Wired For Sound

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Music and Mayhem on Main Street:

R.D. Hendon and his Western Jamboree Cowboys


by Andrew Brown

In a series of posts over the next few months, we will examine in-depth, for the first time, the lives and music of R.D. Hendon's Western Jamboree Cowboys, one of Houston's most neglected country music groups of the post-World War II era. Theirs has been a markedly dispirited afterlife, as the popularity they enjoyed during their seven years together did not translate into anything resembling a legacy. When this writer first began looking for any information on the group in the 1990s, the bandleader had been dead for 35 years, and Houston itself had been so utterly transformed that it seemed like almost everything from the past was beyond recovery. Was there really ever a time when a country music dance hall operated on Main Street? It must have been a dream. 

But youth is blessed with stubborn persistence, and to my surprise, I discovered that several members of the band still lived in the city. The interviews that followed were done with considerable mixed emotions. I had not anticipated that anyone would have anything but pleasant memories of R.D. Hendon (March 5, 1915 - September 6, 1956), since most old-timers looked back on their band days with  a wistful fondness, and were happy to revisit those carefree times for interested observers. But Hendon, I would soon discover, ran his band "like an army," hogged the spotlight, threatened to fire musicians who didn't toe the line, beat up anyone who rubbed him the wrong way, and threatened to kill himself several times before he actually did. Most of his former musicians did not attend his funeral. I had unwittingly stumbled into something rather dark and unpleasant, dredging up memories that had actually wanted to stay buried. 

The most difficult thing about R.D. Hendon for people to understand today is how anyone could have such an enormous ego as to name himself the band leader when he did not actually sing or play an instrument. No modern band would allow this, and indeed most bands of Hendon's time would not have allowed it, either. We have lost track of an earlier time, when it was not that unusual for a private businessman to purchase blocks of airtime on a local radio station, hire a band to fill the time, and name the band after himself or his product. One of the most famous bands on Texas radio, W. Lee O'Daniel and the Light Crust Doughboys, did precisely this. Perhaps because O'Daniel attained a degree of fame that R.D. Hendon did not, it doesn't seem as eccentric in his case. And O'Daniel was hardly the only person to engage in this practice, which seemed perfectly normal from a 1930s live radio perspective. Hendon undoubtedly remembered this when he began assembling a band for the Main Street Dance Hall, not realizing that such an idea was anachronistic by 1950, and would lead to great resentment among the musicians he hired -- a resentment still raw, in some cases, decades after his death. 

The dance hall he operated was better remembered for its fistfights than its music. It was a rough place, and patrons who acted unruly were likely to get punched and thrown down the stairs by Hendon himself, or his even tougher younger brother, E.J. Such bone-breaking altercations would be treated as assault and battery cases today, resulting in a frenzy of lawsuits, but the legal climate of the time prevented this from happening. If you were beaten up, thrown down stairs, and suffered a fractured rib and broken teeth, that was your problem. 

But we cannot allow this story to sound too grim. Plenty of memories of Hendon and his band members were good ones, and we can be assured that most of the people who went to his club had a fine time, entertained by one of the best bands in town. A lot of laughs were recorded in my interviews, and all this will come out in the stories ahead. 

The street address painted over the door -- "105 1/2 Main" -- was altered by musicians to "One-oh-fight 1/2 Main," and they were happy to laugh about it, provided that they were not the ones getting thrown down the stairs. (The hall was on the second floor of a three-story building.) The "1/2" represented an improvised entryway that had probably been added years after the 19th century building that housed it had been erected. It did not mean a small place, as "half" designations usually do, especially in residential addresses. The club could hold several hundred people. 

The location in the heart of downtown Houston is a major point of interest to this story. Country music dance halls in Texas have always tended to be a rural phenomenon, catering to a rural clientele. Even those located in cities were usually strategically placed on the outskirts of town, the idea being that the drunkenness and violence that were expected of such places could only be tolerated if it was quarantined well beyond the business or residential districts. Houston's lack of zoning laws (which one city councilman argued in 1948 was communism) meant that anyone could put a night club or dance hall anywhere within city limits, so why not have it centrally located -- in fact, why not put one in the heart of the business district, on Main Street? The hall pre-dated Hendon's residency there, and may have opened as early as the 1930s. It was a well-known night spot in Houston for quite a long time. 

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. All these topics and many more will be explored as this series unravels. Stay tuned.