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The Sons of the Pioneers were the foremost vocal and instrumental group in western music, and the definitive group specializing in cowboy songs, setting the standard for every group that has come since. They were also one of the longest-surviving country music vocal groups in existence, going into their seventh decade. More important than their longevity, however, the greatest achievement of the Sons of the Pioneers lay with the sheer quality of their work. Their superb harmonies and brilliant arrangements delighted three generations of listeners and inspired numerous performers.
The group's roots lay in the depths of the Great Depression, a time when the American spirit, and the spirits of millions of Americans, had nearly been broken by physical, economic, and emotional privation. Cincinnati-born Leonard Slye (born November 5, 1911) had headed out to California in the spring of 1931 from his native Ohio, working jobs ranging from driving a gravel truck to picking fruit for the Del Monte company in California's Central Valley. By sheer chance, he entered an amateur singing contest on a Los Angeles radio show called Midnight Frolics and a few days later got an invitation to join a group called the Rocky Mountaineers.
Slye played guitar, sang, and yodeled with the group, and before long they wanted an additional singer so they could extend their range. The man who answered the ad was Bob Nolan (born Robert Clarence Nobles, April 1, 1908, New Brunswick, Canada), from Tucson, AZ. Nolan had lived the life of an itinerant singer for a few years before settling down in Los Angeles, where he'd worked as a lifeguard as well as tried to make a living singing. Nolan joined the Rocky Mountaineers, and he and Slye developed a harmonious relationship that worked for several months, until he exited in frustration over the group's lack of success. Nolan was, in turn, replaced by Tim Spencer (born Vernon Spencer, July 13, 1908, Webb City, MO), who'd been earning his keep working in a Safeway Stores warehouse.
Slye, Spencer, and another singer named Slumber Nichols quit the Rocky Mountaineers in the spring of 1932 to form a trio of their own, which never quite came off. Instead, Slye and Spencer spent a year moving in and out of the lineups of short-lived groups like the International Cowboys and the O-Bar-O Cowboys. The latter group broke up following a disastrous tour, and Spencer left music for a time. Slye decided to push on with an attempt at a career, joining yet another group, Jack LeFevre and His Texas Outlaws, who were fixtures on a local Los Angeles radio station.
In early 1933, things began looking up. Slye convinced Spencer to give up the security of a steady job once more, and also recruited Nolan, who was working as a caddy at a golf course in Bel Air. Weeks of rehearsals followed as they honed their singing hour after hour, while Slye continued to work with his radio singing group and Spencer and Nolan wrote songs.
The group was called the Pioneer Trio and made its debut on KFWB radio, following an audition that included the Nolan song "Way Out There." Their mix of singing and yodeling, coupled with their good spirits, won them a job. Within a few weeks, they were developing a large following of their own on LeFevre's show, with their harmony singing eliciting lots of mail, and soon they were featured on the station's morning and evening lineups.
The group in its earliest form consisted of Slye, Nolan, and Spencer on vocals, with Nolan playing string bass and Slye on rhythm guitar. A fourth member was needed to firm up their sound, and early in 1934 he arrived in the form of fiddle player Hugh Farr (born Plano, TX, December 6, 1906), who also added a bass voice to the group and occasionally served as lead singer.
The group's name was altered by accident on the eve of their going national. On one broadcast, the station's announcer introduced them as "The Sons of the Pioneers." Asked why he'd done this, the announcer gave the excuse that they were too young to have been pioneers, but that they could be sons of pioneers. The name seemed to stick, it fit well, and as they were no longer a trio, it made sense.
The Sons of the Pioneers' fame quickly spread well beyond the confines of Los Angeles, as a result of an informal syndication project undertaken by their station, which recorded the group in 15- and 30-minute segments for rebroadcast all over the country. It wasn't long before a recording contract with the newly founded Decca label (now part of MCA) was signed, and on August 8, 1934 (the same day that Bing Crosby made his debut for the label), the Sons of the Pioneers made their first commercial recording. The group would cut 32 songs with Decca over the next two years.
One of the songs cut at the first session was a Nolan original called "Tumbling Tumbleweeds," which he'd originally written on a rainy day in 1932 as "Tumbling Leaves." The group had introduced it on the radio as "Tumbling Leaves," but later changed it to "tumbleweeds" as more in keeping with their western image. It became their theme song and was quickly picked up by singers and bands all over the country. In 1935, the song was also licensed for use as the title of a Gene Autry Western, the first — but not the last time — that the paths of Autry and the Pioneers would cross.
In 1935, a fifth member, Farr's brother Karl (born Rochelle, TX, April 25, 1909), who had played with Hugh on the radio during the 1930s, was added to the group on lead guitar, bringing the Pioneers' instrumental capabilities up to a par with their singing. Early that same year, they began appearing in movies for the first time, initially in short films and also providing the music for an Oswald the Rabbit cartoon, before making their first appearance in a full-length movie, The Old Homestead. Later that same year, they appeared in The Gallant Defender. They followed this with Song of the Saddle (1936), starring singer-turned-cowboy star Dick Foran, then with The Mysterious Avenger (1936) and the Crosby vehicle Rhythm of the Range. That same year, they appeared in a Autry movie, The Big Show.
Spencer left the group in September of 1936 and was replaced by Lloyd Perryman (born Ruth, AR, January 29, 1917), who was a fan of the Pioneers as well as a veteran of several singing groups, and who had already served as a "fill-in" Pioneer on occasion. Perryman was later to become a key member of the group, doing most of their vocal arrangements, serving as their on-stage spokesman, and handling the group's business affairs as well, and would remain with them longer than anyone, 41 years. Their broadcasts, concerts, and film appearances continued with work in the Foran-starring California Mail at Warner Bros. and Autry's The Old Corral at Republic. Finally, in late 1937, the group was signed by Columbia to work in Charles Starrett's Western films on a steady basis, beginning with The Old Wyoming Trail.
It was the movies that led to the next major change in the Pioneers' lineup. Slye had previously played bit acting parts in a handful of B-Westerns, including an appearance in a small role in an Autry film, under the name Dick Weston. But in 1938, Autry and the studio found themselves in a contractual dispute that they were unable to resolve, and the cowboy star failed to report for his next movie. Autry was placed on suspension while the studio began looking for a replacement that they could put into the picture.
Slye auditioned and won the part and in the process was given a new name for his first starring film: Roy Rogers. Under Western Stars, as the film was eventually titled, was a hit, and Leonard Slye/Roy Rogers had a whole new career. In order to do the movie, however, he was forced to leave the Sons of the Pioneers, who were under exclusive contract with Columbia Pictures. To replace Slye, the group chose a friend of his, a singer and comic named Pat Brady, who played bass and handled much of the comedy within the group, although vocally he was weaker than the others, which forced the Pioneers to expand their lineup once more in 1938, with Spencer returning to fill out the harmony parts. The group continued to make movies with Starrett, appearing in 28 movies with him between 1937 and 1941.
The Sons of the Pioneers' recording career kept pace with their movie and radio work. They left Decca Records in 1936 to sign with the American Record Company (later part of Columbia Records) and appeared on that label's Okeh and Vocalion imprints on 32 songs in two sessions in late 1937. Although he'd officially left the group to pursue his film career, Rogers returned to sing with the Sons of the Pioneers on those sessions. The 1938-1942 version of the group, consisting of Nolan, Spencer, Perryman, the Farrs, and Brady, became the "classic" Pioneers lineup, the version of the group most familiar to audiences, largely because of their screen appearances.
In 1941, the group's contract with Columbia was up, and after years of Rogers' entreaties, Republic Pictures signed the Pioneers to appear in his movies, beginning with Red River Valley (1941), in which they were billed as Bob Nolan and the Sons of the Pioneers. The same year that they signed their contract with Republic, the group also signed with Decca Records.
The American entry into World War II brought about the next change in their lineup. Perryman and Brady were both called up for the draft. Perryman was replaced by Ken Carson while he was fighting with the American forces in Burma, while Brady became a soldier in Patton's Third Army and was replaced by musician and comic Shug Fisher.
In 1944, the Sons of the Pioneers moved to RCA Victor, signed up by the head of company's country music division, Steve Sholes (who was also later responsible for bringing Elvis Presley to the label). They would be associated with RCA longer than to any other label, 24 years broken by a brief one-year stint elsewhere.
The change in labels resulted in the first major alteration in the Pioneers' sound since their founding. Previously, they'd been a self-contained outfit, providing virtually all of the sounds, vocal and instrumental, needed on their records. RCA, however, saw fit to provide the group's music with additional backup in the form of fuller instrumentation, including small-scale orchestration. At first, it worked reasonably well, as the Pioneers re-recorded several of their standards (including "Cool Water" and "Tumbling Tumbleweeds") with new arrangements that proved popular, and many fans regard their mid-'40s versions of their classic songs as the best of the many renditions that they recorded. They also recorded more gospel material as well as many pop-oriented and novelty songs. The Pioneers also provided backup for other performers throughout their time at RCA, including Rogers and Dale Evans, and Vaughn Monroe.
Amid all of this varied activity, which yielded hundreds of songs, they recorded a number of new western classics during their stay on the label, most notably Stan Jones' "(Ghost) Riders in the Sky" in 1949. Originally, Nolan had passed on doing the song, but after it became a hit for Monroe, the Pioneers covered it themselves. The group had ceased appearing onscreen in movies with the end of Rogers' B-Westerns at Republic in 1948, but two years later a new career opened up for them in movies courtesy of John Ford, who used their singing in three of his most acclaimed Westerns: Wagon Master (1950) — in which they had four songs, including "Wagons West" — Rio Grande (1950), and The Searchers (1956).
Perryman was back in the lineup in 1946, although his interim replacement, Carson (who later became a well-known singer in his own right on The Garry Moore Show), continued to record with the group for another year. During this era, the group made some magnificent recordings; Spencer contributed more than his share of important songs, Fisher contributed as a songwriter, and Perryman took the lead vocals on some numbers. Brady also returned to the lineup later in 1946, and the group continued working in Rogers' Western movies through 1948.
These were golden years for the Sons of the Pioneers. Their hits on the country singles chart included "Stars and Stripes on Iwo Jima" (1945); "No One to Cry To" (1946); "Baby Doll," "Cool Water," and "Tear Drops in My Heart" (1947); "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" and "Cool Water" (1948); and "My Best to You" and "Room Full of Roses" (1949). It wasn't to last, however, as time and changing public tastes were to take their toll on the group.
Spencer, who had written many of the group's more important originals, finally left the group in 1949, after several years of worsening problems with his voice. He was replaced by Ken Curtis (born Lamar, CO, July 2, 1916), a former singer with Tommy Dorsey and sometime actor who later became immortalized on television as Festus, Marshal Matt Dillon's grizzled backwoods deputy, on Gunsmoke. As a parting gesture, Spencer gave the group one of his best songs, "Room Full of Roses," which became Curtis' first lead vocal with the group. Soon after, Rogers began shooting his television series and recruited Brady as his comic relief sidekick. He was replaced by his wartime fill-in, Fisher.
But it was the retirement of Nolan in 1949 that caused the biggest change in the group's lineup. Essentially, his exit came about purely for personal reasons. He was a very private individual to begin with, and 16 years with the Pioneers, although rewarding musically and financially, had begun to wear on him. He wanted more time to himself and more time to write songs. But the gap he left was huge — apart from having written many of the Pioneers' best known songs, Nolan had been the lead singer on many of their hits. He did continue to provide them with songs after his retirement and even rejoined them in the studio.
Perryman stepped into the breech opened by Nolan's exit. He had been taking a leadership role in the group over the previous few years and now took over leadership, recruiting a new sixth member, Tommy Doss (born Weiser, ID, September 26, 1920). Doss was an excellent singer, and his voice meshed beautifully with Perryman and Curtis, but within a year of his joining — through no fault of his — the group's record sales began to decline. There was an overall drop of interest in cowboy songs and western music, which resulted in RCA's attempts to push the Pioneers into the pop vocal market. These efforts failed and simultaneously lost them part of their country audience.
Ironically, in 1952, the same year that the Pioneers got their first LP releases, the 10" discs Cowboy Hymns and Spirituals (made up of recordings from 1947) and Cowboy Classics (made up of material from 1945 and 1946), the group also left RCA in the wake of their declining sales figures. They didn't record at all in 1953, but at the end of the year the group signed once again to Coral Records. Simultaneously with the move, Curtis and Fisher both exited the lineup to go into television and film work. They co-starred on one television series, and Curtis would later serve as co-producer on a pair of low-budget horror films at the end of the 1950s, one of which, The Giant Gila Monster (1958), would feature Fisher.
They were replaced by Dale Warren (born Summerville, KY, June 1, 1925), a veteran of Foy Willing and the Riders of the Purple Sage, and Deuce Spriggens (born George R. Braunsdorf), a former member of Spade Cooley's band. The group's one-year stay at Coral proved no more successful than the last few years at RCA, however.
By 1955 they were back with RCA, where they stayed for another 14 years. In a major change of strategy, RCA now wanted the old Nolan/Spencer sound. Nolan agreed to return to record with the group in the studio, but Spencer was no longer in good enough health or voice to be part of the group, and so Curtis was also asked to return as part of the studio version of the Pioneers. Brady also came back as bassist in the studio. The Sons of the Pioneers, in effect, became two groups — Nolan, Perryman, and Curtis were the studio vocal trio, backed by Brady, Hugh, and Karl Farr, recreating the group's classic sound on record, while Perryman, Doss, Warren, the Farrs, and Spriggens (who left soon after this arrangement began) played the concerts. It wasn't until 1958 that the touring version of the Pioneers began making their records as well.
By that time, more changes had overtaken the lineup. Nolan retired as a singer once and for all, and Hugh Farr, who felt that his fiddle playing wasn't appreciated by the other members, quit as well in 1958. Karl continued as a member, but on September 20, 1961, in the middle of a concert performance, he became agitated over a guitar string that had broken and suddenly collapsed and died of heart failure. The same month, Roy Lanham (born Corbin, KY, January 16, 1923), one of the busiest session guitarists on the West Coast, joined the group as Karl's successor. Brady was also back in the lineup by then, having rejoined to replace Fisher, who retired in 1959. Brady remained with the group until 1967.
The next major change in the lineup came in 1963, when Doss retired from touring with the group, although he recorded with them until 1967. In 1968, Luther Nallie joined the group as lead singer and remained with the Pioneers until 1974. They were still very much a going concern, not only on the concert stage but in the recording studio — over a 12-year period from 1957 until 1969, RCA released 21 albums by the group.
Nolan and Spencer were both elected the Nashville Songwriter Hall of Fame in 1971. A 1972 gathering at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles brought together most of the surviving members of the Sons of the Pioneers except for Curtis, including a reunion of the original Pioneer Trio of Rogers, Nolan, and Spencer. And in 1976, the Sons of the Pioneers were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
This was a last hurrah for the original and early group members. Spencer died on April 26, 1976, and Perryman, who had been with the group since 1936, died on May 31, 1977. Farr, who had retired from the group in 1958, passed away on April 17, 1980, and Nolan died almost exactly two months later, on June 16, 1980.
After Perryman passed away, the leadership of the Sons of the Pioneers was taken over by Warren, who had joined in 1952. He carried the group into the 1990s. They continued to perform in concert and recorded as well with a lineup that featured Rusty Richards (vocals), Doye O'Dell (guitar, vocals), Billy Armstrong (fiddle), Billy Liebert (accordion), and Rome Johnson (vocals). These Pioneers, along with younger country music groups such as the Riders in the Sky, were a constant reminder of the legacy of this much-loved western group.