McAuliffe, Leon (1917–1988)

By: N. D. Giesenschlag

Type: Biography

Published: December 5, 2006

Updated: May 12, 2017

Leon McAuliffe, western swing steel guitar player, was born William Leon McAuliffe in Houston on March 1, 1917. He grew up playing both Hawaiian and standard guitar. In 1933 he was hired to play for W. Lee O'Daniel's Light Crust Doughboys. Two years later he signed on with Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys and quickly gained national prominence. McAuliffe's signature song, "Steel Guitar Rag," also introduced the trademark phrase "Take it away, Leon," which Wills called out each time he introduced the song. The song, first recorded in 1936, has been recorded numerous times since and has become something of an anthem for steel guitar players. The addition of guitarist Eldon Shamblin to the Texas Playboys produced a dynamic combination and inspired another classic Wills song, "Twin Guitar Special."

McAuliffe joined the military in 1941, as did many of the other Playboys. Upon completion of his service he moved to Tulsa to form his own band, the Cimarron Boys. This group recorded more than 200 songs and was generally recognized as innovative and technically proficient.

By the 1960s western swing had declined in popularity, and many western swing bands had broken up or changed their musical format. The style revived, however, beginning with the 1973 recording of For the Last Time, featuring Merle Haggard, Bob Wills, and most of the old Playboys. Wills, who had recently suffered a stroke, realized he was dying and hoped to complete one more album. Among those who returned for the session was McAuliffe. The album's success encouraged the Playboys to tour again. Following a successful Austin City Limits taping in 1975 and a subsequent appearance at an Austin night spot, the Original Texas Playboys began to tour with McAuliffe at the helm. They did so successfully until the death of pianist Al Stricklin in 1986, at which time they disbanded. McAuliffe moved on to Rogers State College in Claremore, Oklahoma, and taught a course on the music industry which dealt primarily with business and legal issues. The Steel Guitar Hall of Fame honored McAuliffe in 1978, and he was inducted into the Western Swing Society Hall of Fame in 1987 and the Texas Western Swing Hall of Fame in 1991. He died in Tulsa on September 20, 1988.

Jean A. Boyd, The Jazz of the Southwest: An Oral History of Western Swing (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998).

  • Music
  • Genres (Country)
Time Periods:
  • Great Depression
  • Texas Post World War II
  • Houston
  • Upper Gulf Coast
  • East Texas

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

N. D. Giesenschlag, “McAuliffe, Leon,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 26, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

All copyrighted materials included within the Handbook of Texas Online are in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 related to Copyright and “Fair Use” for Non-Profit educational institutions, which permits the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), to utilize copyrighted materials to further scholarship, education, and inform the public. The TSHA makes every effort to conform to the principles of fair use and to comply with copyright law.

For more information go to:

If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

December 5, 2006
May 12, 2017

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: