By Bill Bowen
The following article by William G. "Bill" Bowen, one time editor and publisher of "Pioneer News", is a must for Bob Nolan fans because of the picture it gives of the final days of Bob's life. Because of his position as editor and writer, Bill was in regular contact with Bob and came to know him better than most.
The only errors in the article are those that came from Bob himself because Bill wrote only what Bob told him during their many visits. Bob's father, Harry, told Bob the legends about himself which may or may not be true. It is certain that both of his sons believed them.
Every attempt has been made to contact Bill Bowen for permission, all to no avail. No one seems to know what has become of him. Bill did a great deal to keep the Sons of the Pioneers in the minds and hearts of fans in the 1970s and his sketches of each member of the group are excellent. Calin treasures the one above of his grandfather.
The scanned pages are reproduced here courtesy of John Fullerton.
Our visits with the Nolans were always enjoyable. Sunday afternoon, June 8, 1980 was no exception. Clara, or "P-Nuts", as Mrs. Nolan is known to her friends, is always kind, gracious and hospitable, and the Nolans made us feel comfortable and welcome. Conversations were entertaining and stimulating. Having an inquisitive mind and being an avid reader, Bob could enthusiastically discuss a wide range of subjects from black holes in space to how to mix soil for the best yield of sugar pears to the more obvious topics of music and nature. Because of the Nolans' love of nature, most of their time, weather permitting, was spent out-of-doors and, as we sat in the garden, fearless squirrels would beg for their daily ration of nuts, birds would perch nearby to serenade us, and butterflies would alight on Bob's head. Indeed, he was in communion with nature. He had a delightful sense of humor and laughter came easily. And though he was a rugged outdoorsman, a man's man even in his seventies, he would have been a formidable foe he was also a gentle and sentimental person and a thought about an old friend or a line from a song could moisten his eyes. As the Pioneer fans among you will appreciate, we were thrilled on those occasions when Bob would sing a new song, accompanying himself on the guitar, or recite a new poem for us.
Those of you who wrote to Bob through us can be assured that he read every letter. He appreciated your kind thoughts and was pleased by your warm response to The Sound of a Pioneer. Though he intended to answer many of your letters, most often he would autograph a photo for mailing. I'm sure the recipients treasure these mementoes as I treasure mine. As a devoted fan of Bob Nolan and his music since childhood, I can honestly say that I became an even greater "fan," if that is the appropriate term, as we were privileged to be with him often in the fast few years.
We had looked forward to our visit on Sunday, June 8. I needed to check some details for the "Portrait of a Pioneer" feature for Issue No. 10 and hoped to get a couple of additional Bob Nolan quotations on tape to make the article more personal. In spite of his stated reluctance to be interviewed or to dwell in the past, Bob always patiently and graciously responded to all questions, even those on trivial matters, many times explaining things and telling anecdotes far beyond the scope of the original query. When I asked for something quotable that might provide insight into Bob Nolan, the individual, he offered to recite "one of my personal soliloquies."
A planned project of Bob's was a book of poems. He referred to himself as a lyricist rather than a poet, but a poet he was. As he soliloquized "My Mistress, The Desert," I couldn't help but think how fortunate it was to capture his dramatic recitation of the deeply moving poem on tape. (We didn't realize how fortunate, because Bob had not written any of his recent soliloquies, but had composed and committed them to memory.) "My Mistress, the Desert" would have been lost if it hadn't been recorded that afternoon...his last recording.) As we departed near dusk, I promised to return the following week to help him trim a eucalyptus tree, and he promised another soliloquy. P-Nuts called during the week to tell us that Bob's brother Mike had invited him to go fishing so a neighbor had trimmed the tree. We planned to visit after the Father's Day week-end.
On Monday, June 16, a phone call brought the sad news. Bob Nolan had been stricken by a fatal heart attack in Costa Mesa as he was returning home from the week-end boat outing with his daughter Bobbie and bother Mike in Newport Harbor.
Your comments and letters, some contained in these pages, indicate how much all our lives have been enriched by this special man and his music. Fellow songwriter and singer Marty Robbins said, "Nolan was a true songwriting genius. He had the ability to say simply and powerfully what he felt. It'd like to see a tribute to his music and to him as a man. He was a gentleman and a friend of mine."
Bob Nolan's music is certainly a living memorial to him and, as Dale Warren and Rusty Richards have pledged, the Sons of the Pioneers are dedicated to seeing that his songs will live forever. But perhaps, as Marty has indicated, there should be a way to ensure that future generations can share this legacy. Dick Goodman of the fine Western singing group The Reinsmen has suggested the establishment of a scholarship for writers at a university perhaps the University of Arizona would be appropriate. Rex Allen has suggested that the Nolans' cabin at Big Bear Lake, where Bob composed many of his songs, be maintained as a permanent memorial. Many would like to see the publication of a complete folio of the works of Bob Nolan, accompanied by a comprehensive biography. Some have thought that an area of the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Museum in Victorville could be dedicated to displaying the memorabilia and artifacts of Bob Nolan and other members of the Sons of the Pioneers. The Sons of the Pioneers and other artists would do a great service by recording the Bob Nolan songbook, especially those songs that have not been recorded previously. It would also be beneficial if MCA, Columbia and RCA would reissue Nolan's original recordings with the Sons of the Pioneers and the few he made as a solo artist. I'm sure that many of you have other ideas about a permanent type of tribute or memorial to The Poet Laureate of the West. In a very humble way, this issue of Pioneer News is respectfully dedicated to the memory of this very special man and his music. We miss him.
Much of New Brunswick is wild and rugged, covered with forests, rushing streams, and lakes; red deer and black bear and a variety of fish are abundant. "Oh, what a beautiful country," enthused Bob. "I don't think there's a more beautiful country in the whole of God's creation than that." Robert Clarence Nobles was born in this maritime province on April 1, 1908. [Correction: Clarence Robert Nobles was born on April 13, 1908, in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Bob didn't know that.] He and his younger brother Michael Earle were raised by their paternal grandparents on the family farm with the last of their nine children, Uncle Charlie, three years older than Bob. The farm's harvest made them nearly self-sufficient. Only occasionally did they make the one-hundred and eighty-eight mile trip for supplies by raft down the scenic Saint John River to its mouth at the port city of the same name on the Bay of Fundy. [According to David Folster who lives there, the round trip by riverboat would have been 56 miles, not 188.]
Bob recalled that due to their isolation, the heavy winters, the early spring flooding, and the spring to fall cycle of planting and harvesting, "We probably had one month out of the year that we went to school and it was five and one-half miles away, and I trotted the whole distance...half of the time with a Canadian Lynx stalking me all the way." In listening to Bob's vivid and happy recollections of his boyhood in the wild and beautiful backwoods of New Brunswick, one can recognize the roots of his deep and reverent passion for his environment and his eternal relationship with nature. When he was twelve, Bob was sent to live with his aunts in Boston, Massachusetts, for schooling.
Perhaps because he remembered little of his mother Florence [Flora], he had many fond memories of the two years spent with his aunts in New England. Prior to this time, his only exposure to music had been the camp meetings held by the missionaries who made trips into the Canadian wilderness twice a year. Hearing American folk music for the first time in Boston, young Bob had no idea that one day he would become a major contributor to the art.
Bob's father, Harry Byron Nobles, A Canadian citizen, had enlisted in the US Army, eventually joining a group of Americans assigned to the RAF during World War I. After distinguished service, Harry retired to the dry dessert country near Tucson, Arizona, to restore his health, which was impaired during a gas attack in Belleau Woods, to resume his trade of tailor and to raise his sons. Desiring a more American sounding name, and being fond of the Irish, he arbitrarily changed his surname to "Nolan." At the age of fourteen, Bob traveled by train from Boston to join his father in Tucson. Younger brother Earle followed Bob's trail to Tucson via Boston three years later. [This is the version Harry told his two boys. For what actually happened.]
The Sonoran Desert with its vast open areas, rugged mountains, saguaros, wild flowers, and a myriad of wild life was a new experience for Bob Nolan and ultimately would have a tremendous impact on him. His early impressions are revealed in Ken Griffis' comprehensive history of the Sons of the Pioneers, Hear My Song: "...I came to Tucson, Arizona, right from the tall timber, out to the desert. It was awe-inspiring, to say the least, to wake up in the morning to see the desert beauty, with the sun shining through millions of drops of dew. It was just outstanding." He described his inspiration for the classic "Cool Water" to Dorothy Horstman for her interesting anthology of country songs and composers, Sing Your Heart Out, Country Boy: "The impact of the transition between the northern climate and the desert made me fall in love with the desert. I had made up my mind that I wanted to depict the picture of a mirage in song, and 'Cool Water' are my feelings for the desert in words." Recently, Bob spoke of his feelings for the desert in different words in "My Mistress, The Desert".
After arrival in Tucson, Bob Nolan entered the ninth grade. [He entered the 7th grade.] He began his musical education at Tucson High and continued with harmony structure and related studies at the University of Arizona. [He did not go to any university, ever.] The University had become interested in Bob while he was still in high school when, on one Spring afternoon circa 1926 word reached the Arizona campus that young Nolan had pole-vaulted over 14 feet in practice! For perspective, during the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, USC's Sabin Carr would vault thirteen feet, nine and one-half inches for a US Gold Medal.
Unfortunately, before he entered college Bob was involved as a passenger in a motorcycle accident which partially severed his Achilles tendon, thus preventing him from competing for the Wildcat track team. The young athlete turned to weight-lifting and swimming, which would serve him well in later years. On the subject of sports, it should be mentioned that Earle "King Kong" Nolan, three years younger than Bob, was one of the most celebrated athletes in the history of the University of Arizona, a superhero of boxing, track and football, the first of the Wildcats to enter professional football. (We hope to have Earle Nolan's colorful story in a future Pioneer News.)
In addition to his musical studies, Bob was interested in poetry. "I had many teachers...Lord Byron, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Robert Burns... 'The Highwayman' (by Alfred Noyes) was so human that is affected me. When I came to writing 'The Song of the Bandit,' I fashioned it after 'The Highwayman.'"
It was natural for Bob Nolan to combine his fascination for the desert with his love of poetry, so he wrote a poetry column for the student newspaper, the Arizona Wildcat, prophetically titled "Tumbleweed Trails." [He wrote for the high school newspaper, "Cactus Chronicles".] Some of these early poems would later be set to music, becoming classics in the Bob Nolan songbook. Though he was interested in his studies, wanderlust and the lure of the West eventually won out and he left college.
Bob Nolan became a drifter, exploring the mountains and plains and his beloved desert country, and hopping freights to see the rest of the USA. Roy Rogers said that Nolan told him his first song, "Way Out There," was based on his experience riding the rails. He described this in Dorothy Horstman's book: "This was my very first tune. There was something about the lure of the road and the knights of the road that prompted me to join them. For approximately four years, my young life was spent in riding the rails and enjoying the 'romance of the road.' I traveled everywhere in this country, moving along on a capricious thought. I actually composed 'Way Out There' when I was enjoying the freedom of boyhood travel." The themes of a free spirit, open country, independence, and lonely wandering would dominate his most famous songs.
In the meantime, Harry Nolan had moved to California, having spent summers there away from the intense desert heat. Bob joined him in 1929 [Harry was still in Tucson in 1929 but Bob was notoriously bad about remembering dates] and made his first attempt at a musical career with a traveling Chautauqua troupe. For songs to sing, he began converting some of his earlier poems. However, the work with the Chautauqua tent wasn't steady and he found himself washing a lot of dishes for his meals. Having become an accomplished swimmer, he obtained steadier employment as a Los Angeles County Lifeguard on the beach at Venice.
During one of the Nolans' earlier summer trips to Long Beach, young Bob had entered a lifeguard competition, a race in the surf parallel to the shore from Pine Street to Cherry Avenue. He had led most of the way and finished ahead of Clarence Crabbe of Honolulu. Some may remember that after Crabbe won a Gold Medal for the United States in the Four-Hundred Meter Freestyle at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, he launched a long movie career that saw Larry "Buster" Crabbe as Tarzan, in the Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serials, and as a two-fisted cowboy in many Westerns.
Fortunately for music, the athletic Nolan did not elect to pursue a career in sports. Bob led a happy life as a self-termed "beach bum" at Venice. To supplement his income as a lifeguard, he took a job at night operating one of the pier concessions. Here he made the acquaintance of musician Bill Nichols who operated a small ice-milk stand. He also associated with Jack Pepper, who had the newsstand at the busy intersection of Windward and Ocean Avenues, where the streetcar rails terminated in Venice. Jack had been a member of the Newsboy Quartet in New York and he, Bob, and others would attract customers by serenading streetcar passengers as they arrived or departed Venice Beach. Bob's carefree lifestyle ended when he lost his job as a lifeguard due to the deepening Depression.
As Roy Rogers had been spurred to seek employment in entertainment due to a a scarcity of other jobs during the Depression, so was Bob Nolan. In 1931, he again turned to music and responded to a newspaper ad for vocalist auditions for a group called The Rocky Mountaineers. He rode the streetcar to the end of the line. Because of his life on the beach, Bob wasn't accustomed to wearing shoes and was forced by painful blisters to remove them during the long walk from the end of the line to the place of audition in Huntington Park, a community in southeastern Los Angeles. Barefooted but undaunted, Bob sang his first composition, "Way Out There," and when he began to yodel, the young Mountaineer listening, broke into a wide grin and said, "I've heard enough he's hired." This young man was Leonard Sly (later Roy Rogers) and the audition was the beginning of a lifelong association and friendship. The young singers soon convinced the Rocky Mountaineers that another voice was needed to fill in the harmony. Bob contacted his Venice friend, Bill Nichols, who joined them to fill out the vocal trio as baritone (with Bob as tenor and Len as lead) and to play fiddle for the Mountaineers. Bill's habit of closing his eyes while he fiddled, earned him the nickname "Slumber." They were heard on radio station KGER in Long Beach and at various civic affairs, but received little pay. Young Len and Bob occasionally forayed into the then rural San Fernando Valley for fruit and vegetables for the Mountaineers' dinner tables. In the all of 1932, Nolan, discouraged that the Rocky Mountaineers were going nowhere, left the group and was replaced by Vernon "Tim" Spencer.
Bob succeeded in finding a job at the Bel Air Country Club as caddy. Not wanting to give up on music entirely, he continued to write songs. Confined to his West Los Angeles apartment one afternoon in November, 1932, when it was too wet and windy for golf, Bob stood staring out of the window, watching the leaves, torn from the trees by the wind, tumbling down the street. Inspired to write a song about the scene, he called it "Tumbling Leaves." The story of this song will be continued. Almost one year would pass before his friend Len Slye would again cross his path.
Slye and Spencer hadn't found lasting success with the Rocky Mountaineers, or the International Cowboys, or the O-Br-O Cowboys, and returned to Los Angeles in late Summer, 1933, after a disastrous barnstorming tour of the southwest. "I couldn't get over the good harmony we had had, " remembers Roy," and I wouldn't give up on a successful singing group. Slumber had gone back to Texas, but Tim was still willing and together we went out to the Bel Air Country Club where Bob was caddying and waited for him to come off the last hole." Bob listened to their plans with little enthusiasm, but eventually agreed to join them in reforming the vocal trio. As Bob recalled, Tim was such a good salesman that he talked them into staking their venture with $50 each, a sizable investment in September 1933.
Since Len Sly was working with Jack LeFevre and His Texas Outlaws at radio station KFWB, the three young men moved into a nearby boarding house for $7.50 a week, which included two meals a day. Though in the heart of Hollywood, branding irons and spurs were found about the property; a little over ten years earlier, Tom Mix had lived in the same house on Carlton Way near Bronson. With Len singing the lead and playing guitar, Tim singing tenor, and Bob singing the baritone part and playing bass fiddle, the boys rehearsed from morning to night, perfecting the new harmonies arranged by Bob. Because of the many singing groups on radio in the early 1930s, they not only wanted to be good, they wanted to be different. After a month or so of hard work, the trio obtained an audition at KFWB. Though armed with several new Western tunes by Nolan, pleased with their progress, and confident about their abilities, they were somewhat nervous as they began to sing and frequently glanced at the control booth to determine the reaction of the announcer and the station manager. All was going well but as they began the trio yodeling in their exciting finale number, "Way Out There," the station manager abruptly turned and left the booth. In Bob's words, "Our hearts dropped to our feet!" Their dejection quickly turned to elation when announcer Harry Hall congratulated them, explaining that the manager had told him to hire them and had then left the booth. Thus, The Pioneer Trio had its first job with Jack LeFevre and His Texas Outlaws on KFWB at $35.00 a week.
All three young men began writing songs, Bob and Tim the more prolific of the trio. Song writing time was limited, however, as twelve hours a day were spent in rehearsal and on the air. As Bob was elected "secretary" for the group, he had to copy all the lyrics for the trio to use during rehearsals and broadcasts. Probably due to his lack of early schooling, Nolan's spelling ability wasn't what it should have been. Bob remembers with amusement that, "...in the middle of a song, Timmy would startle us by breaking into laughter at the way I had misspelled some word." Though perturbed at first, Bob eventually joined in the merriment as a break in their long hours. Bob would later recall that his happiest days with the Pioneers were when they were working the hardest. The Pioneer Trio's hard work paid off. Los Angeles Examiner columnist Bernie Milligan heard their arrangement of Billy Hill's "The Last Round-Up" and picked it as a "Best Bet" in his "Best Bets of the Day" column. The young men had begun to make their mark.
KFWB management rewarded the boys for the growing critical acclaim and public attention by taking them out of the Texas Outlaws and giving them their own shows. They were heard as The Pioneer Trio from 8:00 to 9:00 a. m., The Gold Star Rangers from 5:00 to 6:00 p. m., and with the Jack Joy Orchestra "painting the Old West in song" in late evening. Being on the air over twenty times a week and not being satisfied with the limited "cowboy" songs coming out of Tin Pan Alley, Nolan's and Spencer's song writing efforts intensified. Their rapidly increasing fan mail indicated regular, steady listeners, so they couldn't afford to repeat the same songs over and over again. Bob stated, "Tim and I wrote everything that we did and we weren't going to do anything that anybody else did at all." On occasion of the Pioneers' Smithsonian honors two years ago, reporter Gail Buchalter wrote, "It was the writing of Nolan and Spencer that, in effect, made these Sons the fathers of their own tradition."
To provide relief from singing constantly, the trio decided to add someone who could provide instrumental breaks as well as enhance the musical accompaniment. They were extremely fortunate to recruit Texas-born fiddler Hugh Farr in early 1934. Hugh's fiddle playing was incomparable and his deep, mellow bass voice enabled the young men to expand their harmony on some numbers. Soon after Hugh joined, the group was surprised to hear their announcer, Harry Hall, introduce them to the radio audience as the Sons of the Pioneers! Whether a mistake or not, in light of their youth and their number, this new named seemed more appropriate and it stuck. It was around this time that Nolan's song, "Tumbling Leaves" also underwent a name change Bob related for inclusion in Sing Your Heart Out, Country Boy, "...during a period of time, in singing it ("Tumbling Leaves') over the radio with the Sons of the Pioneers, of which I was an original member, the listening audience would request it under the title "Song about the tumblin' weeds.' After many such requests, I changed the words to 'Tumbling Tumbleweeds,' changing the tune slightly to accommodate the extra syllables. The Sons of the Pioneers then had an hour on the radio every day, which prompted us to make 'Tumbling Tumbleweeds' our theme song." And, forty-seven years later, it still is.
The Sons of the Pioneers explored new frontiers in 1934. They began recording a series of Standard Transcriptions which featured old standards as well as new tunes by Nolan and Spencer. These transcriptions enabled radio audiences all over the country to discover the impeccable harmonies and innovative sound of the Sons of the Pioneers. On August 8, 1934, they made their first commercial recordings for the newly formed Decca Records. The songs were "Way Out There," "Moonlight on the Prairie," "Ridin' Home," and "Tumbling Tumbleweeds," all written by Bob Nolan, with Tim Spencer collaborating on "Moonlight on the Prairie". Their fame began to spread.
By 1935, the Sons of the Pioneers and their brand of Western music had made a tremendous impact on the entertainment world. "Tumbling Tumbleweeds," picked as the title song for Gene Autry's first starring movie for Republic, was on its way to becoming a standard. Warner Brothers Pictures, with which their home corral, radio station KFWB was affiliated, used the Sons of the pioneers' voices in animated cartoons (cartoon director Tex Avery cited A Feud There Was as one title) and featured them in some of El Brendel's comedy shorts, including Radio Scout, released by First National. After appearing in The Old Homestead for Liberty, the young quartet expanded its versatility and sound by adding an outstanding guitarist, Hugh's younger brother, Karl Farr. Motion picture pioneers Hal Roach and Mack Sennett used the new quintet in two musical shorts. The Sons of the Pioneers then made their first Western films with Charles Starrett at Columbia, The Gallant Defender and The Mysterious Avenger. By year-end, the foundations for the full sound of the early Sons of the Pioneers and the musical Western had been laid.
Radio and recording work continued while personal appearances and film work expanded for the Sons of the Pioneers in 1936. The musical Western was rapidly becoming one of the most popular films and was a perfect showcase for the young Pioneers who looked as good as they sounded in movies like Paramount's Rhythm on the Range starring Bing Crosby. At the invitation of the Governor of Texas, the boys took leave of KFWB to make their first appearance outside of California, the Centennial Exposition in Dallas. They appeared in the Gene Autry epic The Big Show as part of the Centennial and recorded two sides for Decca while in Dallas.
On return to Los Angeles, they joined the Hollywood Barn Dance on KNX Radio, completed two films with Dick Foran at Warner Brothers and another with Gene Autry at Republic and signed a contract with Columbia Pictures to star in the popular Charles Starrett Western series. The five young men: Len, 25 years, Karl, 27, Bob and Tim both 28, and Hugh, 33, had established themselves as the Premiere Western Musical group.
The "original" Sons of the Pioneers had been together less than three years when a change began to take place. Due to a disagreement, Tim Spencer left in September, 1936, and was replaced by 19-year-old Lloyd Perryman, a guitarist with a magnificent voice. The quintet of Slye, Nolan, Perryman, and the Farrs had made The Old Wyoming Trail with Charles Starrett, the first of their contract, when Len Slye heard that Republic Pictures was looking for a singing cowboy as a potential replacement for its Number One Star, Gene Autry. Slye auditioned and was signed to contract by Republic on October 13, 1937, but not before the Pioneers could convince Columbia Pictures they had a suitable replacement for Len, 26-year-old Pat Brady, a comedian, vocalist, and bass player. Len (as Dick Weston) had two supporting roles before the opportunity came, due to Autry's contract dispute, to replace Gene in Under Western Stars, the first of many Westerns starring Len Slye, or now Roy Rogers. Through December, 1937, Roy continued to record as one of the Sons of the Pioneers for their new American Record Company (Columbia Records) contract. As Roy's vocal replacement, Pat Brady did not quite fit the needs of the trio. Bob thought that Tim must have returned for pre-=recording the music for the Columbia Westerns, though he did not appear in them with the Sons of the Pioneers again until 1939. With two of the original members gone, the quintet at the end of 1937 was Bob, Lloyd, Pat, Hugh and Karl.
Though Bob Nolan's unique gifts as a songwriter were
clearly evident by 1937, he credited a lecture for writers as "one of the
greatest things that ever happened to me."
Nolan's description of the encounter provides some insight into his writing: "We went in at 3:30 in the afternoon and left after 9:00. We had two meals with him...and he was one of the most gracious persons I ever met. He treated us like his children and the things he taught us that afternoon, I will remember for the rest of my life. He taught us what it was to write and make our writing readable...re-editing until you got the words to mean exactly what you wanted them to mean. I've always had that in the back of my mind. I would write a song and go home and live with it and re-edit it and re-edit it until the words became a...what did he call it?...a sword, not a word...a cutting sword. Understand you didn't have to go to the dictionary. One thing I never did was make my listener go to the dictionary to find out what I was writing about. I spoke his language...or her language...excuse me, "Bob chuckled as he winked at P-Nuts and Barbara. I remarked that even in his complex triple rhymes, he always seemed to select the proper word, without forcing. "Yes, there you have it. That's the key to the whole thing the proper word... Re-edit and re-edit until the proper words are in their proper place." With or without the guidance by Ernest Hemingway, there are very few lyricists the equal of Bob Nolan.
The years at Columbia Pictures with Charles Starrett were good ones for the Sons of the Pioneers. Many lifelong fans first discovered the Pioneers' music in this fine series. The Sons sang their theme "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" over the opening credits and were featured well in supporting roles, though perhaps not as much as Pioneer fans would desire. Many theater-goers, already familiar with the Sons of the Pioneers from radio or records, were startled out of their seats when Bob Nolan opened his mouth to sing a solo and a different voice came out, though his very recognizable voice could be heard in the trio. It seems that someone at Columbia felt that Bob's distinctive, vibrating baritone voices was "too unusual." Bob laughed at the irony of this, recalling that he had been hired to dub cowboy star Ken Maynard's singing a few years earlier. One of the films which Ken Maynard lip syncs to Nolan's vocalizing is In Old Santa Fe, the 1934 Mascot film which launched Gene Autry's movie career and established the "contemporary" western film. Someone finally realized that a grave mistake had been made and the familiar Nolan voice was heard in solos as well as with the group. Columbia featured the Sons of the Pioneers in a series of community sing short subjects and their popularity continued to grow.
It had become customary in the Westerns of the 1930s and '40, probably beginning with "The Three Mesquiteers" and the "Hopalong Cassidy" series, to have the star supported by one or two secondary leads or a comical side-kick to enhance the plot possibilities and story structure. Perhaps this was popular because multiple "good guys" allowed youngsters to have several heroes to emulate. In several of the early Charles Starrett Westerns, this role was ably filled by singer Donald Grayson. Then nose surgery, dictated by Columbia management, changed Grayson's appearance so drastically that he was removed from the series. )As Carl Grayson, he became lead vocalist with the Spike Jones Orchestra in later years and may be heard on many of the zany group's recordings.)
Replacing Grayson, Nolan became Starrett's saddle pal in films, and the two were lifelong friends off screen as well. Nolan's voice, good-humored charm, rugged good looks, athletic ability, equestrian prowess, and quiet strength (today it would all be called "mach"), made him a natural for a Western film hero. Bob stated that, though there were opportunities, he simply did not want that type of responsibility, preferring his role with the Sons of the Pioneers. He amusedly recalled the incident on the Columbia lot in which studio boss Harry Cohn, spotting Nolan, stopped his whole entourage, pointed his finger at Bob and exclaimed, "There's my 'Golden Boy'" (golden Boy was the 1939 Clifford Odets prizefighting classic that was actor William Holden's big break.) Nolan claimed that he got drunk and hid out for a week until Cohn forgot about his newly discovered "star." As in the case of Grayson, Nolan, himself, was the reluctant victim of cosmetic surgery before the Pioneers left Columbia. The surgery was minimal, but Bob laughingly regretted the loss of "a perfectly good Roman nose."
Although Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer worked long hours on the movie set, rehearsed new as well as old songs, and made frequent radio and personal appearances, they continued to find time to write songs. Among the Nolan classics heard in the Starrett films were "Chant of the Wanderer," "A Cowboy Has to sing," "Open Range Ahead," "Song of the Bandit," and "When Pay Day Rolls Around."
Though the Charles Starrett Westerns were popular Starrett rose to the Number Four spot among the cowboy stars the Sons of the Pioneers elected not to renew their contract with Columbia Pictures after Outlaws of the Panhandle, their 29th film with Starrett, and in July, 1940, embarked on their first national tour. The tour was scheduled to finish in Chicago with a week's appearance on the "Uncle Ezra's Radio Station" program on NBC. By popular demand, the week stretched to a year.
While in Chicago, the Sons of the Pioneers recorded once again for Decca and made their second transcription series, the fine Orthacoustic set of over two hundred selections. Bob felt that, because the Pioneers could select and arrange the songs and provide their own instrumental accompaniment, these transcriptions for radio were some of the best examples of the Sons of the Pioneers' recorded sound. The various series of Pioneer transcriptions are still sought by collectors today.
The Sons of the Pioneers: Bob Nolan, Tim Spencer, Lloyd Perryman, Pat Brady and Hugh and Karl Farr, headed back West in 1941 to join their old saddle pal Roy Rogers in Republic Pictures' Red River Valley, the first of 44 films they would do together over the next seven years. In 1942, Bob and his charming wife Clara ("P-Nuts" to her friends) moved into a home on a country-sized lot near enough to Republic that, when Bob wasn't on location, he could walk home for lunch, often appearing with surprise guests in tow, young fans he'd met at the studio gate. P-Nuts amusedly recalled that Bob Nolan was a Pied Piper on the road as well. Young fans would wait for their hero to leave New York's Madison Square Garden, follow him back to the Nolan's hotel room, and while Bob rested between performances at the Rodeo, the youngsters would pass the time till his return by quietly trying on their idol's boots, hat and gun holster while P-Nuts patiently supervised. If playing "Bob Nolan" caused too much excitement in the room while Bob napped, P-Nuts would shepherd the flock to the hotel soda fountain for refreshments until their favorite cowboy star was ready to rejoin the Sons of the Pioneers and they could follow him back to Madison Square Garden.
As it happened in the Charles Starrett films, Bob's role grew in stature until he became Roy's second lead. The billing became "Bob Nolan and the Sons of the Pioneers". Bob certainly fit the image of a Westerner or a Cowboy and the athletic actor did his own stunts when necessary. "He had this magnificent physique, a wais about twenty-eight inches and shoulders that looked about three feet wide," Rogers remembers. "When we were on location sometimes we would do muscleman-type handstand tricks. I was the little guy on the lot."
Somehow, in the middle of films, radio shows and personal appearances, Nolan and Spencer still found time to write truly fine Western songs, many of them for the Roy Rogers films. When Lloyd Perryman and Pat Brady were called to World War II duty in 1943 and 1944, their places in the Sons of the Pioneers were capably filled by tenor Ken Carson and vocalist, comedian, bass player Shug Fisher, respectively. Lloyd and Pat returned to the Pioneers in 1946. The combination of Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers meant box-office magic (as it continues to do today) and when Gene Autry enlisted in the Army Air Corps, Roy became "King of the Cowboys," holding the Number One Cowboy title for twelve consecutive years, breaking into Hollywood's Top Box Office Ten in 1945 and 1946.
With the exposure from Roy's films, their RCA records, the Roy Rogers radio program, guest shots on other network shows, and a new series of fifteen-minute radio transcriptions for Teleways, Bob Nolan and the Sons of the Pioneers were riding high on a crest of popularity. The demand for public appearances increased to the point that the Pioneers decided to leave the Roy Rogers films to devote more time to touring and live concerts. So, in late 1948, after completing Night Time in Nevada, their last film with Roy, the Sons of the Pioneers hit the trail, setting events in motion that would bring a change in the Pioneer guard.
The Nolans had rented a cabin near Big Bear Lake in the San Bernardino Mountains from one of Bob's co-workers at Republic. They enjoyed it so much that they bought it as a place to spend their leisure time, relaxing and fishing. Nature and the outdoors had remained an important part of Bob Nolan's existence. However, with the Sons of the Pioneers now on tour, his free time was more limited than ever. Bob didn't particularly like the pressures of appearing in public or the constant traveling he was home for only nine days in the first twelve months of their tour. Yearning for the privacy and solitude necessary to write and drawn by the same forces that took him from college twenty years earlier, Bob talked of phasing out of the traveling Pioneers and eventually from performing altogether.
In early 1949, Tim Spencers beat Bob to retirement, though he remained as the Sons' manager through 1952. Ken Curtis (better known now as "Festus Haggen" of Gunsmoke) replaced Tim as lead in the trio, and his superb voice can be heard on many of the Pioneers' great recordings from this period. At Roy Rogers' beckoning, Pat Brady also left the Pioneers to become the King of the Cowboys' movie and television sidekick. Pat's replacement in the Sons of the Pioneers was once again Shug Fisher. A short time later Bob and Lloyd Perryman were driving over Cahuenga Pass near Hollywood when they heard the voice of Tommy "Spike" Doss over the radio. Turning to Lloyd, Bob said, "There's my replacement!" Fortunately for Bob Nolan and the Sons of the Pioneers, Tommy was willing and his fine voice is so similar to Bob's distinctive baritone, that many radio and record listeners assumed Bob was still with the group for some time to come. Thus, by the end of 1949, the Sons of the Pioneers were Lloyd Perryman the new trail boss, Ken Curtis, Tommy Doss, Shug Fisher and the Farr brothers; Lloyd, Hugh and Karl, the only members remaining from the 1930s.
So, once again the lure of the West and the great outdoors had prevailed in the life of Bob Nolan. After sixteen great years with the Sons of the Pioneers, he chose a solitary trail, though he would return for Pioneer recording sessions at RCA's behest in the mid-1950s.
Retirement allowed Bob Nolan to escape the daily stress of travel, performances, and interviews, and to return to the outdoors, closer to nature, whether at the Nolans' mountain cabin at Big Bear Lake, where he could fish and relax with his Labrador Retriever, Sir Tumbleweed, by his side, or in the garden of their home in San Fernando Valley, where he and P-Nuts enjoyed tending their trees, flowers, and vegetables, and visiting with friends.
Though Bob's love of solitude and meditation wasn't new, it earned him the reputation of being a recluse or a hermit. This isn't quite accurate, although much of the time Bob Nolan did prefer silences to human voices, trails to paved highways, fishing to group recreations, wilderness to man-made environments and the solitary craft of writing to other creative occupations. All of these preferences appear to have a common denominator: they are the personal declarations of a man who pursues freedom. Roy Rogers described Bob as "a very private man, his own man. Bob did not like crowds and certainly wasn't a party guy. On location for a picture, you'd see him sitting on a rock looking out into space. I guess he was working out some of his songs."
Bob obviously enjoyed the company of a select group of friends through the years. He and Lloyd Perryman were very close, often visiting at home or going to the racetrack or on fishing trips together. Roy Rogers and Bob stayed close, though apart in miles, keeping in touch by telephone. Part of his desire for privacy stemmed from the fact that he simply did not enjoy being "Bob Nolan" in large public gatherings or being interviewed about his past career and accomplishments. In spite of this, I have never observed Bob being anything but gracious and friendly to all who approached him for a brief word or an autograph on those occasions when he was out in public.
Rusty Richards relates an incident that occurred around 1965 that might illustrate one facet of Bob's personality. While the Sons of the Pioneers were appearing at Roy Rogers' Apple Valley Inn, Rusty and Pat decided to drive to nearby Big Bear Lake one afternoon to visit some neighbors of the Richards who had moved to the mountain community and to see if they could catch a glimpse of Bob Nolan who lived nearby. After visiting for awhile, Pat asked Rusty's friends if they knew Bob Nolan. They did, remarking that the friendly Mr. Nolan had joined them for barbecues on several occasions. "But," they inquired, 'how did two members of the Sons of the Pioneers happen to know Bob Nolan of Big Bear?" Obviously, Bob was completely satisfied to be known as himself, without notoriety or fanfare.
Not seeking notoriety or publicity, Bob Nolan regularly declined requests from the Los Angeles madia for interviews, though he was heard on several special Bob Nolan and / or Sons of the Pioneers programs produced by friend Pete Logan for his popular weekly radio show emanating from Great Falls, Montana, and he was recently interviewed by Doug Green (of Riders in the Skyu) for Country Music magazine. This reluctance to be interviewed "I don't like to live in the past" was a drawback to Ken Griffis as he was writing Hear My Song, his invaluable contribution to the written history of the Sons of the Pioneers. Eventually, mutual friend Stuart Hamblen arranged a meeting and Griffis was able to continue his research; Ken can probably be credited for bringing Bob out into the public eye more than he had been in several years. Before recording The Sound of a Pioneer, Bob made it clear that he would not travel about the country, appearing on radio interviews, etc. to promote the album as is customary in the record industry. Had he done so, it might have achieved even greater success. He surprised me, however, by volunteering to call Don Roberts, Music Director of KFGO in Fargo, to see if he desired an interview after, at Don's request, I had told him that, judging from the letters and calls KFGO was receiving to play The Sound of a Pioneer, Bob Nolan had many fans in North Dakota. Based on the enthusiastic comments received from around the world, there are a lot of Bob Nolan fans everywhere.
Most importantly, retirement from the demands of an active career as a performer gave Bob Nolan time to think and time to write. He wasn't satisfied with some of his songs from the later films, feeling they had been somewhat contrived to fit the plots. Now he had the freedom to write anything he desired, including poetry. Unfortunately, much of what Bob Nolan has written in recent years has not been submitted for publication, but merely filed away. Only recently have new Nolan songs been recorded: "Redwood Trees" by The Reinsmen (the Sons of the Pioneers recorded this beautiful song for the Smokey the Bear transcription series in 1958); "Partners" [should read "Parting"] and "The Relative Man" by Jim Nabors; and, "Wandering" and "My Old Home Town" [Old Home Town] by Nolan himself for his new album. Many others deserve recording a personal favorite is "Three Friends Have I." Many of his songs in the post-Pioneer period are very deep in meaning, almost transcendental. "You could tell from a lot of his songs especially later ones like 'The Mystery of His Way' and 'He Walks with the Wild and the Lonely' that there was a guy who did a lot of tall thinking," reflected old friend Roy Rogers.
Indeed Bob did some tall thinking. He often mentioned the theories of 17th century Rationalist Philosophers Rene Descartes of France and Benedictus Spinoza of Holland, saying many of their ideas coincided with his own. Bob was impressed the Descartes was a mathematician and Spinoza's beliefs were related to the science of mathematical physics, both applying mathematical reasoning to philosophy. Spinoza's philosophy, which is notoriously difficult, includes God or Nature, the doctrine that the divine is all-inclusive and that man and Nature are not independent of God, but are elements of His Being, a view contradictory to more traditional religious beliefs.
Without belaboring a subject of which I have little knowledge, it seems to me that a certain amount of this philosophy, sometimes in allegory, is heard in many of Nolan's songs, whether religious or not. Perhaps a hint many be heard in Bob's version of Marty Robbins' thought provoking "Man Walks Among Us" for his last album. Sensitive to Marty's feelings, Bob asked his fellow songwriter if he noticed the change he had made to his lyrics. Marty, who added his voice to Bob's on the song, had noticed, but obviously didn't mind. Marty's lyrics are "I look close and see, looking right back at me, the eyes of a young cottontail," but Bob sings, "I look close and see God looking at me through the eyes of a young cottontail." In an interview, Ken Griffis summed up Nolan's religious feelings: "He had his own ideas of what religion is and it was entirely outside the church. Bob had his own church and it was in his heart and in his mind, and I think he was probably just about as religious a person as anybody I have ever known."
Bob Nolan's last public appearance, though he didn't perform, was at the Testimonial Dinner for KLAC Country DJ Dick Haynes at the Hollywood Palladium on April 26, 1980. Arriving early, he visited Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers backstage and seemed to enjoy listening to them rehearse "Ride, Concrete Cowboy, Ride," for their upcoming recording session. While Dale Warren, Rusty Richards, Luther Nallie, Roy Lanham, and Billy Liebert continued to work out the harmonies and arrangement, Roy and Bob sat together, bringing each other up to date on recent activities and talking of happy times shared over the past fifty years. All later posed for photos to mark the festive occasion. Roy and the Sons were the hits of the show that evening and Bob joined the capacity Palladium audience in two standing ovations for the group he'd helped found. In introducing Bob in the audience, Dale Warren acknowledged from the stage, "Whatever success the Sons of the Pioneers have had in these 47 years, Bob Nolan made it all possible."
When the Sons of the Pioneers were honored by the Smithsonian Institution in 1979, Bob Nolan was called "the finest songwriter ever to appear in country music, (he) virtually invented the sound and style of western harmony singing." A recent national magazine started, "To put it as simply and directly as possible: Bob Nolan is country music's greatest songwriter. None have produced so huge a body of work (Bob reckoned over 2 thousand songs), and works of such vivid imagination, musical daring, and the masterful blending of words and music, as has Bob Nolan." No argument here, but Nolan's collective works actually transcend "country" or even "western" music. In view of this general recognition, it's ironic that the music industry had changed so greatly in the last twenty-five years that B ob Nolan chose not to even submit his songs for publication. Though it wasn't important to him, I'm sure he was somewhat disappointed that there didn't seem to be a commercial market for his songs.
In commenting on Nolan's creative genius, old partners Tim Spencer (a great composer in his own right) and Roy Rogers said that Bob was way ahead of his time as a songwriter. It was as applicable when Tim said it in the 1930s as when Roy said it in the 1970s. It may be wishful thinking, but there seems to have been a recent resurgence of interest in quality music; one can only hope that this will mean more opportunities to hear the music of Bob Nolan. As Rex Allen, Jr., has written and sung, "It's time that we put Western back in the Country sound."
Bob Nolan did not seek acclaim, but it will continue and increase as his contributions to and his impact on American culture continue to be assessed and recognized. Perhaps someday the great legacy of music, recordings, films, and poetry that he has given us will begin to fill the void left by Bob Nolan, a very special man. Bob Nolan leaves his wife Clara, daughter Roberta Mileusnich, grandson Calin Coburn, brother Earle, half-brother Michael, half-sister Mary Petty, the Sons of the Pioneers and countless friends and fans throughout the world. There were no services as he wished to be cremated, his ashes to be spread in the Nevada desert.
Lonely but free I'll be found, drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds.
(Once again, we're grateful to P-Nuts and Bob Nolan for their friendship and warm hospitality and for their kindness in patiently sharing their memories with us. wgb)
If using any part of this essay, credit William G. Bowen, pages 23-38, Pioneer News, No. 10-13 (Vol. 2, No 5 & 6; Vol. 3 No 1 & 2) Spring 1980 © 1981 by William G. Bowen.
With many thanks again to John Fullerton for the loan of this rare fanzine.