BOB NOLAN: EARLY LIFE AND CAREER (1931-1935)
Movies made from 1934-1935:
IN OLD SANTA FE (Mascot / Maynard – 1934) Bob's voice dubbed over Maynard's. Bob did not have any other part in the film.
RADIO SCOUT (Warner Bros. / Brendel - 1935 05 06)
BRONCO BUSTER (Universal cartoon - 1935 08 05)
THE OLD HOMESTEAD (Liberty / Carlisle - 1935 08 10)
SLIGHTLY STATIC (MGM / Todd - 1935 09 07)
ROMANCE OF THE WEST (Warner Bros. short - 1935 11)
WAY UP THAR (Mack Sennett short - 1935 11 08)
GALLANT DEFENDER (Columbia / Starrett - 1935 11 30)
On Wednesday, September 30, 1931, Bob checked the classified section in The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and found a two-line want ad, "Yodeler for old-time act, to travel. Tenor preferred. 1727 E. 65 St." At the time he was a lodger at 433 Grand Ave in Los Angeles and working as a restaurant cook. He had worked barefoot on the beach for so long, he had no presentable shoes in which to appear for a job interview so he bought a new pair. The long walk beyond the end of the streetcar line blistered his heels and he had to remove the new shoes. That's how Leonard Slye (Roy Rogers) remembered meeting him - golden tan, splendid physique, bare feet and blisters. But Bob could also sing any part and yodel, too, so he was hired on the spot.
Len was the sole singer with an instrumental group called "The Rocky Mountaineers" and knew he would feel more comfortable on stage with a trio. It wasn't long before he hired Bill "Slumber" Nichols, a friend of Nolan's. This trio lasted until August, 1932, when Bob found a steady caddying job at the Bel Air Country Club. The trio was always hungry, had no steady wage and made very little money aside from passing the hat but Bob remembered those early days performing for civic functions as much more fun than being in the spotlight at Madison Square Garden ten years later.
The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, September 30, 1931 (courtesy of Ken Griffis)
The Rocky Mountaineers, 1931
"Sponsored by Western Pac. Investment Co."
(Photo courtesy of Gary Lynch)
I joined the Rocky Mountaineers just one day before Thanksgiving, November, 1931. Bob Nolan, a friend of mine that I used to go swimming with on the beach behind the Venice Plunge and who taught me the art of handstanding, answered an ad for a yodeler and to be with above mentioned group. One day, I was home in Venice, and I had been out of a job for some time and was in debt up to my neck and just had given up, so to speak, when Bob called. He wanted me to meet him and the gang the next day at Crenshaw and Washington Blvds. in Los Angeles, where they would pick me up and take me to their house for a tryout.
Out of all the many jobs I had worked at, I had given each a fair chance to interest me as a trade but I had never run across the right thing, always wanting to be something different, someone to whom the majority of people would look up. I knew that was every man's desire and I had made up my mind to be just that if I could possibly make it. Hence all the thrill to have a chance to be an actor, radio artist or what have you.
I did find that after I had been with the gang for a while I had found my niche in life and was going to stick with it, even if I starved to death trying.
I had an awful hard time cramming songs into my head because I was brought up on classical music, and hillbilly music was about as far out as you can get from a classical background. When I went to play the new music, I just couldn't think of how it went. Hence, many embarrassing moments for yours truly. Gee, how I had to fight mike and stage fright. All I could think of was all the people I was playing for - who were hearing and watching me. With overcoming that came pride and confidence. Boy, how I liked to strut around in my Mountaineer outfit, blue cord pants, boots, checkered shirt, neckerchief and soldier's hat.
I went through the stage of thinking everyone knew who I was and that everyone worshipped and envied me. Then gradually came the changes that made everything different. You overcame those ideas of grandeur. You played before audiences on radio and it all summed up to one thing - work! It's just like any other job, not so hard and dirty as some, but still it is work. You even become a clock-watcher because your whole job depends upon so many minutes before you are on the air or stage, and so many minutes before you are off.
One night we were coming home form KGER (Daddy Ranger Frolics) and we were very low in spirits and lower in finances. We had been playing lots of dates but got nothing for it due to our manager's poor management. We were halfway home, when out of the blue sky came the words, "Well, Bill, we will have to let you go because there are too many men in the act." God, what a sensation! What a shattering of dream castles falling all around me. My one big thing in life died as suddenly as it had been born.
A few days later I went over to see the boys' broadcast with my mouth open. I'll never be able to tell in words the picture that flashed through my mind. The new life that I had begun to enjoy and love, all going down the drain and no way to plug that drain. The world and I were two separate entities while I saw the transformation of myself from the pedestal back down into the rut I had fought so hard to get out of. I went home from there, had no recollection of getting home, sat in a chair and when I next knew anything, it was daylight. In short, I was shaken out of my conscious mind; I had taken it so hard.
When Ebb fired me, Bob and Len lost all interest because it just set them back to where they were before I came into the gang. All that twelve to fourteen hours a day practice for six weeks gone to hell. It took all the heart out of them and they quit trying.
I had been home just one week when I got a phone call asking me to come over and help them play at the Frolics. I found the gang had brought me back over Ebb's head. He never said a thing.
Mountaineers were an established radio group under contract to Winona M. Tenny.
When Bob and I joined, Ebb was tied up with her some way and this is where
George Gammon came into the act as our new manager and signed us up in a new
August 14, 1932. Decided to keep Vern Spencer and call him "Tim".
The Beverly Hill Billies (undated)
Karl E Farr Collection
In the beginning, their only real competition was from the Beverly Hill Billies, a group created in 1930 by Glen Rice, manager of radio station KMPC in Beverly Hills. Rice led his radio audience to believe that he had stumbled across a hillbilly family back in the Beverly Hills and that he had persuaded them to ride out on their mules to perform on his station. People believed the story and eagerly awaited every program. The Hill Billies easily became the most popular country group in Southern California and people would flock around the radio station to get a look at them. One time a crowd estimated at ten thousand blocked traffic on Wilshire Boulevard in front of the station. Bob recalled to Ken Griffis about those days:
I remember going out to the station in hopes of seeing the fellows only to find such a crowd I couldn’t get within a block of the station. I remember one time when I went out there, I could see people coming from all over, carrying boxes to stand on just so they could see through the windows. (Bob Nolan)
A year or two later, when the Sons of the Pioneers had become popular, Bob also recalled approaching Lem Giles of the Beverly Hill Billies to see if the two groups could exchange a few of their unpublished songs to perform on their respective radio programs. The songs could not be used on the air without the consent of the composer and Lem turned Bob down each time he asked. Finally, Bob warned him that if he didn’t cooperate he would take one of Lem's most popular songs, A Choir Boy Sings All Alone Tonight, change one note every four bars and take credit for it. And so the beautiful I Wonder if She Waits for Me Tonight was born. Bob may have thought that was all he changed but closer examination of "I Wonder if She Waits for Me Tonight" reveals little if any of "A Choir Boy Sings All Alone Tonight".
According to Bill "Slumber" Nichols' diary, when Bob Nolan left the group, Lem Giles seriously considered joining the Pioneer Trio himself:
August 15, 1932 Tim is picking up with his baritone part of the trio. Lem of the Beverly Hill Billies was over, wanting a job with us. George said maybe.
August 17, 1932 Lem decided he wanted to stay on KMPC until we lined up on something paying before making the change.
Bob's small but regular paycheck plus tips from the Bel Air Country Club was very welcome after going hungry with the Rocky Mountaineers. Bob's job as a caddy allowed him time to compose and it was at this time that Bob wrote his most famous song, Tumbling Tumbleweeds. It began as a poem about the leaves he saw being torn and whirled from the trees during a storm he watched from his apartment window. But it was himself he saw, not the leaves, being tossed around at the whim of the Great Depression. No wife, no daughter, no career, no future. He wrote it all into the little poem he called Tumbling Leaves and, like all his best poetry, it reflected his own philosophy of life. It was a philosophy from which he never veered.
Days may be dreary, still I’m not weary.
My heart needs no consoling.
At each break of dawn you’ll find that I’ve gone
Like old tumbling leaves, I’m rolling.
See them tumbling down,
Pledging their love to the ground,
Lonely but free I’ll be found
Drifting along with the tumbling leaves.
Cares of the past are behind,
Nowhere to go but I’ll find
Just where the trail will wind,
Drifting along with the tumbling leaves.
I know when night has gone
That a new world’s born at dawn.
I’ll keep rolling along,
Deep in my heart is a song
Here on the range I belong,
Drifting along with the tumbling leaves.
Time keeps rolling along,
Why should I care if I'm wrong,
Here in my heart is a song,
Drifting along with the tumbling leaves.
Vernon "Tim" Spencer answered an August 14, 1932 ad in the Examiner and was hired to take Bob's place in the Rocky Mountaineers trio with Leonard Slye and Slumber Nichols. He stayed with them from August to December of 1932 when they joined Benny Nawahi's International Cowboys. This trio lasted until the middle of 1933 when they formed the O Bar O Cowboys, toured the Southwest and almost starved en route. They disbanded in early September of 1933.
Left to right: Cyclone, Len Slye, Uncle Joe, Vern Spencer and Slumber
When the hungry O-Bar-O Cowboys returned to Los Angeles, Tim found a job in a Safeway warehouse and gave up the idea of making his living in music. Roy, working now with Jack and His Texas Outlaws, was still convinced they could do it if they could only persuade Bob Nolan to join them in a trio again. In mid-September of 1933 Len talked Tim into trying once more and they both went out to visit Bob on the golf course. But Bob, eating regularly and not too receptive to the idea, was hard to convince. It took all of Roy's enthusiasm and Tim's ingenuity to change his mind. With misgivings, Bob gave up his steady job - and the tips.
In December, 1933, Roy, Tim and Bob Nolan began work as the vocal trio for Jack and His Texas Outlaws, featuring their unique 3-part yodeling. But they were aiming higher than the Outlaws and determined to be better than any competition. KFWB, a Warner Brothers station, was the most popular radio station in the vicinity. Because they were not yet on staff, they performed there free of charge with The Texas Outlaws for about six months. Because they were ambitious they wanted to have their own show, a permanent position on staff at KFWB and they were willing to work for it.
Left to right: Rudy
Sooter, Curley Hogg, Tim Spencer, Bob Nolan, Len Slye, Half Pint and Jack.
(click on the image for an enlarged view)
Tim broke all the rules, as I was accustomed to doing, too, musically and ethically. He wasn’t averse to buying our way into a situation, which was exactly what we did.
We took cognizance of all the radio stations in and around this vicinity, the Los Angeles vicinity, and we found KFWB was partial to harmony singers and so we aimed at them specifically. When we decided to do this, our boarding house was right close to that studio and we ate lunch at the same place that KFWB’s staff was eating and we became acquainted with who was who at KFWB, and we talked to certain people.
Harry Hall was the head engineer who did all the mixing over there. Tim approached him. We invited him up to our boarding house for lunch and then we took him up into our dormitory where we stayed, and gave him an audition. He said, "I think my boss would like you guys," and Tim said, "That’s all we want!"
And it cost us $150, but it was a big help. We each put in a $50 bill. When Tim spread those $50 bills in front of him, Harry couldn’t resist. He said, "I’ll get you an audition!"
We had our program all mapped out so that it was all letter perfect and geared to get the interest of whoever was listening, and then hit them with outlandish stuff that they’d never heard before. It was all original music which Tim or I had written.
And you know what? We got into our second song— Way Out There. We were looking up into the mixer’s room where the station manager was standing, listening to us, and in the middle of that song he turned his back and walked out. All three of our hearts went right to the floor. We thought he didn’t like us. So Harry Hall switched on the intercom down in the studio where we were and he said, "That’s all, boys," and then turned it off.
Then, about at the count of 6, he turns it back on and says, "You’re hired!" It was just like a bomb! And that was it. That’s the beginning of the whole thing. The guy didn’t even wait to hear the end of the song.
While we were working up to our audition there, they'd put us with Jack and his Texas Outlaws who were there on gratis, just as a fill-in in the daytime around about noontime and nobody’d be listening. Now we were staff musicians and KFWB gave us a very exclusive spot - a fifteen minute spot - 7:30 in the evening when everybody’s home just after dinner which has always been called Prime Time. [Note: It was actually 8:30 pm according to newspaper articles of the day.] They kept trying to find a name for us. One of the announcers on that station at that time said, "You’re awfully young to be pioneers, why don’t you call yourself The Sons of the Pioneers?" And that was the beginning of The Sons of the Pioneers, just the three men.
And the workload---we began to get popular by means of the media and then those days the radio was everything and the stars were there. The columnist, Bernie Milligan of the Los Angeles Examiner, wrote a column - three columns long, full pages, the full length of the page. And, if you got in that column, you made it. We made it! And in fact, he wrote regular and he had us in the doggone thing three times a week and naturally, we could get sponsors. We were just rolling with sponsors.
And, of course, the money – the pay started going up, too, and we were making, I think, $40 a week apiece. Rich, man! I bought a new car every year! Why, the three of us lived at the same boarding house and we got two meals a day there, two home-cooked meals a day and our room for $7 a week. That left an awful lot of money to play around with.
At a suggestion from Harry Hall, they changed their name to The Sons of the Pioneers and began to receive a regular paycheck of somewhere between $35 and $40. After they’d paid their room and board, this left more money than they’d ever had to spend on themselves. Bernie Milligan's column "Best Bets of the Day" in the L. A. Herald-Examiner gave them that extra boost and they had no difficulty in getting sponsors.
Bob could play the ukulele and perhaps, at that time, a few chords on the guitar but that was all. He could not read music. None of the group could. Bob did become proficient on the bull fiddle but he was always an indifferent guitar player. He used his guitar to find the chords he wanted for his melodies - as a tool more than as a musical instrument.
The first printed appearance of the "Sons of the Pioneers" name was in a Los Angeles Examiner clipping by a reporter who whimsically signed himself "Ray D. O'Fan" dated January 19, 1934. Others followed quickly. The following are copied here courtesy of GD Hamann and Laurence Zwisohn:
01/19/1934 (Los Angeles Examiner)
By Ray De O'Fan
Sons of the Pioneers is a title indicative of hill-billy singing. When investigated, these lads turn out to be the trio who appeared in early morning broadcasts as the Texas Outlaws. They are the same three persons who arranged and presented "Last Roundup" so excellently. They have a program all their own through KFWB this evening at 8:15 o'clock.
06/04/1934 (Los Angeles Examiner)
By Ray De O'Fan
Here I am going off into regular ecstasies about hillbillies. Yesterday it was hillbillyettes. Today the subjects are "Gold Star Rangers," presented each morning by KFWB. One may recognize the voices of some members of Sons of the Pioneers. In their morning broadcast the Gold Star Rangers are accumulating stack upon stack of fan mail, the surest indication that popularity has been won.
They are all right, too. You needn't believe me, though. Listen for yourself. You may be the most symphonic-minded person but in the rural melodies of the Gold Star Rangers you find that force which makes you want to sit in an easy chair and forget the world for a few minutes.
Friday July 20, 1934 (Los Angeles Times) TUNING IN
Bob Nolan of KFWB's "Sons of the Pioneers" is rejoicing over the fact that his composition, "Tumbling Tumbleweed", is on the national music market and was played by Wayne King on the Waltz King's network broadcast the other night.
08/08/1934 (Los Angeles Examiner) Radio.
By Ray De O'Fan
Sons of the Pioneers. [just the name]
08/24/1934 (Los Angeles Examiner)
By Ray De O'Fan
Joe E. (and I've often wondered what the E. stood for) Brown, whose fame in pictures is unquestioned and who made such a big hit last Sunday night as a member of the Hi Jinks cast, participates in another broadcast when he joins the "Family Circle" through KFWB at 10:30 o'clock.
For this one day, "Family Circle" is lengthened to one hour and will present, besides Brown, five circus acts, five acts of youngsters, Eddie Eben, Nip and Tuck, Jeanne Dunne, Charlie Kaley, Ruth Durrell, Sons of the Pioneers, Hugh Farr, "Lazy Bones", Bob Shafer and John Henry.
That program cannot be laughed off.
Early in 1934, the trio started looking for instrumental back-up to ease the tremendous load they put on their voices because they were on air at least twenty times a week. They were singing constantly and needed someone to share that load with a solo instrumental, when their voices tired. From 8-9am they were on radio as The Pioneer Trio, from 5-6pm as The Gold Star Rangers, and in the late evening they joined the Jack Joy Orchestra "painting the old west in song". They also had a program every Sunday at noon.
The trio looked carefully around the vicinity for an instrumentalist and zeroed in on Hugh Farr. Bob said that Hugh was not eager to leave his current group until he heard the three men sing their harmony yodel. The Sons of the Pioneers with violinist Hugh Farr earned $35-$40 a week each as staff musicians on KFWB. Bob explains how the group came to choose the Farr Brothers:
And Hugh, we hadn’t heard him play old time music, see, until one night we was listening to this---they called them the School Kids or something like that [Buttercream School Kids, a sitcom on KFOX] and they took the part of young kids, you know, the talking part and then they played their instruments, too. And Hugh one night played one of those breakdown things that you’ve heard him play and, I’m telling you, we just went out of our gourds! We had to have that fiddler. We’d been hearing him play Lady Be Good and stuff like that---the modern music of the day, and when he hit that Sally ... Fire in the Mountain ...Sally’s Got a Little One and it was one of the wildest things we ever heard, that old time fiddling stuff.
Left: Top to bottom: Hugh Farr, Leonard Slye, Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer (Private Collection)
Right: Top to bottom: Bob Nolan, Tim Spencer, Leonard Slye, Hugh Farr (Roy Rogers Family Trust)
09/28/1934 (Los Angeles Examiner)
By Ray De O'Fan
If there is a more furious fiddler in radio than Hugh Farr of KFWB's "Sons of the Pioneers", he has yet to come to light. Farr's specialty is "hot rhythm," and he makes no pretence of possessing concert ability. One may hear him this morning as part of the "Family Circle" program (10:30 o'clock). On the same program as special guest is Elmer Fryer, studio photographer, who is to tell secrets about the stars.
Tim (Vernon) Spencer, Bob Nolan, Leonard Slye (Roy Rogers) and Hugh Farr
(Roy Rogers Family Trust)
1934 was the year Bob sold Tumbling Tumbleweeds, unaware that by doing so, he was losing what could have been the means to fulfill his enduring wish to travel. The rights and royalties did not return to him in his lifetime so his dream of travel was reduced to one sea voyage to Hawaii shortly after he retired. (Read more)
Copy of original Tumbling Tumbleweeds sheet music published by Sunset Music Co., courtesy of Ron McFadden
Sam Fox 1934
(The Calin Coburn Collections ©2004)
Caption under the picture reads "The Sons of the Pioneers, KFWB's fine trio of range-type musicians whose work is plenty good for lovers of corral and cow camp harmonics. They are - left to right - Bob Nolan, Len Slye and Verne Spencer. these lads are going right to town with their fine voices and clever playing. They are heard on the Kelvinator Jubilee, the high Jinks and other periods."
Tim Spencer, Leonard Slye and Bob Nolan on KFWB Radio, Los Angeles, January 31, 1934
The trio performed for a Hollywood Chamber of Commerce luncheon at the famous Pig 'n' Whistle Cafe.
(Courtesy of Madison Cormick)
Left: Anonymous Collection
Right: Oakland Tribune, Sunday, September 30, 1934
(The Calin Coburn Collections ©2004)
"[Sam Allen] spent some time with Herb Angell, the Sheriff at KQV in Pittsburgh. Herb has been spinning Sons of the Pioneers' transcriptions on that station one-half hour daily for six days a week and six straight years for one account. It's the Palace Clothiers – they've given away more than one and on-half million photos." (Bob Nolan, p. 6 Tumbleweed Topics, January 1942)
10/17/1934 (Hollywood Citizen News)
Leonard F. Slye, who not only sings with the
Sons of the Pioneers but also plays the guitar on their programs. When he was in
school, Mr. Slye thought he would like to be an aviator. The Sons of the
Pioneers, to be heard tonight at 7:30 over KFWB, appear regularly on the Family
Circle programs which are released daily except Sunday at 10:30am by KFWB.
In 1934, the four men - Len, Bob, Tim and Hugh - signed a one year contract with Decca. Royalties were 2 cents each on a double disc and 1 cent each on a single They made their first recording session on August 4, 1934, and they recorded Way Out There, Tumbling Tumbleweeds, Moonlight on the Prairie (with Tim), and Ridin’ Home - all Bob Nolan songs. On December 15, Tumbling Tumbleweeds hit #13 on the charts.
Coincidentally, they worked nearly non-stop on radio under different names. With a steady pay check coming in, Bob began to send regular instalments of money to Pearl for support of their daughter. Now that he was in better circumstances, he asked for custody of little Roberta. Pearl not only refused, she would not let him see his child at all, even though she herself had remarried.
Tim married Velma Blanton on August 10, 1934, at the Wee Kirk of the Heather at Forest Lawn, California. Velma was the Texas girl Tim met on his trip through the Southwest with the O Bar O Cowboys. Bob sang, "I Love You Truly" and Hugh Farr played his fiddle at the ceremony. The young couple set up housekeeping just a few blocks from where the trio had lived in the beginning. Velma recalled that the boys treated their preparations like they would any job – they got up early, went to work and practiced for eight hours every day. They put themselves through this gruelling routine daily, singing until their voices gave out.
Farley's Gold Star Rangers and Gus Mack
(They were sponsored by the Farley Clothing Company in Los Angeles.)
Also in August 1934 the Sons of the Pioneers began recording a series of transcriptions for Standard Radio in Los Angeles, California. Len Slye, Bob Nolan, Tim Spencer and Hugh Farr recorded the first set of transcriptions less than one year after the group was organized. These were also the first transcriptions to be released by Standard Radio so they were the first western group to be heard from local radio stations across the country. Many of the songs on these transcriptions were written by Bob and Tim because they were encouraged to use as much of their own original material and public domain music as they could in order to keep Standard’s ASCAP license fees low. The first series of 102 songs included 28 of Bob Nolan's original songs. Standard Radio transcriptions were sold to radio stations all over America. Karl Farr was then hired and a second Standard Radio transcription series was made in 1935. Each man was paid a flat fee of $600 and, while the transcription series was immensely popular and profitable for the company, the Pioneers received nothing further.
These transcriptions are the earliest and most complete record of the formative days of the Sons of the Pioneers and have lately been offered for sale as boxed sets by Bear Family Records. Many selections were never commercially recorded and we would not had heard them at all but for the transcriptions. It was the Sons of the Pioneers' Standard transcriptions, even more than their radio broadcasts, records and film appearances that were responsible for spreading the group’s music and popularity throughout the nation because, at its peak, Standard Radio was servicing over 1000 radio stations in the United States.
(Image of No. 1690-A)
Karl Farr was a fine musician, strongly influenced by the guitar styling of Django Reinhardt and he added a jazzy element that complemented his brother Hugh's fiddle. This set the Pioneer sound above all other groups of the day. They called themselves the Sons of the Pioneers and they really were pioneering in a new type of music and yet not one of them could read music. Each man was unique but none stood above the other in quality of sound. The group was all about excellence, attention to detail, blend and harmony. The combination of their unique harmony singing (including harmony yodeling) and jazzy fiddle playing with syncopated guitar was new and drew immediate attention from the public.
As staff members at KFWB, they were each paid $37-$40 per week and received no extra payment for their many daily appearances. When the men approached management about adding Karl, they were told a guitarist wasn't necessary so, if they wished to add him, they would have to pay him themselves. They agreed to that and each man gave Karl $10 each per week out of his own pay. This made Karl the highest paid member of the group.
Max "Doc" Denning, a member of The Reinsmen, clearly recalls seeing the group in its infancy:
My fourteenth birthday was quite a landmark in my life. An event occurred that pointed me in a direction that I was to follow for the rest of my life. My mother took me to Bixby Park in Long Beach, and on that April 12th day in 1935, I saw four men who were to impact my life like no others. I don’t recall if they were calling themselves the Gold Star Rangers or the Sons of the Pioneers, since they were using both names at that time. They were appearing at a picnic sponsored by Dr. Townsend’s old age pension plan, and for the occasion they sang When Our Old Age Pension Check Comes to Our Door.” The fellows introduced themselves as Len Slye, Bob Nolan, Vern Spencer, and Hugh Farr. I was greatly impressed with their performance. About the only thing I clearly remember about their show was that the bass player, Bob Nolan, danced with his bass fiddle which had an apron tied to the back. (Max Denning)
Angeles Post Record) Radio
By Ray De O'Fan
Sons of the Pioneers (SCN)
By Ray De O'Fan
8pm KFWB Sons of the Pioneers (SCN)
(Hollywood Citizen News) HILLBILLIES WILL
PIT MUSIC SKILL AT CHAMPIONSHIP
(Hollywood Citizen News) THRONG STIRRED BY
Decca contract courtesy of Fred Goodwin.
So, Hugh came first. Karl wasn’t sold. Hugh came up first and we hired him and I think that Karl held out for about a month and Hugh finally talked him into it. He said, "These boys are going up!" Going up! They were making darn near as much as we were - $40 a week on that program they had down in Long Beach. And now there’s five of us and that’s the way we stood until 1937 when Roy got his big break and came to Republic. (Bob Nolan)
Karl E. Farr Collection
The following series of checked shirt photos were taken somewhere between 1935 and 1937. No date has been found.
Left: Bob Nolan. Courtesy of John Fullerton
Right: from p. 70, Singing in the Saddle by Douglas B. Green
(The sheet music Tim is holding is called "Mother's Old Pincushion".)
Left to right: Karl Farr, Hugh Farr, Tim Spencer, Leonard Slye and Bob Nolan.
In front, clapping the rhythm is Gus Mack, MC for The Gold Star Rangers on KFWB.
(Karl E. Farr Collection)
Left: Calin Coburn Collection © 2004
Right: Anonymous Collection
A note about the name "The Home Harmonizers":
"The only Plankinton Ave I could find in the US of A is in Milwaukee. The "Home Harmonizer" bits were probably licensed transcriptions which were used in various other markets for sponsors with their own names for the singing group. Transcription companies not only marketed programs as you know them but other music services like individual song selections to interested markets. It's like Farley's Gold Star Rangers - they were billed with a sponsor's name depending upon the program they were doing. If the Home Furniture show didn't use their names for the songs it's highly unlikely anyone would have spotted the voices in Milwaukee in 1937 as being the Sons of the Pioneers until their records were distributed. On the reverse of the picture of the Harmonizers you will see, in the lower panel, in a circle, their schedule -Daily at 3:15pm and Saturday at 12 Noon." (Lawrence Hopper)
As well as being hired to play for dances and parties, the Pioneers were asked to entertain at the rodeos. Often there was resentment between rodeo and radio cowboys and, although scraps were not uncommon, over the years many friendships were formed. One such association with Curley Fletcher, creator of The Strawberry Roan, resulted in a song. Bob wrote music for Curley Fletcher's poem, Desolation, and published the song in both their names.
Curley Fletcher at left. Right: Bob with a fellow who may be Curley Fletcher with two children on the rodeo grounds, 1934.
(The original snapshot is very small and positive identification is impossible. Larry Hopper suggests Rudy Sooter.)
The Calin Coburn Collections ©2004
Almost immediately, the Pioneers began appearing in movies, first in shorts and then in feature length movies, but always as musicians. Radio Station KFWB was affiliated with Warner Brothers Pictures who used the Sons of the Pioneers’ voices in animated cartoons such as A Feud There Was and featured them in some of El Brendel’s comedy shorts, including Radio Scout, released by First National in 1935. Before the end of the year they had appeared in seven more films and shorts. In August 1935 Universal released the Oswald the Rabbit cartoon, Bronco Buster, which featured music by the Sons of the Pioneers including a revised version of Bob Nolan’s song Hold That Critter Down. They signed with Columbia Pictures to provide music for the Charles Starrett western action series and remained with them until 1941.
In 1935, the Sons of the Pioneers made a guest appearance in Gallant Defender with Joan Perry (above) and Charles Starrett.
Tumbling Tumbleweeds was not yet the signature song of the Sons of the Pioneers. In their early programs, the group used There's a Blue Sky Away Up Yonder as their theme, a tune that Rex Allen would use later. Radio audiences not only listened from their radio sets at home but would often go right down to the studio to take in the live broadcast and stage show. Home listeners could also phone in or write in requests and Tumbling Leaves was a popular request right from the start. Because sound was not perfect, the title was often misheard as "Tumbling Weeds" and the audience, both at the studio and by telephone, would request the "tumbling weeds" song. Bob eventually gave in and changed the name, making slight adjustments to the words and melody. This is how he described the transition:
The song itself, the melody, had different lyrics altogether and it was quite by accident that we thought of "Tumbling Tumbleweeds". I didn’t at the time. They kept requesting this "Tumbling Weeds" song and the song at the time was "Tumbling Leaves". I’d say about 7 out of 10 requests for the song came in “Tumbling Weeds” so Harry Hall said, “Why don’t you change the lyrics and make it “Tumbling Weeds”? "Tumbling Tumbleweeds". Just the same melody except that it didn’t have that tilted note in the latter part. It went da da da da da da da da da dum.
And once I used the “tumbleweed” at the end of the phrase, I had to put in that tilt – tu-dum – where it hits the snag. Da da da da da da da da da dum tu dum. Have you ever seen a tumbleweed go racing across the desert and hit a fence? It hits it with just that sound. If you close your eyes, that’s what you see. What you hear with that one note is what you see when you see a tumbleweed hit a fence. It goes tumbling along, “ta da da da da da bump ta da” till it gets on the other side.
Historian Douglas B. Green states unequivocally, "If western music has an anthem, this is it. 'Lonely but free I’ll be found, drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds' defines in a dozen words and a gorgeous sweep of melody, the appeal of the myth of the cowboy and the west. No one who hears it for the first time can fail to be struck by its imagination, originality and poetry, even now.... As the singing cowboy phenomenon took shape, this song became the musical embodiment of what screenwriters were trying to capture and portray in the west: the sweep, the loneliness, the proud isolation." (Douglas B. Green)
In front of KFWB, left to right: Len, Karl, Hugh, Tim with his mother and Bob.
(The Calin Coburn Collections ©2004)
(Karl E. Farr Collection)
1935 saw two of Bob's songs, Tumbling Tumbleweeds and Moonlight on the Prairie, used as movie titles and performed by two different singing cowboys - Gene Autry and Dick Foran. Tumbling Tumbleweeds was used as the title of Gene Autry's first feature-length starring film and was Republic Pictures' first step into a new genre. (The Sons of the Pioneers did not appear in either of the films.) These movies laid the groundwork for the Singing Cowboy B-Western, which remained popular for twenty years. It is interesting to think that Bob's signature song was involved at the very beginning of this phenomenon.
One of Autry’s first million-selling records was his own rendition of Tumbling Tumbleweeds. Its success prompted Gene to ask Bob more than once for another hit song along the same lines. “Sure, Gene,” Bob would always respond from his customary perch in the café he frequented. “I’m working on a new song just for you.” But Bob undoubtedly knew that Gene insisted on equal writer credits on all songs and that would not suit Bob at all.
Tumbling Tumbleweeds has been recorded by countless artists.