June 11, 2001
Topeka Capital Journal
One day recently, Elaine White, without whom there would be no daily newspaper in Topeka, was reading, on her computer, the obituaries of notables from the day before. Knowing well my cultural tastes, she asked me if I ever had heard of the Light Crust Doughboys.
I said I had virtually grown up with them, and she went on to tell me Smokey Montgomery, their banjo player, had died in Dallas of leukemia at the age of 88. Then she asked me again if I really knew about them.
I said yes indeed, and to prove it I wore bold one verse of their theme song which they used to open and close their shows:
If you like us, think we’re fine.
Sit right down and drop a line
To the Light Crust Doughboys,
From the Burrus Mill.
There’s a lot of hillbilly music history, and politics featuring a one-time Kansan, in this story, so bear with me. Considering all the pleasure they gave me, the least I can do is offer a few words in their memory.
In 1929 Bob Wills, who is remembered more for his later band, the Texas Playboys, moved from West Texas to Fort Worth and formed the Wills Fiddle Band. It didn’t take much forming, because there was only Wills, and a guitar player named Herman Arnspiger.
They were few in number but long on persuasion. In 1930 they added a vocalist, Milton Brown, and the following year talked the Burrus Mill into sponsoring the band on a radio show advertising the mill’s light crust flour.
Everyone was happy except unfortunately, W. Lee O’Daniel, who happened to be sales manager of Burrus, and the man in charge of spending its advertising dollars. Two weeks after the band started, it was fired.
But Wills and radio fans pressured O’Daniel into giving it another chance, and its success boggles the mind, even today. The band added some of the finest western swing musicians of all time. There show was on a network of 170 stations that blanketed Texas and Oklahoma and spread into other parts of the country.
They were on the air at Noon each day. There is no educated guess on how many listeners they had, but they eagerly wait awaited the opening verse of their theme:
Listen everybody from near and far,
If you want to know who we are
Where the Light Crust Doughboys
From the Burrus Mill.
Band members would come and go. Bob Wills lasted only two years before O’Daniel fired him for missing shows, but he went to Waco, Texas, to form the playboys, and was soon on his way to becoming a country legend.
The most durable member was Smokey Montgomery, who started in 1935. He was born Marvin Wetter in Iowa and took his show business her name from his favorite actor, Robert Montgomery. The band still plays occasionally, and Smokey joined in from time to time until shortly before he died.
The Doughboys were nominated for Grammy Awards three times. They recorded for Columbia Records. Their last regular radio show was in 1950, but it can be said of them that in their own world, they did it all.
So did W. Lee O’Daniel, also known as Pappy or “Pass the biscuits, Pappy.” He was five when his family moved from Ohio to a Kansas farm near Arlington, southwest of Hutchinson. He graduated from Salt City Business College in Hutchinson, and then worked in the milling business in Anthony, Kingman, Kansas City and New Orleans before arriving in Fort Worth in 1925.
His Light Crust Doughboys were a howling success and he had been president of the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce before Burrus fired him in 1935. He then formed his own flower company, Hillbilly, and his own band, The Hillbillies, and it stayed on the air until the start of World War Two.
In 1938 his radio fans, as the story goes, talked him into running for governor of Texas. The campaign featured O’Daniel, his Bible and The Hillbillies, and they won in a landslide. The 10 commandments and promises of no sales tax, no poll tax, no capital punishment and increased old age pensions were his platform, and rural Texas ate it up.
He reneged on all his promises, even allowing lobbyists to write a new tax bill, but still was reelected in 1940.
Pappy ran for the US Senate in 1941 in a special election, and one, and the following year he was in the following year was elected to a full term, but when he left the Senate in 1948, knowing he couldn’t be reelected, he had an approval rating of just 7 percent.
He moved back to Fort Worth and founded an insurance company. He tried comebacks in the gubernatorial primaries of 1956 and 1958, but with no success. He died in 1969 at the age of 79. Summing up his career, his major contribution to Texas was putting the Light Crust Doughboys on the air.