The nation's first commercially successful Western string band was led by Otto Gray (1884-1967), who was born in South Dakota and grew up southeast of Stillwater, Oklahoma, on a farm homesteaded by his parents. With his wife, Mommie (born Florence Opal Powell, in Kansas), his son Owen, and a changing cast of cowboy musicians, Gray formed a group that traveled the vaudeville and radio circuit throughout the Midwest and Northeast from 1926 to 1936, attracting large audiences wherever they played.
The cowboy band began in Ripley, Oklahoma, on May 7, 1925, when a group of Ripley's old-time fiddlers and Roosevelt Rough Rider Billy McGinty (1871-1961) played over KFRU (later KVOO) radio in Bristow. The broadcast by what was subsequently known as Billy McGinty's Cowboy Band was the first in the nation by a Western band. It drew an enthusiastic response from listeners throughout the Southwest.
McGinty soon turned over management of the band to his friend Otto Gray, who had developed skills in roping by working as a cowboy and performing in Wild West shows. With Gray as the manager and trick roper and Mommie as the female singer, the band prospered. Gray read what may have been the first radio commercial on KVOO when he advertised hosiery for a sponsor on February 24, 1926.
Otto Gray and His Oklahoma Cowboys traveled in specially built automobiles outfitted with loudspeakers, cowcatchers, and steer horns. Their slogan was "On the Air Everywhere," and their broadcasts over the NBC and CBS radio networks drew thousands of letters. The band also made short films and more than a dozen records. They were the first to record the folk music classic "Midnight Special" and the first country and western group to appear on the cover of Billboard magazine.
Otto Gray's success inspired imitators, and, in spite of his threats of lawsuits, other cowboy bands began to appear on vaudeville. By the mid-1930s the act was no longer unique, and the changing times were making it harder for Gray to find bookings. He retired from show business in 1936 after a pioneering career that had helped to set the stage for the development of country and western music as we know it today.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Mary A. Bufwack and Robert K. Oermann. Finding Her Voice: The Saga of Women in Country Music (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1993). Carla Chlouber, "Otto Gray and His Oklahoma Cowboys: The Country's First Commercial Western Band," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 75 (Winter 1997-98). William W. Savage, Jr., Singing Cowboys and All That Jazz: A Short History of Popular Music in Oklahoma (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983).
Carla S. Chlouber
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