Ken Griffis Interviewed Bob Nolan about the Beverly Hill Billies on January 15, 1976.
This hour long interview was intended to mine Bob’s memories of the Beverly Hill Billies, the most popular group on radio at the time he was just starting out with the Sons of the Pioneers. It kept straying into fascinating side roads, into Bob’s own career and an off-the-record comment on his personal philosophy. The audio file had a lot of background noise, including shrill interjections by Bob’s mynah bird. Because Ken Griffis talks so fast and is not near the mike, some parts of his questions are lost. [Thanks to Jeff and Robert Wagoner for this interview and Bob Costa for cleaning it.]
GRIFFIS: Made on January 15, 1976, at the Studio City home of Bob Nolan. Bob, if we could, I’d like to just begin a casual discussion of your recollections of the old Beverly Hill Billies as, I’m sure you will agree, in their day they were the cream of the crop.
NOLAN: Well, they were the only ones, as far as I was concerned. I was a lifeguard the first time I heard them and I never dreamed of ever meeting the boys let alone getting into the same music set at the time. Oh, it was a memory that I’ll never forget. At that time, like I say, to a lot of other people they were the only thing to listen to, in fact. If you were coming home late at night, all you had to do is just walk down the street. There they were coming out of every house that you pass.
GRIFFIS: I’m sure you heard the story of how they came about being formed. I think it’s fascinating.
NOLAN: Not exactly.
GRIFFIS: Bob, do you happen to recall your first experience of seeing the fellows in person or attempting to see them?
NOLAN: Well, that’s more like it – attempting to see them. I had come up from the beach all the way to, let’s see, KMPC was somewhere south between Beverly Hills and Westwood, I think. And I came up there - I was a lifeguard, like I told you - and I just had to see them. Well, sir, when I got there the people were cramped around that station. I never got within half a block of the station so I didn’t see them that trip. But I kept trying and I kept getting there a little earlier and finally.... I never get in the studio. You’d have to get up there, for gosh sakes, early in the morning to see them in the evening. So I got up there one time and that’s as far as I got was the outside window. I watched them through the window. I never did meet the boys personally until I got into the business myself. They were a great bunch of fellows.
GRIFFIS: Well, let’s see now. You would have started your career about 1931 with the old Rocky Mountaineers. That would roughly be the time.
GRIFFIS: I think they began their careers - I’ve got to check this - I think about the latter part of ’28 or the first part of ’29.
NOLAN: You’ve got it right on the nut. It would be the latter part of 1928.
GRIFFIS: And you were in California at that time.
NOLAN: Yeah, I was a lifeguard down at Venice and I didn’t lose my job until the stock market crash in 1929. So it had to be between ’28 and ’29 when I used to be coming home and I’d listen to them.
GRIFFIS: Apparently, the whole scheme behind the thing was really a gigantic hoax of them being a bunch of lost hillbillies but I don’t know whether you could call that theme or not.
NOLAN: Yes, of course, we all know now that it was a built up thing but, oh yeah, it fascinated us that these people could be lost in Beverly Hills! [Laughs] We thought….
GRIFFIS: I guess the hills in Beverly were kind of rough and rugged then.
NOLAN: Well, it went a long ways back there, yes. Beverly Hills stretched back before it became whatever that next section is out there. But it went back about 5 or 6 miles.
GRIFFIS: Well, they apparently gave the story that they had been lost and Glen Rice got them to come down to the station. They come down on mules.
NOLAN: Oh, I recall the story now! Yeah.
GRIFFIS: According to the stories I got from some of the fellows – they had one heck of a ride. Some of them couldn’t even ride a mule, never even seen a mule. And Zeke Manners, he was a Jew from New York and he never even seen a mule.
NOLAN: They finally cooked up that Glen Rice would go up in a truck and meet them at a certain ridge.
GRIFFIS: That’s right.
NOLAN: Probably couldn’t see them. [Laughs heartily.] Dear me!
GRIFFIS: Well, that’s right. Of course, they had a problem, too, what to do after the program was over.
NOLAN: All the people would follow them. Yeah.
GRIFFIS: They’d stay around after the program was over and, finally, they’d wait two or three hours looking. They finally solved the problem very simply. They just changed their clothes into street clothes and walked right out of the room right through the people.
NOLAN: Can you beat that! Oh, dear. [Continues laughing]
GRIFFIS: The people never recognized them in street clothes. Really great. Bob, as best you can recall back in the early days – and this is the time you were with the Rocky Mountaineers – was there really much desire or need for your close harmony like the Pioneers brought into being? In other words, do you think, regarding your days with the Rocky Mountaineers – did you really worry too much about what you sounded like?
NOLAN: Oh, good golly, yes! You betcha. You see, the Beverly Hill Billies at that time, they set a standard and we tried to beat them. I think every other group performing at that time did the same thing - tried to be better than the Beverly Hill Billies, which very few could. And it took us a long time before we were recognized as even coming close to them.
GRIFFIS: Well now, in the beginning days, you would have your trio – yourself, Slumber Nichols and Roy Rogers (Leonard Slye).
GRIFFIS: Was your style of singing very similar to theirs as far as the way you projected yourselves? In other words, the Pioneers sound and the Beverly Hill Billies sound, I think, are two different sounds.
NOLAN: Oh, yes. They emerged as two different sounds. When we started out we had to similiarize [sic] our harmony to theirs in order to get beyond theirs which we were trying to do and, as I say, it took us one heck of a long time before we come up with our sound which became one you would never recognize that we ever copied anyone. But I think we attained it through balance which the Beverly Hill Billies didn’t have. You could listen to their harmony singing and you could pick out each voice individual and we tried to make it blend so you could not pick out any one voice.
GRIFFIS: Well, now, would you say that the Beverly Hill Billies…? Can you have barbershop harmony without 4 parts? In other words, is there such as thing or…? You probably have to have 4 parts.
NOLAN: I believe so. Yes, you couldn’t emulate barbershop harmony with just 3 voices. I don’t think it could be done.
GRIFFIS: Well, I was trying to sort of project….
NOLAN: But that’s the basic idea, yeah. That’s the basic idea of trios.
GRIFFIS: But they did not have anywhere near the same sound. I’d say I’m not musically in tune at all; I don’t know anything about music but the sound of the Hill Billies was more along the line of what I always thought of as barbershop sound.
NOLAN: Well, in this respect, Ken, they were singing primarily to a people they figured could not digest, we’ll say, chromatic scales or something like that, and they kept it very plain, you see. Which was good. I think they played it right because I know it just fascinated me. It took me way back into my backwoods days in Canada with my old folks. And that’s the way it should have been. But we kept moving around with chromatics and diminishes and stuff like that and added all the other frills to it which blended from one chord to another. The Beverly Hill Billies, I don’t think they bothered with… outside maybe a plain ordinary 7th or something like that.
GRIFFIS: Unless I… [here Bob’s mynah bird shrieks, interrupting Ken] Trying to interrupt the singing! With Marty Robbins, he mentioned about the fact that the Pioneers – he’s always questioning the Pioneers always changing the parts.
NOLAN: Well, this – what we were talking about in that where we change parts – this is to facilitate the blend. In order for…you will keep the lower voice always on the lower register whether it’s carrying the lead, the baritone or the tenor. And that way, the lead singer cannot always sing the lead. He has to move up sometimes into the tenor and even as high as the high baritone.
GRIFFIS: Is that right?
GRIFFIS: And now, this is what works the Pioneer Sound?
GRIFFIS: Do you think the Pioneer would be the first…?
NOLAN: Oh, in the rural singing business, yes, we would. And we were first to use chromatic changes. Sing the chromatic scales. Half tones.
GRIFFIS: Bob, what brought about the Pioneers using something like that, that was more or less new or innovative? Whose idea, as best you recall, was to use the chromatic scales?
NOLAN: Well, I think it was more of an accident because I had…. It was only about - oh heck, I hadn’t completed Tumbling Tumbleweeds at that time – until after we had become the Sons of the Pioneers that (we started as the Rocky Mountaineers) but that song forced it because it’s all written in chromatics. And once the other groups heard that song they were fascinated by the use of chromatics and they started using them, you see.
GRIFFIS: How did you ever think to use it?
NOLAN: I don’t know. It’s just a thing that I…. It just came natural to me because I had studied harmony construction when I was going to school. And that had to be involved in harmony construction, the chromatic scale.
GRIFFIS: But it was something that really had never been heard of.
NOLAN: No, no. Not in rural music. Heck, no.
GRIFFIS: It’s fascinating. Getting back to the Beverly Hill Billies, Bob, would you happen to recall any of the voices of any of the groups that might have made an impression on you in the early days?
NOLAN: Well, of course, Ezra was always my favourite for years because he had that faraway quality in his voice and what a range! I think it was almost 3 full octaves. And his voice would be just as rich at one end of his reach as it would be on the other. The highs and the lows came out the same quality, Never strained and it was that beautiful faraway sound.
GRIFFIS: Well, a voice like that would not necessarily fit into the Sons of the Pioneers sound.
NOLAN: No. No, I don’t think so. I mean when we was trying for blend, why, it wouldn’t fit at all although Ezra sang a lot with us to fill in for boys like Tim who was our tenor singer at that time. Whenever Tim got sick, why Ezra would come over and fit in for, sit in for Tim. And Charlie Quirk would come over and stand in for Roy – or Leonard Slye at that time. Somehow, I never got sick so nobody ever stood in for me. [Chuckles]
GRIFFIS: Bob, while you’re mentioning that, somewhere along the line I intended to do research on the Pioneers and somebody told me something that rather surprised me. Said in the early days at Columbia, the studio had somebody else singing, pre-recording some of your parts there because they didn’t think your vibrato would .... Is that right?
NOLAN: That’s exactly right. Yes, they didn’t like my voice at all, see? So they get this trained voice and, of course, when they got the people who are.... Our fans went to the pictures, they knew darned well it wasn’t me singing, see. But here’s the irony of the whole thing, at that very time I was being hired by – what’s that motion picture company down on Western Avenue?
NOLAN: RKO. They had Ken – oh, what was that cowboy’s last name? Big star on the silent films.
GRIFFIS: Ken Maynard?
NOLAN: Ken Maynard! So they decided to make a musical cowboy out of him and you know who they got to dub his voice? Me! [laughs]
GRIFFIS: Is that right?
NOLAN: And this was at the same time that Columbia was having my voice dubbed by a trained singer.
GRIFFIS: Was that right?
GRIFFIS: Do you know whether or not they used your voice in a lot of pictures?
NOLAN: In Ken Maynard’s? Yes, they used them all. Sure. Ken just mouthed the words and I …. [laughs]
GRIFFIS: Is that right! Ken had a rather high-pitched voice.
NOLAN: Yeah. His was really high so I could give him a baritone quality. [laughs]
GRIFFIS: I’ve never heard that before. I guess Ken was one of the early cowboy singers. Perhaps the earliest to use music in his pictures.
NOLAN: No, I don’t think so because that’s why they went to such straits to get him in there. He couldn’t sing. I mean, actually, and what he could sing was so high, as you say. He had a very high voice and it didn’t suit the size of the man at all.
GRIFFIS: Well, I heard somewhere along the line that he used Strawberry Roan in a picture about 1928, ’29, along about there. Supposedly, the first singing cowboy. Now, whether he sang it or not, I don’t know.
NOLAN: Oh, now that could be. That could well have been, Ken, but it wouldn’t have been his voice because they couldn’t…. It was just like Jack Dempsey in the old days when they wanted to use his voice commercially. It couldn’t be done. Here’s the heavyweight champion of the world, for gosh sakes, and he had a soprano voice? No. No! [laughs]
GRIFFIS: I guess the hallmark of the Beverly Hill Billies, at least from what research I’ve done on them, Bob, has been the appeal to the older people with their heart songs. In other words, they sang the old songs, the love songs, and that separated them to a large degree, too, from the Pioneers.
NOLAN: Oh, yes, and I’ve got to tell you about Lem. He was their songwriter, see. Oh, he wrote some of the most beautiful what we used to call in those days tearjerkers. And I used to try to get him to give us some of his songs so we could do them because of the insatiable demand for new material at that time. Both the Hill Billies and the Sons were on the air an hour each day, at least. Sometimes we had 2 one-hour programs a day for 7 days a week every day of the year, see? That took an awful lot of material. So I called Lem up and I asked him if he could give us some of his songs and I would trade him some of ours for it, see? And he said no. No. Emphatically “NO” because we was imposing on them, see? He learned to hate me because I called him up dozens of times. Finally, I said to him, “Look, Lem. You either give them to me or I’m gonna take your tunes and write the same doggone melodies only I’m gonna change one note every 4 bars and use my own words.” And he’d hang up on me. That phone would bang down and I kept threatening to do that and he still wouldn’t give in, see? So. You remember his tune called The Little Choir Boy Sings all Alone Tonight?
NOLAN: No? Well, it was such a beautiful thing and such a tearjerker you just couldn’t listen to it without crying. So I told him. I says, “This is gonna be my first one.” So about, oh, a week I come up with I Wonder if She Waits for Me Tonight. And it was Lem’s tune from beginning to end except one note every 4 bars! And his title was The Choir Boy Sings All Alone Tonight and my title was I Wonder if She Waits for Me Tonight. Oh, when he heard that thing he went through the ceiling. He’s gonna sue me and I says, “You can’t do it, Lem.” And you know, before we got through we became the most fast-bound friends you ever saw in your life. [Read more about this.]
GRIFFIS: Now, did you particularly want just the songs that he had written?
NOLAN: Yes. All we wanted to do is just use them, see, because we needed so many songs to fill in the enormous amount of work we was doing.
GRIFFIS: Were you not allowed to just take the music?
NOLAN: No. You see, his wasn’t published. Some of mine were and he wasn’t supposed to use mine. You weren’t supposed to use another man’s songs unless they were published. Then they were for the public to use. Anybody could use them, you see.
GRIFFIS: Is that same thing true today?
NOLAN: No. No. Now you have to clear your songs through societies and stuff like this in order to get them on the air, even if they’re published. That’s commercial, commercial, commercial.
GRIFFIS: Well, I guess to a large degree, Bob, in the early days, there wasn’t a great deal of thought given to copyrighting.
NOLAN: No, there wasn’t, Ken. In those days, it seemed like everything was free. That is, the published music – you just took any song that you wanted, made your program up with it and put it on the air. But today all the music has to be cleared, as I said, and paid for before it’s even put on the air.
GRIFFIS: I would imagine one of the good things, I guess, and also probably has its drawbacks, is that ASCAP and BMI protects the composer.
GRIFFIS: But I wonder whether the composer really has a full measure of protection against these fellows.
NOLAN: There’s no way. No way. You see, ASCAP had a monopoly on it for years and years and that’s what brought BMI in. They had a war because it was such a lucrative thing, you see. It was a monopoly that ASCAP had and there’s a law against that, I think.
GRIFFIS: Now, did BMI…? Was it started by the composers themselves?
NOLAN: No, no. It was started by the broadcasting systems. They had to clear all their music, I mean all the music they were using all belonged to ASCAP, see, and they just decided to break that monopoly. They did a pretty good, fair job of it!
GRIFFIS: Now is BMI as strong as ASCAP?
NOLAN: Oh, definitely not. That ASCAP is a monster.
GRIFFIS: I was talking to Stuart some time ago about some problem with ASCAP and I know they have some of his songs. It appeared to me that after a period of time, say – was it 27 years you’re signed up for? – that, at the end of that time, they would have to come back to the composer and renegotiate for the rights to it and at that time it would revert to the composer and he could do anything he wanted to do with it.
NOLAN: That’s the way it should be but it isn’t the way it happens. The publishers, without the author knowing about it, will send in for a renewal of the copyright in the composer’s name and the copyright office thinks it’s the composer and it isn’t, see?
GRIFFIS: Have you ever had a problem with anything like that?
NOLAN: Oh, yeah. I’ve suit after suit going for the same reason.
GRIFFIS: Do you have any measure of success against them?
NOLAN: No. How they’ve gotten these laws that protect them, I don’t know. They have Statute of Limitations and, oh, a dozen other things going for them. This Statute of Limitations is, of course, the worst thing. It only reaches for 7 years, see, and if you want to get an accounting from them, you have to do it once every 7 years. Not like I did. I waited for 37 before I went after my back royalties on Tumbling Tumbleweeds and all I got was the last 7 years. And, whatever I got out of that, I just multiplied it by 5 times and that’s exactly what they owed me, which was a fair hunk of change, I’ll tell you that! But I couldn’t touch it because of that statute.
GRIFFIS: That’s criminal.
NOLAN: It is criminal.
GRIFFIS: Particularly if they’ve been deceptive and dishonest.
NOLAN: Yeah, well, what…. “Deceptive and dishonest”! That’s absolutely out and out fraud and the laws of the United States for fraud - you’d have had to have paid all the way back to the beginning of the song. But the judges will not allow you. They stick so to the book, see? Seven years is all you get even though they say themselves, “You have been bilked but not defrauded.”
GRIFFIS: But you don’t walk out with the whole thing.
NOLAN: No. You get the last seven years and that’s all.
GRIFFIS: Was the obvious reason for the 7 years, Bob, is there some ___[faint]____ as far as ___[faint]____ time it would take to come back to make an accounting for the ___[faint]____years? [couldn’t hear Ken’s question]
NOLAN: No, there’ve got to have all of that on their books. And here’s another stunt that they pull. Periodically you’ll hear of a publishing company having a fire in their store room, their books all burn up? [laughs] Oh, this happens to every one of them.
GRIFFIS: This would happen about every 6 years, huh?
NOLAN: Yeah. The courts hear this and they still do nothing. They can’t do anything about it because it’s written into the laws that this statute is written into the laws but think of the lobbying that these sons-a-guns had to go through to get that law in.
GRIFFIS: Are there any changes in effect?
NOLAN: Well, my lawyer herself – she’s a little crusader and she’s been trying for years to destroy that law.
GRIFFIS: That’s Edythe Jacobs?
NOLAN: Yeah. M-hmm.
GRIFFIS: She’s quite ______
NOLAN: She does, yeah. In the music world. In fact, that’s her specialty.
GRIFFIS: I guess that’s a fairly complicated business.
NOLAN: It is. It’s because there’s so many things like this I’m telling you about – these loopholes that they’ve lobbied into the laws of the music world and so many other shyster-ish [sic] things they've pull on the composers and authors. All the laws are set up to protect the publisher and the publisher only.
GRIFFIS: Bob, other than Tumbling Tumbleweeds and Cool Water, what would be your next, well, say your order of remuneration that you receive? I guess Tumbling Tumbleweeds is your most….
NOLAN: No. Strange to say, it isn’t. It’s like I say, I’ve had to sue them all my life and I never get a….
GRIFFIS: What should have been? Let’s put it that way.
NOLAN: What should have been, yes. By far. It’s been used more but the one that’s paid me off is the one that BMI has, Cool Water.
GRIFFIS: And what would be your third one?
NOLAN: I would say The Touch of God’s Hand which is not a western song. It’s an outdoor tune but, with its religious connotations, it’s not classed as a commercial tune at all. But it has really sold.
GRIFFIS: Is it out on sheet music?
NOLAN: Yes, sheet music and recordings. I’ve had beautiful recordings on all the big stars like Eddie Arnold, Johnny Gray, Vaughn Monroe. Oh, dear. It goes on and on.
GRIFFIS: He Walks with the Wild and the Lonely. Is that a little bit difficult for people to sing?
NOLAN: It is a difficult song to sing. Jimmy Carroll [??], the high tenor, is maybe the only one that I think is, outside of the Pioneers, that is a solo voice. Because he’s got a tremendous range and very clear on his highs and that is important with this one because it – the first tone is the highest tone in the whole song, see? It’s awfully hard to just start on a really high tone.
GRIFFIS: I guess the same thing – Stuart Hamblen has written some very beautiful things, too.
NOLAN: Oh, yes. His things are so down to earth like This Ol’ House and It is No Secret and those things. Ah, gee. They just can’t be beat.
GRIFFIS: You know, your music is relatively….
NOLAN: Yes, well, if you call allegorical writing, I do write in allegory all the time. And you have to make the comparison from the allegory to the actual thing that I’m writing about. For instance, Cool Water. Very few people know what I’m writing about. They think I’m writing about water and I’m not. I’m writing about the lack of water. And a lot of people in the East don’t know what a mirage is so I purposely left the word out. If I could have put it in – because there’s nothing to rhyme with mirage, you know, unless you say garage. [laughs] But it was a difficult thing to decide on because I knew it was not going to be universally accepted, as far as knowing what the devil I was talking about.
GRIFFIS: Now, was Cool Water written about ’35 or ’36?
NOLAN: Uh. A little earlier than that. Maybe between ’33 and ’34. It was when the Sons were still with – we had just become the Pioneer Trio and we were singing with the Texas Outlaws.
GRIFFIS: Do you happen to recall what brought about writing a song like this? Was there some physical effect you actually saw?
NOLAN: Oh, yes. That was it – the mirage! I’ve seen such fantastic mirages out on the desert but there was no way of using that word because it just didn’t sing good and, as I say, you couldn’t rhyme anything with it.
GRIFFIS: The Pioneers, I believe, on the first recording session in 1945___[faint]____. Do you know who the trio was? As I recall, you, Tim and Hugh?
NOLAN: You’re kidding! I sure don’t remember.
GRIFFIS: Without the book to refer to, but I’m almost certain, the reason I say this, I believe it was on your August 1945 recording session and Ken Carson did the “water”.
GRIFFIS: OK. Well, if he’s doing the “water”, then that leaves you and Hugh and Tim to do the trio.
NOLAN: Uh-huh. Ah! By George, I think you’re right! Sure. Because the trio was Ken Carson and Tim and myself. Right. Do you suppose we had Pat Brady do it?
GRIFFIS: I don’t know. I don’t think so because Pat wasn’t that good a singer but you can very distinctly hear Hugh sing.
NOLAN: Oh. Well, that would….
GRIFFIS: I’m almost certain you would not be doing a quartet. It’s trio singing.
GRIFFIS: I think it’s rather strange that on one of your most popular songs, you, Tim and Hugh were the vocal trio. Isn’t that it?
NOLAN: Yes, it would have to be because Lloyd was overseas and Pat.
GRIFFIS: That’s right. They hadn’t returned and I’ve studied that discography and I have letters from people who write me about it. One fella says, “My wife calls it my Bible! I carry it around with me under my arm wherever I go,” he says. “I think of something I would open the pages and look it up.” It’s been rather gratifying to see the number of people who have just really thirsted for an actual knowledge of the Pioneers and to take such a deep interest. I’ve had letters from Europe and Japan.
NOLAN: Well, the amazing thing to me is that when I stop and think of the amount of research you must have put in on that thing. Tremendous!
GRIFFIS: There’s a lot of work on it. I really take pride in the fact that there’s only very few minor mistakes that I’ve ever found in that thing. There’s some omissions that I did not know about and, well, to give it a name – the Beverly Hill Billies. I wanted to ask you about them. One strange thing is I thought I knew a lot about the Pioneers when I started writing the book. I started in about 1968. The more I wrote, the less I found I knew about it. And what, particularly when I was interviewing Ken Curtis, I did not know at that time who was on the trio because, you know, you get one of these albums and it’s got five different trios on one album. I could hear these strange voices and says “Does this sound like the one before?” Well, there could be a ten year difference so he started telling me that he’d left the group in 1953 and then he got to talking and showing me some of the albums. And I knew approximately when these records were made – 1955-57, along in there. “So that’s Bob and Lloyd and I.” I thought he wanted correcting but how could he have left the group and still be with you when you had left the group in ’49? And then I didn’t know that you three had come together again in ’55 and recorded for two years. It was refreshing to find he was correct and when he could hear the sound he knew exactly who it was. I had no idea that you three had ever gotten together to record and I thought he’d got his names mixed up. “That must be Tommy Doss!” “No, that’s Bob Nolan.”
NOLAN: Well, he’s right. I mean I get so mixed up like here, when we’re sitting here doing this tape. I have to think and then I’m not sure whether we’ve got the right answer or not.
GRIFFIS: Well, it took a lot of work but I’ve found it to be very factual and very few corrections and the point I was going to make on this – singing with Ken Curtis, do you happen to recall your reaction to singing with him in the beginning? In other words, was there quite a change or anything you had to make with Tim gone?
NOLAN: No, but there was …. You do know that when you’re used to singing with one voice and you have to change one of the voices in the trio - I don’t know what the feeling is you get. You know it’s good; he’s got a beautiful voice and true, see, but there’s….You’ve left a familiar sound and now you have a strange one. And yet, I’ve asked numerous of our fans if they think that Ken is a better singer than Lloyd or Lloyd is a better singer than Ken and they say, “How do we know. I’ve never heard Ken.” [laughs] They’ve already heard him, see?
GRIFFIS: But they really didn’t miss Tim?
NOLAN: Didn’t miss it at all.
GRIFFIS: Well, there’s one thing about Ken – I think that he had a real strong voice and he, a bit along the lines of Lloyd’s voice, he could really belt it out. And Tim, I don’t think, really had that….
NOLAN: No, he didn’t. And one thing that is always a requisite with me is that the voice be true. Ken had the truest tone that you could imagine.
GRIFFIS: I know that one session you people did in 1949 you recorded Ghost Riders in the Sky and the last song that you people did was Lie Low, Little Dogies. And I had never heard that. I never found anybody who had a copy of it. I ran across a beautiful 78 of it the other day. Man, I’ll tell you that is a beautiful thing!
NOLAN: You know who wrote it?
GRIFFIS: Tim Spencer wrote it and it’s a beautiful thing. It says on the record A Cowboy’s Prayer and you do a recitation in it about the calf.
NOLAN: Oh, I remember now. That title – it’s a beautiful title, too.
GRIFFIS: And you do a 45 second “Lord, I don’t understand why you let that coyote kill my calf. You must have had reasons for it.” But the harmony on that is magnificent.
NOLAN: I haven’t heard it recently. I can’t recall…. I can’t even recall the melody now.
GRIFFIS: I’ll have to bring it down here. Have you got a record player you can play 78s?
GRIFFIS: I’ll have to bring it down and play it for you. I think that’s one of finest things that you fellas did and it was on that one session where you left _______[faint].
NOLAN: Was that a Victor record?
NOLAN: I know it wasn’t published at the time but I don’t know why.
GRIFFIS: You recall this song?
GRIFFIS: Do you remember ________[faint]_____
NOLAN: What’s the title again?
GRIFFIS: No One Here but Me.
NOLAN: No! That isn’t one that I remember doing.
GRIFFIS: I wondered what it sounded like. I can get a copy if I call Frank Driggs, who’s the head of RCA – they’re putting together some albums and they were talking about doing an album. A friend of mine – Mitch Ames. “Hey! When are you doing another record of the Pioneers?” He says, “Well, it’s not on my priority list but I’d like to___________[faint]__________
NOLAN: Stan Jones.
GRIFFIS: Is that right?
GRIFFIS: He was a magnificent writer.
NOLAN: Oh, yeah.
GRIFFIS: Do you recall what theme…? Was it a love song?
NOLAN: No, it’s man’s thoughts to himself as he walks through Nature. No matter who’s around.
GRIFFIS: I’d love to hear that. [Another question so faint I couldn’t hear it.]
NOLAN: I don’t know. Maybe we did.
GRIFFIS: Like Supersonic Suzy.
GRIFFIS: Part II of the Interview with Bob Nolan. Bob, getting back to the Beverly Hill Billies, do you recall one of the fellas with them called Jad Dees?
GRIFFIS: The recordings I’ve heard of him, he had a good voice, too.
NOLAN: Yeah, and he could do anything with it. Did you ever hear him imitate the different Hill Billies? He had the voice, tremendous voice to copy mine! And this also made Lem Giles mad. [laughs]
GRIFFIS: No, I never heard that. Your voice isn’t that easy to imitate.
NOLAN: From what I gather, it’s quite distinctive and once you’ve got it, but he did. Every once in awhile, Jad would get up on their program to do his solo and he’d do it in my voice. And Lem Giles would lay his guitar down and stomp out of the studio. He hated me. Oh, boy!
GRIFFIS: That’s funny. [laughs] Let’s see. There was Charlie Quirk who had a pretty fair tenor voice.
NOLAN: Yes. A sweet voice.
GRIFFIS: And Lem Giles. I guess he was lead voice.
NOLAN: No, Lem was the baritone. Jad was the lead, Ezra was the tenor and Lem was the baritone.
GRIFFIS: Do you recall the fiddler that they had?
NOLAN: I remember his name Hank Skillet but I never knew his true name.
GRIFFIS: I think it was Blaeholder but he had a pretty fair-sounding fiddle.
NOLAN: Yeah, he did. He was one of those old time fiddlers where those double stops they used to play, you know, like Rye. Oh, I used to like listening to him.
GRIFFIS: Do you remember Len Dossey? He was around for many years in country music. He and Shug Fisher were very close together.
NOLAN: Oh, now I know! Yeah.
GRIFFIS: Now, he was supposed to have been a pretty fair fiddler.
NOLAN: I never heard him play the fiddle but I’d seen him a couple of times, through Shug.
GRIFFIS: The Beverly Hill Billies, as I would guess, Bob, if you were to take them as a group, the reason for their phenomenal success - would it have been the mystique behind them, the way they were discovered? Or could they have come on the station and say, “Gentlemen, we have a new group here called The Los Angeles Rangers and here they are?” Would they have made near the impact with just coming on and singing with their voices?
NOLAN: No, I don’t think so. They could have done it on their voices alone, yes, but not with the impact that they did attain. Oh, that mystique that they built up, that cute little story. It reminds me of some of the…. No, I’m not going to say it. [laughs]
GRIFFIS: Why is that?
NOLAN: You can always cut it out?
GRIFFIS: Oh, yes.
NOLAN: All right. It reminds me of some of those fairy tales and Bible stories. You can tear them apart, I mean, there’s no truth to them. Did you ever take the life of Moses – take him right through childhood to manhood – all those fictions. You can’t get a thing that holds together.
GRIFFIS: Well, I think, if you’re taking the bunch of…. I used to ask questions when I was growing up, “Why? Why?” and then get to a point where ___[faint]____ you just have to accept _____[faint]_____
NOLAN: That’s the thing like here. [picks up and slaps the cover of a book] See this man here? One of the greatest philosophers in the last six centuries. His one burning question is why so many people accept it without question, see? And Descartes before him – he asked the same question.
GRIFFIS: Well, you know, if you take the actual time that has supposedly has been here on earth from the beginning of time, you go back 6 thousand years….
NOLAN: [interrupting] You’re wrong there, Ken. There is no beginning of time. See, eternity has no beginning.
GRIFFIS: Well, I’m saying the years, if you take the years of the Bible, say …
NOLAN: Oh, yes, if you take the Bible.
GRIFFIS: It may have been five or six thousand years. If you take all the generations you start going back, you’re not going five thousand years. Well, we know that man has been here for millions, maybe perhaps billions of years so I’ve never been able to figure out …. Well, if the Bible says “he begat” and “he begat” and so forth, if you go back roughly five or six thousand years, what was man before that? I’ve never been able to figure that out.
NOLAN: Well, that’s what the scientists are all about right now – what they’re trying to figure out – and you can’t find a scientist that isn’t also a philosopher, and especially the mathematicians. Here’s where you find your great probers.
GRIFFIS: I think it’s rather fascinating, though, when you get into that.
NOLAN: Oh, it is. When I think of…. Well, the few philosophers that I have studied, to go back and find twelve hundred years ago a Democritus or a Lucretius or an Epicurus, all of these guys were upholders of the Atomic Theory. Twelve hundred years ago! See? So our main one nowadays was Einstein. Was it? Yeah. So he had to be set off by these old proclaimers of the Atomic Theory. He had to pick up where they left off. There again is what, as Spinoza puts it, what he calls eternal thinking. The eternal _____ [??] – not putting it in his words but this is what…. One thought…. That thoughts are – that the thought of man is eternal. One passes it down to another even though he may not know where it’s coming from. But I’m sure Einstein knew where his came from. He had to start with Democritus, who was the first, then Epicurus picked it up then Lucretius. Then it just passed on down until, finally, our Einstein completed it.
GRIFFIS: I just have a spattering knowledge of the earth - people back through the Greek era, I guess. ___[faint]_____ I never realized that they _____________[faint]_________.
NOLAN: Oh, yes. Of course, I never did until it was broached by Descartes and Spinoza but I got to looking up these fellows in your encyclopaedias and there they are. Twelve hundred years ago the Atomic Theorists.
GRIFFIS: Do you believe that there’s any after life?
NOLAN: Not outside of the mind. The mind is eternal. I think if you garner enough knowledge in the short time you are alive, you pass something on. It’s got to be that way. It’s here to stay until somebody picks it up.
GRIFFIS: Well, what about _______[faint]_____________?
GRIFFIS: When the person dies that’s the end of their…?
NOLAN: As far as they themselves in this thing…. When you can speak of incarnation and you’ve got to come up with that back…. You come from the earth, you go back to it and you’ve got to go back out of here. In other words, all the elements that are in the human body are in the earth to begin with. You’ve got to go back into that deep feeling and out of it to become something else, maybe not a person. Maybe an animal, maybe a plant, maybe a tree.
GRIFFIS: And the thoughts…?
NOLAN: Well, I’d say that is the only thing that is left of the human, that remains behind, is the knowledge.
GRIFFIS: That transpires by incident or accident from somebody else?
NOLAN: No, no, there’s no phenomena about it. It’s there for anybody who wants to pick it up. Sometimes you’ll hear people say they feel like they’ve lived 4 or 5 hundred years before? It’s just in the reverse. They didn’t live; they’re living now on somebody else who lived before.
NOLAN: It’s just the reverse.
GRIFFIS: George Patton thought that he had at one time lived as a general……
NOLAN: Well, it’s natural for them to feel that way but it’s just the reverse of what’s happening.
GRIFFIS: You’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it?
NOLAN: It’s taken me 50 years just to get to actually understand a bit of what Descartes was speaking about. And about Spinoza. I’ve been reading these fellas for 50 years. I’ve often thought, you know the advertisements you see on TV of these fast readers and you see them going through a book like this, see? [demonstrates] Turning those pages at a rate of one every 5 seconds. That’s 2 pages every 5 seconds! Impossible! To read a man like this? It’s taken me 50 years.
GRIFFIS: Well, I’m wondering if there isn’t a difference of reading material that they’re having to digest, too.
NOLAN: Could be. If you wanted to read Jacqueline Susann, I believe you could. Every other line you get the thought of what she writes. Or every third line. I don’t mean to belittle somebody who’s dead. She knew it herself. She could tell that. Just by looking at the woman – the way she talked, she said didn’t give a darn. People wanted this. If they were willing to pay for it, she was willing to write it.
GRIFFIS: If we could touch again on the Beverly Hill Billies. I’m trying to think if there’s anybody else connected with them that I could go to get your personal side. Wesley Tuttle sang briefly with them, Stuart Hamblen was with them in 1930. Elton Britt came out. I don’t know if you remember him?
GRIFFIS: 30-40 thousand people out at Burbank airport.
NOLAN: Yeah. They picked him up “in Ontario” and brought him into Burbank. [laughs]
GRIFFIS: Is that right?
NOLAN: No. [Laughs heartily.] This is the way I’ve got it figured out. Some place else.
GRIFFIS: The Beverly Hill Billies, I guess, from the time they began until …. When do you think they began to wane as far as their popularity, as far as their top-notch singing…? About what time?
NOLAN: They had some very lukewarm, I mean cool years there for, oh …. Actually, they destroyed themselves by inward conflicts, you know, within the group. The management, too, was not very desirable. But they had about 5 good years and then, as I say, they were getting wise to the fact that the managing part of their organization was making all the money, see? And they were just getting enough to maybe buy a bottle of wine.
GRIFFIS: Would you compare the general voices of Lloyd and Ezra Paulette, as far as abilities?
NOLAN: Oh, yeah. Ability, yes, but there’s an entire difference in quality and the effect that each voice had on the listener. That’s all in quality. Their voices were very similar.
GRIFFIS: Would Ezra have everybody____[faint]_____?
NOLAN: Well, we sang with him numerous times and, I don’t know, although I liked him as a soloist, I just…no.
GRIFFIS: Did you ever come across many voices like Lloyd’s in the business?
NOLAN: No, I don’t think so. And that isn’t the point at all. I mean, if you’re trying to blend voices, each unit has to blend with the other. You can’t take any one voice and say, “He would blend.” If you’re given enough time, we could have taken Ezra but we’d have had to change because he’s not used to doing that, see? He wasn’t trying to blend his voice with the other two in the Beverly Hill Billies. We tried! So, if we were gonna have to sing with him, that meant that either Roy – that both Roy and myself, or Tim and myself – would have had to change to blend with him. He could have never done it cuz he didn’t know how. He wouldn’t know how to start.
GRIFFIS: Well, he maybe never projected himself the same way Lloyd was able to.
NOLAN: No, I don’t think so.
GRIFFIS: Lloyd, I think – in my estimation – had one of the greatest harmony voices but would you agree that Lloyd lacks a little bit of something as far as a soloist like _______[faint]_____________ so he could not necessarily turn people on.
NOLAN: No, I don’t think so but I see what you’re getting at. There again becomes a charismic [sic] quality that you project not only in your voice but in your own personality. People can see…like to watch…. I used to get a thrill out of hearing Judy Garland when she was 12 years old. Then I got to see her in person. I mean right up close, within six feet of her and that girl just reached out and grabbed you right by the heart.
NOLAN: Oh, yeah.
GRIFFIS: Well, Bob, I think that pretty well covers things. I thank you for your time. I just feel it’s important that somebody sit down and get the history as much as we can.
NOLAN: I think you should pick up the instigators of the whole thing. They should be recorded for posterity. To me, they were the first big ones.
GRIFFIS: One more question. How would you compare the voices of Ken Curtis and Lloyd as far as….?
NOLAN: Well, now, again you’re talking about a boy that either studied music or voice or he copied the trained singers’ voices. And we had a little bit of trouble with him to get him to stop pronouncing his words like a music teacher would have you do, see? I’ve never asked him if he studied voice or not but he must have or tried to emulate a trained singer’s voice. We had to get him to break that habit. I remember when we first started to do The Lord’s Prayer and Ken came up with “Lord, deliver us from e-vill. I said, “Ken, when you talk you say e-vull don’t you?” He said, “Yes, I say e-vull”. I said, “Then, why e-vill?”
GRIFFIS: I think he did that on the recording, didn’t he?
NOLAN: Yeah. He just forgot what we wanted him to do – we’d trained him to do. It was things like that lead me to believe he’d studied voice.
GRIFFIS: Just a rough feeling on the part of Ken Curtis – he had a desire to _______[faint]_____________.
NOLAN: Yeah, I do, because if you take it from that angle, he was a better showman than Lloyd but I don’t know. I’d take Lloyd’s voice.
GRIFFIS: Oh, Lloyd! Magnificent voice. That’s the thing about Lloyd. For a person who didn’t have musical training he pronounces his words clearly and distinctly and phrasing and then always kept sustained notes right up to…. I noticed last night still hold that note. That’s something that most singers don’t do. They can’t sustain the note.
NOLAN: They get through with it, they want to drop it!
GRIFFIS: I’ll make you a copy someday. I’m pretty sure you were on the program on the Lucky U Ranch that day. They had you on the program – Bob Nolan Day. You and Tommy Doss sang Hill Billy Wedding. I think on that particular program, somehow the mikes got out of balance and Lloyd is standing too close and his voice is totally separated from the others and you can hear him keeping the sustained note. It’s just really amazing how long he keeps a sustained note. And the others have stopped.
NOLAN: Yeah. They’re gone.
GRIFFIS: Bob, thank you so much.