Bob Wills, of Texas Playboys fame, was fronting a three-piece group, playing for outdoor dances; a young Gene Autry was appearing on the WLS Barn Dance; Roy Rogers was driving a truck; Bob Nolan was lifeguarding on a California beach; Tex Ritter was doing one-night stands with a touring musical troupe; Buck Owens was still in diapers; Merle Haggard was thirty-five years away from stardom; the legendary Merle Travis was thinking about taking up the guitar and the Beverly Hill Billies were the toast of Los Angeles.
The name, "Beverly Hill Billies" will mean little to most readers, perhaps a bit more to some, and a great deal to only a few. It wasn't until I became involved in researching the Sons of the Pioneers that the name took on real meaning. To a man, the original Pioneers repeatedly and respectfully referred to the Beverly Hill Billies. Pat Brady was very complimentary, stating he rarely missed one of their programs, as he could hear it coming out of every house. Roy Rogers and Bob Nolan commented that the formation of the Sons of the Pioneers was influenced in large part by the popularity of the Hill Billies, and certainly the earliest Pioneer sounds were patterned after them.
Over the past year and a half, the search for reliable information on the Beverly Hill Billies has proved disappointing. It would appear very little of note has been written about them although they were the first country group on radio in the Los Angeles area to attract wide attention. Very little was recorded about the group while they were active and, after two extremely successful years, the group splintered, making documentation difficult.
The following information, offered as a basis for further study, was garnered from personal interviews, newspaper articles, and radio logs. Such a study is richly deserved, for the Beverly Hill Billies opened the door for the many groups that were to follow. The extraordinary success which they achieved created a receptive atmosphere for Country music among other radio stations in the Southern California area. When asked if the Beverly Hill Billies were the best of their time, Bob Nolan replied, "They didn't have to be the best, they were the f irst. "
1930 was not a good year for citizens of the United States or, for that matter, for the world as a whole. The great Depression had begun just a few months earlier, and the state of mind of most Americans was as depressed as the economy. To boost sagging spirits of the people and, incidentally, the sagging ratings of their small radio station "in the outlying area of Beverly Hills," three business executives met to discuss plans for a new program. They were Raymond S. MacMillan, a tough, single-minded Scotsman, owner of MacMillan Petroleum Corporation and Radio KMPC; station manager Glen Rice; and staff announcer John McIntire, an astute individual who was to go on to an impressive movie career.
A new and different approach was needed to capture the attention of the listening audience in the greater Los Angeles area. They decided to assemble a hillbilly band, and to attempt to convince the listeners that the members of this band were real hill folk from the mountains near Beverly Hills. As Rice considered the idea, he happened to observe Leo Mannes performing on one of the station's programs. Mannes was not a regular performer. As a matter of fact, he had just stopped by KMPC (the station being located on Wilshire Boulevard) on his way home from the beach. The young lady who had the scheduled program had found herself in a dilemma -- the children in her act had not arrived. Leo obligingly offered to do all the kiddie parts, using a falsetto voice. Such an unscheduled appearance was not at all unusual in those days. Most radio performers were not paid, but generally appeared for the exposure given them, and for the chance to advertise local personal appearances.
Glen Rice was impressed with Leo's showmanship and invited him to take part in the new endeavor. Mannes, born in San Francisco, was a fine musician and had been exposed to all types of music. He had previously appeared with the Len Nash band, a group popular in Southern California for several years, which wavered between a jazz and country sound. It was mutually agreed that two local musicians, Tom Murray and Cyprian Paulette, then appearing on KEI's "Saturday Night Jamboree," would also be invited to join the group.
Murray, like many musicians in those days, was also working as an actor in the motion picture industry. It may be surmised that the Depression had made work in the music business scarce. Tom was a giant of a man, standing over six feet tall, with a long beard. Those who knew him describe him as an extrovert with an unpredictable personality. It has been related that in one movie Murray was playing the part of the town-crier, calling out, "It's ten o'clock and all's well." As time passed (in the picture) he got to, "It's twelve o'clock and all's well," but inserted a totally unscheduled yodel after the cry. The surprised director yelled, "Cut!" and demanded of Murray the reason for the yodel. A very pleased Murray said that after all his years of singing, he had just discovered that he could yodel. It is believed that Murray was born in Chicago and had performed in vaudeville early in his career.
Little is known at present of the background of Cyprian Paulette. He had appeared with groups in the Los Angeles area for a short period of time before teaming up with Murray on KFI. As the trio went into seclusion, preparing for their debut, Rice and McIntire began preparing for the "discovery" of their "hillbillies." One afternoon in late March, 1930, Rice very excitedly broke into the station's programming to tell a most unusual story. As he was out riding in the Malibu mountains he lost his way and, just by chance, had stumbled upon a small village of hillfolk who had not been in touch with civilization for perhaps a hundred years. He explained that these hillfolk live in log cabins, have their own small church and blacksmith shop, and all that you would expect to find in a small backwoods hamlet in the middle eighteen hundreds. The "astonished" Rice had asked the hillbillies if a few of them might consider coming down to appear on his radio station. They had given him a qualified "perhaps." Over the next few days the suspense grew, as it was expected the hill- folk would arrive each day.
Finally, on Sunday, April 6, 1930, Rice dashed into the studio to announce he was certain that thiswould be the night. "As a matter of fact I think they are coming up Wilshire Boulevard right now. Yes, yes, I see them getting off their mules, and here they are. Ladies and gentlemen, may I present the Hill Billies." In walked Leo "Zeke Craddock" Mannes, Tom Murray, and Cyprian "Ezra Longneeker" Paulette, dressed as they assumed hillbillies would dress. From 9:00 to 9:30 p.m., the Hill Billies took to the air with the expected amount of cornball chatter. A couple of nights later, the Beverly Hill Billies moved to the 10:00 to 11:00 p.m. spot, six nights each week (excluding Monday). Within a few days, an outstanding fiddler, Henry "Hank Skillet" Blaeholder, was added. It is this group that I shall refer to as "the Original Beverly Hill Billies. "
Undoubtedly some fans and admirers of the group would charge that Aleth Hansen, or "Lem H. Giles, H.D.," should be included as "an original." Hansen, a native of Wisconsin, was working in the movies when he heard the Hill Billies were looking for a guitarist and bass singer. Hansen tried out on May 1, 1930 and was hired on the spot. An interesting story involving the "H.D." (for Horse Doctor) character was told to us by Hansen. On the nightly program he announced that he was an "uncertified" doctor of veterinary medicine. He began receiving so many inquir- ies from fans asking his advice for their ailing animals that he had to consult his brother, who did have a working knowledge of veterinary medicine. The information was then passed along to the listeners. Back on the family farm his fa- ther had always carried around a bottle of medicine called Giles, hence his stage name "Lem H. Giles, H.D."
Another early member of the group was Ashley "Jad Scraggins" Dees. "Jad" was most certainly an important addition to the harmony sound of the Hill Billies. He had an excellent voice, and was a fine harmony singer and guitarist. The exact date of his arrival is uncertain, but it would appear "Jad" may have joined around the end of May 1930, as a possible replacement for Tom Murray. Newspaper articles indicate that by August, Tom had gone and "Jad" was there. After his departure from the Hill Billies, Murray formed another successful group, the "Hollywood Hillbillies," which featured an outstanding collection of talent, including Shug Fisher, Norman Hedges, Chuck Cook, and Len Dossey. Cook was later to make an important contribution as a member of the Beverly Hill Billies.
With the addition of "Jad," the Hill Billies had a trio for the first time. While they featured solo numbers, they often offered duets, trios and occasionally a quartet number. The most popular duets were by "Jad" and "Ezra." The trio, with "Lem" on baritone, "Jad" on lead, and "Ezra" on tenor, was very well received by the listeners. Probably the most popular soloist was "Ezra" who had a smooth delivery and an unu- sual amount of interest in his voice. "Lem." of course, had a fine baritone/bass voice, and "Jad" was always a crowd pleaser. "Zeke," featured on the accordion and organ, rarely sang. He and Hank, who played fiddle, stuck pretty much to their instruments, engaging in an occasional comedy skit.
Within a few weeks of their initial
broadcast, the local newspapers began to take note of their activities.
Articles appeared which indicated that the Hill Billies were accepted
for what they were rather than what they pretended to be. But the
quality of their performances brought about such comments as:
"Our Hill Billies may be shy on the three R's, but they sure know their tunes."
"Here's a chance to unlax with the Beverly Hill Billies, returning in fancy to the good ol' days."
"Chances are you can't get into the studio, of so listen at home to the gentle humor and melodies of the Beverly Hill Billies."
"What? You haven't heard the Beverly Hill Billies? Such an admission!-"
"The bloom is always on the sage with the Beverly Hill Billies."
"Owner of KGER, C. Merwyn Dobyns, phoned KNPC to say he frequently listens to the Beverly Hill Billies and requested "My Pretty Quadroon."
Unquestionably, the group rapidly caught the fancy of the listening public, both far and near. Within a short period of time, unless one came well before 8:00 p.m., he stood no chance of getting into the KNPC studios. Fans began bringing ladders and boxes in order to look through the windows. Such fame brought an immediate problem for the fellows. Each night Glen Rice, who assumed the name "Mr. Tallfeller," would drive down to a secluded spot to pick up the fellows for the broadcast. After the first few programs, however, they had to remain in hiding at the station until early in the morning to prevent the fans from following them back to their "mountain cabins." They soon came up with a brilliant solution: after the broadcast, the fellows would quickly change to their street clothing and walk, unrecognized, right past the waiting fans.
Some may assume that the Hill Billies' popularity was due primarily to the mystique surrounding their "discovery." Certainly that heightened the interest, but the principal reason for their continued popularity was their music. Giles remarked that they had such a vast repertoire that they did not need to repeat a song for several months. Their songbooks are most interesting-primarily handwritten, and in loose- leaf notebooks, with a date stamped in the corner to indicate the date of performance. Many have the various harmony parts written in different colors. (Lem Giles said, during an interview, that it was his wish that this material be placed in the JEMF archives, and Ms. Ruth Doolin has graciously carried out his wish.) The opening of each nightly program was calculated to capture the imagination of the listener. Rice would say, "And now, ladies and gentlemen, they have ridden down out of the mountains just to sing and play for you. And here they are, the Beverly Hill Billies." With that, the group would break into their theme song, "Red River Valley," and the audience, as you might well guess, would be visibly moved.
The fellows received thousands of letters. All types of offers were made, including proposals of marriage. The sincerity of the fans is well demonstrated by an incident resulting from a casual comment made by "Jad" while on the air. In the course of a conversation he mentioned that he was unhappy "cause the ol' cabin burnt to the ground last night." The next day, much to their dismay, the station parking lot was covered with lumber, furniture, bedding, and food to help out "ol' Jad" and his family. One dear lady brought a letter granting an open line of credit with the finest furniture store in Los Angeles, instructing this store to allow "Jad" to purchase whatever his family needed. Stuart Hamblen has remarked that in fifty years of broadcasting he has never observed greater fan appeal. This is quite an admission from a performer who gave the Hill Billies a close run in popularity with his own program.
This notoriety led to countless personal
appearances. They played on the stages of the largest and finest
theaters, always to a packed house. The growing appeal of the Hill
Billies is evident in the following newspaper article which appeared
-in the Los Angeles Examiner circa January 1931:
HILL BILLIES PULL GREAT CROWD
If some day you should draw a line through Los Angeles and put on one side of it all the good citizens who have seen the Beverly Hill Billies in person and on the other side all those who have not, you'd find it pretty evenly balanced. If anything a little in favor of those who have seen the Arkansas, Ozark boys, according to Glen Rice, manager of KNPC where the Beverly Hill Billies appear every night at 10, except Mondays. The number is pretty close to 779,000, he estimates. Rice's figures date back to when the Beverly Hill Billies first started coming to his station. In those 10 months, he says, 450,000 people have visited the Beverly Hills station. In two one-week theatrical engage- ments they played to 74,000 persons. They have performed for 50,000 more in various church, school and club appearances. And more than 100,000 persons have been in attendance at the airport the four times the Beverly Hill Billies have turned out for one occasion or the other.
An interesting and amusing story was related to this writer regarding the interplay between the Sons of the Pioneers and the Hill Billies. Bob Nolan approached Lem Giles to see if the two groups might exchange a few of their unpublished tunes. Such tunes could not be used on the air without the consent of the composer. Giles turned down each Nolan request. Finally, a frustrated Nolan informed Giles that if he didn't cooperate he would take one of Giles' most popular songs, "The Little Choir Boy Sings all Alone Tonight," change one note every four bars and take credit for it. Out of that challenge came the beautiful Nolan tune, "I Wonder if She Waits for Me Tonight."
Glen Rice never missed an opportunity to
grab a headline for the Hill Billies. In June 1930, with much fanfare,
he announced that he and "Zeke" would be bringing out a fourteen year
old yodeler from Arkansas, whose parents had agreed to a six-week stay.
With two thousand fans lining the airport, Huburt Walton arrived. This
young fellow made quite an impression on all the fans. The general
public acceptance is reflected in a newspaper account of one of his
"Young Huburt Walton never sang quite as well, I thought, as he did at yesterday's Los Angeles Breakfast Club radio braodcast over KFWB. He was accorded a rousing welcome by all in attendance. The Breakfasters even more enthusiastic, if possible, than the crowd that journeyed to KMPC with the express purpose of seeing him and the other Hill Billies. Mr. Tallfeller will be returning Huburt to his home in a couple of weeks."
When Huburt was to be returned to his home, KNPC went all out to ballyhoo the event. It was announced that all of the Hill Billies would be at the airport to see their "cousin" off. Stuart Hamblen relates a very funny scene revolving around Walton's departure. When Stuart first told of the event, indicating some sixty thousand fans lining the airport, I thought perhaps the size of the crowd might have grown a bit with each telling. I subsequently ran across an account of Walton's departure in the Los Angeles Examiner in which the crowd was estimated to be in excess of fifty thousand. Stuart told of the Hill Billies most of whom were less than expert horsemen arriving with their rented horses and mules in a well-marked rented van. They parked some distance from the airport, out of sight of the fans, and rode the short distance to perform for the gathering crowd. As the fellows started their return ride back to the van, they were engulfed by several hundred fans on foot, following along to see where the fellows were going. Most hoped, I'm sure, to follow the fellows all the way back to their "mountain hide- away." Not wishing to disillusion their admiring fans, and hoping to shake the crowd, they picked up speed. The faster the Hill Billies rode, the faster the fans ran. "Zeke's" old mule was a real plodder, so Stuart finally threw a rope around his neck and with help from "Ezra" at the other end, the pace quickened. But still the fans were with them. Across lawns, up alleys, over and through shrubbery rode the Hill Billies, with a few dozen hardy fans hanging in. What a sight that must have been, with the Hill Billies alternately falling off and scrambling back onto their animals, a scene that would have done justice to a Mack Sennett movie. After about thirty minutes of zigging and zagging, the fellows reached the waiting van, with half a dozen plucky fans, their tongues hanging out, still coming on. How far they may have trailed the van isn't recorded.
In early summer, 1930, a gracious, talented lady, Marjorie "Mirandy" Bauersfeld was added to the group. Her part in the charade was that of "Lem's" oldest daughter. Born in Springfield, Missouri, Marjorie worked the Chautaqua circuit before moving on to appear in a number of Mack Sennett movies. On the Hill Billies' programs she mainly passed along news of the group's act- ivities and did the "preachin"' on Sunday.
Shortly after the arrival of "Mirandy" and the departure of Huburt, Stuart Hamblen joined the group adopting the name "Dave Donner" -- supposedly a member of the lost Donner family. Hamblen appears to have remained with the group for only five or six months, although his recollec- tion is that itwas a for a longer period. In October 1930, Curt "Gabe Hemmingway" Barrett joined for a short while, possibly replacing Ham- blen. Barrett has stated that he was in on the original plans for the program, but left to go on tour with another musical group before the first program aired. One of Hollywood's most enduring performers, Barrett wavered between music and an acting career in Westerns. He was in and out of the Hill Billies several times and made a marked contribution with his fine baritone voice.
With the unprecedented popularity of Huburt Walton, it was not surprising that Rice repeated the act by bringing out a very talented yodeler, Jimmy Baker, from the Ozark Mountains. Baker, or "Elton Britt" as he was called, was perhaps the finest singer the Hill Billies ever had. He was flown out on MacMillan's private plane, arriving on August 16, 1930, with a crowd estimated in excess of ten thousand to greet him. "Elton" is described as having been a very likable young man who played the harmonica, banjo, guitar, and fiddle.
Shortly after the arrival of "Elton," who
took leave every so often to go back to the old homestead, New York
born Charlie Quirk made his appearance with the group. Charlie, called
"Charlie Slater" on the program, was a friendly person, possessed an
extremely listenable voice, and was a better than average guitarist.
"Slater" featured mainly "mother" type songs, which caught the fancy of
the older listeners, one of whom mailed him the following poem from
Rosemead, California in 1932:
WHEN CHARLEY SINGS
Mine ears have heard the murmur of the rills,
The joyous warbling of the woodland thrust,
But none compare with Charley of the Hills,
His Mother songs, and memories gush.
I shut my eyes and listen in the dusk
To "Childhood days when mother sang,"
And wonder if life is but a husk
Of what I dreamed when I was young.
Of summertime and Merry Christmas cheer,
And all the folks and dear old friends,
Who gathered there to greet the glad New Year,
I see them all and then the music ends.
I hear them, when Charley's at the microphone,
"The song is ended," but the show goes on,
Something's missing and I wait and hone
To hear Charley sing "Love's old sweet song."
The night descends, and comes the rosy dawn,
Rolls on to dusk the singer of my choice
In melody and harmony drifts on
I know him not, but love his voice.
Of attributes, he may possess a score,
But one, to all the world he flings
Each night, a song on air waves drifts o'er,
And life seems sweet, when Charley sings.
Shortly after their formation, the Hill Billies signed a contract with the Brunswick Recording Company. The lingering effects of the Depression were much in evidence and few recordings were made. It is assumed that the performers on the first recording released were Tom Murray, Leo Mannes, Cyprian Paulette, and Hank Blaeholder, but this has not been confirmed.
A number of their early songs, both on record and in their broadcasts, were furnished by the "Happy Chappies," Nat Vincent and Fred Howard. They were one of the most successful singing and songwriting teams of the thirties and forties, turning out such country/western standards as "Strawberry Roan," "When the Bloom is on the Sage," "Me and My Burro," "At the End of the Lane," "My Pretty Quadroon," "Mellow Mountain Moon," and "Wonder Valley." The Happy Chappies also had their own popular radio programs in Los Angeles and San Francisco for several years.
Making little impact, the Hill Billies appeared in several motion pictures which starred Jack Oakie, Charles Starrett, Ray Whitley, Gene Autry, Tex Ritter and Smith Ballew. It was difficult to show-case their unique talents in feature- length films, and the short subject films which were made early on in their career. Following their movie appearances with Ballew, the Hill Billies accompanied him on a national tour.
With the problems of fan adoration, jealousy among group members, a bit too much of the fruit of the vine, and too many wild Hollywood parties, the group unfortunately disintegrated. In September 1932, the Hill Billies left KMPC, going first to Radio KTM, and in due course to several other local stations. At one point they splintered into two groups, each claiming to be the original Beverly Hill Billies. In late 1932, Glen Rice took another group to San Francisco which included Shug Fisher, "Squeek" McKinney, Curly Bradley, "Ezra" Paulette, and Hubert Flatt. Supplementing this Los Angeles-based group (perhaps making his first professional appearance) was the superbly talented Lloyd Perryman, later of Sons of the Pioneers fame.
"Zeke and His City Fellers" replaced the Hill Billies on KNPC. Would you believe that Zeke Manners (Mannes) was "found" in the Salvation Army band in Los Angeles, quickly assembled a popular band, the City Fellers, and took over the Hill Billies air time? From a "hillbilly" to a "cityfeller" in one fell swoop!
With variations in the group from time to time, the Hill Billies remained popular and active up into the late '30s. They were briefly revived in the mid-forties, when a number of listenable transcriptions were made. "Jad" Dees attempted in the mid-fifties to breathe new life into the name, but unfortunately the time for the group and the concept had passed. The name Beverly Hill Billies was seen in the press for perhaps the last time in 1963, as former members "Jad" Dees, Aleth Hansen, Charlie Quirk, and Curt Barrett sued and won a settlement from the TV producers of "The Beverly Hillbillies," for infringing on the name.
Come and sit by my side if you love me, Do not hasten to bid me adieu,
But remember the Beverly Hill Billies,
And the old songs that we sing for you.
We will remember.