Bob Wills

Public Domain

This is Leslie VonHolten with another HPPR Radio Readers Book Byte. 

“Quacks, yodelers, pitchmen, psychics, and other amazing broadcasters of the American airwaves.” That’s the subtitle of Border Radio, this fun and expertly crafted history of early radio personalities who broadcasted along the Mexican border. Authors Gene Fowler and Bill Crawford deliver on that title—after each chapter, I was convinced that Wow, that had to be the zaniest character of that era. Only to be shown otherwise in the next chapter. 

In this election year, however, I was especially struck by the story of W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel and his rise and fall as the Governor of Texas. I am sure this is a tired tale in the Lone Star State, but up here in Kansas—well, we just haven’t had showmen on that scale. And we even had the Goat Gland Doctor himself, Dr. John Brinkley! But Pappy O’Daniel—he was a cut above on the entertainer front, hands down. His chapter of the book, titled “Please Pass the Tamales, Pappy,” was my favorite. 

An accomplished businessman, Pappy O’Daniel shined bright amid the old, dowdy politicians of his time with his showmanship and his ability to saturate the airwaves. His advertising and his down-home words of insight were set off by the jazzy old-time music of the now-legendary Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys. (At the time, they were the Light Crust Doughboys, because Pappy was in the flour business.) The chapter reads like a rapid river, with Pappy and all of Texas riding the whitecap waves straight to the governor’s mansion. 

If you’re a fan of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, The Oklahoma Historical Society just released a compilation of rediscovered songs from the personal transcriptions of Bob Wills. The original recordings were included in the Wills Family donation of Bob Will’s personal items. About 130 recordings of radio broadcast from the 1940s were discovered in the collection. The audio was deteriorating because they were only meant to be played a limited number of times. The work was restored and remastered. The initial run is 1,000 records pressed on 180-gram vinyl. The album features songs once thought lost to time, dust, heat and mold from one of Oklahoma’s biggest musical icons. The effort is part of OHS’s effort to tell more Oklahoma history through music, film, radio, television, literature, theater, and more.