The hillbilly and western swing band called the Hillbilly Boys was founded in 1935 in Fort Worth, Texas, by former Texas governor and United States senator Wilbert Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel. O’Daniel was a flour salesman turned radio personality and politician who, through his radio broadcasts and statewide tours, led two bands, the Light Crust Doughboys and the Hillbilly Boys, to prominence in Texas.
A native of Ohio, O’Daniel moved to Texas in 1925 and became sales manager for Fort Worth-based Burrus Mill, which produced Light Crust Flour. O’Daniel’s musical career began in January 1931, when a West Texas fiddler named James Robert “Bob” Wills entered his Fort Worth office at Burrus Mill and Elevator Company. As general manager of the firm, O'Daniel had just canceled a radio program on which Wills and his fiddle band had been advertising Burrus Mill's Light Crust Flour. O'Daniel canceled it, as he said, "because I didn't like their hillbilly music." So many cards and letters came into station KFJZ that O'Daniel had to put the show back on the air, and the band became known as the Light Crust Doughboys. When O'Daniel realized how much flour the show was selling, he became the announcer for the show and manager of the band. According to Wills, O'Daniel was an asset to the show. He had a flair for dramatization and publicity; he wrote poems and read them on the air and often had the band work out music for them. Though his songs never became national hits, they became known throughout Texas and the Southwest. He wrote "Beautiful Texas," "Put Me in Your Pocket," and a song for Franklin D. Roosevelt's war on the Great Depression, "On to Victory Mr. Roosevelt" (all in 1933). The Doughboy broadcast became one of the most popular and long-lived shows in the history of the Southwest. The original Light Crust Doughboys show consisted of O'Daniel as announcer, Bob Wills on fiddle, Herman Arnspiger on guitar, and Milton Brown as vocalist. By the mid-1930s all had left the Doughboys, and each eventually had an important place in Texas music.
In 1935 Burrus Mill fired O'Daniel, and he organized his own band, the Hillbilly Boys, and his own flour company, W. Lee O'Daniel Flour Company, manufacturers of Hillbilly Flour. He hired former Light Crust Doughboy, Leon Huff, to recruit musicians for a new band, which O’Daniel would call the Hillbilly Boys. O’Daniel soon gave each band member his own nickname. The original group included Leon Huff, “The Texas Songbird,” on vocals and lead guitar, Darrell “Klondike” Kirkpatrick on fiddle, Connie “Pancho” Galvin on bass, Clifford “Uncle Cliffie” Wells on tenor banjo, and Ray Lundy on steel guitar.
The Hillbilly Boys, who performed their first show on Fort Worth’s WBAP radio on August 12, 1935, soon were playing on the air seven days a week. In order to reach a larger audience in their efforts to promote Hillbilly Flour, the band also recorded transcriptions, which were played on radio stations in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and elsewhere across the state on the Texas Quality Network. For a time in 1935, the band broadcast from XEPN, a powerful “border radio” station located just across the Rio Grande in Mexico.
By 1936 others had joined the band, including Carroll Hubbard (“Little Caesar the Fiddle Teaser”) on fiddle, along with O’Daniel’s two sons, Pat (“Patty Boy”) on tenor banjo and Mike (“Mickey Wickey”) on fiddle. Kitty Williamson (“The Texas Rose”) also joined the group on vocals and second fiddle, making her probably the first “girl singer” to be featured prominently in a western swing band.
Between September 1935 and December 1938 O'Daniel and the Hillbilly Boys did six recording sessions for Vocalion (later part of Columbia Records). Some of their recordings were far from hillbilly music; in general, they represent some of the best western swing that any band in the Fort Worth-Dallas area ever recorded. As a vocalist, Leon Huff was at his best on these recordings, consistently better than when he later recorded for Bob and Johnnie Lee Wills. Kitty Williamson vocalized on several recordings. Her recording of "Baby Won't You Please Come Home" was in the Bessie Smith tradition and represented vocalized western swing at its best. Although some of his recordings were hillbilly, it was on his radio shows that O'Daniel promoted a hillbilly façade. His famous "Pass the Biscuits Pappy" smacked of the hillbilly and made the show, Hillbilly Flour, and O'Daniel popular. He read poems and gave brief lectures on morality, most of which he never practiced, according to his musicians.
O'Daniel had bigger and more important things in mind than his hillbilly music, however. In 1938 he became a candidate for governor of Texas. He was probably the first candidate anywhere in the nation to use a fiddle band (or perhaps any kind of a band) as a principal part of a political campaign. He toured the state with his Hillbilly Boys in a “stretched-out” Desoto. The car had a flat rack and a rail on top that served as a mobile stage from which “Pappy” and the Hillbilly Boys could perform and address large crowds. The band began his rallies by playing "Beautiful Texas" (which O'Daniel strategically recorded the year before). After the band drew the crowd, O'Daniel gave a campaign speech. Then he sent members of his family and the band into the audience with miniature flour barrels to accept campaign contributions. The method was successful, though no one will ever know how much so, since the donations were all in cash.
When he was elected governor, O'Daniel took his Hillbilly Boys with him to Austin and got all of them jobs with the state. For example, Kermit Whalin, a barber, became a state barber inspector. In Austin, the Hillbilly Boys broadcast live Monday through Saturday from a studio set up in the Driskill Hotel. On Sundays, they broadcast a show from the Governor’s Mansion and so continued to build the image of Governor O'Daniel and keep his name before the people. Most of the musicians never saw the inside of the mansion; they played the show on the front porch and were never invited inside. When O'Daniel's daughter, Molly, married, he sent band member Jim Boyd and his wife an engraved invitation, but Boyd said, "They stopped us at the church door and wouldn't let us in." The Hillbilly Boys continued recording and making public appearances throughout the area, all for a salary of $ 25.00 each per week.
O’Daniel won a second term as governor in 1940, but he soon began campaigning to fill an open seat in the U.S. Senate. Once again, he took the Hillbilly Boys back on the road, attracting large crowds across the state. O’Daniel’s efforts paid off, as he defeated his rival, a young Lyndon Baines Johnson. O’Daniel insisted that the band go with him, this time to Washington, D.C., where they sometimes played and recorded in the Senate Office Building’s in-house recording studio. At this time, the group included Curly Perrin, vocals and guitar; Bundy “Little Ezra” Bratcher, harmony and accordion; Lee Searcy, vocals and guitar; Kitty Williamson, vocals and fiddle; and Mike O’Daniel on fiddle. Those who refused to go lost their state jobs immediately, and Jim Boyd was even evicted from his state-owned home. Practically every musician who played for O’Daniel believed he was selfish, unfair, and extremely ruthless.
Over the years, band members continued to come and go. This was due in part to O’Daniel’s reputation for being difficult and because some members left to form their own bands or to play in others. Some of the musicians who spent time in the Hillbilly Boys during these latter years were Lefty Perkins on steel guitar, Wallace Griffin (also called “Klondike”) on bass, and Kermit “Happy Horace” Whalin on steel guitar.
Aside from his politics and his personal qualities, O'Daniel was important in the music of Texas when it was in its formative years. Without his remarkable ability to promote and publicize, the innovative music of the Light Crust Doughboys might never have gained such vast popularity, and men like Bob Wills might have been known only in North and Central Texas. As governor, O'Daniel made the world aware that there was a distinctive Texas sound and that music was important enough to help a flour salesman attain the highest office in the state.
O’Daniel’s political career was largely over by 1948. He bought a ranch outside of Fort Worth and worked in insurance and real estate. Although he attempted to return to politics during the 1950s, he was unsuccessful. With his political career finished, O’Daniel’s relationship with the Hillbilly Boys also ended, and the band dissolved. Bundy “Little Ezra” Bratcher, who lived to be eighty-seven years old, was the last surviving member of the Hillbilly Boys. When asked why they were so popular, Bratcher stated that it was “because the music made people feel good.”