• Added info on Jimmy Ford, thanks to Volker Houghton. • Extended and corrected the post on Happy Harold Thaxton (long overdue), thanks to everyone who sent in memories and information! • Added information to the Jim Murray post, provided by Mike Doyle, Dennis Rogers, and Marty Scarbrough. • Expanded the information on Charlie Dial found in the Little Shoe post.

Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Swift Jewel Cowboys

The Swift Jewel Cobwoys at the Mid-South Fair in Memphis, 1938

Cowboy Swing in Memphis
The Story of the Swift Jewel Cowboys

Among Memphis' 1930s and 1940s country music acts, the Swift Jewel Cowboys were one of the few groups that made recordings. They were much heavier on jazz than Bob Wills or Milton Brown - with nods to Duke Ellington or Cab Calloway - but used the cowboy image quite heavier, too. They were on Memphis radio for much of the 1930s and inspired many future musicians through their broadcasts, including Sonny Burgess and Bill Justis.

The group was the brainchild of Frank B. Collins, manager of Jewel Oil & Shortening Company's refinery in Houston, Texas. Collins had searched for a possibility to promote the company's salad dressing and other products. To underline the down home image of his employer's products, he chose to set up a cowboy band to provide "old time entertainment with tunes and songs of yesterday". Though, it would become obvious soon that the Swift Jewel Cowboys were not an old-time string band but a hot western swing act.

The group came into existence in April 8, 1933, performing personal appearances around Houston. They mostly played at grocery stores and openings of supermarkets, while attendees served a Swift Jewel packet-top as a free ticket to their shows. Early members of the Swift Jewel Cowboys included singer and guitarist Elmer "Slim" Hall (the only known founding member), guitarist Texas Jim Lewis, who later founded his own group, the Lone Star Cowboys, and, hired by Lewis, steel guitarist Leon McAuliffe, who went on to write music history as part of Bob Wills' Texas Playboys.

More than a year after their founding, the group was transferred to Memphis, Tennessee, as in the fall of 1934, Frank Collins had been sent to the Memphis Swift Jewel office, too. In Memphis, the band began daily broadcasts on WMC, beginning on November 4, 1934. By March 1936, they had switched to WREC in Memphis and could be also heard on KRLA in Little Rock, Arkansas, and on WLAC in Nashville, Tennessee, broadening their popularity across the whole Mid-South. Their morning show even became part of of national syndicated CBS network for eight months in 1938.

One of the Swift Jewel Cowboys
on a rodeo
Their appearances had broadened, too, since their arrival in Memphis. To be a band member, it was not only demanded by manger Frank Collins to be a good musician, singer, and songwriter, but also to be able to ride. Naturally, they performed at many rodeos but also at fairs, vaudeville shows, school houses, hospitals and probably many more venues and occasions.

By then, the line-up of the Swift Jewel Cowboys had underwent some major changes. The band now included Slim Hall on vocals and guitar, David "Pee Wee" Wamble on bass (joining in late 1936 or early 1938), piano, and vocals (he could also play cornet and trumpet), Clifford "Kokomo" Crocker on vocals and accordion, Alfredo "Jose Cortes" Casares on fiddle (who hailed from Monterey, Mexico), Farris "Lefty" Ingram on fiddle and clarinet (from Hickman, Kentucky, joining in early 1936), as well as Calvin "Curly" Noland on bass and vocals. Teenage multi-instrumentalist Jimmy Riddle filled in when some of the members were on vacation and Jim Sanders, originally from Alabama, acted as a manager (besides Collins) and scripted their shows.

This line-up recorded a three-day session in July 1939 at Memphis' Gayoso Hotel for Vocalion Records. One some of the recordings, they were joined by Jimmy Riddle on harmonica. Of course there were songs like "Raggin' the Rails" and "My Untrue Cowgirl" that tried to erase the illusion of a cowboy band but the musicians' repertoire consisted rather of jazzy tunes and standards like "Memphis Blues", "Kansas City Blues" or "Fan It". Their recordings were released on Vocalion (and one disc on OKeh) during 1939 and 1940, the first being "Willie the Weeper" b/w "Memphis Oomph! (Is It True)" on Vocalion #05052 in August 1939. Some of their recordings were later reissued in the late 1940s by Columbia Records, who was the parent company of Vocalion and OKeh.

By 1942, times had changed. World War II had brought restrictions to the USA that made it hard for the band to maintain their busy touring schedule. In addition, some of the members were drafted and the band decided to disband in the summer of 1942, playing a farewell concert on the 4th of July at Memphis' Fairgrounds. Most of the members remained in the music business, many of them on a local or regional level, however.

An old can of Swift's Jewel

Praguefrank's Country Music Discographies entry
45worlds/78rpm entry
Joe Bone: "Pee Wee Wamble - Last of the Swift Jewel Cowboys" (obituary)
• Bob Pinson: "Encyclopedia of Country Music" (Oxford University Press), 1998, page 520
• Tony Russell: "Country Music Originals: The Legends and the Lost" (Oxford University Press), 2010
• Tony Russell: "Chuck Wagon Swing" (liner notes), String Records LP
• Richard Carlin: "Country Music: A Biographical Dictionary" (Routledge), 2003, page 232

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