THE PIONEER TRIO…..THE SONS OF THE PIONEERS
With their glorious three-part harmonies
and sophisticated musical arrangements, the
Sons of the Pioneers define the genre known as
Western music. . . .
Will Rogers, 1935
A ragtag group of seven singers and musicians stared happily into a camera lens waiting for the picture to snap. They posed with their fiddles, banjos, and guitars in front of an old barn door—a fitting backdrop for the first and last promotional photograph of the struggling western group the Rocky Mountaineers. It was 1932, and although band member Leonard Slye's face appeared thin and gaunt in the picture, it did not detract from the excited gleam in his eyes. He was living a dream.
Along with Leonard some of the talent among the Rocky Mountaineers were baritone and yodeler Tim Spencer, and singer-songwriter Bob Nolan. These were men who would go on to be giants in the western music industry, but for now they were simply ambitious entertainers in search of a venue to perform.
These were lean years for Leonard and the other band members, who played for square dances and barn raisings for little or no pay—just for the chance to entertain. They depended on the kindness of music lovers and the understanding of Mountaineer wives to keep them fed and provide them with a place to sleep.
The intervals between musical engagements seemed forever for Leonard. There were occasions when he questioned his pursuit, but ultimately he held to the belief that in the end he would be able to make a living singing and strumming his guitar. Nothing could persuade him to lay his ambition aside and return to life working in a factory like his father. He was determined to stay the course.
The Rocky Mountaineers would eventually fold, when hungry members of the band traded in their quest of a record contract for a steady paycheck. Leonard replaced the musicians with other dreamers with names like Cactus Mac, Cyclone, and Slumber Nichols. These men, along with Leonard and Tim, created the western group the International Cowboys. Leonard felt the handle was appropriate because each member of the band had a different ethnic background.
The International Cowboys managed to play their way onto an overnight radio show in Orange County. A booking agent heard the band and called the station the following day. The Cowboys were encouraged by the agent's enthusiasm for their style and sound and quickly jumped at his offer to set them up at an engagement at the Warner Theater in downtown Los Angeles.
The 2,500-seat Warner was a relatively new venue, having opened in 1931. In 1933, after changing the band's name to the O-Bar-0 Cowboys (at the request of the agent), Leonard and the other musicians stepped on stage and stared out over the sparsely filled seats. Just as the band began to play, a massive earthquake rocked the theater. The frightened audience leapt up and raced out of the building, leaving the Cowboys alone. They'd never play the Warner again.
The O-Bar-0 Cowboys' agent convinced Leonard and the others that they needed to take their act on a tour of the Southwest: Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, places where western music was coming into its own. The musicians agreed and loaded their instruments and belongings into a run-down Ford and headed out.
The agent, however, failed to inform the press of the Cowboys' arrival in Miami, Arizona. Consequently, no one attended their first scheduled performance. The next day Leonard's band mates decided to let the town know they were there. They rented a megaphone and announced their upcoming show from their car as they drove around the neighborhoods. The second performance fared only a bit better than the night before—the little money earned was used to gas up the band's vehicle.
Leonard gave up his wristwatch to pay the outstanding debt the Cowboys owed for their stay at a trailer park, and then the band pressed on. Wilcox was the next stop, and from there they headed to New Mexico. Along the way Leonard hunted with a borrowed rifle to provide them all with much of their food. They sustained themselves on meals of jackrabbit and deer meat. When the band arrived in Roswell, they were craving home-cooked dinners that did not include wild game.
The local radio station, KRNC, invited the Cowboys into the studio for an interview and to give them a chance to perform. During their talk with the announcer, each of the band members was asked what he missed most from home since he'd been on the road.
Every member mentioned a type of food in the hope the listening audience would take pity on them and offer up the items they mentioned. "I'd just about give my right arm for a piece of lemon pie like Mom makes back home," Leonard confessed. Sure enough a cheerful caller phoned in and offered to bake a pie for him if he would sing the Swiss Yodel. Driven by the thought of sinking his teeth into such a tasty dessert, he let out a yodel to end all yodels. The pleased caller promised to deliver the lemon pie as soon as it was out of the oven.
Leonard returned to his hotel room that afternoon confident that before the evening was out he would be eating like a king. He smacked his lips as he watched the road leading up to the inn. Finally, a car pulled into the drive. A pair of women stepped out of the vehicle, each carrying a lemon pie. Leonard hurried out to meet them—but when his eyes fell on the young woman driver, he momentarily forgot about his stomach. Leonard was captivated by the ash-blond beauty with the quiet, gentle manner. Grace Arline Wilkins—who went by Arline—was equally smitten with Leonard. Arline's mother presented the second pie to the other ravenous members of the band, and they breathed in the aroma.
Mrs. Wilkins took pity on the hungry bunch and asked the Cowboys to have dinner at their home. Arline gave Leonard an approving smile as he quickly accepted the invitation. The ladies loaded into their car and drove away. Once the vehicle had disappeared from sight, the boys tore into the pie.
The O-Bar-0 Cowboys stayed in Roswell for two weeks, playing for dances and special events. Leonard and Arline spent a lot of time together during the band's New Mexico stop. A Lions Club square dance provided the group with the funds they needed to return to Los Angeles, and as the day of Leonard's departure neared the two promised to continue their friendship by mail. They eagerly looked forward to the time when they would see each other again.
The moderate success the musicians had enjoyed in New Mexico did not follow them back to Los Angeles. In fact, performance dates for the O-Bar-0 Cowboys were so few and far between that the group eventually disbanded. Leonard joined another ensemble called Jack and His Texas Outlaws. He kept Arline informed of their activities, or lack thereof, and shared with her his disappointment when that band folded as well.
Despite the alternating success and discouragement that inevitably accompanied building a career in the music business, Leonard Slye would not give up on his aspirations. He decided to give his dreams of being an entertainer one more try. Leonard and Tim Spencer founded yet another group and persuaded Bob Nolan to join them. The men called themselves the Pioneer Trio and quickly landed a regular spot on KFWB. They found a boarding-house within walking distance of the station in Hollywood where they could live for a modest $9.00 a week—three meals included. After settling in, they began writing original songs and practicing the smooth harmonies and wistful western sound that would one day become their trademark.
Journalist Bernie Milligan became a fan of the boys and frequently included the Pioneer Trio in the column he penned for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, called "Best Bets of the Day."
"This group has the finest arrangements!" he wrote in 1934. "They are a good singing trio that perfects mellow, three part harmony yodeling. The yodeling is put together with jazzy fiddle playing and syncopated singing."
The added publicity and positive reviews helped the Pioneer Trio acquire steady work. They opened their shows with a song Billy Hill wrote titled "The Last Roundup."
It soon became one of the most popular tunes around. After years of struggling, Leonard was finally seeing his career take hold. Bookings for the band poured in.
In light of the group's growing popularity, KFWB radio sought to make the Pioneer Trio a permanent fixture at the station. The boys were offered a contract that would pay them $35 a week for two shows a day. It was an impressive amount for the young man from Ohio. Leonard later recalled that "it was like a million dollars" to him.
Announcer Harry Hall opened KFWB's afternoon program one day with a cowboy yell and a hearty welcome to all listeners. The Pioneer Trio waited patiently behind a bank of microphones. After their introductions the group would begin serenading the audience. "Our musical program today is sponsored by the Farley Clothing Company," Harry proudly stated. "And now, here are the Sons of the Pioneers."
Leonard, Bob, and Tim exchanged a confused look. Who were The Sons of the Pioneers?
An awkward silence hung in air for a second or two. Finally Harry nodded to the boys, and they began playing. Off the air the group pointed out the announcer's error. "You're too young to be pioneers," Harry explained. The trio agreed and decided to adopt the new brand.
The Sons of the Pioneers were indeed a Southern California favorite. In 1936 columnist Ray De O'Fan of the Los Angeles Times summed up the popular opinion of the band: "Eating, sleeping, driving, working, or playing their haunting melodies seek me out and taunt me."
Eventually news of the band's phenomenal sound spread throughout the state. Leonard Slye and the other members were elated and grateful for the praise and the attention. They were sought after to play at rodeos, nightclub, and fund-raising events. For Leonard the most memorable event the group was asked to perform at was a benefit for the Salvation Army in San Bernardino. The presence of The Sons of the Pioneers at this function came by way of invitation from Will Rogers. The cowboy humorist was a personal hero of Leonard's, and he eagerly looked forward to meeting and playing for the American legend.
Before The Sons of the Pioneers took the stage, the witty Rogers introduced himself to the group. Leonard was impressed with his generosity and down-to-earth manner. After the band finished with the show, Rogers visited the boys backstage, shook their hands, and thanked them for coming. He then left the benefit and headed off to the airport.
From there Rogers was heading to Alaska, where, on August 15,1935, just a few days after crossing the benefit stage and expressing his appreciation to the audience for participating, he died when his plane went down near Point Barrow. The Sons of the Pioneers were among the last to see the columnist alive. Years later, Leonard and band mate Tim Spencer visited the site of the crash. "He went through hardships and came out with his wit intact," Leonard would say in 1993. "He looked at America from the poor man's side of things, not from the point of view of the rich bankers and powerful politicians who usually get their thoughts heard."
Leonard and the other Sons of the Pioneers' careers continued to flourish. Decca Records was the first to approach the boys about doing a few recordings. The band was promised a penny for every record sold. They gladly accepted the proposition and, in August 1935, stepped inside a West Coast studio to play four songs. One of those songs—"Tumbling Tumbleweeds" by Bob Nolan—would become the band's signature tune.
The Sons of the Pioneers' popular anthem captured the attention of studio executives at Columbia and Republic Studios, among others. The boys were asked to sing in a series of western films starring Charles Starrett and Gene Autry. Soon Leonard and the band were a preferred commodity, appearing in big-budget motion pictures as well as cowboy movies. They worked alongside such movie greats as Martha Raye and Bing Crosby.
By this time it had been close to two years since Leonard had met Arline while touring with his struggling band through the Southwest. Since he'd left New Mexico, the two had been writing one another continually and had fallen in love. When the Sons of the Pioneers were invited to perform at the Texas Centennial in 1936, all Leonard could think of was stopping by to see Arline on his way to Dallas. During his visit he asked her to marry him. She agreed, and on July 3,1936, the couple became husband and wife. It was a simple ceremony held in Arline's parents' home.
Leonard and Arline waved good-bye to their families as they drove away. They were happy, hopeful, and excited about the wondrous possibilities that lay ahead of them. Their vehicle, loaded down with musical instruments and luggage, hurried off down the road and disappeared into the horizon....... WHAT THIS BOOK DOES NOT TELL YOU: The second man to team up with Leonard was BOB NOLAN; Leonard put an ad in a paper wanting a young guy who would sing and yodel cowboy songs; it was Bob Nolan who answered the ad. Bob was Canadian, from New Brunswick. And Nolan has gone down in cowboy history, writing more cowboy song than anyone....over 1,000 songs it is said he wrote about cowboys, and the cowboy life - Keith Hunt
TO BE CONTINUED