San Francisco, California, December 14, 2006
I thought I'd run down a story of how and what the Sons meant to me. I was walking through a yard sale of sorts in the back of my high school - Millburn in New Jersey. I saw a bunch of records that all sold for 5 cents each. I saw 2 box sets of 78s that looked interesting and bought them. One was a collection of Claude Debussy and the other was The Sons of the Pioneers. I really didn't know a thing about either artist, but at that price, who cared.
I got the records home and played them on my father's stereo in our basement. I think I played the Debussy first and was instantly blown away by the music. I thought it was the most beautiful classical music I had ever heard. Then I put on the Son's music and AGAIN - I was mesmerized by the songs and especially the harmonies. I was mainly a rock, jazz and soundtrack fan of music, but the swing and harmonies of the Sons opened up a new world to me. As I was starting my record collection, I went out to buy 33 albums of both Debussy and the Sons. I found excellent 2 LP sets of both.
I can tell you truthfully to this day that Debussy is my favorite classical composer and while their music is in the top 10 of all favorites, I feel that the Sons of the Pioneers from '38 through 1949 had the best harmonies of anyone I have ever heard. I put them up against family groups like the Rowan Brothers, the Boswell Sisters, the Beach Boys and even the Mills Brothers, who were something of a phenomenon themselves in what they did with their voices besides singing.
Something that I wanted to tell you involves a fantasy a couple of decades ago that relates to your website and the contents. I have, since I moved to San Francisco, been a member of the San Francisco Folk Club, which was started shortly after World War II. It's a wonderful organization as it's one of the very few outlets for people to perform acoustic folk, country and blues music and everything around that. A great songbook largely came out from that organization called "Rise up Singing". The book has hundreds of songs, but mainly the words and chords and no melody lines or music notation written. There is, though in small print, the main background of each song as to who wrote it and where the recordings of the main versions come from. A really invaluable source of great music.
Over the years in many various book, music and antique shops I had tried to obtain any songbooks of the Sons. I, at that time around the mid 80s, couldn't find any. This started to bother me - not so much that I couldn't find any but, that with so many country artists recording some sort of Nolan or Spencer song for the past 3 - 5 decades, why there wasn't any songbooks dedicated to them. I started a casual crusade in wanting to do something about it. I thought at first to say "to hell with the search" and do my own book in the same or similar form as our "Rise up Singing" book and give the same info as to the what and where of the original recordings and have any interested persons go out and search the world themselves. Two things happened after this.
I was visiting a good and longtime friend in Pasadena who was a school teacher at a middle/magnet school (Junior High level) of kids who wanted to be in the arts somehow - mainly performing arts - actors and singers. His school was the Pecoima Middle School, which was actually the same high school years before that Ritchie Valens (La Bamba) attended. My friend's name is James Gleason, who was originally from Pelham, New York. I told him at his house about this Sons songbook fantasy and he went to the phone to talk to someone. He talked to this woman for roughly 5 minutes and then asked her "Aren't you related to someone in the Sons of the Pioneers?" I didn't know what he was doing, but it sure got my immediate attention. Then he signals me to take the phone.
I didn't know who or what I was talking to. A guy comes on and says he is Glen Spencer. At first I thought he was Tim's son, then find out he was his nephew. I introduced myself and told him of my songbook fantasy. The first thing he said to me was, "Well, you know, I'm not a big fan of the Sons of the Pioneers". You could have knocked me over with a feather. I asked him "Why?" And he said, "When I was a little boy, my father had the group over many times for rehearsals in our living room and I always ran out to see their horses and all they had was this beat up old station wagon". Well, I laughed out loud and hard and we continued talking for about 15 minutes. Then he asked me if I wanted to organized the archives that he had "in his basement" of the Sons of the Pioneers. I was foaming at the mouth with what he was asking me. I couldn't comprehend what a fantastic chance this would have been for me to do something like this and that he even had a basement in a southern California home, which was and is indeed rare. I explained to him that I was in the middle of working on a property I bought in Cave Junction, Oregon, and building a recording studio there where I would be starting on a major recording project of mainly rock-styled original recordings and that I couldn't tackle any outside project at the time. He in turn told me that he would be tied up for some time with an immigration issue in California. I thanked him for his time and offer and told him that I would get back to him sometime in the near future on his offer, if he still wanted me.
The next thing I had to do was to visit the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans museum near Apple Valley. I found a time during the summer of '95 or '96 to go down and see this place while I was visiting friends in San Diego. I got to the museum at 10:15 and there was this huge old army-fort-from-the-old-west-looking building and about 3 cars in the parking lot. It was already about 95° and as I walked in, this woman comes running out of the place yelling to her boyfriend or husband - "He's here! He's here!" At first I couldn't understand what she was talking about. But as I went through the door I realized that it must be Roy. And sure enough, there he was in the middle of the lobby talking to fans. I was too overcome to consider walking up to this king of the cowboys and what I was to say to him? So I immediately walked through the museum and took a slow tour of the place thinking that Roy would not be there when I was done. I think I was in there about 45 minutes and, of course, very much impressed.
When I came out, Roy was still there and there were a few more people around the place than when I first came in. I still wasn't going to talk to Roy as I was too shy. Then this woman came over and said, "Young man, can you please take a picture of Roy and my husband?" I couldn't understand why she couldn't do it, but kindly obliged. I asked her to get into the picture and she replied, "Oh, no. Just my husband." This might have been my first experience of the term "a guy thing". The husband came over and thanked me and asked me if I would like to have my picture taken and I thanked him and declined. Then he said, "I'll send you a picture". So I changed my mind, thanked him and had my picture taken with Roy. I then hinted to Roy that I wanted to do a Sons songbook and what did he think. Roy told me that he had retired from recording and wasn't doing any more. Apparently I confused him into thinking I wanted to do a recording project with him. I didn't press the issue as I didn't want to confuse him any more and hung out a bit.
I found out 2 things about his personality. One, while I was sort of eavesdropping a talk he was having with a fan, Roy was talking about his old boss, Herbert Yates at Republic, and I heard Roy cussing him out with several 4 lettered words that I thought I would never hear out of the mouth of the King of the Cowboys. I couldn't believe it at first. He never used the word "God" with his cussing, but that didn't matter to me. The other thing was after most of the people in the place had left, he walks over to the admission counter and somewhat brassfully demands from this elderly woman behind the bars "Give me a cup of coffee!" The woman looks him straight in the eye and replies, "You say PLEASE!" I think the look on Roy's face mirrored mine and he bowed his head slightly in a little joking shame and said, "OK - please." Apparently they were good friends and easy with each other. I shopped around the gift shop some and then as I left didn't see Roy. The legend vanished. As I went to my car, which I parked around the back, I saw this guy taking garbage out to the dumpster. I recognized him as Roy Junior - Dusty, probably just doing some daily chores. I wished I had talked with him then, but I knew he was busy and I had a 6-hour drive back to San Francisco.
The last part about this songbook story occurred at my place up in Cave Junction. I had found a couple of songbooks and sheets from the '30s and '40s of the Sons, but hadn't really found much considering that between Bob and Tim there had to be several hundred songs written. It still bothered me that there was no songbook and that they certainly deserved several. But this editor in the local paper up there got wind that I was a fan and sent a reporter to come out and tell my story of meeting Roy. This editor didn't even know about the music or why I went there in the first place. I tell the reporter everything, emphasizing the music and Bob and Tim, and the following week there is my picture with Roy (from what the husband sent me) with the caption, "JD Smith to Write Sons of the Pioneer's Songbook With Roy's Blessing" I was shocked that it was a beautiful story and headline but totally inaccurate. I NEVER said that Roy gave his blessing about anything. I, in fact, confused him and dropped the subject. It didn't matter as I never did approach doing the project. I was just too bust for 5 years working on my studio and my own recording project and by that time I had lost interest and hoped someone else would try this. The one good thing that came out of that story was that I did receive some more sheet music and books from very kind people. I still hold that stuff dearly.
I guess that last part of this story involves my new wife of 2 years ago and I visiting Branson, Missouri and seeing both shows of Dusty at the new Roy and Dale museum and catching the current Sons of the Pioneers at a place up the road from the museum. The 2 main things about this visit was 1) obtaining this large coffee table book of songs done by Sons in full music and lyric notation from the Republic pictures and 2) meeting Dale Warren who had been with the Sons for an unbelievable 53 years, which was exactly my age then. I thought, "At least, there is a book now that covers some of the Sons songs." I would say the book covers around 75% of their popular recordings, but that there are so many others that were not in this beautiful book. I was able to e-mail the author of the book and tell him in a similar length what I write to you here and his response to me was, "keep your day job", meaning, the book isn't a huge seller and cost a lot of money and time for the few who bought it.
It makes me wonder if there still isn't a need for such a book that I fantasized about 15 or so years ago. A guy I knew years ago named Lou Curtis who ran (I still think he runs it) a record and tape store called "Folk Arts records in the Kensington area of San Diego told me that he had the actual last song that Bob hand wrote (on paper) and I think I saw it in print myself recently. It was not a full song to my knowledge, but just the words before he passed away.
Anyway, I wanted to share this with you and look forward to checking out your website more and more from time to time.