again, the magic of the Internet has worked ! Following the piece I had written
and posted on my site in December 2002, I managed to get in touch with Lee Bell's
daughter, Mary, who kindly submitted a long list of questions to her father.
Mary recorded Lee's answers on cassette-tape - thus providing me with all the
essential data for a vastly expanded biography of that veteran Western Swing
performer. His rather short discography belies the richness and longevity of
his career. Mary also gave me access to Lee's picture album, so get ready for
a fabulous photo gallery throughout this very page !
Lee Bell hailed from Fred (Texas), a small
community of about 200 people some 38 miles north of Beaumont. He got his first
guitar when he was 7 years old ; his father played the fiddle, so the two of
them used to play Country dances until Lee graduated from high school and headed
for Beaumont : he was 16 then and all he owned was 3 silver dollars and a $2
He soon caught on with Cliff Bruner and Moon Mullican, two seminal figures who always infused Hillbilly with black, bluesy sounds. Cliff had joined Milton Brown & His Brownies on fiddle in 1936 but left after Milton's early death and formed The Texas Wanderers which met with great success in the Houston area, recording a huge number of sides for Decca well into the '40s. Aubrey 'Moon' Mullican joined on piano and vocal in 1938. Later on the band became known as Cliff Bruner & His Boys, then as Cliff Bruner, Moon Mullican & The Showboys. Lee Bell joined the latter incarnation of the band : 'Playing on a porch is not like playing in a band ; it's entirely two different things. They taught me how to play with the band'. But Cliff soon quit to buy a grocery store and Moon went to Nashville. Says Lee : 'I did not drink or smoke in those days, so I saved some money. I asked some musicians in the area if they would like to play and they said yes, so I bought a bus, got a radio show and we were in business.' The half an hour radio show was broadcast live every day at noon on KRIC (Beaumont) and the band was billed as The Texas Pioneers : 'We went with this name for a while but people said we were not pioneers in our style of music (Texas swing). We asked our fans on our radio show to write in names and mail them to us. Several suggested The Bluebonnet Playboys so we changed our name.' Band members fluctuated but at one time or another, Clyde Brewer (fiddle), Johnny Holland (drums), Ted Hardy (steel guitar), Gene Williams (bass), Ben Gordon (fiddle), Joe Molina (bass), Merle Powell (piano) and Deacon Anderson (steel) were part of The Bluebonnet Playboys. In late 1946, fiddle & tenor sax player Link Davis was added ; he would quickly establish himself as a major force within the band, singing and composing much of its repertoire. One day, Lew Chudd, president of newly-born Imperial Records, attended the show and signed the group to a recording contract.
first two '78s were released in 1947 under Link Davis's name, most
probably to give him credit as a songwriter and vocalist. Four more were released
(three on Imperial and one on the subsidiary label, Bayou - see discography
at right) and billed as 'Link Davis & The Bluebonnet Playboys'. Apparently,
Lee Bell played guitar on all those sides and sang two of them. It is interesting
to note that four songs remain unissued to this day (according to Michel Ruppli's
book, 'The Aladdin/Imperial Labels - A Discography' * Greenwood Press, 1991). [See discography]
Two other '78s (# 8021 & # 8031) were credited to 'Lee Bell & The Texas Pioneers'. The tracks were cut at the radio station studio (KRIC) but Lee is not certain about Link Davis's involvement with these sessions. Those records are just about impossible to find today so I had to rely on a tape that Lee Bell himself had sent me to hear some of the stuff : I can assure you that the singing and musicianship is first class.
In early 1948, Moon Mullican came back from Nashville (where he had played the Grand Ole Opry) with a deal to play Carnegie Hall in New-York. Lee Bell picks up the story : 'He asked us to go with him. It was to be a two-year tour. Most of the boys went but a few did not : Link Davis did not go, nor did Merle Powell. The tour folded in a few weeks before we got to Carnegie Hall due to a booking agent who got drunk and spent all the money Moon had given him. We had no jobs booked or advertisement out, so we returned to Beaumont. Mullican and most of the band started a sit-down job playing every night at the Forest Club. Cliff Bruner had started up again and asked me to come with him. I couldn't refuse. We made some records for the AYO label in 1949. I played on all the AYO recordings 'til 1950. I sang some, don't remember how many'. Most of those records on the AYO label were put out under the name 'Cliff Bruner & The Texas Wanderers' but Lee was not featured as vocalist ; apparently, two songs sung by Lee Bell ('You Took Advantage Of A Lonely Heart' and 'Baby Whatcha Doing To Me') weren't even released at all. Cliff Bruner or Link Davis sang and on one session, Richard Prine - a former drummer with Cliff's band - brought in a singer by the name of Rusty McDonald who indeed sang several tunes (including the released version of 'You Took Advantage Of A Lonely Heart'). Rusty Mc Donald would later cut some excellent sides for the Intro label (#6035 'Baby Sittin' Boogie', for example). [More information can be found on 'Cliff Bruner & His Texas Wanderers', a 5-CD box set put out in 1997 by Bear Family * BCD 15932].
In 1950, Cliff Bruner's wife, Ruth, became very ill : she had tuberculosis. Cliff wanted to take her to a sanatorium in New Mexico so he asked Lee to go with him. Unfortunately, she would die shortly after. Lee and Cliff went back to Amarillo, Texas, and started playing with some of their old friends (Rip Ramsey, among others) but the band they organized was comprised of 10 or 12 men, which soon proved to be too big to make any money. Lee then took the nucleus of the band with him and headed out for New Mexico. He had heard that there was a job at a club in Artesia. While playing in this club, a fellow named M. C. Scott came in and said that he would soon build a big night club in Roswell and that he would like to have the band play there every night. So, sometime in early 1951, Lee and his band moved to Roswell, New Mexico. The band included Jimmy Blakley (steel guitar), Dorothy Blakley (piano & upright bass), George Clayburn and James 'Red' Pope (fiddles). [The Blakleys went on to record a number of fine sides for Starday ; as for George Clayburn, who also played with Bob Wills, Jesse A. Morris - of Western Swing Journal - informed me that he passed away on December 7, 2003, in Las Vegas.]
Roswell was the home of KSWS (radio and TV) where Lee Bell and his band soon wound up with a half hour radio show at noon
every day and two TV shows a week, on Tuesday nights and Thursday nights. Lee
and his band were also residents at Scotty's, the aforementioned night club.
All that (plus a little help from Jim Beck) finally led to a contract with RCA
Victor for whom one session was cut on September 22, 1952. According to Philip
J. Tricker, whose article in 'Roll Street Journal' issue # 17 (UK, 1986) provides
some of the info used here, Lee's first RCA single (# 5024) was good albeit
somewhat unspectacular. However, the second and last one (# 5148), is one of
the great Hillbilly Bop double siders.
Released in '53, its topside, the pounding 'Beatin' Out The Boogie (On The Mississippi Mud', does just what it says, with piano, steel guitar, fiddle and guitar all taking a blazing solo. The backside, 'Get Ready With Those Tears', is equally impressive : powerful Texas Hillbilly set to a shuffling beat. I particularly like the ascending steel guitar motif at the beginning of the verses. Cut at Jim Beck's Studio in Dallas, the musicians involved were Jimmy Rollins (lead guitar), Billy Knight (guitar), Larry Helm (steel), Bob Rutland (fiddle), Harold Carmack (piano) and Zeke Clements (double bass). Lee Bell didn't know them personally but he admits that they were good musicians. He didn't know Bob Baker either, who wrote 'Beatin' Out The Boogie'. Bob Baker may be the guy who later recorded for the Amarillo-based Veeda label (#1002, 'Kitty Kat Korner' and #4006, 'Turned On The Ice').
Lee again : 'I had a very good stay with RCA and enjoyed it very much. But, in the middle fifties, I quit playing altogether. I left the band and came back to Beaumont. I met up with Cliff Bruner again. He was quitting the insurance business, so he and I started another band ! But we didn't have a whole lot of luck with that band. The crowds that had been there in the '40s didn't show up in the '50s. So it didn't last too long.' It was now 1956 and the music scene was changing considerably. After that brief attempt, Cliff Bruner and Lee Bell took day jobs. Lee went to work for an auto supply company and stayed with them until his retirement in 1986 ; he was 59 and a half years old then. He never got back into the music business.
But does he still listen to Country Music ? 'Yes, I listen to it occasionally but actually, I really don't understand it. I don't understand the beat. In my day, the standard beat was 4/4 rhythm ; that's what we all played, that's what the Jazz bands played, that's what the big bands played. Now they play all kinds of rhythm. They sound OK to me ; I guess they know what they're doing, I certainly don't !'
'Beatin' Out The Boogie' and 'Get Ready With Those Tears' were legally
re-issued on the stupendous UK compilation album, 'Hillbilly Houn' Dawgs &
Honky-Tonk Angels' (Detour 33-008, 1989) ; that's how I got acquainted with
those essential songs before finding the original single, also pictured on the left.
In June 2007, Bear Family Records released a RCA Hillbilly Bop compilation CD entitled 'Gonna Shake This Shack Tonight' (BCD 16864 AH) which, along with great tracks by the likes of Hank Penny, Charline Arthur, Jack Turner, Johnnie & Jack & more, included Lee's 'Beatin' Out The Boogie' as well as a partial reprint of this very page. However, his remaining Imperial and RCA sides are still awaiting re-release ; Lee Bell, who now lives in Nederland, Texas, certainly deserves collecting royalties for such good music.
In May 2011, Lee Bell was honored with a special, overdue award : he was inducted into 'The Texas Western Swing Hall Of Fame'. He was recognized for his contribution to Western Swing music during an event called 'The Texas Western Swing Festival'. The festival is held every year in San Marcos, Texas. His name is now among other famous artists that have promoted and influenced this wonderful style of music. Always in 2011, The Texas Legislature held a political session and they voted for 'Western Swing' to be named the official music of the great State of Texas ! In the words of his daughter : 'My Dad is now 83 years old and doing great. He is very happy to be able to share this good news with you'.
© Paul Vidal * Privas, France * June 2004 - April 2014 - May 2019