The Sons of the Pioneers are one of America's earliest Western singing groups whose classic recordings set a new standard for performers ofWestern music. Known for the high quality of their vocal performances, musicianship, and songwriting, they produced finely-crafted and innovative recordings that have inspired many Western music performers and remained popular through the years. Since 1933, through many changes in membership, the Sons of the Pioneers have remained one of the longest-surviving country music vocal groups in history.
In the spring of 1931, Ohio-born Leonard Slye—the cowboy singer who would later change his name to Roy Rogers—arrived in California and found work as a truck driver, and later as a fruit picker for the Del Monte company in California's Central Valley. He entered an amateur singing contest on a Los Angeles radio show called Midnight Frolics and a few days later got an invitation to join a group called the Rocky Mountaineers.
In September 1931, Canadian-born Bob Nolan answered a classified ad in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner that read, "Yodeler for old-time act, to travel. Tenor preferred." The band was The Rocky Mountaineers, by then led by Leonard Slye. After listening to the tall, slender, tanned Nolan sing and yodel, Slye hired Nolan on the spot. Although Nolan stayed with the group only a short time, he stayed in touch with Slye. Nolan was replaced byTim Spencer, who had been working in a Safeway Stores warehouse.
In the spring of 1932, Slye, Spencer, and another singer, Slumber Nichols, left the Rocky Mountaineers to form a trio, which soon failed. Throughout most of 1932, Slye and Spencer moved through a series of short-lived groups like the International Cowboys and the O-Bar-O Cowboys. Spencer left the O-Bar-O Cowboys and quit music for a while. Slye joined Jack LeFevre and His Texas Outlaws, who were a popular act on a local Los Angeles radio station.
In early 1933, Slye, Nolan, and Spencer formed a group called the Pioneer Trio. The three young singers rehearsed for weeks honing their singing. While Slye continued to work with his radio singing group, Spencer and Nolan began writing songs for the group.
By early 1934, the group consisted of Leonard Slye, Bob Nolan, and Tim Spencer on vocals, with Nolan playing string bass and Slye playing rhythm guitar. During that time, fiddle player Hugh Farr joined the group, adding a bass voice to the group's vocal arrangements. He also sang lead on some songs. Later that year, the "Pioneers Trio" became the "Sons of the Pioneers" through a radio station announcer's chance remark. Asked why he'd changed their name, the announcer said they were too young to have been pioneers, but that they could be sons of pioneers. The name was received well and fit the group, who were no longer a trio.
By the summer of 1934, the Sons of the Pioneers' popularity and fame extended beyond the Los Angeles area and quickly spread across the United States through short syndicated radio segments that were rebroadcast all over the country. They signed a recording contract with the newly founded Decca label, and on August 8, 1934, the Sons of the Pioneers made their first commercial recording. That same day, the immensely popular crooner Bing Crosby also made his first Decca session.
One of the first songs recorded by the Sons of the Pioneers during that first August session was written by Bob Nolan, "Tumbling Tumbleweeds", that would soon become a staple in their repertoire. The original title "Tumbling Leaves" was changed to give the song a western character. Over the next two years the group would record 32 songs for Decca.
Film and television career
Between 1935 and 1984, the Sons of the Pioneers appeared in 87 films, several movie shorts, and a television series. In 1937, the Sons Of The Pioneers signed a deal with Columbia Pictures to appear in a number of movies. In 1938, Leonard Slye was offered a contract as an actor with rival Republic Pictures. Part of that deal required him to officially leave the group. Leonard Slye changed his name to Roy Rogers, and went on to achieve major success as a singing cowboy in the movies. Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers still remained close throughout the coming years. When their contract with Columbia Pictures ended, they signed a new contract with Republic Pictures to be with Roy. They were soon appearing as highly popular supporting players in many of Roy Rogers' movies.
In addition to their appearances and filmed performances, their music was used in numerous other films and television shows. They recorded songs for the John Ford movies Wagon Master in 1949 and Rio Grande in 1950, and performed the theme song for the John Ford classic The Searchers in 1956. "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" was used in the Coen Brothers film The Big Lebowski in 1998.
Passing of an era
In 1971, Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer were both elected to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. In 1972, most of the surviving members of the Sons of the Pioneers, including the original Pioneer Trio of Roy Rogers, Bob Nolan, and Tim Spencer, gathered at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles for one last performance. In 1976, the Sons of the Pioneers were inducted into theCountry Music Hall of Fame.
In 1979, Bob Nolan returned to the studio for the final time and recorded a successful solo album of classics and newer compositions titled Bob Nolan – The Sound of a Pioneer.
The late 1970s saw the passing of an era, as many of the founding members of the group died. Tim Spencer died on April 26, 1976. Lloyd Perryman, who had been with the group since 1936, died on May 31, 1977. Hugh Farr, who had retired from the group in 1958, died on April 17, 1980. Bob Nolan died on June 16, 1980.
Sons of the Pioneers today
Following the death of Lloyd Perryman in 1977, Dale Warren, who had joined the group in 1952 and continued on until his death on August 8, 2008, took over the leadership of the Sons of the Pioneers, guiding them into the 2000s. They continued to perform in concert and recorded as well with a lineup that featured, amongst many others, Luther Nallie (guitar, vocals), Rusty Richards (vocals), Doye O'Dell (guitar, vocals), Billy Armstrong (fiddle), Billy Liebert (accordion), and Rome Johnson (vocals).
In 2001, a book about the group was published, titled The Sons of the Pioneers by Bill O'Neal and Fred Goodwin. The current "Trail Boss" of the Sons of the Pioneers is Luther Nallie (vocals), who joined the group in 1968. His fellow band members are Gary LeMaster (guitar), Ken Lattimore (vocals), Randy Rudd (guitar), Mark Abbott (bass), and Ricky Boen (fiddle).
In 1977, the Smithsonian Institution, which designates certain artists and performers who have made a noteworthy contribution to the arts and culture of America, named the Sons of the Pioneers as "National Treasures".
In 1995, the Sons of the Pioneers were inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
The Sons of the Pioneers were the first Country and Western group to sing at Carnegie Hall, and the first to perform at the lavish nightclubs in Las Vegas. The group has a star on theHollywood Walk of Fame at 6845 Hollywood Blvd. for recording.