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HAMBLEN, CARL STUART

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HAMBLEN, CARL STUART (1908–1989). Carl Stuart Hamblen, country and gospel singer, songwriter, bandleader, and radio-movie personality, was born in Kellyville, Texas, on October 20, 1908. He was the son of James Henry Hamblen, an itinerant Methodist preacher, and his wife Ernestine. Much of his childhood was spent traveling throughout the state as his father's ministerial work decreed, but in West Texas, where his father preached at the Methodist church in Hamlin, in Jones County, young Stuart was exposed to the lore and folk music of both the black field hands and cowboys working on area farms and ranches. Thus steeped in the"cowboy tradition," he learned to ride and rope and enjoyed some success during his teens as an amateur singer while working the rodeos. In 1925 he enrolled at McMurry College (now McMurry University) in Abilene to study for the teaching field.

But country music quickly became his passion. In 1926 Hamblen reportedly became radio broadcasting's first real "singing cowboy" after landing a spot on KFYO in Abilene. In 1929, after winning the fifty-dollar prize at a talent contest in Dallas, he journeyed to Camden, New Jersey, where he auditioned for the Victor (later RCA Victor) Recording Company. The Victor Studios recorded and released four of Hamblen's early compositions––"The Boy in Blue," "Drifting Back to Dixie," "When the Moon Shines Down on the Mountain," and "The Big Rock Candy Mountain #2"––in June of that year. Shortly afterward Hamblen headed west for California, where he appeared on Los Angeles radio station KFI as "Cowboy Joe," possibly the earliest cowboy act to air in Los Angeles.

In 1930 Hamblen briefly joined the Beverly Hillbillies, an early radio country-and-western singing group then broadcasting over KMPC in Los Angeles. He made a couple of recordings with them, although not as a lead vocalist. The following year he formed his own band, a group that included singing cowgirl Patsy Montana, and launched his highly successful broadcasting career over KFWB in Los Angeles. Under various names and titles such as Stuart Hamblen and His Lucky Stars, King Cowboy's Woolly West Revue, and The Covered Wagon Jubilee, his radio program remained immensely popular for the next two decades. In 1933 he met and married Suzanne (Suzy) Obee; they subsequently had two daughters.

In 1934 Hamblen was the first West Coast artist to sign with Decca Records, where he recorded with his own band for the first time. His initial disc, "Texas Plains"/"Poor Unlucky Cowboy," became only the second record issued by that fledgling company. A prolific composer, Hamblen was said to be able to turn out a tune within a matter of minutes. The catalogue of songs that he either wrote or co-wrote beginning in the 1930s included such hits as "My Mary," "Texas Plains," "Walking My Fortune," "Ridin' Ole Paint," and "Golden River." Subsequent recording sessions with Decca in 1934 and 1935 further enhanced Hamblen as a true pioneer in the country genre. Although he concentrated almost solely on his radio program over the next ten years, his recording career began anew in the mid-1940s with the West Coast-based ARA label. This subsequently led to lengthier contracts with Columbia, RCA, and Coral Records.

In the 1930s and 1940s Hamblen appeared in several B-Western movies, usually cast as a villain alongside such stars as Gene Autry, John Wayne, Roy Rogers, Wild Bill Elliott, and Bob Steele. During World War II his patriotism was clearly reflected in songs and recitations such as "Oklahoma Bill" and "They're Gonna Kill You." In addition, Hamblen enjoyed hunting in the wilds with his prize hounds and also began breeding thoroughbred racehorses; in 1945 he became the first person to have a horse flown to a race when he transported his prize racer, El Lobo, from Los Angeles to Bay Meadows in San Mateo, California, on Flying Tiger Airlines. El Lobo won the Burlingame Handicap and was flown back home the same day.

As the pressures of his public career mounted Hamblen began gambling and became increasingly addicted to alcohol. His drinking binges occasionally landed him in jail for brawling and shooting out streetlights. He later confessed that he was the "original juvenile delinquent." But due to his radio popularity his sponsors usually were able to bail him out, although his drinking problem increasingly affected his performances. All the while he continued to turn out songs, including several of the honky-tonk variety that became popular among country musicians after World War II. Indeed, two of his most noted recordings in the late 1940s were "I Won't Go Hunting With You, Jake (But I'll Be Chasin' Women)" and "Remember Me (I'm the One Who Loves You)," the latter also recorded by Ernest Tubb and Dean Martin.

Hamblen's wild, boozing lifestyle might have gone indefinitely had his wife not introduced him to the young evangelist Billy Graham. She persuaded him to attend Graham's path-breaking tent revival campaign, which was being held at Washington and Hill streets in Los Angeles. The next day Hamblen gave his testimony over the radio and declared that he was "hitting the sawdust trail." That public testimony allegedly influenced William Randolph Hearst's decision to order his newspaper chain to "puff Graham." True to his word, Hamblen swore off alcohol and tobacco, sold his racehorses, and dedicated his life to Christ. Many of his later songs, such as "It Is No Secret (What God Can Do)," "His Hands," "Until Then," "This Ship of Mine," and "Open Up Your Heart (And Let the Sunshine In)," reflected his new-found faith, while others, such as "Good Morning You All" and "Daddy's Cutie Pie," emphasized home and family. In 1954, while on a hunting trip in the Sierras, Hamblen and his party came upon the body of an old, dead prospector in his remote tumbledown shack. That experience resulted in Hamblen's most famous gospel music tune, "This Ole House," which was subsequently popularized by Rosemary Clooney and named the 1954 Song of the Year. Jo Stafford, Red Foley, Elvis Presley, and Jimmy Dean also made top hits out of Hamblen's songs.

In the early 1950s Hamblen's new radio show, The Cowboy Church of the Air, was syndicated nationwide. But when he refused to air a beer commercial the sponsors pulled the plug. That episode, in 1952, prompted the Prohibition party to recruit Hamblen to run for president of the United States on their ticket. When the final counts were in, Hamblen could truly boast that he had set a new record for votes for the Prohibitionists, though he ran fourth to Dwight D. Eisenhower.

For the next twenty years Stuart and Suzy Hamblen hosted a local TV show and made nationwide tours to prisons, reformatories, and youth organizations, at which they presented the Gospel in their own down-home country way through songs mixed in with cowboy stories rather than straight sermonizing. They also continued to support Billy Graham's ministry and made occasional appearances at the latter's crusades. Then in 1971, with the backing of KLAC manager Bill Ward, Hamblen returned to the radio airwaves. His country gospel stories and songs were again heard through the revived Cowboy Church of the Air, which was produced at the Hamblen family's horse ranch near Los Angeles over the next decade. On their ranch the Hamblens raised Peruvian Paso horses, which they featured in horse shows throughout the country and also in the annual Tournament of Roses Parade at Pasadena, California, on New Year's Day. One of their prize stallions, AEV Oro Negro, was three times U.S. National Champion of Champions.

In 1970 Stuart Hamblen was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. Two years later the Academy of Country and Western Music honored him with its Pioneer Award for being the "first singing Country and Western Cowboy in the history of broadcasting." In 1974 he was given the Gene Autry Award for the enrichment of America's western musical heritage and received a star on Hollywood Boulevard's Walk of Fame. The Los Angeles City Council proclaimed February 13, 1976, "Stuart Hamblen Day." He received a Golden Boot Award in 1988.

Late in February 1989 Hamblen entered St. John's Hospital and Health Center in Santa Monica for surgery to remove a malignant brain tumor. Following the delicate operation he lapsed into a coma and died on March 8, 1989. In addition to his wife of fifty-five years and two daughters, he was survived by ten grandchildren and nineteen great-grandchildren. Following a memorial service at Rev. Lloyd John Ogilvie's Hollywood Presbyterian Church, at which Billy Graham was a guest speaker, he was interred in the Forest Lawn Cemetery in Hollywood Hills. Stuart Hamblin was inducted posthumously into the Gospel Music Association's Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1994. In 1999 the town of Jefferson, located near Hamblin's birthplace of Kellyville, Texas, held a Stuart Hamblin Dedication to honor the songwriter. The three-day event was organized and sponsored by the Opera House Theatre Players, Jefferson's community theater, which presented a one-time performance entitled It is No Secret: The Life of Stuart Hamblen. Hamblen was inducted into the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Richard Carlin, The Big Book of Country Music: A Biographical Encyclopedia (New York: Penguin, 1995). Billy Graham, Just As I Am: The Autobiography of Billy Graham (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997). Paul Kingsbury, ed., The Encyclopedia of Country Music: The Ultimate Guide to the Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998). Colin Larkin, ed., Encyclopedia of Popular Music (London: Guinness, 1992; 3d ed., New York: Muze, 1998). Los Angeles Times, March 8, 9, 1989. John Pollock, Billy Graham: The Authorized Biography (Minneapolis: World Wide Publications, 1969). Irwin Stambler and Grelun Landon, Encyclopedia of Folk, Country and Western Music (New York: St. Martin, 1969).

H. Allen Anderson

Citation

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

H. Allen Anderson, "HAMBLEN, CARL STUART," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fhafq), accessed April 20, 2014. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Modified on September 12, 2013. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.