Our fourth installment of Houston-area country-music pioneers honored with inclusion in the second edition of The Encyclopedia of Country Music details the last of an amazing group of local musicians from the '30s, '40s, and '50s who left their brand on the people's music.
While the Appalachian and Tennessee pickers and composers usually get the lion's share of the credit for inventing and shaping country music, it doesn't take much perusal of the Encyclopedia's latest volume to realize that Texas played a most distinctive part in developing the Western Swing and honky-tonk elements that comprise the genre, and that Houston's Western Swing pioneers and Pappy Daily and his influential D Records label were key cogs in the development of mainstream America's favorite music.
Ernest Tubb: While Tubb never lived in Houston, after a career false start during which he essentially mimicked Jimmie Rodgers, Ellis County native Tubb was given a second chance to record after a tonsillectomy lowered his voice and made it impossible for him to imitate Rodgers' patented yodel.
Decca Records executive Dave Kapp signed Tubb in 1940 and sent him to Houston to record four sides. Two of those, "Blue Eyed Elaine" b/w "I'll Get Along Somehow," became Tubb's first national success and lifted his foundering career. The following year he cut his biggest hit, "Walkin' the Floor Over You," which marked the ascendency of honky-tonk within country music. Tubb went on to huge success on the Grand Ole Opry and later television, and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1965.
Carl T. Sprague: Known as the Original Singing Cowboy, Carl T. Sprague grew up on a ranch near Alvin. He entered Texas A&M in 1915, where he began appearing on the student radio station.
After a stint in World War I, he returned to A&M and graduated in 1922. In 1925, on the heels of the success of another Texan, Vernon Dalhart, Sprague cut ten sides for the Victor label; "When the Work's All Done This Fall" sold 900,000 copies. While Sprague was not the first person to record cowboy tunes, he was the first true cowboy to do so.
Leon "Pappy" Selph: While Bob Wills took up the mantle of Western Swing in the northern part of the state following Milton Brown's untimely death in a car wreck outside Fort Worth (with a 16-year old girl on the front seat with him), Houston was the other major center for Western Swing. Leonidas Selph started sawing on the violin when he was five, earning his spurs in the Houston Youth Symphony.
Legendary fiddler Shelly Lee Alley taught young Selph the technique of country fiddling in exchange for Selph's instruction in the classics. By 1931, Selph had been retained by the Light Crust Doughboys to instruct Bob Wills and others in the art of fiddling. Later recruited by Wills, Selph played fiddle in Fort Worth band Papa Sam Cunningham's Crystal Springs Ramblers in 1935; while in Fort Worth Selph saw Milton Brown's band and shortly after returned to Houston, where he formed his own band with support from civic leader and business tycoon Jesse H. Jones.
Selph's band included a handful of players already mentioned in these summaries of the Encyclopedia: Moon Mullican, Ted Daffan and Floyd Tillman. Jones owned station KXYZ, a vehicle that made Selph's band highly visible.
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The tycoon eventually persuaded Selph to use his band to support the candidacy of Lyndon B. Johnson for senator in 1941 versus W. Lee O'Daniel, who had Bob Wills and the Light Crust Doughboys as his musical sideshow. World War II marked the end of Selph's time in the spotlight, although he continued to play around Houston and the state well into the '80s.
It should be noted that the entry in the Encyclopedia does not exactly match a more detailed history of Selph in The Texas State Historical Association's online entry.