several more discs for Star Talent over the course of the year that followed  and subsequently set up his own studio to produce “Slim Willet Special Releases”, contracting pressing to the California-based 4 Star Records with the option for them to release his records on their own label, but he did not achieve more than local success.

Tides turned for Willet come September of 1951, when he received a letter from a soldier in Korea requesting that he play a song for his sweetheart back in Abilene.  The soldier sent along a message asking his love to stay true and not let stars get in her eyes.  That letter inspired Willet to compose a love song, which he titled “Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes” and recorded the following February.  The record big shots didn’t like the song at first, calling it “off beat, off meter, off everything,” but agreed to release it as the B-side of a Texas oilfield number called “Hadacol Corners”.  In spite of their predictions, “Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes” became a national hit upon its release, spawning popular covers by Perry Como and Ray Price, among others, and bringing Willet to the national spotlight for a time.  In the wake of “Stars”, Willet continued to record for 4 Star, producing several more popular records in a similar style—as well as one for Decca—and made appearances on the Big D Jamboree on KRLD in Dallas, and the Louisiana Hayride on KWKH in Shreveport.  He set up his own full-fledged record company—initially called Edmoral but later renamed Winston—around 1953, recording local West Texas talent while still contracted to 4 Star, and moved his own recording activities to it once his engagement with them ended around 1954 (though he had made pseudonymous recordings for his own label before that).  As rock ‘n’ roll took off, Willet made several rousing rockabilly records under the pseudonym “Telli W. Mils, The Fat Cat” (i.e. Slim Willet spelled backwards), in a fashion rather resembling—though in fact preceding—that of fellow Texan “The Big Bopper”.  While never able to rekindle the nationwide success of “Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes”, Willet remained a popular personality in Abilene, and continued to record, perform, and disc jockey until his untimely death from a heart attack on July 1, 1966.  Posthumously, Willet has been honored with induction in Country Music Disc Jockey and West Texas Music Halls of Fame.

Star Talent 770 was recorded in the spring of 1950 at the studio of KRBC in Abilene, Texas.  Slim Willet is accompanied by the Brushcutters, featuring Shorty Underwood on fiddle, Earl Montgomery on rhythm guitar, Georgia Underwood on bass, Price Self piano, and unidentified lead guitar and steel guitarists.

The first side he ever recorded, Slim Willet made his big debut with “I’m Going Strong”, a most apt title for more than one reason.

I’m Going Strong, recorded spring 1950 by Slim Willet.

On the “B’ side, Willet sings one of his signature numbers in the genre over which he reigned supreme: “I’m a Tool Pusher from Snyder” (later re-titled “Tool Pusher on a Rotary Rig”).  With this song, Willet established the first in a string of oilfield songs that would overture his recording and songwriting career, ultimately culminating in his self-produced 1959 LP Texas Oil Patch Songs, on which he re-recorded “Tool Pusher”.

I’m a Tool Pusher from Snyder, recorded spring 1950 by Slim Willet.

CroMart 101 – Elmo Newcomer (The Pipe Creek Kid) – c. 1947

Whoopin’ and hollerin’ fiddler from Bandera, Elmo Newcomer—the “Pipe Creek Kid”—was one of the more colorful figures in Texas folk music (and that’s saying something).

Jessie Elmo Newcomer was born in San Antonio, Texas, on April 25, 1896, son of rancher Andrew Jackson “Jack” Newcomer and his wife Lura Bell (née Stokes).  Elmo followed in his father’s footsteps and became a stockman on the family farm Pipe Creek, Texas, about eight miles from Bandera.  He served as a cook in the the Third Trench Mortar Battalion during the First World War, and was honorably discharged on March 30, 1919.  Shortly after his return home, he married Miss Birdee Augusta Ellis, on April 16 of the same year, with whom he would have five children over the subsequent decades.  His uniquely uninhibited style of fiddle playing was recorded in May of 1939 by folklorists John Avery and Ruby Terrill Lomax for the Library of Congress in thirteen performances at his home in Pipe Creek.  Around twenty years later, Newcomer made two records for the San Antonio-based CroMart label, recreating tunes which he had previously recorded for Lomax.  Though well known locally for his music making proclivities, he spent most of his life on the farm, and did not seek fame or fortune as a professional musician.  Tragedy befell the Newcomers with the deaths of sons Clyde from tetanus in 1940 and William in a 1951 car accident, and Elmo and Birdee divorced at some point during the 1940s or 1950s; she later remarried, while he did not.  Elmo Newcomer died from arteriosclerosis at the V.A. Hospital in Kerrville, Texas, on December 8, 1970, and was buried in the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio.  His descendants have carried on his musical legacy around Pipe Creek.

The recording date of CroMart 101 is not established by any available sources, but I have it on good authority that it dates to around 1947, give or take, and was probably recorded in San Antonio, Texas.  Newcomer is accompanied by guitar, likely played by one of his sons.  Both performances are virtually identical to his Library of Congress recordings of 1939, albeit in much higher fidelity.  The Cro-Mart Recording Company was founded by H.M. Crowe and Buster Martin of San Antonio.

Newcomer first fiddled a wild and crazy rendition of the old-time staple “Cotton Eyed Joe”, an especially popular number with Texas musicians.

Cotton Eyed Joe, recorded c.1947 by Elmo Newcomer (The Pipe Creek Kid).

He next does the “Old Grey Mare”, with his wild hollers complimented by some choice diction: “Old grey mare come a-footin’ down from Delaware, lookin’ for her underwear; she couldn’t find ’em anywhere.”

Old Grey Mare, recorded c.1947 by Elmo Newcomer (The Pipe Creek Kid).

Wilcox-Gay Recordio – Unknown Artist – c.1950

UPDATE:  Diligent experts have identified these tunes as “Down Yonder” (first side), and “The Waltz You Saved For Me” (second side).  Thank you, for your great assistance, Messrs. Chalfen, Johnston, and Bosch!

Here’s another home recording that I found along with that old time fiddle one, it features two very familiar sounding, and quite enjoyable piano solos whose names I cannot seem to place.  I’m hoping someone out there can help me identify the names of the pieces being played.  If any of you treasured readers out there can put a name with them, I’ll update the article with special thanks.

This Wilcox-Gay Recordio home recording disc is completely unmarked, making it impossible for me to offer any information on its artist or date.  The copyright date of 1950 would likely place it in that vicinity as far as dating goes.  As is often the case with these home recordings, sound quality is on the low end, and there is quite a bit of noise, but these aren’t too bad, all things considered.

This side sounds especially familiar to me, but I just can’t put my finger on the title.  At first I though it was “Waiting on the Robert E. Lee”, but it doesn’t seem to quite fit that tune.

Thanks to a reader’s identification, this tune seems to be L. Wolfe Gilbert’s 1921 composition “Down Yonder”.

Unidentified

Down Yonder, recorded ? by unknown pianist.

This little ditty, too, sounds quite familiar, but again, I just can’t quite think of the title, if I ever knew what is was called.  Some talking can be heard in the background of this one at one point.

Unidentified

The Waltz You Saved for Me, recorded ? by unknown pianist.