Take It Away, Leon!

During the worst of the Great Depression and out of the mess that is Texas music came a sound unencumbered, unshackled and almost  indescribable. It was jubilantly filled with hot fiddles playing jazz riffs, horns, big drum beats indebted equally to Polka and Conjunto music and guitars laying down wildly syncopated rhythms. These musicians cut lose in the rowdiest dance halls and honky tonks aided with something new called amplification. It wasn’t perfect, and honestly the best speakers never are, but it was loud. It had to be loud. Ever been in a Texas dance hall?

Bob Dunn

There was another new thing happening too; Oklahoma born guitarist Bob Dunn began playing guitar lapstyle in 1917 after seeing some touring Hawaiians do it. By 1927 he was in a hillbilly band called the Panhandle Cowboys and Indians who toured the vaudeville circuit, as well as, played through the different border radio stations on the U.S. – Mexico line. In 1934 he joined up with Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies and took a standard Martin guitar, raised the strings high off the neck and attached a pick-up to it and ran it through an amplifier. It sounded something like this:

Taking Off, Milton Brown & His Musical Brownies with Bob Dunn

Most likely and with no evidence pointing otherwise Bob Dunn was the first country musician to electrify his instrument. Many would follow.

Leon McAuliffe - 4th from the right. Photo by Bob Pinson.

One of the great Western Swing bands fading far too quickly from our memory is The Light Crust Doughboys. In the early years many of the greats would have a stint in the band including Milton Brown, Bob Wills, Tommy Duncan and Leon McAuliffe.

McAuliffe was born today, the same year Bob Dunn heard the Hawaiians play their lapstyle guitars. At sixteen he dropped out of school after a successful audition for the Light Crust Dougboys playing one of his own compositions:

Steel Guitar Rag, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys with Leon McAuliffe

By 1935 he had joined up with Bob Wills and would play with him until he was drafted in 1942. After the war McAuliffe would form his own band called the Cimarron Boys and influenced everyone who has ever sat down in front of a steel guitar.

Blue Guitar Stomp, Leon McAuliffe

Panhandle Rag, Leon McAuliffe


About Iaan Hughes

Iaan Hughes is a deejay on 91.3 KBCS in Seattle. He plays country & western music.
This entry was posted in Country, Folk, Honky Tonk, Music, Oldtime, Pop, Radio and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Take It Away, Leon!

  1. Bruce says:

    Thanks for all the great steel music. That Bob Dunn cut sounds real Hawaiin, I suppose it took a few years for that influence to wear off.
    Scary as it may seem (sound) one of the first instruments they tried to amplify was the Banjo. I can think of only one thing scarier – amplifying the bagpipe … “Take it away Angus!”

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