TEXAS TOP HANDS
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TEXAS TOP HANDS. The Texas Top Hands, one of the state's oldest continuously-performing western swing bands, debuted in 1945 with Clarence J. "Sleepy" Short on fiddle, George Edwin "Knee-High" Holley on string bass, Walter Kleypas on piano and accordion, and William Wayne "Rusty" Locke on steel guitar. Manager Johnny H. "Curley" Williams played acoustic guitar. The Top Hands had an early-morning spot on WOAI radio, which was at that time a 50,000-watt clear-channel station in San Antonio.
The group had performed since 1941 under the name Texas Tumbleweeds. Then Bob Symons, the former manager of the Tumbleweeds, came home from a stint with the United States Marines in World War II. When he filed a lawsuit to reclaim his band name, the group changed its name over a weekend, appearing under the old name on Friday and showing up Monday morning as the Texas Top Hands, the name that they still retain.
They traveled to New York in 1946 to record for Savoy and to back singer–songwriter "Red River" Dave McEnery on his Continental recording sessions. With McEnery, the Top Hands made several film shorts in 1947. That year they also co-starred in a ground-breaking movie filmed near San Antonio. The film, Echo Ranch, departed from the usual Hollywood westerns of the day in that it used no artificial scenery but was shot in natural outdoor settings. San Antonians made up the entire cast. Longtime Top Hands manager Ray Sczepanik owns a copy of the film.
In 1949 the Top Hands began recording on their own label, Everstate, on which they subsequently produced more than fifty recordings. The first—"Bandera Waltz" by O. B. "Easy" Adams—became a regional smash and remains a dance hall classic. The lament rode for fifty-two weeks at the top of the Hillbilly Hit Parade on KMAC. Slim Whitman, Ernest Tubb, Rex Allen, Jimmy Wakely, Adolph Hofner, David Houston, and nine other performers have recorded the song.
Tired of seven-night-a-week performing, with the Top Hands and with a band of his own, Kleypas left the band in 1952. Rusty Locke then managed the band until 1955, when he formed his own group. That left Easy Adams as leader until 1979, when he suffered a heart attack. Ray Sczepanik replaced him and still led the band in 2011. Locke later rejoined and played with the group for several years.
The Top Hands backed Hank Williams at his last Texas concert, on December 22, 1952, at the Macdona Shooting Club, near San Antonio; Williams died a few days later. The Top Hands have opened for or backed other well-known singers such as Webb Pierce, Tex Ritterqv, Moe Bandy, Johnny Rodriguez, Jerry Lee Lewis, George Morgan, Jacky Ward, and Mel Tillis. During the early 1950s, while the band played over radio station KABC, Gene Autry, William Boyd (known as Hopalong Cassidy), Wild Bill Elliott, Chill Wills, and other movie stars appeared with the band.
The Top Hands became known throughout Texas for their many appearances at local festivals and rodeos. They were the only band to perform at the first Poteet Strawberry Festival in 1948. On April 1, 1997, Locke, age seventy-seven, returned to the festival, where he sang "Milk Cow Blues" and "Westphalia Waltz." Other appearances include the State Fair of Texas in Dallas (1955), where the show was broadcast live. Again, the Top Hands were the only band to perform. They also appeared at the Southwestern Exposition and Livestock Show in Fort Worth, the Central Texas Fair in Temple, the Stompede and Rodeo in Bandera, Buccaneer Days in Corpus Christi; the Oil Show in Odessa, the Wool Show and Rodeo in San Angelo, the Stockman's Ball in Laredo, the Peanut Festival in Floresville, the Watermelon Jubilee in Stockdale, the Horse Show and Fair in Junction, the rodeo in El Paso, and the Pecos Rodeo (where they were a regular act from 1950 to 1976). In their heyday they performed twenty-five to thirty evenings a month. Among notable Texans in their audiences, they entertained Allan Shivers, Beauford Jester, Bill Clements, and John Connally. Their road trip in early 1949 promoted the first San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo, at which they also performed. The band returned for the show's thirty-fifth anniversary under the direction of Ray Sczepanik. In 1955 the Top Hands were selected to represent the Lone Star Brewery.
The Texas Top Hands were inducted into the Texas Western Swing Hall of Fame on May 9, 1992, in Austin. Former members of the band include Johnny Bush (drummer), Charlie Harris (guitarist), and Buck Buchanan (fiddler), all of whom later became members of Ray Price's Cherokee Cowboy Band. Other band members have included Charlie Shaw (drummer), Leon Merritt (vocalist and rhythm guitarist), Bill Schlotter and Pete Frazier (pedal steel guitarists), and Larry Nolen. The band had several releases on the Melco label in the mid-1960s and three for TNT in the early 1960s. In early 2003, Kleypas and Locke were the only two surviving members of the original band. Kleypas lived at Canyon Lake with his wife, Lucille, with whom he had celebrated more than sixty wedding anniversaries. Lucille is credited with naming the Top Hands. (A "top hand" is the best worker on a ranch.) Locke lived with his wife, Cora, in Kirby, a suburb of San Antonio, where he owned and operated a television repair shop. Both Kleypas and Locke still made occasional guest appearances.
Walter Kleypas died in Kerrville on July 3, 2007, at the age of ninety-one. His musical cohort, Rusty Locke, the last surviving original band member, died on October 30, 2010, at the age of ninety.
In 2011 the Texas Top Hands included leader Ray Sczepanik on guitar, bassist Ray Franklin, fiddler Ricky Turpin, Denny Mathis on steel guitar, Martin Stietle on drums, and Stan Zettner on piano and accordian.
Billboard Encyclopedia of Music 1946–1947 (Cincinnati: Billboard, 1947). Paul Kingsbury, ed., The Encyclopedia of Country Music: The Ultimate Guide to the Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998). Duncan McLean, Lone Star Swing: On the Trail of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys (New York: Norton, 1997). "Texas Top Hands" (http://www.jerryconnell.com/music/artists/tophand/maintoph.htm), accessed January 28, 2009.