The Western Cherokees are invariably remembered today because of their association with Lefty Frizzell, George Jones, and Ray Price, obscuring the fact that the group existed as a discrete unit for many years. Guitarist/vocalist Robert Lawrence “Blackie” Crawford (1923-1984)), an ex-Marine and WWII veteran, was the founder and leader of the group, which originally went by the Sons of Texas and, briefly, the Tune Toppers. Their pedigree as the backing band on a few of Frizzell’s biggest early hits (most notably “Always Late,” which Blackie co-wrote) earned them their own recording contract with Coral Records in late 1951. They were ably managed by Jack and Neva Starns, veteran promoters and club owners in East Texas. By early 1953, they were based in Oklahoma City, but this would change when the Starnses purchased a large dance hall on the northern outskirts of Beaumont, Texas, a few months later.
Steel guitarists are often a historian’s best friend, easily and vividly remembering details from decades past that remain a fuzzy, distant blur to their fellow bandmembers, and, happily, Bobby Black is no exception. Though his tenure with the Western Cherokees was brief (lasting less than a year, from spring to the fall of 1953), his insights are vital, giving us a clear snapshot of an otherwise murky and confusing time. Crucially, Bobby was in the band when the Cherokees were recruited by Jack and Neva to help launch the Starday label with two marathon sessions that probably occurred over two days at ACA Studios in Houston in the summer of 1953. ACA cut 78 rpm masters of the first four Starday singles on May 21, 1953.
The following is based on interviews with Bobby Black on June 9, 1996; August 21, 1997; and February 2, 2005. (AB)
Andrew Brown: Bobby, you’re from California, correct?
Bobby Black: Yeah. I’m originally from Arizona, but I’ve lived in California most of my life.
How did you become involved with this band that was based in Oklahoma at that time?
Well, I was playing what was the second gig of my career, at a place called Tracy Gardens in San Jose, California. I was 17 years old. Pee Wee Whitewing had been the house band’s steel player. All of the name artists, when they came through the area, would always appear there. So we got a chance to either back up these people or open for them — including Hank Williams, Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb, and Lefty Frizzell. The Western Cherokees were backing up Lefty on his tour. He was the number one guy at the time. Everybody was raving about him, and he was packing these places. So, they picked Pee Wee up (to tour with them), so I took Pee Wee’s place in the house band.
When Pee Wee left the Cherokees, he recommended me. Why, I don’t know. (Laughter) There were a lot of pretty good steel players in Texas and Oklahoma. It was probably just because we were buddies. I had just started going to college at San Jose State. I was just about finished with my first semester when they called (in spring, 1953). I took the train to Oklahoma City – that’s where they were at first. We played at the Trianon Ballroom. Seems like we did that every other Saturday — we’d alternate with Hank Thompson. That was our headquarters for a while. Then we moved down to Beaumont.
Bobby Black playing Pee Wee Whitewing's steel guitar at Tracy Gardens, San Jose, California, c. 1951.
(Bobby Black Collection)
(Bobby Black Collection)
I remember my first night with those guys was at the Trianon Ballroom. I was so nervous. I remember going down to the Trianon and setting up before I’d even met anybody. I’d arrived in town maybe a couple of hours before.
I set up, and met the guys when they came in. I was, like I said, so nervous and scared. We started playing. I had a cup of Coke sitting on stage, and some guy (audience member) with a bottle of whiskey in a brown bag kept pouring whiskey in my Coke. I’d reach down and drink, and after a while I just got plastered. I don’t have any recollection of that night. I didn’t drink then and I don’t drink now, but I guess that I thought I was going to be cool since I was away from home, and with these guys...I’m going to really start living it up.
The next day, we went down to Ardmore, Oklahoma, to play some club. Of course, I was sober. Nobody said a dang thing to me the whole time. We played the first set, and Blackie and everybody gathered around me when we took a break...they shook my hand, patted me on the back. They were so happy that I’d played like I did. They said they were going to send me back home on the train, 'cause I’d played so bad the night before. (Laughter) Then I realized how stupid I must have been.
Who else was in the band when you joined?
Blackie (guitar), Pee Wee Wharton and Bob Heppler (fiddles), Burney Annett (piano), Bud Crawford (bass), and Jimmy Dennis (drums). We were based in Oklahoma City only a few months. It seemed to me like I was with the band six years, but I was probably with them only six or seven months. So much happened to me and the band during that time that it seems like a lot longer than that. But probably half of the time I was with them was spent in Oklahoma City, the other half in Beaumont. Neva’s Club in Beaumont was our headquarters, but we traveled around a lot.
Robert "Blackie" Crawford (1951).
What precipitated the move from Oklahoma City to Beaumont?
It’s funny, I didn’t pay that much attention to the politics of what was happening. All I cared about was just playing. The only thing I can think of is that the Starnses were friends with Blackie, and Neva’s was a new place, so they contacted Blackie to see if he wanted to play there — just make it our headquarters. 'Cause that’s what happened, of course.
What was your impression of Jack and Neva Starns?
I didn’t have much of a relationship with them. Jack...I don’t want to say he was a cut- throat businessman, but he was sort of a typical hustler type. A cigar-puffing guy. But I shouldn’t make any judgements, because I can’t say I knew him or Neva that well. Most of the time I was just hanging out with the guys in the band. We lived together for a while, the whole band. In Oklahoma City, anyway, we lived in one house. Blackie’s wife always cooked for us. It was kind of neat. A lot of fun — we had a lot of good times.
I always liked Blackie. He was a character. He was a World War II veteran. He told me a story of climbing up a tree in some island in the Pacific and shooting a Jap sniper. The guy’s blood and everything got all over him...he freaked, and said he never got over the experience. And, every once in a while, he’d go into these terrible migraine headaches. They would lay him out -- he’d be in agony. So he’d have these weird attacks.
Yes, apparently that was why he left the band later on.
Really? I had no idea. When I left the band, it was a cheerful parting. We all got along real well. But I was homesick, and I decided to get married. I had broken up with my high school sweetheart when I left, so I felt like it was time to go back home, get married, settle down -- but it was a great experience for me.
The Western Cherokees hanging out with members of the Bill Wimberley band at the Cowboy Inn in Wichita, Kansas, 1953. From left: Larry Black, Bobby Black, Jimmy Dennis, Cotton Whittington, fan, Blackie Crawford, fan, Gene Crownover. Click on picture to enlarge. (Bobby Black Collection)
How far away from Beaumont would you tour? There’s that one picture of you taken at the Cowboy Inn in Wichita, Kansas — would that be as far north as you’d tour?
Probably. I remember playing in Texarkana. I remember playing the Big “D” Jamboree and the Louisiana Hayride. Those were the occasions when we’d wear those big war bonnets, headdresses. Fortunately we didn’t have to wear those all the time. Shreveport was as far east as I remember going. I guess it was mostly in Texas and Oklahoma that we toured...and Louisiana. We used Chrysler limousines with trailers to travel in. There were two of them. They were painted up with “The Western Cherokees” on the sides, and on the trailer, too. I remember seeing those back when they were backing up Frizzell in California.
It got kind of rough in those cars. I remember trying to sleep while somebody was driving. It was really uncomfortable.
That probably also contributed to your leaving the band, eh?
Yeah. I got tired of that kind of fast. (Laughter) 'Course, I was pretty young, so I could take it, but I could never do something like that now, that’s for sure.
We used to play in Houston at Magnolia Gardens. We backed up Tommy Sands there, among many others. I met Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys out there. I remember seeing a guy get shot right in front of me there while we were playing. He didn’t get killed. He was drunk, or raising hell, and the cops came right up in front of me and shot the guy. It was always so hot and humid there. I’d never encountered that until I left California.
Another place we played a lot in Houston was Cook’s Hoedown. I can still see the red and white checkered tablecloths they had on the tables there. It’s funny, I never met Herb Remington there. I saw him play once at Cook’s, but didn’t get to meet him.
We went out with Webb Pierce a lot. He was really hot at that time. So many guys like him didn’t have their own bands. They’d hire these, what were called “pick up” bands -- usually out of Texas or Oklahoma. 'Cause they were pretty good units who could play a lot of styles. In those days, swing was kind of still happening, so before and after the star got up and sang, the band would do all their swing stuff. And get away with it. (Laughter) So when Ray Price picked up the band, it evolved into the Cherokee Cowboys.
After I had left the band and had been gone for a while, they did a tour with Ray Price out here in California. I think it was in Sacramento...I drove out to see them. It was the last time I saw Blackie and those guys.
From left: Bobby Black, Bob Heppler, and Luther Nallie, 1953. (Bobby Black Collection.)
At live shows, did Blackie do most of the vocals, or did Bob Heppler share them with Blackie?
Heppler of course did some, but Blackie did most of them as I recall. Heppler was a pretty good singer, but at the time I thought he sounded a little bit too “poppish.” (Laughter) It sounds fine to me now.
Do you remember Rusty McDonald? I liked his singing, his writing...him personally. Few people have ever heard of the guy. I played a lot of gigs with him. In fact, I think I met Jimmy Day and Floyd Cramer during one of those Rusty McDonald gigs. At times, Blackie and the whole band would back him up. Rusty would hire the band to back him up for different things. And sometimes, he’d just pick up part of the band, without Blackie. And I did most of those gigs. I always liked working with him. He had a sound and style that I really liked.
You mentioned Neva’s Club in Beaumont as being the band’s headquarters during mid-to-late 1953. Can you describe what it was like?
Neva’s was like a miniature Longhorn Ballroom. Do you remember the Longhorn Ballroom in Dallas? We played there a few times, as well. Neva’s had a nice, large hardwood dance floor...they had a little restaurant there, kind of a typical place like they had in those days. It was fun to play there.
George Jones was living in Beaumont then. I had met him before that, though, at the place I mentioned in San Jose. That was when he was still in the Marines. He was stationed out here at Moffett Air Field. He’d be in uniform -- he’d come out and sing with us. Nobody knew who he was; he was just “George Jones, the Singing Marine.” He’d do Lefty Frizzell songs. So when I went with Blackie, I saw him and said, “Hey! You’re that guy...” There was always that kind of thing going on back in those days.
Did George Jones appear with the band at this point?
No. He came up to the radio station that one time, just to watch us play, I guess.
The Western Cherokees, Polaroid snapshot taken at Neva's Club in Beaumont, 1953. This is the only known photo of the 1953 band on stage. From left: Bobby Black, unknown, unknown (Norman Stevens?), Blackie Crawford, Robert Shivers (first fiddle), Bob Heppler (second fiddle), Milburn "Burney" Annett. Click to enlarge. (Bobby Black Collection)
In that snapshot of the band playing at Neva’s, there’s a guy playing lead guitar that looks like Norman Stevens. I didn’t think he had worked with Blackie after 1951.
That’s probably who it was. Maybe he was just sitting in when that picture was taken. I don’t remember him being in the band when we were working.
Were you on a salary? How did Blackie pay you?
No, we would get paid by the gig, as I recall. And it wasn’t much, as you can imagine. I think in those days we would get between ten and fifteen dollars a night per man to play. But I thought I was on top of the world, actually. I didn’t make any money, but I sure had a lot of fun.
How many records do you remember making with them?
I was in the band when we did all of the very first Starday recordings, (for example) “Cherokee Steel Guitar.” One of the things that stands out, I did a thing with Patsy Elshire (“Someday I Know He Will”). I did sort of a Joaquin Murphey-type solo. Naturally, it was not as good as Joaquin. ‘Cause I was influenced by Joaquin a lot. That was one of the tunes I remember hearing on the radio after I came back out here. Eddie Kirk was a disc jockey, and he played it. And after it finished, he came on the microphone and said something to the effect of, “Hey folks, that steel break was so neat, I wish I knew who it was...I’m gonna play it for you one more time.” And he played the solo over again. And man, I was in hog heaven. I was soaring on cloud nine.
Patsy Elshire - "Someday I Know He Will" (Starday 109) featuring Bobby Black on steel guitar, plus Robert Shivers or Bob Heppler (fiddle), and Burney Annett (piano).
What about “You All Come” by Arlie Duff?
There’s a funny story behind “You All Come.” We were over at Jack Starns’ house when we worked up those songs. We had Arlie Duff come over, Patsy Elshire, and all those people. So we went over all the different songs we had. I think Blackie wrote a few of 'em. And, of course, Arlie Duff wrote “You All Come.” He was a schoolteacher in town. The flipside was “Poor Old Teacher.” Arlie was a likeable guy, kind of a clown. It was hard to believe he was a teacher. We didn’t look down on him, but he had the most insignificant songs that we were going over, I felt. I thought, “Man, why are we doing these tunes? They’re so corny.” We were always looking for something more swinging to play, so I felt like we had to lower ourselves to play these. I remember somebody, maybe Blackie, saying, “Aw, play really corny on this stuff,” so I did, of course.
That must have been a surprise when “You All Come” became a massive hit.
Oh, I couldn’t believe it. I remember when we recorded it, I thought it was the corniest thing. It was almost a joke to me. As it turned out, naturally, that was the thing that made the most noise.
Those first Starday sessions were recorded in Houston. I thought they were done at ACA Studios, but Patsy Elshire insisted that she recorded her first single at Floyd Tillman’s studio, which was in his house. Does that sound plausible?
It wasn’t a home. It was a high-ceilinged, warehouse-looking place that had been converted into a studio. I do remember seeing those egg crates on the walls. I’m sure I would have remembered if it was at Floyd’s, because I knew who he was. We backed him up on some shows in Houston, but I don’t remember ever recording at his place.
We were in there, at the most, two days. We did a whole bunch that first day. It seems to me that we may have gone back the next day and done the rest.
By that time, Luther Nallie had joined the band. Luther thought that Pee Wee Wharton was playing fiddle and singing backup vocals on those first sessions. But Bob Heppler had no recollection of him playing there.
It could be...my recollection is kind of vague at times. So, that’s possible. (Fiddler) Robert Shivers came along later. Pee Wee Wharton wasn’t with the band very long. He was with us in Oklahoma City. I don’t think he went to Beaumont. We had twin fiddles there (in Beaumont), Heppler and Shivers.
Luther Nallie was playing lead guitar. He wasn’t in the band very long (either).
Western Cherokees - "Cherokee Steel Guitar" (Starday 102) featuring Bobby Black on steel guitar, plus Robert Shivers or Pee Wee Wharton and Bob Heppler (fiddles), Burney Annett (piano), Blackie Crawford (guitar) , Luther Nallie (tenor banjo), Bud Crawford (bass), and Jimmy Dennis (drums). Recorded at ACA Studio in Houston circa May, 1953.
Did you come up with “Cherokee Steel Guitar”? How did that evolve?
No, I think that was Bobby Garrett’s thing. Garrett was in the band at one time before me. They had been doing it a while before I joined. Blackie showed me how it went.
There were a lot of good steel players in that band — Jimmy Biggar, Bobby Garrett, (Curly) Chalker, and of course, Pee Wee Whitewing. So I was fortunate to be, for a short time anyway, a member of that group. I always felt kind of proud, because I thought I was in fast company with so many good steel players.
Bobby Black on stage.
What kind of a steel guitar did you play?
I had a Bigsby. As a matter of fact, I was with Blackie in Beaumont when I got my Bigsby. Boy, that was a day I’ll never forget. It had been on back order for over a year. Before that, I had a double-neck Fender. But I used my Bigsby on all of those Starday things. God, I regret the day I let that guitar go. I don’t even know what I did with it. I sold it to somebody I guess, but I don’t even remember who. I’d give anything to have it back now.
When I left the band and came back here, it doesn’t seem like it was long after that that I got a call from Burney Annett. He said that he and bunch of the guys were going to Springfield, Missouri, to do the Ozark Jubilee with Red Foley, and they were thinking about using me or Curly Chalker. Chalker took the gig, but it kind of pleased me that they called me first. Curly had a personality that was kind of weird at times. He didn’t get along that well with a lot of people. So I think that was why they called me first. And I turned 'em down. I’ve always kind of regretted that in a way.
Any final thoughts on Blackie Crawford?
I really liked Blackie. He had a certain machismo about him, kind of a tough guy. But he treated me good. To this day, I remember some of the rules he had. I thought they were kind of unusual. It was because of some of the previous members of the band, including Curly Chalker — probably primarily because of Curly Chalker. One of them was that no wives or girlfriends could come to the gigs. (In California) I was used to seeing guys bring their wives or girlfriends to the gigs. But I guess that fights would break out. I never saw that happen while I was with the band, mainly because that rule was observed.
But Blackie was a fatherly figure to me. He was probably just a young guy (laughter), but I saw him as this older, fatherly kind of guy to me.
Bobby Black's Starday Discography
101 Mary Jo Chelette
A: Cat Fishing
B: Gee, It's Tough To Be Thirteen
102 Blackie Crawford
A: Mariuch (Mottie-Ooch)
The Western Cherokees
B: Cherokee Steel Guitar
103 Bob Heppler
A: I Don't Like It
B: If You Don't Mind
104 Arlie Duff
A: You All Come
B: Poor Ole Teacher
105 Blackie Crawford and the Western Cherokees
A: Huckleberry Pie
The Western Cherokees
B: Hot Check Baby
106 Arlie and Lois Duff
A: A Million Tears
B: Stuck-In-A-Mud Hole
107 Bob Heppler
A: Handle With Care
B: One Step Ahead
108 not issued
109 Patsy Elshire
A: Someday I Know He WillB: Two Can Play The Game