Roy Newman, western swing musician and bandleader, was born in Santa Anna, Texas, on November 12, 1899. As a young man, Newman worked as a farmer and as an oilfield hand. In the early 1920s he moved to Dallas and by the mid-1920s was employed at Dallas radio station WRR as a staff guitarist and pianist. Starting in 1926 Newman and fellow WRR staff guitarist John Thorwald began performing in disguise as “The Mystery Duo.” As part of the program, both Newman and Thorwald pretended to be exiled Russian noblemen. Dallas newspapers reported that the duo were “two Russian noblemen…compelled to go masked against efforts against them by Russian guerillas. The duo can yodle [sic] with the most royal blood in the land, and can play the guitar and piano and sing with any dictators living today.” Within a year, however, audiences learned that the two “Russian noblemen” were actually Newman and Thorwald.
According to some sources, in 1931 Newman formed a band known as the Wanderers which was sponsored by La France Flour. However western swing historian Kevin Coffey is uncertain as to whether this group was active that early. During 1931 a band billed as the Wanderers Male Quartet made some appearances on local radio, but this might have been a different group since regular lunchtime broadcasts of the Wanderers did not begin until 1933. In 1932 Newman also started evening broadcasts on WRR with another band known as Roy Newman and Group.
Roy Newman appears to have been the master of ceremonies for the Wanderers from their inception, with the band managed by Roy Dodson (who, like Newman, worked for a while as a refrigerator salesman). Dodson’s brother Jonah and son Bert also were in the band. Jonah played the tenor banjo, while Bert played the bass. In addition to their WRR broadcasts, the Wanderers performed as the Bird Branders for rival radio station WFAA for a few months in 1934. The band’s sponsor was Armstrong Packing Company.
By 1934 Roy Newman and his group, which included Dick Reinhart on mandolin, Bert Dodson on bass, and Newman on guitar, were borrowing from the sound of western swing pioneers Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies, although Newman’s band focused even more on jazz and pop music.
In July 1934, when the Wanderers switched from WRR to WFAA, the group included Newman, who now played piano, Bert and Jonah Dodson, Dick Reinhart, who now mainly played guitar, violinist Alfredo Casares, and clarinetist Holly Horton. Soon after the switch from WRR to WFAA, Reinhart left the Wanderers, and Newman hired WRR staffer Jim Boyd. When Reinhart returned to claim his job, Dodson decided to let Boyd go. In protest, Newman quit the Wanderers and formed his own band at WRR.
By the second week of August 1934, Roy Newman and His Boys were playing as noontime regulars on WRR, a prime slot, which they held until Newman left the band in 1941. The original lineup included Jim Boyd on vocals and lead guitar, some members of Boyd’s disbanded group the Rhythm Aces, and several WRR staffers. The rest of the lineup included Thurman Neal, a jazz violinist, and his brother Randall “Buddy” Neal on guitar. Also included in Newman’s group were Walker Kirkes on banjo, Ish Erwin on bass, and Art Davis on fiddle. Newman kept a low profile and did not feature himself as a soloist or vocalist. Instead, he chose to lead the band so that he could showcase other members of the group.
Roy Newman’s band also played WRR’s Noon Hour Varieties show, along with Bill Boyd & His Cowboy Ramblers, which included some of the same personnel. However, while Boyd & His Cowboy Ramblers played mainly cowboy tunes, Newman’s band focused more on string-based jazz, pop, and blues.
In 1934 Roy Newman signed to the American Record Company’s (ARC) Vocalion label, recording with the company for the first time in late September. He continued to record regularly for Vocalion until June 1939. Over the years, Newman’s band numbered as many as ten pieces and underwent numerous personnel changes. Members included former Wanderers clarinetist Holly Horton, who joined during the first half of 1935, and singer-guitarist-bassist Earl Brown, who joined the group in the summer of that same year. At various times, Newman’s group also featured legendary western swing fiddlers Jesse Ashlock, Cecil Brower, and Carroll Hubbard, along with the pioneering electric steel guitarist Bob Dunn.
According to music historian Cary Ginell, “the heart of Roy Newman’s band was undoubtedly Jim Boyd,” who was an excellent lead guitarist. During Newman’s September-October studio sessions in 1935, Boyd became one of the first musicians to record with an electrically amplified guitar. When Boyd eventually left the group to join the Light Crust Doughboys, he was replaced by guitarist and vocalist Julian Akins, who, according to Ginell, “neatly fit into Jim Boyd’s vacated slot.”
During his long and productive western swing career, Roy Newman often experimented onstage in hopes of distinguishing his band from other western swing bands. For example, Newman used two bass fiddles, which created a stronger beat, and he required that each band member play more than one instrument. According to Coffey, “The band remained popular to the end, but Newman’s reputation has arguably suffered in hindsight due to the presence of novelty clarinetist Holly Horton. Though Horton was popular with listeners at the time, his dated style “stood in stark comparison to the modern, often innovative musicianship of the rest of the band.” Nevertheless, Roy Newman remains a pioneering figure in western swing music as a bandleader whose personnel displayed “impeccable musicianship” and who left an important recorded legacy. Newman died at the age of eighty-one on February 23, 1981, in Dallas. He was survived by his widow Rowena, three children (Roy, Jr., Janice, and Charles), and a number of grandchildren. He was buried in Laurel Land Memorial Park.