Max. H. “Doc” Denning (1921-2017)
I had the pleasure of getting to know and spending time with that gentle giant, Bob Nolan, the last two or three years of his life. He was unassuming, intelligent, friendly and possessed a great sense of humor.
I first saw the Pioneers on my 14th birthday, April 12, 1935, when they were playing for a picnic at Bixby Park in Long Beach, California. That was before Karl joined them. I was fascinated by the great harmony and I’ve never stopped loving it. That same day, I had my first airplane ride in a Ford Tri-motor for 50 cents and a coupon from the local paper. That day made me want to perform that kind of music and learn to fly. Happily, I later did both. I got my pilot's license via the GI Bill in 1947 and I had the honor of being one of the Sons of the Pioneers in 1981.
They had a radio show at the time, going by the name “Gold Star Rangers" which I never missed listening to on my crystal set. They were on every morning for about 30 minutes about the time I was supposed to be going to school. I played sick a good many mornings 'cause I would hear what they were going to be doing on the show. I wanted to stay and learn the words.
I got hooked and formed my first band, "The Rhythm Wranglers", a year later in Jr. High School. I used to listen to KFOX radio in Long Beach. The Stafford Sisters were featured regularly as was Karl Farr, a staff musician there before becoming one of the Pioneers. I was in all kinds of small groups. I even worked with Len Nash who had a group called "The Country Boys" about ten years after Karl Farr was with them. My biggest regret is moving to Chicago in 1947, working for what later became Radio Shack, and having my mother call up saying that Tim Spencer called saying he was leaving the group and wanted me to come out and audition for tenor. I didn't have the air fare to get out there. I often wonder what would have happened if I auditioned with the Sons in 1948.
At the time I became aware of the group, there were many bands playing on the radio in the Southern California area; The Beverly Hillbillies, The Texas Outlaws, the Saddle Pals, Stuart Hamblen’s band and several others. None had that smooth harmony and great original songs of the West that the Sons had. Certainly without Bob Nolan's writing, Tim Spencer and his brother Glenn, there would be no western music today. Without those Stan Jones songs, western music would have fallen by the wayside; there would have been no platform for that type of music. The Pioneers made Stan's music.
I didn't care for Roy Rogers films because when the Pioneers started singing songs you could bet Dale Evans would have some dialogue right smack in the middle of it. I much preferred the Columbia pictures with Charles Starrett because nothing happened until the Pioneers were through with their songs and they were always in a campfire scene or bunkhouse where it was logical they would sing a song. That's where Bob wrote some of his greatest songs - "No-Good Son-of-a-Gun", "When Pay Day Rolls Around". I used to go to the theaters and sit through three features copying down the words to the songs, going home cross-eyed and blurry-eyed. I didn't go to see Roy or Dale or Charles Starrett, I told Bob Nolan. Bob thought that those movies were just bread and butter; he didn't think much of those songs. The ones he wrote later, "My Home Town" and "Wandering", he thought a lot more of.
Bob wrote his songs with the trio in mind - thinking what the trio would do in harmony. Those songs should be accompanied by a guitar and fiddle background. He was upset that the producers of the Pioneer radio shows made them use the organ and xylophone; even Lloyd wasn't happy with the French horns. On later recordings, when I hear French horns, I close my eyes and think of Errol Flynn on a ship deck with a sword, but not with a western trio! I think Bob's wishes should be respected when someone does his songs.
I was so happy to get to know him before he left us. He was gentle but strong, had a great sense of humor and didn’t exude one bit of ego about his fame. He was very well read in philosophy and history and thought of himself as a poet. He would much rather write than perform. I did hear him mention Spinoza but no other philosopher. He was an excellent conversationalist. I felt very privileged to be friends with Bob Nolan during his last years.
Once, in conversation, he told us about Christine Stafford. It seems that the two of them went swimming in the ocean one night, resulting in her coming down with pneumonia. Bob was silent for a moment, and then, visibly touched and a little misty-eyed, he said, “My God. I almost killed that girl!” That story resulted from me asking where he was when he was inspired to write Wind .
I have never seen In This Room before, nor have I heard it, if it indeed has been put to music. It does, however, fit into the picture that Nolan told us about those days…and nights. I never met any of the sisters, but the photos of them during that time would make any man sit up and take notice, Bob Nolan included.
He was quiet, modest, polite and unassuming. I really don’t think Bob knew how much he was loved by so many for his work and personality. The Reinsmen and I spent a couple of weekends with him at Bob Wagoner’s and, in addition to singing with him, we went on a couple of fishing trips into the Sierras and sat around visiting. P-Nuts Nolan said that was the first time Bob had really been out with a bunch of guys in years. We went out there and left him alone. If he wanted to talk we talked; if he didn't we just stared at the mountains. We respected his privacy. That was back in 1978. We went again the following year and planned a third trip for the next year but Bob had died early that year.
He mentioned nothing about his hobo days and very little about his tenure with the Sons. There were a few words about some of the fellows in the original group, their personalities, etc, but never an unkind word about any of them. Mostly, our conversations were idle chatter and a few jokes and opinions of what had happed to good music since the 50s and 60s. We agreed that we didn’t like “music” where the drums carried the melody!
During our visits he didn’t talk much about himself. Sometimes he would just sort of drift off in a sort of reverie, and I respected his silence, until he seemed to “come back to the present” and converse again. Although we were curious about any number of things in his life, The Reinsmen and I never pushed him into conversation, and I know he appreciated that.
By the way, Bob Nolan was still writing songs until his death. His daughter got them and MANY have not been published. They were not in the Western motif as much as inspirational in content. Although not a professed “Christian”, Bob was very deeply impressed by nature and he did believe in the Creator of all the beauty he saw in the West. He was very much in one with nature. He was in awe of creation, full of “wonder of it all” but not into any organized religion.
Not long after Bob Nolan’s passing, many of his friends gathered at Rex Allen’s ranch in Calabasas, CA for a memorial. The Reinsmen, the current group of the Pioneers, Roy and Dale, actors, composers, business associates in music and filming, and friends. There was lots of music and informal talks by those who knew and loved the man. It was really a celebration of his life and work. Bob didn’t want a funeral, so this was a way for us to gather and honor him. I think he would’ve liked it. He was a beautiful man; a gentle giant.
Doc Denning died of a massive heart attack on July 29, 2017. He was 96 years old.