|Oklahoma Musicians and The Broadcast Frontier|
Chapter Three: Oklahoma Radio In the Twenties, Thirties and Forties
Radio became the primary source of entertainment and information for Oklahomans during the 1930s and 1940s. Radio ownership increased from 21.6 percent of all households in 1929 to 73 percent by 1940. By the beginning of World War II, radio service extended to every part of Oklahoma, with station ownership no longer limited to urban areas. Network affiliation was not limited to the stations located in larger cities--62.6 percent of all Oklahoma stations had an affiliation with one of the four national radio networks, and most fother Oklahoma stations were affiliated with one of the smaller regional networks.
KVOO: Tulsa's Premier Radio Station
In the 1930s and 1940s, two stations dominated and set the trends for Oklahoma radio: WKY and KVOO. Although there were several other large stations, WKY and KVOO were consistently the leaders in Oklahoma broadcasting. The early history of KVOO parallels that of WKY in many aspects; like WKY, KVOO was started for the purpose of selling radios and became profitable under the financial support of a prominent local businessman.
KVOO began in 1924 as station KFRU in Bristow, Oklahoma, founded by the E.H Rollestone, owner of the Southwest Sales Corporation, a radio wholesaler. By late 1925, the Southwest Sales Corporation, and KFRU with it, was purchased by Tulsa oilman W.G. Skelly, who had been dabbling in broadcasting for several years using his oil company's field radio system occasionally to transmit entertainment. At the time of KFRU's purchase by Skelly, the station's call letters were changed to KVOO. In the licensing free-for-all created by the 1927 Dill-White Radio Act, KVOO acquired a clear channel license and in 1928 moved its new 25,000-watt station to Tulsa.
Unlike WKY, which seemed more to emulate Eastern stations, KVOO's programming focused more on rural music and listeners. From its inception, many of the station's most popular acts had a distinctly rural image. Two such acts that debuted on KFRU in 1924 were "Jimmie Wilson and His Catfish String Band" and "Otto Gray and His Oklahoma Cowboy Band." Both reached a certain amount of fame nationally and each was a precursor of extremely popular trends.
"Jimmie Wilson and His Catfish String Band" opened each broadcast with, "This is Jimmie Wilson broadcasting from Andrew Jackson Johnson's farm down on the banks of old Polecat Creek." Wilson's act began as a Bristow Rotary Club hobby and was known for including a liberal dose of humor with the music. Wilson is remembered for the first use of sound effects in a radio program and as the forerunner to other comic music acts such as the Spike Jones Orchestra.
Although beginning in Oklahoma on KFRU, Otto Gray and His Oklahoma Cowboy Band enjoyed most of their popularity in the East. After honing his style on KFRU, Gray took his act to the vaudeville circuits in the Northeast. As the popularity of vaudeville faded, Gray performed on a variety of radio stations, promoting his highly popular public performances in the process. Although clearly ahead of his time, Gray was one of the first singers to integrate the imagery and music of the West in his show. Although Gray is a little known performer today, his show set the stage for the enormous popularity of the Singing Cowboy, as epitomized by another Oklahoman who began his career on KVOO, Gene Autry.
From radio's earliest days, established performers had been using radio to promote their careers. However, by the late 1920s, radio had developed an audience of sufficient size launch an unknown performer to national notoriety almost overnight. Gene Autry began his career on radio and continued to use radio effectively as he rose through the ranks of show business.
Born Orvon Gene Autry in 1907, Autry was one of the biggest stars to have originated on the Oklahoma airwaves. Autry's family moved from Texas to Ravia, Oklahoma, in the early 1920s. Autry's first show business job was with the "Fields Brothers Marvelous Medicine Show" where he performed for one summer as a teen. Autry sang, acted, and performed black-face comedy for the Fields Brothers for the sum of fifteen dollars per week. Because Fields often used a young boy to sing ballads in order to soften up the crowd before giving them the big pitch for his variety of patent medicines, singing was Autry's primary job.
His experience with the medicine show made Autry long for a career as a singer. During his next job as a telegraph operator for the St. Louis and Frisco Railroad, two events inspired him to seek a career in show business. The first was hearing Jimmie Rodgers, whose style he learned to imitate during the long stretches of time between telegraph messages. The second was a chance meeting with Will Rogers. According to the Autry mythos, Rogers had stopped at the Chelsea, Oklahoma, railroad office, where Autry worked, to send a telegram. Rogers heard Autry singing and playing his guitar in the telegraph office and encouraged him to go to New York to seek a professional career. In 1927, Autry took Rogers' advice to heart and used his railroad pass to travel to New York.
In New York, Autry managed to locate another Oklahoman, Johnny Marvin, who was enjoying some success as a radio performer under the name "The Lonesome Singer of the Air." Marvin arranged for Autry to audition for an producer at Victor Records who was not impressed and encouraged him to go back home and practice. Undaunted, Autry returned to Oklahoma and obtained a job singing on KVOO in Tulsa as "The Oklahoma Yodeling Cowboy." While at KVOO, Autry became very popular and made many personal appearances at parties, schools, and night clubs. Autry traveled back to New York in 1929 and convinced Victor Records to record him. The depression prevented Autry's records from receiving wide promotion or distribution.
A few months later, Autry's KVOO performances came to the attention of Arthur Satherley who produced records for the Sears and Roebuck Conqueror label. Satherley agreed to record Autry for Conqueror Records, and these recordings led to Autry's big break--a regular spot on Sears' Chicago radio station WLS. Autry was an instant success on the WLS "National Barn Dance," and Sears exploited his popularity to market a variety of products from song books and records to the "Gene Autry Round-Up Guitars." Autry's appearances on "National Barn Dance" brought him to the attention of Hollywood in 1934, and after appearing in a string of serials and feature films, he was named the "Nation's Number One Singing Cowboy." Autry continued to appear in films and on the CBS radio program "Melody Ranch" up through the 1950s.
Autry's beginning on Oklahoma radio had afforded him the opportunity to hone his singing skills and develop the radio personality he would take to great heights elsewhere. His performances on KVOO had taken him to Chicago's WLS, and WLS led him to Hollywood. The money he earned there gave him the financial power to branch out into a variety of successful businesses. Eventually, Autry's investments included ownership of radio and television stations, oil wells, and the California Angels baseball team.
Locally Produced Programs in the '30s and '40s
After the controversy surrounding the direct advertising of products was resolved, radio became a very profitable industry during the 1930s and 1940s. The influx of cash from advertising allowed radio to experiment with different types of programs and attract the talents of major stars. As vaudeville's popularity waned, many of its most famous personalities began to appear on network radio. By the mid-1930s, comedy, drama, serials, and variety shows dominated both network and locally-produced radio. Nationally, entertainers like Amos 'n' Andy, Eddie Cantor, and Jack Benny; quiz shows like "Pot o' Gold"; and serials like "The Shadow" and "Inner Sanctum" were among the most popular radio programs during this period.
Smaller, non-network stations also had access to the type of programing that was offered by bigger network stations. Transcription services, non-network radio production companies, produced and sold programs to sponsors that were then distributed free (or at a nominal charge) to local stations. Upon broadcast, local stations received a share of the advertising profits paid to the transcription service and were allowed to sell spot ads to their local advertisers. Although the transcription- services also sold their programs to network stations, they were most popular with the non-network stations that received cheap, profitable, high-quality programs.
Despite all Oklahoma radio stations having access to and utilizing programming produced by networks and transcription services, all stations continued to produce programming that emulated national trends. Stations like WKY, KOMA, and KVOO operated much like other regional stations, keeping a sizable stable of talent under contract at all times. The larger stations usually had at least one orchestra in addition to numerous individuals and groups under contract. These acts, individually, had daily radio shows sponsored by local and regional advertisers. The station's entire stable of talent gathered together on Friday or Saturday nights for a big variety show, usually broadcast from a local ballroom or auditorium before a live audience. 
One such show, KOMA's "Bluff Creek Round Up," ran for many years during the 1940s. "Bluff Creek Round Up" was a typical variety show for a large Southern or Western station--most popular in the 1930s and 1940s and similar in format to Chicago's WLS "National Barn Dance," Nashville's WSM "Grand 'Ole Opry," and numerous other live country music radio shows. Such programs generally lasted between two and three hours, with the program divided into 15-or 30-minute segments, each featuring a leading performer supported by other musical or vocal acts and interspersed with live commercials for the show's various sponsors. KOMA's "Bluff Creek Round Up" was broadcast live every Saturday night at 8:30 from the Shrine Auditorium in Oklahoma City, except during the summer when the show went on the road, broadcasting from other central Oklahoma towns.
"Bluff Creek Round Up's" emcee was Hiram Higsby, who had hosted a similar program, "Brush Creek Follies," from Kansas City's KMBC during the 1930s. "Bluff Creek Round Up" usually featured a combination of singers and comedians ranging from traditional folk singers, such as Harpo and Tiny, Mary Conrady, and Ann Bond, to cowboy singers like Dick Rinehart, Cowboy Jess, the Rhythm Rangers, and Rusty Marion. The comedy in these programs covered a variety of traditional styles ranging from "rube" or "country bumpkin" types such as Windy Lem Hawking, the Three Shuksters, and Boresome 4-Some, to the Will Rogers types such as Dixie Boy Jordan and Cousin Jack Beasley who wove "homespun wit and philosophy" into their jokes. Every show also featured assorted amateur acts that often became a regular part of the show if they met with sufficient audience approval.
Smaller stations also produced a significant amount of original programming. Tulsa station KTUL produced a quiz show, "Easy Does it," and the variety show, "KTUL Talent Parade." Oklahoma City station KTOK produced a dramatized news program called "News Highlights," and a serial called "Phantomania," which seemed to be emulating popular network serials like "The Shadow" and "Inner Sanctum." Although both KTUL and KTOK were smaller stations with network affiliations, each likely produced such programs in order to compete with larger stations like KVOO and WKY for advertisers.
Advertisers were, of course, the key to a station's success. Having popular programs attracted listeners, which gave the advertisers the opportunity to sell their products. Performers who were talented entertainers and credible spokespersons had a tremendous impact of the sales of their sponsor's products. Radio seemed to be the natural domain of music, and music programs were very popular among sponsors and listeners. As a result, the 1930s and 1940s were a time of great prosperity for Oklahoma radio musicians. Almost every radio station required the services of many types of musicians--from classical to popular. Although musicians could make a good living from their radio performances alone, radio performers had the opportunity to double or triple their radio income making personal appearances. Often, the combination of radio performances and personal appearances allowed many musicians to amass huge audiences far beyond Oklahoma's borders. Bob Wills was one such performer.
Wills was born James Robert Wills in Hall County, Texas, in 1905 and grew up in a family of musicians. Wills began playing music professionally at a very young age, accompanying his father and uncles who performed in string bands at dances. In the early 1930s, Wills teamed with guitar player Herman Arnspiger to form the "Wills Fiddle Band." Shortly after, Wills got a regular job on WBAP in Ft. Worth as the leader of the "Light Crust Doughboys" for sponsor Burrus Mills. President of Burrus Mills and future Texas Governor Wilbur Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel realized early the power of radio as an advertising medium and the power of the sponsor over radio programming.
Under Wills' leadership, the Light Crust Doughboys' daily radio program was instantly popular. Although the Doughboys received very little pay for their radio work, the dances and other personal appearances that a popular radio show provided, more than compensated for the low wages O'Daniel paid. However, O'Daniel didn't like the musicians on his payroll playing outside jobs, particularly dances. In addition to his belief that dancing and drinking were immoral, O'Daniel resented anyone besides himself profiting from his radio time. As a result, O'Daniel told the Doughboys they had to stop playing dances but gave them the opportunity to make up the difference in pay by working in his mill. Most of the band, disgruntled over the idea of having to perform manual labor, left the Doughboys and formed another band. Wills stayed with the Doughboys, working a day job at the mill as a truck driver until he had a clash with O'Daniel over adding his brother, Johnnie Lee Wills, to the band. O'Daniel's refusal to add another musician to the payroll led Wills to quit the Light Crust Doughboys and take his band elsewhere.
The Burrus Mills radio program experienced an instant drop in popularity after Wills left. O'Daniel tried various means of coercion to regain Wills' services or to force him out of the music business in the process. Wills decided that Oklahoma looked like a safe haven from the vindictive O'Daniel, who had unsuccessfully sued Wills for billing himself as "formerly of the Light Crust Doughboys." In January of 1936, Wills came to Oklahoma City and approached WKY program director Darryl McAllister about performing a program at the station. McAllister agreed, and Wills began broadcasting on WKY, billed for the first time as "Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys."
Wills broadcast only a few days on WKY before O'Daniel approached McAllister with a deal designed to take revenge on Wills. O'Daniel, using Oklahoma City station KOMA to broadcast the Light Crust Doughboys in that region, offered McAllister the Burrus Mills advertising account for Oklahoma City if McAllister would fire Wills. The Burrus Mills business was worth a great deal of money to WKY, so McAllister readily accepted without concern for the welfare of Wills and his band.
Wills again was forced to move his band to get away from O'Daniel, this time to Tulsa, where he approached KVOO station manager W.B. "Bill" Web about a program on his station. Web immediately hired Wills for a daily program. Not surprisingly, O'Daniel attempted once more to get Wills fired, but this time he did not succeed. Web informed O'Daniel that he stood by his performers and that the integrity of the station could not be purchased. Because of Web's defense of Wills, the Texas Playboys performed their daily noon program at KVOO for the next eight years, until Wills joined the Army and had to break up the band.
During his tenure at KVOO, Wills developed the style of music known as Western Swing. Wills was a fearless innovator, first adding drums to the traditional hot string style band, then adding electric steel guitar, brasses, and reeds. The unique instrumentation of the Playboys made them one of the most versatile bands of the period, allowing them to play all of the popular dance styles, hillbilly, dixieland, and big band music.
After Wills was discharged the Army, he decided to reunite his band and relocate in Los Angeles. Because Wills' KVOO program reached the west coast, Wills had no problem securing a radio station in Los Angeles to hire his band. In 1943, Wills continued his noontime program tradition on Los Angeles station KMTR. While in Los Angeles, Wills also performed in a string of mostly B-grade films and recorded a very lucrative transcription radio series for Tiffany Music, Inc. Wills continued with radio and film appearances until the late 1950s when rock and roll replaced swing as the most popular dance style. However, Wills and the Playboys remained popular performers throughout the Southwest until he retired in 1969.
Radio During WW II
World War II was both an exciting and an uncertain time for radio stations in the United States. Radio coverage of Hitler's rise to power in Germany and the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese proved radio as legitimate a news source as print media. However, with the United States' entrance into the war, radio's place was hardly secure.
According to the Radio Act of 1934, the federal government had the right to suspend all commercial broadcasts or take over all radio stations in the event of national emergency. Station owners assumed that the government had a plan ready to be implemented and were prepared to turn over their stations to the war effort. However, despite the provisions in the law, the FCC was ill-prepared for the war. The federal government, preoccupied with mobilizing for war, had little time to direct the FCC. As a result, the FCC did not shut down or take over any radio stations, but merely formed the Office of Censorship to impose a series of new regulations on broadcast conduct. The Office of Censorship regulated all information about weather, troop movements, manufacturing, and other information that might be deemed useful to the enemy.
Despite the government's fear that radio stations accidentally would leak valuable information to the enemy, radio was used effectively to support the war effort. In addition to providing valuable news coverage of the war, station owners actively supported war bond drives. In 1941, WKY sponsored a statewide bond drive that featured speeches by Oklahoma Governor Leon Phillips, cowboy singer and movie star Gene Autry, and local entertainers "The Serenaders." The War Bonds tour drew thousands at each stop, eventually performing shows in Lawton, Tulsa, Enid, Ponca City, and Oklahoma City.
With the exception of some of the talent being drafted into the Armed Services, new censorship rules, and the rise of importance in news programming, radio was largely unaffected by World War II. The largest effect the war had on radio was to create a dramatic increase in profits. Newsprint paper was one of many goods rationed during the war, and this left radio the least restricted advertising medium available to industry. Another significant effect World War II had on broadcasting was that the development of television technology was completely halted until the war's end.
While many popular radio performers put their careers on hold to serve in the military during World War I, the War did not end the American people's demand for entertainment. Oklahoma radio stations continued to produce nationally prominent performers despite the restrictions caused by the War. Patty Page was the most prominent Oklahoma performer to rise to popularity during World War II.
Patty Page began life as Clara Ann Fowler in Claremore, Oklahoma. While still in high school, Fowler appeared on the Tulsa radio station's KTUL Talent Parade as an amateur. Her timing was perfect because Page Dairy, KTUL's biggest sponsor, was looking for someone to take the place of its regular singer. Fowler was hired and took the stage name of the previous singer, Patty Page. Unlike Wills, Autry, and many other Oklahoma performers, Patty Page did not make her mark in the world of country and western music. Although her start on Oklahoma radio was as a traditional hillbilly singer, Page enjoyed most of her success as a mainstream pop artist.
In 1946, Jack Rael, manager for the Jimmy Joy Band, was playing in Tulsa for the band's engagement at the Bliss Hotel. In his hotel room, Rael heard Page on her radio show and went to hear her sing the next day. Rael was looking for a new girl singer for the Jimmy Joy Band, but the hillbilly songs Page was singing that day did not fit his act's style. However, Rael was impressed enough to ask Page to send him some recordings in Dallas, where the Jimmy Joy Band was performing next. Page sang some big band tunes for the recordings she sent to Rael, and he was satisfied enough with them that he signed her to an exclusive management contract.
Within a year, Rael decided that the Jimmy Joy band had limited appeal and decided to concentrate all his efforts promoting Patty Page. Rael secured a recording contract for Page with Mercury Records and they moved to Chicago to begin recording. Page's first recordings for Mercury featured the then novel technique of overdubbing, which allowed her to sing harmony with herself. The novelty aspect of these records made them minor hits, but it was Page's 1950 recording of "Tennessee Waltz" that establish her as a recording star. Tennessee Waltz became one the of the biggest selling records in history, eventually selling over eight million copies. During the 1950s, Page was the top female recording artist in the United States. Over the years, Page recorded 70 "Top 40" hits and stared in television variety shows on all three major networks.
Black Musicians and Oklahoma Radio
Not all musicians experienced prosperity similar to Page's as a result of Oklahoma's broadcast industry. Typical of the race relations of the time, black performers were largely excluded from Oklahoma radio for most of its first five decades. While this period represented a time of unparalleled opportunity for white musicians, blacks were generally kept out of broadcasting in Oklahoma. It is ironic that during the 1930s and 1940s--a time when the Oklahoma City "Deep Deuce" jazz scene was producing such notable black talents as Jimmy Rushing, Charlie Christian, Thad Jones, and others--these performers were almost completely unable to get jobs with any of the local radio stations' orchestras and bands.
Although black performers were not completely excluded from broadcasting, there seems to have been a conscious effort in station management to deny these performers the same opportunities that were given whites. One example of the racial bias typical in Oklahoma radio during the early days was WKY's advertising of its black performers. In contrast to white performers who almost always were mentioned by name in the newspaper advertisements and radio schedules, black acts usually were listed under generic titles such as Colored String Quartet, Negro Basso, and Famous Negro Quartet-Vocal.
The radio station management's responsibility for discrimination against black performers can be mitigated by the actions of the Oklahoma's powerful Musicians' Union. In the 1930s and 1940s, most of radio's regularly featured performers and orchestra musicians were members of the American Federation of Musicians, Local 375. The Union was a powerful force during this period and kept a tight reign on all activities related to professional musicians. Union leadership at the time denied membership to black musicians and actively sought to exclude them from all Union jobs. As a result, black musicians were denied many of the same opportunities available to white musicians.
In order to fight the discriminatory practices of Local 375 and gain more opportunities for black musicians in Oklahoma, Eugene Jones organized a group of black musicians in 1946 to form a separate union. In order to establish a new local, the American Federation of Musicians required 10 persons to sign the charter and pay two dollars in union dues. Jones had difficulty finding 10 black musicians to pay the money and take a stand against the white union. Despite such difficulties, Jones eventually succeeded in finding the requisite number of hhhh
musicians and, in 1947, the American Federation of Musicians granted a charter to Local 703, a chapter exclusively for black musicians.
Having the Union affiliation scarcely affected black musicians' ability to find employment. Black musicians still were denied access to broadcasting jobs (which were becoming scarcer by 1947) and struggled for employment in any of the traditionally white venues. Throughout its history, Local 703's members faced great hostility by white union leaders who spared no dirty tricks in keeping the black musicians out of white venues. Often, black musicians would arrive at an engagement to find a white group already set up on the band stand. Later, the black musicians would learn that the venue owner had received threats of violence if he allowed the black group to perform. Other times, accusations by white union leaders of sexual perversity or drug use by the black musicians would derail performances.
Despite this opposition, Local 703's leadership realized that to create better opportunities for its musicians, demand for their services would have to be created such that the white Union would be unable to stand in the way. Throughout its 10 years of active operation, Local 703 attempted to demonstrate to white Oklahoma that black musicians were viable sources of entertainment. To this end, Local 703 sought opportunities for showcasing black musicians at state fairs and other events. After 11 years of struggle, the two locals were forced by the national union leaders to merge in 1959, and the American Federation of Musicians Local 375-703 was created.
Copyright © Kelly Raines 1995, 1997, 1999, 2003