Alley, Shelly Lee (1894–1964)

By: James Head

Type: Biography

Published: November 20, 2006

Updated: October 15, 2020

Shelly Lee Alley, fiddler and western swing pioneer, was born in Alleyton, Texas, on July 6, 1894, the son of John Ross and Eliza (Hoover) Alley. Alley, considered one of the greatest bandleaders of the 1930s and 1940s, was descended from the original Austin colony settlers after whom Alleyton was named. His father owned a cotton gin. Alley learned to read music when he was a child. That skill enabled him to lead the base orchestra in San Antonio, where he was stationed during World War I. In the 1920s he led several different orchestras that played primarily pop and jazz. He became a pioneer in radio broadcasting when his bands got airtime on numerous Texas radio stations, including KRLD in Dallas.

In the late 1920s Alley began to move away from the orchestra sounds and toward a blues and pop sound that featured guitars and fiddles. In 1936 he formed the Alley Cats, based in Houston and Beaumont. The band featured several members who became famous in their own right, including Leon (Pappy) Selph, Ted Daffan, Cliff Bruner, Floyd Tillman, and Alley's stepson, Clyde Brewer. In the late 1930s the Alley Cats recorded fifty-four sides, primarily for the Vocalion label. Although Alley himself never had much commercial recording success, some of his songs became huge hits for other artists. In 1933 Jimmie Rodgers recorded Alley's song "Gamblin' Barroom Blues." Alley's most famous song was "Travelin' Blues." Rodgers, accompanied by Shelly and his brother Alvin on the "twin-fiddles," first recorded the song in 1931. More than twenty different artists have since recorded "Travelin' Blues," including Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb, Lefty Frizzell, Merle Haggard, and, more recently, Jimmie Dale Gilmore.

During World War II, Alley disbanded the Alley Cats and played with the Beaumont band Patsy and the Buckaroos for a short time. Although he reformed the Alley Cats again after the war, the band was short-lived. The group recorded a single on the Globe label before it was permanently disbanded in 1946. After poor health forced Alley to retire from performing, he continued to write music, including several gospel tunes. He also did some session work with Bennie Hess and others. He died in Houston on June 1, 1964, and is buried in the Alley family cemetery in Alleyton. He was survived by Velma his wife of twenty-two years, a son Shelly Alley Jr., and his stepson Clyde Brewer. Alley was inducted into the Western Swing Hall of Fame in 1994.

Shelly Lee Alley (, accessed September 6, 2015. Clyde Brewer, Interview by James Head, July 23, 2000. Houston Chronicle, April 14, 1994. Barry McCloud, Definitive Country (New York: Berkley, 1995).

  • Music
  • Genres (Country)
Time Periods:
  • Texas in the 1920s
  • Great Depression
  • World War II
  • Texas Post World War II

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

James Head, “Alley, Shelly Lee,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed July 07, 2022,

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November 20, 2006
October 15, 2020

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