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CHRISTIAN, BENJAMIN THEODORE [BEN]

CHRISTIAN, BENJAMIN THEODORE [BEN] (1885–1956). Fiddler and band leader Benjamin Theodore Christian was born on a farm near Rockdale, Texas, on June 1, 1885, the fifth of nine children of Charles S. and Anne E. (Murray) Christian. Affectionately known as "Uncle Ben" to a later generation of country music fans, Christian probably learned to play the fiddle from an older brother. Although most of his siblings played instruments, only his younger brother Elwood (Elmer) also established a musical career.

Before entering the music field, Christian engaged in a number of business activities, including bookkeeping and sales. While performing with a traveling medicine show, he met and married Rose Lee Franklin in Port Neches in 1928. They remained married until his death in 1956. This and a previous marriage produced three sons.

Christian entered the Houston music scene in the early 1930s, when Fort Worth-based western swing was attracting growing audiences over the radio waves. For a time he teamed with guitarists Dave Melton and Lynn Henderson at house parties. Ben and Henderson organized the Bar X Cowboys, named by radio announcer Harry Greer, with Ben as business manager and lead fiddler and Elwood on fiddle and bass. Although offering no pay for the band, the live programs, variously on KTRH, KPRC, and KXYZ, provided free advertising for dances within the approximately 200-mile range of the radio stations.

Performing cowboy and country songs in addition to western swing, the Bar X Cowboys became one of the most popular aggregations in the vibrant coastal region, competing with such major talents as Pappy Selph, Cliff Bruner, Moon Mullican, and Shelly Lee Alley.qqv Ted Daffanqv, a pioneer in the electrification of instruments and charter member of the Nashville Song Writers Association Hall of Fame for compositions "Born To Lose," "Truck Driver's Blues," and a host of other hits, played steel guitar for the band before organizing his Texans in 1940. Although primarily a dance band, the Bar X Cowboys made a number of records with Decca, including Christian's "Rockdale Rag," in Dallas studios. Some of the selections have been reproduced recently in country music albums.

In 1940 Christian turned over the Bar X Cowboys to Elwood to form the Texas Cowboys, which he managed until his retirement. The new band continued the success of its predecessor, with Richard "Jerry" Jericho, a later performer on Shreveport's Louisiana Hayrideqv, as principal vocalist. Christian broadcast on KNUZ and KLEE until disk jockeys replaced the local live bands in the late forties. During that decade the Texas Cowboys performed at leading Houston venues, such as Cook's Hoedown, Eagles' Hall, and Polish Hall (later known as Fitzgerald's), in addition to rural communities. Hank Thompson, Hank Locklin, Floyd Tillman, Hank Snow, and Elton Britt made guest appearances with the band. The Texas Cowboys shared the bandstand in "battle dances" with Bob Wills, Adolf Hofner,qqv and Jesse James. Christian and the band provided instrumentation for Hank Williams on one of his last area tours and permitted a young Elvis Presley to gain experience with them before an audience at Magnolia Gardens.

Declining health and lessening opportunities for local bands persuaded Christian to transfer the Texas Cowboys to Jericho in 1954. Ben Christian's death, at his Houston residence on March 27, 1956, closed a musical career that had spanned the golden age of string dance bands on the Texas Gulf Coast.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Garna L. Christian, Stay A Little Longer: The First Generation of Houston Country Music (Houston: Houston Center for the Humanities, 1985). Colin Escott and Kira Florita, Hank Williams: Snapshots from the Lost Highway (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Da Capo Press, 2001). Bill C. Malone, Country Music U.S.A. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968; rev. ed., Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985). Houston Review 9 (1987).

Garna L. Christian

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Garna L. Christian, "CHRISTIAN, BENJAMIN THEODORE [BEN]," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fch73), accessed November 23, 2014. Uploaded on June 12, 2010. Modified on September 14, 2011. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.