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Ken Griffis

(1925 - 2008)


        The late Ken Griffis, officer of the John Edwards Memorial Foundation, contributor to its publication and official biographer of the Sons of the Pioneers, recorded hours of interviews in preparation for his history of the group, Hear My Song – The Story of the Celebrated Sons of the Pioneers . Unfortunately, the majority of these interviews are on reel-to-reel tape in fragile condition and unavailable to the public. Mr. Griffis did copy the Bob Nolan interviews for Calin Coburn but with the understanding that they would not be shared with anyone else. The tapes remain in Calin's archive.

        The following comments from Mr. Griffis  are taken from previously published work for the JEMF, the Sons of the Pioneers Historical Society Journal, radio interviews or personal correspondence to Elizabeth McDonald and reprinted here with his permission.

        Mr. Griffis passed away on July 10, 2008 of cancer. He will always be remembered as the original Sons of the Pioneers historian. He was 83 years old.

        Ken chose the music for his page - Lie Low, Little Dogies, performed by the Sons of the Pioneers. The song was written by Tim Spencer, featuring a solo by Lloyd Perryman and a recitation by Bob Nolan. Mr. Griffis said it was his favorite Sons of the Pioneers song.


 

Transcriptions of Ken Griffis' interviews of the Sons of the Pioneers:

November 1, 1968 Ken Curtis

January 2, 1972 Bob Nolan, Lloyd Perryman and Tim Spencer at Stuart Hamblen's home.

January 12, 1972 Bob Nolan in his Studio City home.

December 31, 1974 Lloyd Perryman on Stan Jones.

January 15, 1976 Bob Nolan on The Beverly Hill Billies.

 

On Bob Nolan's songwriting habits:

                Since his retirement, most of his time from snow-thaw to snowfall is spent up in the mountains of California. His wife, Clara, who he married in Las Vegas in 1941, realizes the importance of Bob’s getting away from it all, and patiently accepts his summer hiatus.

                Music continues to play an important part in his life. Every morning he wakes at 5:00, props himself up in bed and writes for two or three hours. At any one time he may have several tunes going and writes songs of all types, few being western in content.

                Nolan states that he enjoys writing and sings now only for his own satisfaction. When the songs are completed they are filed away to “await the time when conditions are right for them to be released.” Nolan is a soft spoken, thoughtful individual with a fine sense of humor who feels he has had a fully satisfying career.

 

On religion:

                Just returned from a very pleasant three-hour visit with Bob Nolan. His initial comments centered around his concern with his relationship with Christianity. He has a strong distaste for established religious tenets. He feels the accepted Church teaching is so much foolish talk. He does feel there is some power that established the universe. He remarked that his religious songs were a sellout – not his real concept of God. He reads Spinoza and believes that is closer to his belief.

                He then indicated he is burned-out with his song writing. He stated he just can’t be productive because his music isn’t accepted anymore. I discussed this at length. I indicated that perhaps he just wasn’t willing to accept the fact that songs of the past were his forte. He indicated perhaps that was so – but he wasn’t too eager to acknowledge that fact or even spend much time discussing it.

                He ended our visit with a beautiful reading of a composition concerning his death - about the desert being his mistress as a young boy. He went on to describe the desert as his mistress and ended with telling the pilot to scatter his ashes over the desert. Very moving. (February 23, 1980)

 

 

 

On the subject of casts:

                This affair began to unfold one Saturday morning when I received a call from Bob Nolan, asking if I had a saber saw. I replied in the affirmative. He asked if I had the time to come over with the saw. I had the time. Upon my arrival, Nolan asked that I drop the saw in an out-of-sight location in his back yard.

                As we were engaging in small talk, I noted P-Nuts leaving through their ivy-covered gate. Bob stated, “P-Nuts [his wife] will be back within the hour. Get your saw and cut this damn thing off.” He was referring to an ankle to mid-calf cast, protecting a fractured ankle. I protested that I was not proficient in the least at such work. He replied that one of us was going to do it, so I 'volunteered'.

                Some forty minutes later, as Nolan and I were admiring our handiwork, P-Nuts reappeared. As she walked toward the house, she noted the discarded cast. She gave Bob a disapproving look then turned to stare at me. Some ten seconds later, she proceeded on into the house. As I cleared my throat I remarked, “Robert, I think I’d better be going along.” Nolan replied, “Not a bad idea, Ken."

 

On hearing of Bob's death:

                Late in the afternoon on Monday, June 16th, I answered the telephone and heard the familiar voice of Buddie Perryman, widow of Pioneer great, Lloyd Perryman.

                “Ken, I have some very bad news. I just received a call from Clara [Mrs. Bob Nolan]. Bob has suffered a fatal heart attack.”

                There was no response from my end of the line. Buddie, sensing the reaction, remarked that she would call back later and hung up.

                The thought that first came to mind was, “This is indeed the end of a fantastic musical group, the likes of which will never come again. Karl, Pat, Tim, Lloyd, Hugh, and now Bob.” In a short passage of time we saw an organization whose music is and will be heard around the world, bloom, blossom and fade into the pages of history.

                Sitting in stunned silence, my mind rapidly retraced many pleasant encounters I had with Bob Nolan during the last ten years. The memory of my first meeting with this thoroughly unusual man was still vivid.

                In 1970, as work slowly progressed on a book relating to the history of the Sons of the Pioneers, I was struggling with a difficult problem. How could I get an interview with Bob Nolan? From remarks made by Pat Brady, Hugh Farr, and Tim Spencer, it was evident such an interview would not come easily.

                In desperation, I made a plea to Lloyd Perryman, Bob’s closest friend. Lloyd  indicated that he would ask Nolan about the interview, but offered little encouragement. A few days later, he informed me that Nolan had suggested that Lloyd himself supply the needed information. While I appreciated his offer of help, it was, nevertheless, a keen disappointment.

                At this point I sought the help of Nolan’s fellow composer, Stuart Hamblen , an individual who I hoped Nolan would not, or could not, refuse. Stuart and Bob had been closely associated since their radio days in the mid-thirties, and each greatly admired the other. Hamblen  responded to my request with, “Stand by. I’ll have ol’ Bob up here within the hour.” In shock I hastily remarked that this was too soon; I would need a few days to prepare for such a momentous meeting. Hamblen  suggested that I return the next day. True to his word, when I arrived Bob Nolan was there as were Tim Spencer and Lloyd Perryman. That meeting made an impression that lasts to this day.

                It was extremely gratifying, in this initial contact with the legendary Bob Nolan, to find him a friendly, modest and unassuming individual, with a fine sense of humor. He was very easy to interview, his responses polite and to the point. This and the many visits that were to follow dispelled the “loner” myth to a large extent.

                Due to certain unpleasant events in his career, it was my personal observation that he was leery of people and preferred to accept them on his terms. It is my firm belief that Nolan never took advantage of another over his long career. He was not afforded this same consideration by a few “friends.” To a large degree, it simply boiled down to a preference for privacy over public performances. It may come as a surprise to many of his fans to learn that, as his career developed, it became increasingly difficult for him to work in the movies and make public appearances. At one point, a studio offered him the opportunity to star in a western series, only to have Nolan turn it down flat.

                From the first meeting with Nolan, I developed a deep respect for the man himself. He loved a good joke and could laugh at himself as easily as with others. He readily responded to the problems of others without qualification. Neither selfishness nor self pity played a part in his life.  

                His great disappointment, which he revealed to only a very few, was that he did not think he would live to see the acceptance of the music he had been writing over the past thirty years. He took a good deal of pride in this music but he found it difficult to push the industry or recording artists to consider it. In this regard he possibly did himself and others a disservice. But that was his way. Unquestionably, at some future point in time, this music and much of what he wrote in the past will be “discovered” and given proper acclaim

                Although Bob Nolan took few people into his affection, he greatly enjoyed receiving letters from his many fans and admirers. When he received a letter, he would immediately put on his glasses and read it intently. He would remark, “I should answer that.” But he rarely did.

 

 

Some general observations: (from a radio interview by KLAC, A Tribute to Bob Nolan – the Quiet Man, 1980.

 

                Bob was, by choice, very close with his personal thoughts and I felt it best to let it go at that. I always felt that was one of the reasons he accepted me as a friend. I never spent time asking about certain things unless he chose to bring it up. I got on the bad side of him a time or two by asking questions he had no interest in discussing and he made no bones about letting me know he was not interested in talking about it. He could get his point across in no uncertain fashion.

 

                Bob Nolan really was a quiet person. He was a person who really did not like to mix with the public. As a result of that, people said he was a hermit, a recluse – that he did not like people. Possibly a little bit of that is true but Bob, by and large, had been in the public eye for so long and, through certain things that had occurred in his life, felt that he wanted to be by himself. He did allow people to visit him. He was very personable. He was a very friendly individual but he did not like the public eye. He did not like to go out in public.

                He said that in his early days that he wrote for the school newspaper and he wrote poetry. Of course, I like to think of all his songs as poetry. I don’t really know if Bob wrote much of what we would call “music”. He wrote poetry and then he put music to it. I think Bob got his stimulation from his early days in the desert and he wrote poems about it and then later on this became music.

                I was over to see him the Sunday before he passed away. (I was privileged to see Bob every three or four weeks and spend some pleasant hours with him.) We were trying to put together an album of the early Decca   recordings and I wanted to get his clarification on the song Tumbling Tumbleweeds  because it originally was written as Tumbling Leaves . I was fortunate to get it on tape. I guess it was the last thing that he recorded.

                Bob says he wrote Cool Water from his days in the desert, his inspiration from the desert. And now the one thing that Bob mentioned many times is that he was so surprised that people think of Cool Water as a song about water. Really, it’s not a song about water, it’s the absence of water. He was trying to convey that there was no water. It’s all an illusion.

                Bob was a very deep individual and he did not like to share his thoughts with too many people. I guess the closest friend that he had was Stuart Hamblen. Others were friends but Stuart and Bob shared an awful lot of background over the years.

                I can just give you an interpretation of Bob Nolan as I knew him. Bob Nolan did not like notoriety. He did not like to appear before the public. I think that was one of the reasons that he left the group is because it got to be increasingly difficult for him to go out onto that stage and face the crowd. That may sound strange but I believe that was his big problem in the latter years with the group. He just did not like to go out on that stage and he had his own problems with meeting people – I mean as far as wondering what their motives may be and so forth. I think he felt that he should associate only with those people that he felt he had something in common with. And I believe he just liked to be by himself but, of course, that was not unique to this period. I know many of the Pioneers remarked that in the early days in the movie industry, they’d look around for Bob and he’d be setting on a rock somewhere off to himself, gazing off into the distance, writing a song in his mind.  I just think he felt more comfortable by himself and why he felt that way, I really don’t know.

                He was definitely a dreamer. Bob Nolan had some very deep thoughts. And he liked to pretend that he was as hard as nails on the outside but inside, Bob was just a very tender, respectful person. He had a great love of his country and I think he believed in The American Dream but he was certainly never gonna be found on the corner waving a flag. That was not Bob Nolan.

                I believe one thing that did disturb him over the last few years was the fact that the music had changed so much and he felt he had a great contribution – he had some beautiful songs but this was jut not the era for the Nolan-type songs which was very unfortunate. But he accepted it. He was never happy about it but I think he accepted it and he was never one to complain. He never had a complaint or a bad word to say about anybody. He just took things one day at a time.

 

September 24, 2006

                During a visit with Nolan, an unusual and hard to understand event occurred. We were discussing past Pioneer recordings that the group had made and I mentioned a Tim Spencer composition that was one of my favorites, "Lie Low, Little Doggies". I remarked that Nolan, Lloyd Perryman and Ken Curtis did a fine job on the recording. Bob commented that he couldn't recall the song and suggested that I put it on tape and bring it along for the next visit.

                A couple of weeks later, during our visit, I played the song for him. He listened intently then remarked, "Ken I hate to disagree with the "expert", but that's not me in the trio, it's Tommy Doss. I asked Bob to stop kidding and give me his opinion of the Pioneer effort. Nolan said he wasn't kidding and that I had the two voices mixed up. After repeated playing of the song he was still unconvinced. I made the concluding remark that it might possibly be understandable if he was unable to recognize his own vocalizing but certainly not his speaking voice. (Bob did a short recitation on the recording.) He apologized for disagreeing but held firmly to his opinion. How strange!

 

                For a year or so, during each visit with Bob Nolan, as he permitted, I would bring up the subject of his allowing someone to listen to the music he had been writing since his retirement. From an initial "Not interested, forget it" to "I'll think about it" to "Well, perhaps," he was finally convinced of the importance of the suggestion. I knew the battle had been won when he stated he would consider the suggestion if he could be convinced that some knowledgeable individual would be interested.

                Marty Robbins was the agreed choice, but Bob said he had no way of contacting him. I countered with the statement that Marty knew me, somewhat, and there should be no difficulty in getting him to agree to a visit. I went on to tell Bob that very likely Marty was even in town now.

                Bidding Nolan goodbye and with my hand on the doorknob there came a knock at the door. I asked Bob if he was expecting a visitor to which he replied "no." Opening the door, to my great surprise, there stood Marty Robbins and his West Coast manager, Bob Hinkle. Turning to look at Bob, the shocked look on my face was sufficient to convince Nolan that this was not a "put-up" job. Embarrassed, I left as quickly as possible. Nolan later informed me that he and Marty had a most mutually rewarding two-hour visit. Their first!

 

                Johnny Bond, the great composer and vocalist, suffered a stroke that left him, at times, unable to complete his thoughts. I called Nolan and asked if he would care to pay Johnny a visit. He was most agreeable to the suggestion. During the visit with Johnny and his lovely, gracious wife, Dorothy, it became apparent that Nolan was paying close attention to Bond's inability to complete all of his thoughts.  At times, it appeared that Bob was attempting to aid Johnny in the conclusion of a remark. I was impressed.

                Not too long after our visit, this dear friend passed away. As we sat in the overflowing crowd, Nolan leaned over and whispered, "It would have pleased Johnny no end to know that in his final appearance he 'played' to a packed house."
 

 


Summer 1979

               Went over last Saturday and spent a couple of hours with Bob Nolan. Any visit with Bob is an experience. He has a very active mind and is in apparent excellent health. Bob enjoys talking about the present more than the past. While he fully appreciates his years with the Pioneers, he spends very little time reliving those years. As he says, "Let it lie."
                When he does choose to speak of the past, it's usually to recall some funny incident and hardly ever about his contribution. To hear him talk, one would come away feeling that his part in the group was marginal to say the least. That of course will come as a big surprise to the Pioneer-Nolan fans. Most of his words of compliment are directed to the contribution Lloyd Perryman made in his long years with the Pioneers. One might say that Nolan was and is a Lloyd Perryman fan.
                Bob seems to be fairly well pleased with his new album. Whether or not it makes money is of little importance apparently. He just hopes that the fans enjoy it. If it does well, I feel he can be talked into doing another.
                As I was leaving, Bob had to show me his new pickup truck. He seemed very pleased with it. He will put it to a good test as he leaves to spend September and October up in the mountains.
                Yes, Bob Nolan is quite an individual. (Ken Griffis, The Pioneer, Vol. 3, No. 3, Summer, 1979.)

__________________________

Note: We strongly urge to you read, "Hear My Song – the Story of the Celebrated Sons of the Pioneers" by Ken Griffis to learn more about each of the members of the group. The book is full of detailed information and anecdotes.

 

As well as articles for the John Edwards Memorial Society and liner notes for countless albums, Ken Griffis has published several editions of "Hear My Song":

 

           1974                    1986 revised                   1994                  1996 revised               1998 revised

 

 He has also written other books of note:

 

"Reinsmen: Painters of the West in Song" (Norken 1997)

"Sons of the San Joaquin: The Songs, The Music, The Men". (Norken 1999)

"Stuart Hamblen" (unpublished.)

 


 

Western music has much to thank Mr. Griffis for. Laurence Zwisohn says it best:


"Ken is to be admired for a number of reasons. Ken was on the board of the John Edwards Memorial Foundation which was housed at UCLA. As far as I can tell, he was the first person to write a book about a musical group. Not an individual, a group. That's a tough assignment especially when there were so few sources to turn to since, I don’t believe, any of the guys had kept any clippings, memorabilia or anything. The only exception being a scrapbook Roy kept from the first year or two after the Pioneers were formed. This didn’t deter Ken and he did enormous research to document their story.

 

"Thanks to Ken's diligence he was able to interview all of the members of the Pioneers except for Karl Farr and Pat Brady who had passed on. Ken’s book is important for a number of reasons. First, the Pioneers' story is of great importance and Ken's hard work and dogged determination allowed him to document the facts. This took enormous research on Ken’s part. Although there is a large music press today, there was no such thing during the Pioneers years. Ken was able to meet, interview and get the stories from each of the Pioneers including the very private Bob Nolan. The second reason Ken’s book is important was an unexpected one. It gave Bob, Tim, Lloyd, and the rest of the guys a greater appreciation of what they had accomplished. Believe it or not, they really weren’t aware of the importance of what they had created.

"During the years JEMF was in Los Angeles it was a very well meaning organization that, nonetheless, had great difficulty in raising money. Noble objectives, excellent publication, beginnings of an important collection of country music materials but no financial support from anyone or any organization. The only reason it lasted as long as it did was because of Ken’s very active leadership in organizing fund raising benefits. Without the money he raised it would have passed from the scene much earlier."