June 2011

When Country Was King

Before Nashville was Nashville, Southern California served as ground zero for good old honky-tonk

ELISABETH
GREENBAUM KASSON

HONKY-TONK HEROES (FROM LEFT TO RIGHT): MERLE TRAVIS, WESLEY AND MARILYN TUTTLE

A fact that’s been nearly lost to music history in general, and to Southern Californians in particular, is that from the 1940s right through 1960, our part of the state was well known for country music. We had our own unvarnished sound before Buck Owens and Bakersfield rose to prominence in the early 1960s. Merle Travis and Wynn Stewart may be our most famous exports, but be sure to check out Skeets McDonald, Molly Bee, Cliff Crofford and Billy Mize—and they’re just the tip of the iceberg.

The performances of that time have a vitality and authenticity that’s lacking in today’s Nashville product. Once you’ve been introduced to the canon of SoCal country, you’ll be hooked. For this, we can thank the scores of Dust Bowl and southern migrants, who in the 1930s brought their fulsome musical traditions to the Golden State. To accommodate these newcomers and the impulses of those who already lived here, dance halls and honky-tonks blossomed like California poppies.

As we were discussing the genre’s recent past, Americana musician James Intveld, an avid student of the California-roots sound, asked me, “Have you ever written anything about the Riverside Rancho?” It was a simple question that led to the discovery of a wealth of glittering dance palaces and musky clubs that exist now only in memories.

On the Glendale/Los Feliz border, the Riverside Rancho was once the West’s premier dance hall. Other legendary local venues included the 97th Street Corral in L.A., the Jubilee Ballroom in Baldwin Park, the Venice Pier Ballroom, McDonald’s Ballroom in Compton, Pop’s Willow Lake in Sunland, Tex Williams Village in Newhall, the Lighthouse Dancehall in Compton—which became Town Hall Ballroom—and more. During WWII, a few of these palaces stayed open round the clock to meet the demand of swing-shift workers who wanted to cut loose after punching out.

Honky-tonks were everywhere. Along one stretch of the southernmost end of Vermont Avenue, the Band Box, Cowtown and the Saddle Club held sway. There was Hoot Gibson’s Painted Post on Ventura Boulevard, the Hitching Post in Gardena, Henri’s Lariat in Torrance, Maybo’s in Culver City and the B&R Club in East L.A. In North Hollywood, the acclaimed Palomino, once the most famous honky-tonk in the country, stood for decades on a grimy block of Lankershim Boulevard.

Thank the scores of Dust Bowl and southern migrants, who in the 1930s brought their traditions to the Golden State... Dance halls and honky-tonks blossomed like California poppies.

Spade Cooley, who during the ’40s and ’50s reigned as bandleader at the Venice Pier Ballroom and then at the Riverside Rancho, is widely credited with inspiring the kind of country music for which Southern California would be known. He worked with talent who came from jazz, country and classical backgrounds. One major coup was his hiring of steel-guitarist Joaquin Murphey, an awe-inspiring innovator of western swing whose signature technique is often imitated.

Other influences could be heard as well. The gaps and hollers of the South brought hillbilly twang, and the West provided lonesome cowboys. Combined with the broad reach of trained studio musicians, the mix created something completely new.

To find musicians from the era, I posted a note on the Steel Guitar Forum, and veteran sideman Billy Tonnesen reached out.

Tonnesen grew up in Huntington Park and Bell. A youthful 82, tall, with a wicked grin and deep, infectious laugh, he has been a professional musician since he was 14. “I was taking Hawaiian guitar lessons,” he says, “and my teacher got a call from a guy looking for a steel player. I talked my folks into taking me down to the Lighthouse. It was mostly sailors and, well, women who liked sailors. I survived the first night. I didn’t know what I was doing, but they asked me back!” Tonnesen would build a career that at its apex included a solo on Frank Sinatra’s country-swing tune “Sunflower.”

His primary gig however, was playing with the Ole Rasmussen Band. While not as well known as Spade Cooley, Rasmussen played constantly. They were the 97th Street Corral house band and also worked out at Harmony Park in Anaheim. When a church ran the band out of 97th Street because of the audience’s unruly postshow behavior, they went to McDonald’s at the corner of Atlantic and Compton boulevards. Tonnesen himself also backed up many touring musicians.

He recalled Wynn Stewart before he made the big time. “I knew him when he was 14 years old,” Tonnesen said with a chuckle. “His mom used to bring him down to squeakin’ Deacon’s Sunday-morning talent show.” Deacon was the West’s most famous country DJ, and the talent show happened to be held at the Riverside Rancho.

We talked a bit about musicians like Ernest Tubb, who recorded at Decca in Hollywood; Lefty Frizzell; Johnny Cash; and scores more who came here for the work and stayed for years. When asked about the allure of Los Angeles, Tonnesen howled with laughter. “This was country music,” he said. “Nashville had Roy Acuff!”

The music was also media supported. Southern California radio stations KFOX, KXLA, KMTR, KFWB, KGER and KRLA all featured country. Personalities like Squeakin’ Deacon, Tennessee Ernie Ford and the tireless local country-music promoter and publisher Cliffie Stone ruled the airwaves. By 1949, some radio shows had television counterparts, like Hollywood Barn Dance and Hometown Jamboree.

An acquaintance gave me Marilyn Tuttle’s name and told me she had some great photographs from the era. When I arrived at her cheerful yellow ranch house in the San Fernando Valley, I quickly assessed that he didn’t know the half of it.

Tuttle was a featured singer on Foreman Phillips Presents and, more important, Town Hall Party. A spry, quick-witted 85, with a delicious sense of humor, she is also the widow of one Wesley Tuttle, celebrated country singer and guitarist, radio personality, reluctant actor and minister. Marilyn and Wesley had a recording deal at Capitol and a social circle that was a veritable who’s who of the musicians, performers and businessmen that made up the core of Southern California country.

“Oh, look at this one,” Marilyn said, pulling out a remarkable black-and-white candid shot from a large three-ring binder—her harmonizing with Wesley and country luminaries Rose Lee Maphis and Merle Travis. “I think this was at Music City, a huge record store at the corner of Sunset and Vine. There were recording booths in the back. We were probably rehearsing.”

Bert “Foreman” Phillips was an ambitious music promoter who began producing his television show at the Town Hall Ballroom in 1949. The Tuttles signed on, and Phillips brought Joe and Rose Lee Maphis out from Virginia to join the cast, which also included Travis. “We worked three hours a day, five days a week, and they wouldn’t let us repeat the same song more than once a month,” said Tuttle, still incredulous at the effort. “It was a fairly good-size cast, but still, doing three hours a day live! We did it for almost a year, and we were all dead.”

Enter William “Bill” Wagnon Jr., a promoter looking to branch out beyond Sacramento and Bakersfield, where he had been booking Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. He took over Phillips’ lease, and in late 1951, Town Hall Party was born. Many of Phillips’ cast began working for Wagnon. Wesley Tuttle became the show’s musical director and wrote scripts with Johnny Bond. The cast featured Tex Ritter, the Tuttles, Johnny Bond, the Maphises, Tex Williams, Merle Travis, Fiddlin’ Kate (aka Margie Warren), Freddie Hart, Cliff Crofford and more.

The show’s radio broadcast was Friday nights on KXLA, Saturday nights on KFI—and with a live audience for television, KTTV on Saturday night. They held performances at Sierra Creek Park in Agoura on Sundays and even spun off into another daily half-hour program called Ranch Party. That didn’t leave much time for rehearsal, so the shows had an unforced vibrancy.

Every country artist wanted to be on Town Hall Party. Lefty Frizzell was a regular, and Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash and Marty Robbins appeared. At the birth of rock ’n’ roll, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis and Eddie Cochran were guests, and rockabilly young’uns the Collins Kids signed on.

“Oh, look at this one,” Marilyn said, pulling out a black-and-white candid—her harmonizing with Wesley and country luminaries Rose Lee Maphis and Merle Travis.

Cliffie Stone, a friend of the Tuttles, created Hometown Jamboree as a spinoff of his popular radio show Dinner Bell Roundup. It aired opposite Town Hall Party, but despite the competition, the talent sometimes played both shows. Stone had his own cast as well, including Molly Bee, Jimmy Bryant, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Ferlin Husky (also known as Terry Preston), Skeets McDonald, Speedy West and Billy Strange.

Before I left, Marilyn gave me Hart’s and Rose Lee’s numbers. “Freddie’s right in your neighborhood,” she said, “and Rose Lee’s in Nashville. You should talk to them.”

I met Hart at the Tallyrand in Burbank. Still tall and fit at 84, he used to teach martial arts and self-defense at the L.A. Police Academy. That was before he had a number one hit in 1971 with the country classic “Easy Loving.” His sound is a soaring gospel-country blend, tangibly relaxed and sincere.

The thick syrup of Alabama still sugared Hart’s voice. One of 15 children in a family of music-loving sharecroppers, he radiated joy when describing his early influences. His first guitar was made of a cigar box—and he wished he still had it. “We were poor people real close to nature,” he recalled. “We all sat around the radio on Saturday night for the Grand Ole Opry, and there wasn’t a peep from the one of us. If the battery went out, we went to someone else’s house for a listen.”

In 1953, Hart was touring with his friend Lefty Frizzell, when they decided to come west. He landed a contract with Capitol Records and found a place on Town Hall Party. He wrote some terrific songs, including “Loose Talk,” which was covered by Carl Smith and in a dynamic duet by Buck Owens and Rose Maddox. “I’ve heard it said that Town Hall Party was as big as the Grand Ole Opry,” he said, “and every artist on Grand Ole Opry wanted to be on Town Hall Party. I’m real proud of our generation. We made some good music.”

By 1959, things started to shift. Hart played more in Bakersfield with Buck, and rock ’n’ roll was flooding the airwaves. Riverside Rancho was torn down in 1959 to make way for Griffith Park, and the Palomino became the preeminent stage. Bill Wagnon tried to bring Town Hall Party to Las Vegas, but by 1961 it was over.

I called Rose Lee Maphis at her Nashville home. Now 88, she said, “If life is like a baseball game, I’m in the second half of the 8th inning. California was very important to me and Joe. It’d be lovely if you could come out.”

I wasn’t sure about a trip to Tennessee, but I looked at Town Hall and Ranch Party clips of Rose Lee and Joe Maphis and was touched by their easy intimacy. Their signature song, “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke,” still stands out. There’s something essential about their music. I told Rose I would come out to visit.

Intveld, who helped spark this story with his question about the Riverside Rancho, now lives in Nashville, an ironic migrant due to lack of work in L.A. He agreed to accompany me to see Rose Lee.

We drank sweet tea and talked about how she and Joe drove to L.A. after a series of charmed events led them to Foreman Phillips. She showed us a framed caricature of her and Joe on the road heading west. Their dear friend Merle Travis drew it.

California was indeed good to them. They lived comfortably in North Hollywood, and all three of their children were born at Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital. Through the years, there were the clubs and the radio and television shows, and Joe wrote and worked on numerous scores for film and TV, too. They were at Town Hall/Ranch Party until the end. In 1962, they followed the work to Bakersfield and, in 1968, to Nashville, where they found that the industry had changed.

Rose Lee graciously walked us to the door, smiled lightly and said, “I’m glad we were a part of the business at that time, because back then, the business belonged to the entertainers.”

As we drove out through the humid, unfamiliar streets of Nashville, something Freddie Hart had told me about home popped into my head. “Oh, country was king out here,” he drawled. “It was a monster from L.A. to Bakersfield.”

ELISABETH GREENBAUM KASSON has written for Documentary, the L.A. Times, Movie City News and more. Her stories range from music and culture to IT and healthcare.

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Classic Videos of L.A.’s Country Heydey

SONG: “Wildcat”
ARTIST: The Collins Kids on Western Ranch Party

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SONG: “Get Rhythm”
ARTIST: Johnny Cash on Town Hall Party

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SONG: “Hard-Headed Woman”
ARTIST: Wanda Jackson

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