The Lucky Spot
Well, for some time it seems that Fuzzy Owen practically lived at the Lucky Spot, while Gene Moles and Jelly Sanders played there regularly with Fuzzy.
In the very early 1960s Doyle Holly went to work for Fuzzy Owen at the Lucky Spot, where they worked Friday, Saturday and Sunday, then on Wednesday and Thursday Doyle worked In Porterville Ca. in Dusty Rhodes band with Red Simpson, Vicky Lester and Jimmy Tapps.
The actual main group at the Lucky Spot were Fuzzy, Doyle, Johnny Barnett (who was apparently driving a bread truck by day), Jelly Sanders, Ray Heath on drums, Gene Moles on guitar, Bonnie Owens and sometimes George French Jr. played piano with them.
Merle Haggard came into the band and worked there on and off for some years, say around 1961 to 1964. He often left the club for other gigs, his stint with Wynn Stewart's band at the Nashville Nevada Club in Las Vegas is probably the most famous, but he also worked at a club called High Pockets on Fridays, Saturday and Sunday. He even left for Phoenix for a time after one famous night where his wife at the time reportedly came in after him with a gun.
I believe it was in an article in the Bakersfield Californian where it was once written that: "Merle had a sometime-job at the Lucky Spot, playing with Jelly Sanders and others as a fill-in entertainer on the two nights Johnny Barnett's band was off."
The Lucky Spot band were reportedly the musicians on Merle's January 1964 session for 'You Don't Have Far To Go' with Gene Moles, drummer Henry Sharpe and Fuzzy Owen producing. This and other tracks recorded in 1964 with Fuzzy and Gene Moles made up part of Haggard's 1965 debut album.
Bob Taylor, a one time Phoenix native who worked with the likes of Al Casey and Duane Eddy before moving to Bakersfield and joining the Lucky Spot band recalls:
In 1961, me and Fuzzy Owen did Merle's "Singing My Heart Out" and the "The Hobo Song" at Dave Bell's studio on California St. in Bakersfield. It opened the door for Merle with Ken Nelson on Capital. I left and returned to Phoenix (wife probs) and then I got permission for Merle to come to Phoenix as he was on parole from San Quentin. At that time we did some overdubbing (in Phoenix) on the two sides at Audio Recorders. I got Merle a job with us at Sarg's Cowtown in Phoenix. At the time, band leader Johnny Silvers was on vacation. When he returned one night he walked in and heard Merle singing and pulled Donnie Owens to the side of the bandstand and said, "get that S.O.B. off the bandstand, he can't sing" and the rest is history. Merle returned to Bakersfield, and he wanted me to go back with him but like a fool I listened to my wife at that time. Don't believe what you hear that "Singing My Heart Out" was done in Louie Tally's garage. It was done at Dave Bell's studio in Bakersfield.
And If Fuzzy himself was unable to play at the Lucky Spot, he would get Norm Hamlett from the Farmer Boys backing band to fill in for him when it was possible.
TOMMY DUNCAN, lead vocalist for Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys with his trusty horse "Bing." While on tour with Tommy Duncan, Bill Woods first met Ferlin Husky in Salinas, California in a bar - dejected because his love interest ran away with a trapeze artist in a circus. Ferlin was a magician in the circus, we believe. Bill said that Tommy was visiting an old friend who owned the bar while doing a gig in Salinas and Bill was with Tommy in the bar he heard some singing and he asked the bartender "Is that a jukebox in the backroom." "No," replied the bartender, just some old drunk crying the blues." Bill said "well that is one of the best damn singers I've ever heard." When Bill got back to Bakersfield he called Terry Preston (aka Ferlin Husky) and offered him a job as a DJ at a radio station he was working at. The rest they say is history. (Photo courtesy of Ercell Hoskins).
ABOVE PHOTOS are courtesy of Ercell Hoskins (formerly Penny Pollard). As you can see the pictures are a little faded but if you look careful enough you will see a very young Buck Owens and Bill Woods. Buck played lead guitar for Bill Woods Orange Blossom Playboys. Bill was known as "The Godfather of The Bakersfield Sound." The man named Oscar is Oscar Whittington, a very famous fiddle player well known in Bakersfield. Oscar is still performing in and around Bakersfield.
Cousin Herb's Trading Post:
By Gerald Haslam On a winter afternoon, through fog thick as oatmeal, we sometimes couldn't see the street from our front porch. Still, my mother and I hurried to a neighbor's house where a small television set would reveal a handsome, slightly chubby man seated at a piano lip-synching a recorded version of his own voice: "Y'all come! Y'all come!...
Sometimes even before his voice ceased, Cousin Herb Henson stood, approached the camera, face distorting slightly when he moved too close in those days of almost-amateur television, then he'd grin: "Howdy friends and neighbors..."
My mother, a California native, never missed "Cousin Herb's Trading Post" daily ("He's such a friendly fellow. And with a nice family too"). Henson attracted new country music fans by making us feel we really were his friends and neighbors.
"And now," the Cousin announced, "We'll let our lovebirds, Fuzzy and Bonnie, start things off." Fuzzy Owen, handsome, dark-haired, and slim, like a bit player in The Grapes of Wrath film, stood arm-in-arm with pretty Bonnie Owens, just a kid then, but already an ex-wife and a mother. Those two, whose last names confused us, sang a slightly off-key version of some currently popular love song - no lip-synching this time.
Only records by original artists deserved that treatment, those and Herb occasionally mugging to well-known tunes. Everything else was live and performed by a youthful cast, some of whom would in later years become, if not stars, then established artists. That they were only slightly off key in those days was miraculous because this was small-town television, the camera jolting when someone tripped, or accidentally panning the crew.
More frequently the camera revealed that gang of enthusiastic musicians in the background, some young enough to still be in combat with adolescent acne. The band might include handsome Billy Mize who looked like a movie hero, skeletal Jelly Saunders with a fiddle thrusting from his chin, or youthful Buck Owens, blonde, and determined. Or it might reveal stocky Bill Woods, dark hair curling onto his forehead.
Then Cousin Herb, who looked like a country preacher, grinned his way on camera once more, and playfully kidded Jelly, who'd hit a clunker during his solo--"A man who don't make mistakes don't do nothin' a-tall, right Jelly?" The fiddler smiled bashfully and the band laughed. The show was consistently good-humored, with plenty of joshing. "Oh, that Cousin Herb," Mom said, chuckling. "He loves to tease poor Jelly." "Now it's what all you young gals've been waitin' for," Cousin announced. "Time for the Farmer boys from Farmersville."
Two handsome youths in western shirts and jeans joined the host. "Those boys're sure cute," Mom said. "And so bashful."
They didn't look bashful to me. They looked like the kind who fooled mothers and seduced daughters. Crooning a sassy version of their local hit, "Onions," the Farmer Boys grinned and postured, and I was envious: think of all the girls who swooned over them...
"Well, we got a real treat for you folks now," Herb announced - still too close to the camera, his face distorting like the curvature of the Earth - "our guest star, the great Little Jimmy Dickens!"
Left to right: Bill Woods, Billy Mize, Gene Moles, Red Simpson and Johnny Barnett. Glenn Pogatchnik seated. Johnny's band once was the house band at The Lucky Spot on Edison Highway in Bakersfield and Merle Haggard played there often. The club is still standing, but boarded up and looking a little "haggard".
Where Is He Now?
Post Office Box 6801
Aloha, Oregon 97007-0801
Posted 8/21/02 - The other evening as I left the stage at the Lakeside Casino and Resort in Osceola, Iowa, a woman came up and said, "I thought you had retired, or died!" I was performing that night on the same bill as my dear friend, and Country Music Hall of Fame member, Hank Thompson. He was close enough to over hear what the lady said, and later he commented, "It's amazing, we're doing the same thing we've always done, the only difference is we're not on the Hot 100 of Billboard!"
Sad, but true. Not sad because we're not on the Hot 100, but sad because our professional lives are in many ways tied to the rat-race of commercialism, not creativity. True, because the record labels are tied by an umbelical cord to the "CHARTS". The charts determine whether we will hear another new George Jones or Merle Haggard record on the radio. Whether George Strait or Alan Jackson are given that big Coors or Budweiser Tour for next year. Whether Reba or Trisha or Wynonna get tour support for 2003. It's all tied to the "CHARTS".
From 1968 until 1983, I raced to the mailbox each Monday to get my copies of Billboard, The Gavin Sheet, Cashbox and Record World (the last two are no longer in business), to check out...#1. If I was on the chart, #2 Where on the chart, #3 Going up with a bullet, #4 Going down with an anchor.
In late 1985 a company released an album on me they didn't have the rights on. My attorney subsequently filed suit against them. In that suit I was asked to give them proof of my "chart history". We did research for over two weeks, contacting all of the trade papers and magazines. We learned that from 1969 through 1982, I was on the charts a total of 7 years 51 weeks, having had seven Number One Records (in various charts .. .none in Billboard), and 26 Top Ten Records ... in a row. And now, it's down to ... "I thought you had retired or died!" Funny how things change.
My life is still filled with great things. I have a terrific band, The Nashville Express, who make their homes in and around Nashville, and are studio musicians when they're not on the road with me. We don't do as many shows as I once did (thank goodness), and I now live in the Great Northwest (Oregon), on a small farm with my wife of nearly 18 years, our two daughters, one age 15, and the other age 11. Two dogs, Ally and Chloe, and two barn cats, Cody and Oreo. I'm happy, quit smoking 11 years ago, gotten a little chubby in the tummy, but I'm still able to sing a pretty fair song, even though I don't look "slim 'n trim" on stage. The good Lord has truly blessed my life, and I am thankful for His blessings.
I'm working on two new albums of "Classic" songs, and I still write, perform and produce records. Well, I'd better close, gotta catch a plane for Warsaw ... gotta get there before the Poles close! God bless you all ...
Penny Pollard walking the Streets Of Bakersfield in the 50's. Love the clothes and hair. Real classy and elegant.
Grows Ever More Faint
BAKERSFIELD, CA - Saturday June 08, 2002 - As the roll is called up yonder, a lot of the newcomers who've ascended by way of Kern County are answering in Okie drawls.
The children of the dust bowl are dying. The evidence is on page B2 of The Californian almost every day: farmers, teachers, laborers, clerks. Inevitably, it seems, two or three of the newly departed were born in, or were raised by parents born in, Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas or some other south-Midwestern state.
The people who picked the cotton that clothed our troops during World War II and afterward, the ones who riveted together their planes and warships, or extracted the oil that powered their machines, are passing on.
So, too, are the people who entertained those workers. Every few weeks, it seems, we read an obituary about a guitar player, a drummer, a singer. Occasionally, it's an outright star, but most often it's an ordinary, front-porch musician who came to the West Coast to work in a shipyard, or on an oil lease, or in the orchards -- and, seduced by the vibrant, rowdy nightlife of the day, never left.
Just in the last few months, we've lost many of the people who helped develop the music that grew into the country-rockabilly hybrid we now call the Bakersfield Sound: Dusty Rhodes, Roy Nichols, Jerry Ward, Gene Moles. Two months ago, it was Tommy Ash, the son of an Okie bandleader and an Arkie barmaid who made his mark with a set of drum sticks.
He, like others before him, realized quickly that climbing onto a stage every night beat the heck out of almost anything else. Ash, raised in Lamont, Arroyo Grande and elsewhere in Central California, received his life's defining challenge one day in grade school. "You have no sense of rhythm," a teacher told him, and he set out to prove her wrong from that day forward.
He had his own band at 16. Over the years, he played with Tommy Hays, Red Simpson, Billy Mize, Susan Raye, "Jolly" Jody Keplinger, Bill Woods, Merle Haggard and Inez Savage, among many others. He is said to have also guested on the drums behind Tina Turner, Chuck Berry, Barbara Mandrell, Linda Ronstadt, James Burton, the Beach Boys and Rose Maddox. He turned up on "Hee Haw" and "The Della Reese Show," and worked as a session drummer in Hollywood for Capitol Records.
But, as with most of his contemporaries, it was the club scene that paid the bills. In the 1950s and '60s, 12 to 15 Bakersfield clubs were offering live music (country music, generally) at any given time.
Ash played in many of them, but it was Tex's Barrel House - or, as they called it in the Ash home, the "gun and knife club," according to daughter Darla Ash Miller -- that beckoned most often. Ash's second wife, Evelene, usually came out to watch him play, and Ash kept an eye on her from the stage. If male patrons lavished too much unwanted attention on her, Ash would climb down from his drum set -- occasionally, right in the middle of a song - and tell them to leave her alone. Once, at a saloon on Union Avenue, the confrontation moved out into the parking lot and Ash was compelled to settle things with a left hook.
But that was Bakersfield in the '60s, when beer taps flowed like oil wells and drunken-driving laws were enforced with considerably less fervor.
That was a down side. There were upsides, too. "The musicians were good to each other," says Savage, who fronted a band (featuring Ash on drums) called The Savage Sound. "Everybody helped each other. If somebody didn't have an amp, somebody else would come to the rescue. I'm sure a lot of them are still good to each other like that these days, but I get the feeling, since there just aren't as many of them playing live music, it's not the same."
For years, Ash also worked five nights a week at Pete Jones Music, where he came to be regarded as a mentor of sorts to other drummers. He raised two drummers of his own -- sons Robin and Brian. Ash himself played on, well into the 1980s, performing at the Sheriff's Posse dance and at the old Flamingo Club in east Bakersfield.
In the 1990s he was still performing, though it was for a vastly different audience. He was a regular at the Hope Christian Center on East Brundage Lane, and he played until his heart condition - restricted cardiomyopathy, a hardening of the muscle - made it too difficult.
Ash took a fall one day in the early spring and suffered a brain injury from which he never recovered. He died April 9, just 59 years old. "They're dying off, no question," Savage says. "Makes you really appreciate it when you sit down on Monday nights at Trout's to hear Red Simpson. You can just about count on one hand the clubs we've got now. People come in from out of town and they want to know where to hear country music.
"Forty years ago, you could send them to the Blackboard on a Wednesday night to hear Patsy Cline, Connie Smith, Roger Miller - and for $5. Five dollars! Once in awhile they'd have the Grand Ole Opry Show at what we called the Civic, with Roy Acuff and a whole package of them. Times have changed. The clubs are gone, mostly." And, one by one, the musicians are following.
-Bakersfield.com (The Bakersfield Californian)
VIEWPOINT - Garland Haslam:
Remembering The Blackboard
Contrary to popular perception, Nashville hasn't always been the heart of country music. Between the mid-1930s and the early 1950s, California was the music's core. The tremendous reach of horse operas, then the explosion of western swing during World War II, gathered entertainers, record labels and associated businesses to the state from all over.
But it all slipped away early in the 1950s because in Nashville a slow, steady accretion of talent and promotion created a genuine rival. The California entertainment scene was so rich in options that country was only a small slice; few folks fought to retain control. In Nashville, country music became the whole pie.
Besides, for social reasons linked to the virulent anti-Okie campaign of the late 1930s and the mistaken belief that the Dust-Bowl migrants had brought the music to California, country had long been demonized as low-class music for low-class people. And in California's hidebound, pre-World War II society, lower-class was often mistaken for low-class by the ignorant.
In fact, the music was and is a major expression of American popular culture, and now the dominant pop music in the world. Musicologists increasingly think of it, along with jazz, as a uniquely American contribution.
Bakersfield was the home of arguably the state's - perhaps the nation's - most famous honky-tonk, The Blackboard. When folks I interviewed for a book I wrote on country music learned that I was a native of this area, I was asked over and over if I'd every visited the unadorned blockhouse on Chester Avenue.
Why the question? Those scholars and fans alike understood country music and the Blackboard's historic role in its development. Thanks to the likes of Ralph Mooney, Roy Nichols, Bill Woods, Joe and Rose Lee Maphis and especially Don Rich and Buck Owens, what came to be called "The Bakersfield Sound," or "The California Sound" unfolded in and around that club.
It was a jazzy, rockabilly-influenced style that cut through nightclub smoke with high-pitched, wailing pedal steel runs, staccato, finger-picking on Telecasters, and uptempo bass accompaniment, all often enhanced by vocal "high duets" perfected by Rich and Owens.
Yet in Bakersfield some folks didn't get it. And many of us can remember when what was featured at The Blackboard or The Lucky Spot or the Clover Club was dismissed as mere "Okie music," rather than as the radical musical departure it was.
Moreover, since this musical breakthrough occurred at the time when Nashville's sound was turning sappy, local music stood in high relief. Owens and the Buckaroos ran off a string of 15 consecutive Number One recordings - a feat not equaled by Elvis Presley, the Beatles, or anyone. And Bakersfield became Nashville's only real rival.
The symbolic center of that was The Blackboard. While it was an innovative setting in American popular music, though, many local folks thought of it only as a combat zone, an Okie dive. As Owens has accurately pointed out, "People would talk about The Blackboard who'd never been there [and] who was just tellin' stories ..."
Few admitted openly that many folks also still harbored anti-Okie feelings during the 1950s and 1960s. Many locals were unaware that such prejudice had been fostered largely by a statewide anti-Okie offensive that, sadly, had been orchestrated in Bakersfield.
As a result, even today some don't see past stereotypes and understand how important a musical setting that funky old club was. In fact, it merited preservation as do the New Orleans saloons and bordellos where jazz was nurtured.
Of course, all of this - the importance of the club, the prominence of the music and even the embarrassment of the anti-Okie campaign - should be part of any local history curriculum, since it is all part of our real past. Any impulse to sanitize our past is fundamentally dishonest.
Fortunately, Bakersfield today has a unique opportunity with the perfect site and the rich tradition necessary for a country-music museum of national importance, one that will offer an alternative to Nashville's cotton-candy version.
That the famous old honky-tonk sat adjacent to the county museum is a wonderful coincidence. What an easy and fitting adjunct it would make the museum, what a lure to tourists it would be. And what a loss if we let go of the opportunity to develop a country-music museum at that location.
As the late Bill Woods once said, "The Blackboard? Let me tell you, that was the place!"
The Blackboard, constructed in about 1925, completely rebuilt in 1951 and significantly remodeled several times since, was supposedly leveled and cleared to make way for future expansion of the Kern County Museum.
Over the years, the rowdy Blackboard evolved into the primary incubator of a specific genre of music, similar to rockabilly, that came to be known as the Bakersfield Sound.
Jim Shaw, a member of Buck Owens' Buckaroos and a top executive with Buck Owens Productions, played at the Blackboard every Monday night from 1967 to approximately late 1968 with Tommy Forse's band said, "I went out there one day awhile back and peeked in the window," Shaw said. "I saw nothing in there that looked like the Blackboard. It's sad, anytime you come to the end of an era. It's a poignant thing to see. But in terms of restoration, I don't know that you could even put it back."
Adolph Limi has a different opinion. Limi, younger brother of Joe Limi, who, along with Frank Zabaleta owned the Blackboard from 1949 until the mid-1970s, sees value in preservation. "It looks like the same rectangular building to me," he said. "Other than the fact that the sign isn't there anymore, and they changed the location of the doors, it looks pretty much the same. I think they should try to preserve it for the Western entertainers who got their start there. It would be a good landmark."
Live from Bakersfield, Part 1
By Robert Price, Californian columnist
He's a legendary figure in Central California music, so it only seems right that the story of his arrival should have the aura of legend.
One day in 1946, or the story goes, an itinerant musician from East St. Louis, jumped off a Union Pacific boxcar somewhere on the outskirts of Bakersfield. His name was Herbert Lester Henson, and 50 years ago this summer he helped bring live music to Central Valley television, an institution then still in its infancy. In the process, he and his musical colleagues heralded a cultural phenomenon that made possible everything from "The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour" to "The Beverly Hillbillies."
From 1953 to 1963, Henson helped his audiences put aside their worries for 45 minutes, five days a week. Every weekday afternoon, just before the local news, there were no Cold War rumblings, no McCarthy hearings, no segregation debates, no Sputnik sightings. Just some old friends playing music on "Cousin Herb's Trading Post."
Henson had some good company on Central Valley television screens. His primary competition was Jimmy Thomason, a Waco, Texas-born fiddler, who with his wife co-hosted "The Louise and Jimmy Thomason Show."
There were also Billy Mize, a steel guitarist with matinee-idol looks; his cohort Cliff Crofford, who teamed with Mize to bring "The Chuck Wagon Gang" to Bakersfield audiences; and Dave Stogner, another Texas fiddler who brought front-porch charm from Fresno south to Bakersfield via "The Dave Stogner Show." Along the way, the Bakersfield television hosts launched several careers and cultivated an audience for the country music variety programs of the decade that would follow - two, notably, involving Bakersfield's most famous country music performer.
Buck Owens, who went on to star on "Buck Owens' Ranch" and "Hee Haw," perfected his TV smile on local television shows like "Cousin Herb's Trading Post." Herb Henson was a whiz on the piano, but the fame he eventually would achieve had less to do with his skills as a musician than with his true gift - flat-out, aw-shucks likability. You had to be a tone-deaf sourpuss not to like stocky, amiable "Cousin" Herb Henson. Like so many other Bakersfield musicians, Henson's first jobs were in the agricultural fields of the San Joaquin Valley. But Henson was too people-oriented to labor long in the fields.
His first stop in California was Modesto, 202 miles north of Bakersfield. There, he landed a job at the Wagon Wheel saloon on Ninth Street, playing piano six nights a week. In Modesto, he met a young radio personality by the name of Chester Smith. "He used to come out to the radio station and visit with me in those days," said Smith, who went on to achieve a measure of fame as a performer, followed by prosperity as a television station proprietor.
"In those days, there was no such thing as an all-country station or an all-anything station," Smith said. "There was Bing Crosby for a half-hour, then someone else for a half-hour, then someone else after that. There wasn't much time in the programming day for all that much country music." Henson wasn't going to get a piece of the radio action in Modesto anytime soon. But he kept his ears open and eventually got wind of an opportunity. "He told me, 'I've got a chance to get on the radio down in Bakersfield,'" Smith recalled. "So he went down there, and lo and behold, he came up with a local TV show. And when he did that, all the musicians flocked to him because that was their chance to get some exposure."
It didn't happen right away, of course. Before his success on TV, Henson worked part-time at radio station KMPC, and to make ends meet he made door-to-door pickups for a local laundry service. Once in a while, while picking up a load for Ted Salsbury Cleaners, he'd spot a piano in a customer's living room, and one thing would lead to another. Inevitably, Henson would start plinkety-plinking out some gospel standard, and he would eventually leave with more laundry than the customer had first intended to send out.
"Herb just had a fine gift of gab; a natural born pitchman he was," Bill Woods, the bandleader at the Blackboard saloon, once said. "I've never heard anybody who could sell like him." Woods would know, having been a first-rate pitchman himself and a radio host on Bakersfield's KERN. Woods gave Owens his first big job as a performer and hired Merle Haggard as a member of his band. Woods never achieved national fame - his 1963 recording of "Truck Drivin' Man" was a local best-seller that never charted -- but he won a little unexpected notoriety from Haggard's early '70s song, "Bill Woods from Bakersfield" (written by Woods' friend and protege, Red Simpson).
(Woods' "Truck Drivin' Man," written by Terry Fell, is something of a collector's item now. It was on Turquoise Records, a Bakersfield label run by Jimmie Addington, a promoter who happened to have turquoise inlays in his two front teeth, and the backup band was Merle Haggard's Strangers.)
Henson's early radio work also included stints at KMPH and later KERO, and he made a splash as a comedian-musician at Bakersfield dance halls and honky-tonks like the Clover Club, Lucky Spot, Blackboard, and Rainbow Gardens.
Among the established local stars in those days were Terry Preston (to be known later and more famously by his real name, Ferlin Husky), Tommy Collins, Fuzzy Owen, Lewis Talley, Jack Trent, Buster Simpson, and, of course, Woods.
Henson was an immediate smash, though he was not universally loved. "Cousin Herb took Jack Trent's job playing the piano at the Clover Club," recalled Red Simpson, Buster's little brother, who would go on to become an accomplished songwriter and singer of trucking songs. "Ol' Jack wasn't too happy about it, either. He tuned all the keys wrong on the piano, just to mess with him. That first night, Cousin Herb couldn't even play. Had to come back the next night."
An inauspicious start, to be sure, but Henson overcame it, and by 1953 he was the best-known nightclub piano player in town. That status got him through the office door of KERO-TV's general manager one day in September 1953.
Jimmy Thomason and his wife, Louise, had launched their own program on KAFY-TV (later known as KBAK-TV) just a few weeks before. KERO-TV, Henson no doubt suggested in his impassioned pitch, couldn't let that foray go unchallenged. He left that day with a television program of his own. The programs went head-to-head, differing just enough to appeal to distinct segments of the viewing audience. Thomason was a master of western swing; Henson's style was more honky-tonk, with a gospel sensibility thrown in. Their battle for the affections of San Joaquin Valley viewers was decided not so much by ratings or advertising revenue as by Thomason's veering ambitions.
Thomason had refined his skills in the music business with a long, previous stint alongside Louisiana Gov. Jimmie Davis, beginning in 1944 as a fiddle player in Davis' Sunshine Band. This wasn't just a band, though -- it was a central part of Davis' campaign apparatus. As soon as Davis, a Southern Democrat, defeated Gov. Earl Long (brother of the infamous Huey Long), he appointed Thomason Louisiana's secretary of defense and secretary of the Board of Tax Appeals.
Davis left office in 1948 and bought a nightclub in Palm Springs called The Stables, and the Thomasons joined the Davises there. Davis starred in a nationally televised variety show for CBS, broadcast live Wednesday nights from The Stables, and the Thomasons were regular performers on it - Jimmy on fiddle and vocals, Louise as a featured vocalist. The Davises grew tired of the California desert after two years - it was more Davis' wife Alvern, actually - and they went home to Louisiana in 1950. The Thomasons relocated to Bakersfield, where Louise's parents had moved in 1941. Jimmy got a job as announcer on Bakersfield's KAFY radio.
Davis, whose signature song, "You Are My Sunshine," has been recorded more than 350 times in a dozen languages, returned to the Louisiana governor's mansion a decade later, serving from 1960 to 1964. He remained lifelong friends with the Thomasons. Davis died at age 101 in November 2000.
Oddly, Jimmie Davis wasn't the only future governor to give Jimmy Thomason a job. In 1936, Thomason worked for W. Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel, who was elected governor of Texas in 1938. O'Daniel, who was "moved" from Texas to Mississippi and spoofed in the film "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?," had been the announcer for the Light Crust Doughboys before he started his own band, W. Lee O'Daniel's Hillbilly Boys. Jimmy Thomason played the role of Casear the Fiddle Teaser on O'Daniel's radio program, based in Austin.
Fans urged "Pappy" to run for governor, and in 1938 he took the leap. (By then, Thomason was back in Waco.) O'Daniel attracted massive crowds, featured a platform built around the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule, and won the election in a rout. He served until 1941, when he was elected to the U.S. Congress.
Thomason saw himself following Davis' non-musical path as well, so he quit his show after several months to run in the June 1954 primary against state Sen. Jess R. Dorsey. Louise Thomason carried on as host for about two months to fulfill the terms of their contract. Dorsey got 64 percent of the vote and the Thomasons, out of a job, moved back to Waco.
Henson had won the television ratings war by default. Not that his KERO-TV show wouldn't have won anyway. "You were family to those people (in the viewing audience)," said Al Brumley Jr., who served as producer of the "Trading Post" for five years. "We were on five days a week. People just didn't miss it. None of those other shows compared to his."
"Cousin Herb's Trading Post," originally co-starring Woods and Billy Mize, was a favorite throughout the entire valley thanks to a signal that boosted the program to the north, well past Fresno, and to the west, all the way over to the coast. Henson's opening-night cast of Mize, Woods, Johnny Cuviello, and Carlton Ellis was eventually fortified with several performers from the Clover Club and elsewhere - local musicians like Owens, Talley, Fuzzy Owen, Bonnie Owens and Roy Nichols.
The list of guest stars over the years reads like a who's-who of country legends: Ernest Tubb, Tex Ritter, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Merle Travis, Johnny Cash, Gene Autry, Bob Wills, Lefty Frizzell, Spade Cooley, and, toward the end, a young Barbara Mandrell. Unlikely performers such as Rudy Vallee, Lawrence Welk, and the Lennon Sisters also showed up from time to time.
In 1961, a stranger named Bill Ray called Brumley's office to say he had a "brother-in-law who sings," and Brumley agreed to audition him. The stranger walked into Brumley's office and picked up the Martin guitar he kept in a corner. Brumley knew almost from the first note - this guy, a year out of San Quentin, was a keeper.
Merle Haggard was added to the show's lineup two nights a week. Favorable fan mail started pouring in, and soon Haggard was performing five nights a week on the Trading Post. Henson was smart enough to know when to share the spotlight, and with whom to share it. The other performers gave the show its color and variety; Cousin Herb was the anchor, the foundation, and he thoroughly convinced members of the viewing audience they were all part of the family.
"Herb was the greatest emcee I ever heard in my life, and I've been around a lot of them," said Brumley, the son of gospel songwriting great Al Brumley Sr. and a performer himself. "Herb could put people in the palm of his hand. He was smart, because he surrounded himself with good talent. He didn't try to hog the show."
Cousin Herb's TV commercials were every bit as entertaining as his nightly program. "You never knew what he was gonna say," Brumley said. "They'd put copy in front of him, but he didn't always pay attention to it. He'd just ad-lib if it suited him. He was a natural because he was himself.
"One day he was doing a live commercial for an Army-Navy store, and there were a bunch of rakes and hoes in the background, and right when he was talking one of those rakes fell on his head. He says, 'Uh-oh, I've been raked.' People remembered that. He could get away with just about anything."
Many of Henson's regular guests used the exposure as a springboard. Some started young. There was Mandrell, of course, who joined the show as an occasional guest in 1959, at age 10. Her "Trading Post" exposure helped her land a job on "Town Hall Party," based in Los Angeles, and she debuted on Red Foley's ABC-TV show, "Five Star Jubilee," as a young teen. Her band all played Bakersfield-built Mosrite guitars, though Barbara, encouraged by her music store-owner father, Irby Mandrell, preferred the pedal steel and saxophone. Years later, in 1980, NBC would give Mandrell her own Saturday night variety show, "Barbara Mandrell & the Mandrell Sisters," which she used to achieve superstardom as a country artist.
Ronnie Sessions joined "Cousin Herb's Trading Post" in 1958, at age 9, a year after taking his first guitar lesson from Andy Moseley of Mosrite guitar fame. He stayed on for three years, and the experience served him well. Sessions went on to make guest appearances on "The Jelly Sanders Show," "The Tommy Dee Show," and "The Billy Mize Show." He reached the country charts in 1968 with Hoyt Axton's "Never Been to Spain" and retired from the music business in 1987.
Then there was Dallas Frazier, who debuted with Cousin Herb as a big-eyed 14-year-old. When he joined the "Trading Post" in 1953, Frazier had just signed with Capitol Records and recorded two minor hits: "Ain't You Had No Bringin' Up at All" and "Love Life at 14."
"Don't ask what I knew about love then, because it wasn't much," he said. But Frazier, who went on to become a successful songwriter with hits like "Alley Oop" and "Elvira," was learning plenty about live television. Frazier's voice was polished, but his stage demeanor gave him away as the babe he truly was: Older Bakersfield viewers might remember Frazier as the bandanna-wearing kid who sang with one end of his neckerchief in each hand. As he warbled through a tune, Frazier kept time by yanking on the bandanna in a shoeshine motion against the back of his neck. Some might have considered it a nervous tic, but Frazier says he picked up the habit from Husky, his first Bakersfield mentor, on whom it somehow looked dashing.
At age 15, Frazier joined Cliffie Stone's "Hometown Jamboree," a popular, Los Angeles-based TV show that featured stars like Tennessee Ernie Ford and Tommy Sands, and his star was on the rise. Over the course of the next decade, it became increasingly clear that Frazier's greatest talents were in songwriting, not singing. By 1966, the year Jack Greene turned his song "There Goes My Everything" into a hit (it was later recorded by Engelbert Humperdinck, Elvis Presley, and many others), Frazier was a songwriting star.
Henson himself recorded for the Shasta, Decca, and Capitol labels. His version of the Arlie Duff composition "Y'all Come" became his signature song, and he often closed his show with a modified version called "Hurry Back." Henson also performed regularly in concert and, as a host-headliner, routinely drew 10,000 fans to outdoor shows - most notably at Hart Park, just east of Bakersfield.
"Country was hot then," Woods, who died in 2000, said in a 1997 interview. "You could play a tambourine and draw a crowd." And no one drew crowds in Bakersfield better than Henson, whose local prominence rose to another level in 1960, when Valley Radio Corp. bought KIKK radio, switched its format to country music, and hired him as president and general manager.
The station's call letters were changed to KUZZ, to play on Henson's celebrity, and Cousin Herb, whose TV show continued to make him a fixture in living rooms throughout the Central Valley, became "Kuzzin Herb."
On September 12, 1963, two dozen country music stars gathered at the 11-month-old Bakersfield Civic Auditorium (now the Bakersfield Convention Center) to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the "Trading Post" show. Glen Campbell, Buck Owens, Tommy Collins, and Roy Clark were among the guest stars. It was to be Cousin Herb's last hurrah. (Jan. 2003)
Live from Bakersfield, Part 2
By ROBERT PRICE, Californian columnist
In the middle of 1963, Cousin Herb Henson's life was a paradox. His business demeanor reflected sheer optimism. He was as popular as ever, now that he'd become the "Kuzzin" Herb of KUZZ radio, and he saw big things ahead on TV, too, having quietly made arrangements to switch from KERO to competing KBAK.
He'd be hosting his "Trading Post" show's 10-year anniversary concert at the newly opened Bakersfield Civic Center, too, with stars like Glen Campbell, Buck Owens, Roy Clark and Merle Haggard on the bill.
But Bakersfield's favorite piano-playing emcee was also beginning to suspect that his days were short.
In October 1963, the month following the big anniversary show, he suffered a heart attack. He told his wife, Katherine, how painful it was to think that another man might raise their four sons.
About six weeks after the big show, Henson woke up in the middle of the night and roused his wife from her sleep. As young and pretty as she was, he told her, she should marry again after he died.
Henson's son, Rick, will never forget the events of Nov. 26, 1963. His celebrity father, finished with that evening's "Trading Post" broadcast, had come home for the day. Katherine was off playing with the KUZZ bowling team, so Cousin Herb went for a walk over to his sister's house, a regular activity prescribed by his doctors.
A few minutes later there was a knock at the door of the Henson home. Someone needed to use the telephone: Cousin Herb was lying in the street. The four boys - Rick, Dusty, Mike and Rusty - were taken to their aunt and uncle's house. Their aunt tried to keep the boys' minds elsewhere, but that proved difficult. Every five minutes, it seemed, a TV announcer was telling viewers that Cousin Herb had died. News broadcasts had been full of grief and speculation for four days now, ever since the assassination of President Kennedy. And now this -- the music man of Bakersfield, dead at 38.
"It was like losing the president all over again," said Al Brumley Jr., the TV show's producer.
Several entertainers stepped up to fill the void. Some, of course, had been there all along. Foremost were Jimmy and Louise Thomason, who'd launched WACO-TV's own live-music program, "The Home Folks Show," back in Waco, Texas, before returning to Bakersfield in 1956.
Billy Mize, a young, handsome steel guitar player, had taken advantage of the Thomasons' self-imposed two-year exile, stepping in to host his own program. He called his KBAK show "The Chuck Wagon Gang" and teamed for a year and a half with Cliff Crofford (later to earn a reputation writing songs for Walter Brennan and composing mid-'70s film soundtracks including those for "Smokey and the Bandit" and "Every Which Way But Loose").
Mize "sang like a bird," said Roy Nichols, former guitarist for Merle Haggard's Strangers and a sometime-regular on the "Trading Post." "Looked good, too."
"He had a lot a trouble with girls," Red Simpson said. "Trouble keeping them away."
Mize, who rejoined the "Trading Post" gang after the Thomasons' return, became the show's host in October 1963 when Cousin Herb was forced to scale back following his first heart attack. After Henson's death the following month, the show moved to KBAK, and Mize continued as the show's host for its final years. The Thomasons essentially switched places with Mize, landing on KERO-TV.
A native of Kansas by way of Riverside, Mize was all over the Southern California airwaves in those days. In a two-year display of road-warrior grit during 1964 and 1965, he racked up 3,000 miles a week driving his pink 1959 Cadillac back and forth between Bakersfield and Los Angeles, appearing on two live, daily TV music shows: "Trading Post" in Bakersfield and "Melody Ranch" on KTLA.
Mize performed on several Los Angeles-area TV shows, including "The Hank Penny Show," "Town Hall Party," "The Cal Worthington Show," and "Country Music Time." He eventually sold his heroic, well-traveled Caddy to Buddy Mize, his songwriting brother.
Before the Academy of Country Music gave its "TV Personality of the Year" award to Glen Campbell in 1968, Mize owned the trophy, winning three years in a row. He recorded for Columbia, Decca, United Artists, Zodiac and others, but his finest moment in the studio was probably the day in June 1966 that Dean Martin recorded three of his songs, including "Terrible Tangled Web."
Dave Stogner was the other memorable personality who helped fill the void created by Henson's death. A genial, Texas-bred fiddler whom Henson had tried previously to recruit into Bakersfield, Stogner had been charming TV audiences (on three stations in Fresno, 100 miles north) for twelve years.
Stogner arrived at Bakersfield's KLYD (later KGET) in 1965, bringing along that theme song so familiar to Fresno viewers: "Hello friends and neighbors / How do you do? / We're gonna play and sing / and we hope we bring / some happiness to you."
Stogner's Western Rhythmaires had a great lineup: Norman Hamlett played steel guitar, Red Simpson was on piano and guitar, and Sonny O'Brien played drums. Dennis Payne sat in every once in a while, as did Ray Salter and Kay Adams. And on bass, starting in 1965: Dave's teen-age son Daryl.
For the first six months, Stogner hosted a videotaped music show that originated in Nashville, introducing pre-recorded singers. It evolved into an all-live, one-hour show with local heroes such as Mize, Buck Owens, and Jan Howard, as well as Nashville-based guests like Dottie West and Roger Miller.
Sensing a change in America's musical tastes, Stogner left Bakersfield in 1967. "Dad had the feeling that something was happening in country music," Daryl Stogner said. "You could see the pendulum swinging, and he was ready to step away."
Hamlett went on to take a job playing steel guitar for Haggard's band, the Strangers, and Simpson signed with Capitol Records. Stogner, who recorded songs for the Decca and Mosrite labels, went into semi-retirement. He died in 1989 at age 69.
Thomason, whose show ran for 81/2 years in its third and final KERO incarnation, was forced to quit in 1974 because of impending heart surgery. In 1975, he began teaching a course on the history of country music at California State College, Bakersfield, a pursuit that lasted several years. He died in 1994 at age 76.
Mize's last run at more enduring fame came in 1972, when he taped two pilots of the "Billy Mize Music Hall," which he hoped to sell into national syndication. Despite guest appearances by Merle Haggard on one show and Marty Robbins on the other - and a new-look Billy, with medallion, leisure suit, and sideburns - no one picked it up.
Since suffering a stroke in 1991, Mize speaks a little slowly but has recovered enough to play guitar again. Until just a couple of years ago, he remained a fixture in the crowd most Monday nights at Red Simpson's weekly showcase gig at Trout's Cocktail Lounge in Oildale, just north of Bakersfield. The bar is located just a couple of blocks south of the building that was once Owens' recording studio and the original offices of KUZZ radio.
Simpson also plays at a senior center three or four times a month and a local grange hall the first two Saturdays of each month. He's still writing and recording songs, including an album project called Songs About Bakersfield, with tracks like "Cousin Herb's Trading Post," "The Mighty Hag," "Bill Woods from Bakersfield," and "Hey Buck, You Gave Everybody a Guitar But Me." (Red finally got one.)
There were other Bakersfield TV hosts along the way. The best of the rest was Jelly Sanders, a fiddle player who'd come west from Oklahoma in 1938 at age 17. He became a familiar sight on Bakersfield bandstands and television sets in the early 1950s and got his shot at the limelight for about six months in the early 1960s, filling in on KBAK during one of Mize's longer expeditions into L.A. When Mize came back, Sanders returned to his role as sideman.
Chester Smith, in a sense, became the Northern California version of Cousin Herb. When television came to Sacramento, he signed on with the local CBS affiliate, KXTV, and hosted a show every Friday night at 7 p.m., from 1955 through 1958. He had a show on Fresno's CBS affiliate, KFRE, for much of that same time. It was on Monday nights at 7 p.m. from 1956 through 1957.
"It was a haul, but I had a driver and a new Cadillac," Smith said. "I didn't do the pink, though. Didn't put any signs in windows, either." The two TV commitments left Smith's schedule open for travel during the middle of the week, and he sometimes visited Bakersfield. "Somebody would book me for a weeknight at the Blackboard - a Tuesday or Wednesday, or whatever it was," Smith said. "The Blackboard was very colorful." To put it mildly.
By the mid-'60s, things were changing. Vietnam, the Beatles, and network television had conspired to alter the national mood and the nation's entertainment tastes. By the end of the decade, if viewers wanted country music variety shows, they turned to Glen Campbell or Johnny Cash. Or, for that matter, to one of Bakersfield's own.
Buck Owens' first national TV appearances were in 1963 and 1964 - guest spots on ABC's "Jimmy Dean Show" and NBC's "Kraft Music Hall."
In 1966, at the height of his hitmaking powers, Owens forged a deal with two wealthy country music patrons, Oklahoma City furniture-store owners Don and Bud Mathes, to create a new, syndicated show.
Dubbed "Buck Owens' Ranch," the half-hour program was taped on a soundstage at Oklahoma City's WKY-TV. It lasted eight years. The first show was broadcast on March 15, 1966. Owens bought out the Mathes brothers at the end of the first season, but he liked the arrangement at WKY: Four times a year he traveled back to Oklahoma with the Buckaroos, met up with his guest stars and, in marathon taping sessions, shot thirteen "as-live" shows over three challenging days.
Owens' son Mike Owens became the show's announcer and ultimately its director, and another son, Buddy Alan, occasionally performed on it. Guest stars included Merle Haggard, Hank Williams Jr., Waylon Jennings, Charley Pride, Conway Twitty, Wanda Jackson, Jimmy Dean, Roy Clark and Tommy Collins.
Owens developed a system: Starting in 1969, he and the band would record the instrumental tracks at Buck Owens Studios in Oildale, then do the singing in Oklahoma City, with the boys "air" strumming in the background.
At its peak, the Ranch show was in 100 markets around the country, fifty-two weeks a year. It ran until 1973 -- some 295 original shows plus dozens of additional programs repackaged with new and previously broadcast performances, totaling 380 shows in all.
In Bakersfield on a late-'60s Saturday afternoon, a country music couch potato could watch "Buck Owens' Ranch," the Wilburn Brothers' show, and "The Porter Wagoner Show" (featuring Dolly Parton), culminating that evening with "Hee Haw."
"Hee Haw," which Owens co-hosted with Roy Clark, eventually proved to be the undoing of the "Ranch" show. When Owens renegotiated a new deal with Yongestreet Productions, which then owned "Hee Haw," the producers made him quit the "Ranch." They had noticed what everybody in the band knew all too well: Owens was playing the same thing on both shows - literally.
"It had become painfully obvious," said Jim Shaw, Owens' keyboardist. "Very often we'd do the same song on the 'Ranch' show and then 'Hee Haw.' We'd use the exact same instrumental tracks and Buck would just sing them fresh at the taping. They got aggravated. They said, 'Hey, you're competing against yourself.'"
"Hee Haw," first telecast on June 15, 1969, was more than enough for Owens anyway. Until he left the show in 1986 (it went on without him until the early '90s), "Hee Haw" in one way or another occupied a substantial portion of his life.
The rest of his life was business. He bought KUZZ radio (then at 800 AM) in 1966, and a year later purchased 107.9 FM, which he turned into KBBY, a rock station. The FM station went country in 1969, reverted back to rock in 1977, and finally became KUZZ's primary dial location in 1988. Owens' broadcast empire at various times has included Bakersfield TV station KDOB (later KUZZ-TV) and Phoenix radio powerhouse KNIX.
Owens has fared very well.
In 1999, Buck Owens' family company sold its two Phoenix radio stations to Jacor Communications for $142 million. Owens Broadcasting, owned by Buck Owens and family members Michael, Buddy and Mel Owens, sold country station KNIX (102.5 FM) to Cincinnati-based Jacor for $84 million. Also, OwensMAC Radio, a partnership between Owens Broadcasting and MAC America Communications, sold adult contemporary station KESZ (99.9 FM) to Jacor for $58 million. Today he owns only KUZZ-AM, KUZZ-FM and their sister station, KCWR.
Meanwhile, Cousin Herb's widow, Katherine Henson Dopler, has settled quietly in Oklahoma. She says people still ask her about her late husband.
"It amazes me that people in Oklahoma know him," she said. "A lot of people, I guess, have moved back here from California over the years, like we have. They tell me, 'Yeah, we watched him every night.' It's kind of nice, you know?"
A son, Mike Henson, intends to give Cousin Herb's many fans something more to gnaw on. He envisions a Cousin Herb Henson's Trading Post and Museum on his 20 acres some 100 miles south of Tulsa.
He plans to complete an outdoor amphitheater by spring 2003 and hopes to bring in enough quality country music acts to put Sallisaw, Okla. - on Interstate 40, just west of the Arkansas state line - on the country tourism road map.
Can he sell America on his ambitious little project? If he's got an ounce of his father's "come-on-down" DNA, he can. (Jan. 2003)