posted 06 July 2002 07:11 PM
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Here’s another article I found titled “Leon McAuliffe – The Story of A Steel Guitar Pioneer.” Underneath the title reads: “By Leon McAuliffe as told to Charlotte Anne Smith.” I don’t know when it was written or where it came from, although I suspect it may be Guitar Player magazine sometime in either 1975 or ’76. Enjoy!
Leon McAuliffe joined Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys in 1935: Bob used a tune of Leon’s that didn’t even have a title to it. That song, later to be known as “Steel Guitar Rag,” was not only one of the group’s biggest hits, but a steel guitar classic for the serious minded student.
Born and raised in Houston, Texas, Leon started guitar lessons when he was 13 years old. It was from then on he had an insatiable appetite to learn more and more about his instrument, and also the music he was hearing.
At an early age, he joined the Light Crust Doughboys, playing in dance halls and doing short radio spots. Although he received a lot of exposure to the music business, it wasn’t until later when he joined Bob Wills’ group that Leon became well known to western swing fans.
But aside from Bob’s contribution in furthering his career, McAuliffe is a giant in his own right – developing and perfecting new techniques on his instrument. Indeed, there are some authorities who believe that the recording and subsequent use of the steel guitar in Wills’ organization played a leading role in making the instrument popular in American music.
The first guitar I ever owned was a second-hand Stella. For a Christmas present, my mother gave me the money to go buy it at a pawnshop, which was right around the corner from where she worked. I always used to look at it when I’d walk past that shop, and when I finally got it, I immediately went out looking for someone to give me lessons.
I looked around for awhile, until I found this man who, along with giving lessons, also had a radio show once a week, in which he would let his students play a song or two. The instructor asked me when I first signed up, what kind of guitar I wanted I wanted to play. I told him I wanted to play both guitar and steel.
Well, it turned out to be too expensive to play both, so I’d double up on my guitar, playing the standard, and then putting a nut under the strings and returning it to a steel.
When I took about ten weeks of lessons, he put me on his radio program. I practiced all the time, and I was progressing faster than his other students. Since I played guitar so much, playing what he gave me wasn’t enough. So, I decided to experiment by rearranging the music and playing it in different styles. It was while trying to find all the notes in a chord, and changing the tuning from A major to E, that I wrote “Steel Guitar Rag.” I was only fourteen years old then, and I used that same song when I auditioned for the Light Crust Doughboys, and also for Bob Wills. Later on I rearranged the music and it became “Pan Handle Rag.”
When the money ran short, I quit taking lessons. But I kept trying to learn more about the guitar, especially different chords and tunings. I’m basically self-taught, and I learned to read by studying music books. I don’t read too fast; mostly I depend on my memory by listening to the melody, and then copying it. Another thing that used to help my technique was hearing guitar players on the radio, and trying to copy them. Furthermore, I tried to talk to anyone I could, if I didn’t understand something.
Funny, but one day, while I was listening to a group on the radio, I found out where they were staying. I went over to their boarding house one morning to see if I could get their steel player to give me lessons. It was about eleven in the morning, and they were already drunk. At first he didn’t even want to talk to me, but I persisted, and he finally told me to come back later. I went back, but he never showed up.
In 1931, a friend of mine, Freddie Rawlings, who was about four or five years older than me, decided that we should team up together. Freddie played a standard 6 string guitar, and we started playing house parties for tips, sometimes as much as a dollar a night. This eventually got us a 15 minute radio show on KTLC in Texas. We didn’t get paid anything, but people sure heard us. Aside from this, we played parking lots at the A&W and Triple X root beer places. We’d play about a week at one location and then move to another. Sometimes we made as much as $1.50 a night in tips!
It was then we really got the ball rolling. By this time we had coats and ties that matched, and on top of that we also added a ukulele player to the group. Our music mostly consisted of pop, but we still did all right considering that people at the time mainly liked country.
Not long after this, I got a job working at KPRC (a Texas station) as a staff member. When the Swift’s Jewel Cowboy’s had an opening, I left the station, and started playing with them. It wasn’t until the middle of 1932, that Lee O’Daniels was forming a new band, and when he couldn’t find a steel player in Ft. Worth, he asked KPRC if they knew anyone who could play. I was the only one they could think of, so they gave him my name. I was sixteen years old at the time, and he paid my expenses to come to Ft. Worth to audition. When I got there, I went out to this sawmill. They had a studio there, and that was where I auditioned. By luck, he hired me, and I went on the air at noon with the Light Crust Doughboys over the Texas Quality Network. We rehearsed every day from 8:00 to 5:00 except for time out to do the noon show.
Things were going pretty fast, and by the next week we all loaded up in a Packard limousine, and headed for Chicago for a recording session. We stopped off in Oklahoma City the first day, and played an afternoon show over KOMA. The next day we were in Tulsa, and played over KVOO. When we got to Chicago, we went to the Furniture Mart building where the recording company, Brunswick Records, had their studio.
Gene Autry was the hottest thing in western music at that time, and he recorded with Brunswick, too. He was there while we were, and he came into the studio and talked to us. We asked him if he would sing for us, and all of a sudden he started up, “The Last Roundup.” None of the other musicians knew the tune, but I had been playing pop music, so I started playing background for Gene. After we were through, I went out into the hall for a break, and Gene followed me. He asked me to join him, and offered forty dollars a week. I didn’t know how much I was making until I got my first check with the Doughboys, and it was only ten dollars a week. I unfortunately told Gene, “No, Mr. Autry, I guess I had better stick a little closer to home. Things are happening too fast.” After that, every time he saw me he would say, “See you’re getting a little further from home.” Meaning that each time he saw me, I was getting more work. Trouble is, he never did offer me that job again.
After we recorded, we went home and the next week O’Daniels called me in and fired me. He said it wasn’t right that I should make about as much as the others, and just have to play one solo per show. That was when I kicked myself for turning Gene Autry down.
I went back to Houston and joined up with the Swift’s Jewel Cowboys on KPRC. I bought a tenor rhythm banjo and learned to play that. We were playing three or four dances a week. I was with the Cowboys from October 1932 to January 1933, when O’Daniels called me to come back to Ft. Worth. I was still mad at him for firing me, but my mother told me, “Take it; that show covers Texas every day. You can play Houston the rest of your life and never get the kind of exposure you get there. This is your chance.”
Although it was against my better judgment, I knew she was right, so I packed my things, and went to Ft. Worth. Along this time I bought me a flat-top Martin, and later a National Dobro with a metal resonator, each for fifty dollars.
When the band started to jell, we went on tour. We played the Kirby Theater in Houston, and surprisingly, to standing room-only crowds, four shows a day. We also went to Austin, Waco, Tempo, San Antonio, and San Angelo.
By this time we were not only covering Texas, but we were cutting sound tracks and sending them to New Orleans. One day Jessie Ashlock, a fiddle player with Bob Wills for years, walked into the studio and asked me to lunch. Jessie told me Bob wanted me in his group, and that he would pay me thirty dollars a week. I, of course, took the offer.
In 1940, a friend of mine, Noel Boggs at WKY, got a hold of the first or second double neck, made by Rickenbacker, and he sent it to me. Although I had two necks with eight strings each, they were both on the same level, and I had to raise my arms in an uncomfortable position, or I would hit the first neck when I played the second. I sent a letter back to them, and explained that they should step the second neck up to eliminate this problem, and they did. I tuned one to A and the other to E. This was great, because now I didn’t have to swap guitars for different songs.
When Eldon Shamblin (see GP, Apr ’75) joined Bob in 1938, I started playing twin guitar arrangements. I played background, and Eldon played harmony. We were hunting for a chorus for this type of piece and came up with “Twin Guitar Special” and “Twin Guitar Boogie.”
I was always looking for more ways to get more chords out of the steel. With the eight strings on the two necks, my range was noticeably increased. When I tuned one neck to A, and the other to E, I could get thirds, fifths, sixths, sevenths, and thirteenths.
In 1948, Bigsby sent me a triple-neck steel guitar with my name on it. With this third neck I could get diminished and augmented chords, full ninths, major sevenths, and lowered fifths.
Then in the early 1950’s, Fender came out with four necks, and sent me one. This is the guitar I still play. I use the fourth neck for special effects. It’s tuned in the bass register starting with the second B below middle C. One of the songs I use it on is “Night Train.”
The four necks are on graduated levels so I don’t have any trouble going from neck to neck. Also I can play this one standing up. One reason I’ve stayed with this guitar is because I could play it standing, as it is almost impossible to front a band sitting down. I basically like the tone with the four necks, and I can get almost any chord I want. But part of my trademark comes from my style and sound, and this would be changed if I went to a pedal steel.
For picks I use Nationals, the celluloid type. I have a special bar which is 3 inches long. It’s much lighter than everyone else’s, but I feel more comfortable with it.
In December 1942 the draft caught up with both Bob and me. Bob went into the service, and I wound up as a civilian flying instructor. I had learned to fly some time before and was qualified as an instructor. The Navy wouldn’t give me a commission, because I hadn’t finished high school, so this was the compromise. I taught at Spartan School of Aeronautics in Tulsa, and then went to the Navy Flight School in Austin from 1943 to ’44.
When I got out, I went back to Tulsa and started a pop band. We played the Blue Moon (a dance hall) on a regular basis, but actually we didn’t do too well. People would come the first time we were in town, and ask me why I wasn’t playing what I had played with Bob. They obviously liked that kind of music better, because they never came back to see us. It took just six months to go broke. I fired my horn section, and I went back to playing western swing.
Since the pop band didn’t go over, I decided to go for broke and front $250 of my last $300 to buy some air time. Johnnie Lee Wills, who did an old noon broadcast on KVOO that Bob had had for a long time, put me on his show. By the end of the first week, we could tell it was going to pay off. After about six months we got Watt Henry (a car salesman) as a sponsor, three days a week. We started at 1:00 pm, but NBC wanted this time back so they moved us to 11:00 AM. This wasn’t nearly as good, and I told them I wanted something better. Since we had a good Hooper rating (similar to today’s Nielson rating), they agreed to take the Sons of The Range, a group of staff musicians, off and give us the 12:15 slot.
After awhile when we got more exposure we decided to go on the road. By this time we were traveling a lot. Not only did we go all over the United States, but to the Far East, Europe, England, and Ireland. It got to be too big a job for us to record programs on the radio and travel, so we went off the air.
We were also playing the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas twelve weeks out of the year, and did this for four years. We played Reno and Lake Tahoe too. About this time, I decided I had been on the road long enough. In March of 1965, I told them not to expect us back at the Nugget, gave the boys a month’s notice, and went home.
In September 1965 another man and I had bought a radio station in Rogers, Arkansas (KAMO). Smokey Dacus, who was Bob’s drummer, became my station manager and still is. It’s been doing really well. Might of fact, it’s done so well, I moved my family there in 1967, and now make my home in Rogers.
I still play an engagement now and then. Last spring when they had Bob Wills day in Turkey, Texas, a bunch of us got together at the request of Bob’s widow, and played for that event. Keith Coleman, Johnnie Gimble, and Jessie Ashlock, to name some of them, were there. We also played some colleges and got a real good reception. I hope in the future to do some limited engagements as Leon McAuliffe and the Original Texas Playboys. One problem though is getting together to do it. Everybody has other business now, and Johnnie Gimble, to name one, is booked solid.
I think everything will turn out okay; it’ll be just a matter of time. Meanwhile, I’m doing some real estate business, and thinking of eventually getting back to recording. In any case, I’m always doing something to keep busy.