Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Sons of the Pioneers in Chicago: Music Weird interviews Hal Spencer

You might not think of Chicago as the heart of Western music, but the most famous Western vocal group of all time, the Sons of the Pioneers, lived there for just over a year in 1940-1941. 

While they were in Chicago, they performed on the WLS National Barn Dance and recorded over 200 radio transcriptions, called The Symphonies of the Sage, for NBC's Orthacoustic company. Many fans feel that these recordings are among the purest representations of the Sons' sound, because the group was able to choose the songs, write the arrangements, and play all of the instruments free from the influence of a record label.  

The Chicago reissue label Bloodshot Revival released a collection of these transcriptions in 2001, and while writing the liner notes for it, I interviewed Hal Spencer. Hal is the son of Tim Spencer from the original lineup of the Sons of the Pioneers and also the president and CEO of the publishing company Manna Music.

The original lineup of the Sons of the Pioneers was Roy Rogers, Bob Nolan, and Tim Spencer, but by the time the Sons moved to Chicago, Roy Rogers had left the group to pursue a solo career. In Chicago, the vocal group comprised Spencer, Nolan, Lloyd Perryman, and bass vocalist Pat Brady. Hugh and Karl Farr, the peerless cowboy jazz artists, added violin and guitar. 

I interviewed Hal Spencer twice on March 28-29, 2001. In the second interview, he provided details about a number of things that he didn't know in the first interview. 

Tim Spencer

You were pretty young when the Sons of the Pioneers were in Chicago. 

I was four. I was born in '36 and I think that was in '39.

Do you have many memories of that period?

Well, actually, I don't because [laughs]—of all things—I was hit by a car in Chicago right outside the hotel after the year that we spent there. It was just about a month or so before everbody left. In fact, Pat Brady was the one who ran out in the street and picked me up and pulled me over and took me to the hospital. So, as a result of that accident, I don't remember anything about the first four years of my life. Of course, a lot of people don't, but I don't. I remember the snow in the park across the street from the hotel where we lived, and that was about it.

Pat Brady

Where did you stay?

We stayed in a hotel. It was probably some type of tenement hotel, but I'm not absolutely sure. I can ask my mother.

Do you know how often the Sons were performing on WLS?

No, I don't.

During that year, about a half dozen of their films came out.  I assumed that they all were filmed the summer prior to the move to Chicago. Or were they shuttling back and forth from Hollywood?

My first impression would be that I think that they were shuttling, but I could find that out pretty easy from my mom.

Do you know of any interesting anecdotes from that period?

I know that, from what I recall from discussions afterwards, that it was a very busy and almost an unhappy time.

There was a lot of changes going on, pressures, and they were working extremely hard and were busy and doing a lot of stuff. At that particular time I think that there was some problems with the manager. From the general feeling over the years, the Chicago year was kind of a blur. They did the transcriptions and were happy to do it, but then afterwards, they kind of felt like maybe they had been taken advantage of when they signed off on artist royalties on the transcriptions, and felt like maybe they had made a mistake on the advice of my uncle Leo, that that would be a good deal. But in the long run it turned out to not be.  

But I think that was probably just one of the negatives. They felt that the radio work that they did in Chicago at that time was beneficial to their career—extremely beneficial—so they did feel like, from that standpoint, it was worth it. My dad and Bob didn't like all that work. They were more creative people, and that's why they retired as early as they did. They just didn't like the moving around and the going on concert tours and being gone all the time.

[Second interview with Hal Spencer, March 29, 2001]

I talked with my mother and then I talked with Karl Farr Jr., and Karl's a little bit older than me, so he knew a little bit. And, I don't know whether I got all the information, but....  I cannot find any photos. There's one other photo album that I found, but I haven't gone through it.  

Karl Farr

The hotel was located across the street from Lincoln Park. It was an apartment hotel with a bowling alley downstairs, and that's where everyone lived—all the Pioneers. Karl Farr Jr. did not live there. He stayed in California and lived with his grandparents. He only saw his dad, Karl. The first time, he didn't see him for nine months. His mother came back twice during that 14-month period. They were in Chicago from July 1940 through September 1941, which was 14 months.  

To the best of his knowledge, they didn't make any movies during that time—at least for nine months they didn't—because [Karl Farr] never came back to California. My mother says that she doesn't remember the Pioneers going off anywhere during that one-year period except for an occasional personal appearance, which would have been a couple of days if they went to the east, but most of the personal appearances were close enough to whereby they didn't have to go very far, and basically they did the Uncle Ezra show on WLS and stayed there.  

Karl Jr. said that he thought the name of the hotel was the North Park Hotel. My mother thought it was the Lincoln Park Hotel [a 500-room hotel at 1931 North Lincoln Park West], but it was an apartment hotel—it wasn't a regular hotel.  

Roy Rogers would come into town quite often, Karl [Jr.] says, because his dad would tell him, and his dad was a bowler. And Karl and Roy bowled a lot during the 14 months that they were in Chicago. 

Roy Rogers

Now, Roy wasn't with the group, but he loved to bowl, and so did Karl, and for some reason he had a little thing going with Karl—a competition—so [Karl Jr.] can remember in the letters from his mom and dad, they would say, "Roy came in and Roy and Karl bowled for three days straight."

Also, my story about being hit by a car and being picked up out of the street by Pat Brady was another interesting thing that both my Mother and Karl remember being told.  

How often were the Sons on WLS?  

Karl Jr. and my mom did not know for sure whether it was a weekly show or a daily show.  But they weren't on all the time. They were on regular but that didn't mean they didn't miss the show now and then. But she couldn't remember whether it was a daily show or not.

They aren't pictured in the WLS Family Albums from 1940 and 1941.

They're not? But staying there for 14 months, that's gotta be a pretty regular job.

One other interesting thing that Karl said was that while they were there, they did record, and one of the songs they recorded during that time was a song called "They Drew My Number," and that was at the start of the war, and that was in reference to the draft board.

My dad wrote that song, and the Sons of the Pioneers recorded it, and when they returned to California in September of 1941, that song was on the hit parade and they didn't even know it. They were all surprised.  

Were they all married? 

Karl was married, my dad was married, Karl does not think that Hugh was married, and neither does my Mother, at that time. Pat was not married, and I don't think Lloyd was married. So that's what they said.

Did Karl Jr. say anything about the movies? 

He said that probably, as far as making any of the Charles Starrett movies that were released in 1940, it took an average of two weeks to make those movies, and they were all made on the Columbia lot in Burbank, California. 

If they did come home—-say it was nine months and they came home after nine months—they could have gone down in a period of two weeks and made a couple of movies just by their appearances. They could have had two different scripts going at the same time. And so it was not unusual, but he believes that it was all done in 1939 and released in 1940.  

That's about all I was able to find out. You probably have a copy of Ken's book don't you, that you're referring to? [Hear My Song: The Story of the Celebrated Sons of the Pioneers by Ken Griffis.]


Yesterday when I was talking to you before, when I was talking about transcriptions, about that they signed off on artists—that was the earlier transcriptions that they made.

The Standard transcriptions?

Yeah. And so, as I'm looking, I see these are The Symphonies of the Sage. Which I understand—in fact, I talked to Dusty Rogers yesterday—and I guess that Roy has rights to those. At least, he's claiming that he had rights to the Orthacoustic.  

My dad claimed that he had the rights to the Standard transcriptions, and I have the contracts where he purchased those for release. In fact, we have it in storage right now, all of the records.  

Did you work with Bear Family on their Sons of the Pioneers box sets?

No, I didn't, and in fact, I'm having a disagreement with them because it's probably true that [the Sons of the Pioneers] signed away on their artist royalties, but [Bear Family] still [has] a responsibility to pay songwriters' royalties and publisher royalties, and I don't think that's being done, because I'm the trustee for the original group of the Sons of the Pioneers and responsible for all the royalties. 

I've been asked by widows and heirs why I'm not doing something about that. When I talk with RCA or I talk with Decca about some of the stuff that goes on over in Europe, they say it costs more money to bring a lawsuit than you would get, and they just ignore it. When I tell the heirs and the widows that, they don't understand.

That's interesting, because Bear Family has a good reputation for paying royalties.

Well, there's quite a few bootleg operations that come out of Europe, and I'm not saying Bear Family is a bootleg operation, but they haven't been paying the copyright royalties. At least not on the Standard transcriptions. Hugh Farr's second wife is alive, and I send her royalty checks twice a year, and she's talked with the head of Bear Family. I forgot his name.

Richard Wieze.

Wieze, yeah. He says that he's willing to work with anybody, doesn't want to do anything wrong, and wants everybody to be treated fairly, and that's good that I heard that. I'll probably contact him once again, because the first time I contacted him, he never answered my letters. 

When anybody licenses through RCA or Decca, or when they compile anything, RCA's practice is to charge them as part of the lease agreement the songwriters' royalties and the artists' royalties, and [RCA] wants to be responsible for them, and so they pay that and they get it up front so the compiler doesn't have to pay that. He just pays it as part of his lease fee. And that's good, because when I get the royalties from RCA, for example, it shows me all the units sold and all the units that have come through compilations, and it doesn't necessarily list the name of the compilation, but I could tell by the songs that are out. I like that idea, and I wish [all labels] would all follow that. But there are some compilers out there that make deals with some labels and say "I'll pay it" and they don't. They end up not paying it.

That's as much as I could find out, and I know it's not very much.  

No, that's great. I really appreciate your efforts.

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