Sons of the Pioneers Biography

This legendary country group was founded in 1933 by Leonard Slye (5 November 1911, Cincinnati, Ohio, USA, d. 6 July 1998, Apple Valley, California, USA), when he recruited two friends - Bob Nolan (b. Robert Clarence Nobles, 1 April 1908, Point Hatfield, New Brunswick, Canada, d. 16 June 1980) and Tim Spencer (b. Vernon Spencer, 13 July 1908, Webb City, Missouri, USA, d. 26 April 1974, Apple Valley, California, USA) - to re-form a singing trio, known originally as the O-Bar-O Cowboys, and undergo a name change to the Pioneer Trio. Additionally, Slye played rhythm guitar and Nolan played string bass. When they found regular radio work in Los Angeles, they added fiddle player Hugh Farr (b. Thomas Hubert Farr, 6 December 1903, Llano, Texas, USA, d. 17 March 1980). Someone suggested that they looked too young to be pioneers so they became the Sons Of The Pioneers. They were signed to US Decca Records in 1935, and Hugh’s brother Karl Farr (b. Karl Marx Farr, 25 April 1909, Rochelle, Texas, USA, d. 20 September 1961) joined as lead guitarist. The Sons Of The Pioneers sang in numerous Western films, including The Old Homestead, The Gallant Defender, Song Of The Saddle, The Mysterious Avenger, Rhythm Of The Range and The Big Show, the latter starring the cowboy film star Gene Autry.

In late 1936, Spencer left after a difference of opinion, and was replaced by Lloyd Perryman (b. Lloyd Wilson Perryman, 29 January 1917, Ruth, Arkansas, USA, d. 31 May 1977), a singer who had already appeared with the group as a stand-in on several occasions. With Autry in dispute with Republic Pictures, his studio snapped up Slye for his first starring role as singing cowboy Roy Rogers, in 1938’s Under Western Stars. With the Sons Of The Pioneers under exclusive contract to appear in Charles Starrett’s films for Columbia Pictures, Rogers was forced to leave the group, although he returned to sing on their 1937 sessions. He was replaced by bass-playing comic Pat Brady (b. Robert Ellsworth O’Brady, 31 December 1914, Toledo, Ohio, USA, d. 27 February 1972, Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA). Spencer returned in 1938, and this line-up appeared in over 20 movies with Starrett between 1937 and 1941. They were signed to Republic Pictures in 1941 and appeared with Rogers in several of his films up until 1948.

During World War II, Perryman and Brady were called up. They were replaced by Ken Carson (b. 14 November 1914, Oklahoma, USA) and Shug Fisher (b. George Clinton Fisher, 26 September 1907, Spring Creek, Oklahoma, USA, d. 16 March 1984). In 1944 the group moved to RCA - Victor Records, beginning a long association with the label. Recording for the first time with additional instruments, including orchestration, the group re-recorded several of their classic tracks and performed more pop-orientated material. They also backed several other RCA performers, including Rogers and his wife Dale Evans. Perryman and Brady returned to the line-up in 1946, although Carson continued to perform with the group until December 1947. Owing to throat problems, Tim Spencer finally retired from performing in 1949 but managed the group for some years. He was replaced by Ken Curtis (b. Curtis Wain Gates, 2 July 1916, Lamar, Colorado, USA, d. 28 April 1991, Fresco, California, USA), who sang lead on Spencer’s parting shot ‘Room Full Of Roses’. Brady left shortly afterwards to join Rogers on his new television series, and was replaced by the returning Fisher. Lloyd Perryman became the leader of the group when Nolan left in 1949, although the latter continued to provide the group with songs and occasionally joined them in the studio. Perryman recruited Tommy Doss (b. 26 September 1920, Weiser, Idaho, USA), but declining sales saw the group moving to Coral Records in 1953. However, many critics rate the Perryman, Curtis and Doss recordings, which include the 1949 versions of ‘Riders In The Sky’ and ‘Room Full Of Roses’, as the best. Following the change of labels, Curtis and Fisher both left to pursue television and film work, and were replaced by Dale Warren (b. 1 June 1925, Summerville, Kentucky, USA) and Deuce Spriggens.

After a brief and unsuccessful spell with Coral the group moved back to RCA in 1955. Nolan and Curtis rejoined them in the studio, with the new line-up of Perryman, Doss, Warren, Spriggens and the Farr brothers only playing as a touring unit. Spriggens left almost immediately and was replaced by Fisher. Nolan eventually retired for good, and Hugh Farr left in 1958 (he later made several unsuccessful attempts to form his own Sons Of The Pioneers). Brady returned in 1959 when Fisher finally retired. On 20 September 1961, Farr collapsed and died on stage after becoming agitated when a guitar-string broke. He was replaced by session guitarist Roy Lanham (b. 16 January 1923, Corbin, Kentucky, USA). Doss retired from touring in 1963, but continued to record with the group until 1967. In 1968 Luther Nallie was recruited as lead singer, staying until 1974. In 1972, a special reunion concert in Los Angeles celebrated the Pioneers’ 40th anniversary, bringing together the original trio of Rogers, Nolan and Spencer. Perryman led the group until his death in 1977, after which Dale Warren took over and led the group into the 90s and new millennium. Latter-day members included Rusty Richards (vocals/guitar), Billy Armstrong (b. William Russell Armstrong, 18 March 1930, Streator, Illinois, USA; fiddle), and Sunny Spencer (b. Robert Spencer, Bowen, Kentucky, USA, d. 5 February 2005, Tucson, Arizona, USA).

The Sons Of The Pioneers’ recordings reflect a love of God, the hard-working life of a cowboy, and an admiration for a ‘home on the range’. Their bestselling records include Bob Nolan’s ‘Cool Water’ and ‘Tumbling Tumbleweeds’, and Tim Spencer’s ‘Cigareetes, Whuskey And Wild, Wild Women’ and ‘Room Full Of Roses’. The group was elected to the Country Music Hall Of Fame in 1980. The legacy of the Hollywood cowboys is still with us in the work of Ian Tyson, but his songs paint a less romantic picture.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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