Don Allen and the Sunset Ramblers

Don Allen a native of Allanreed,TX probably began playing in his dad's band as a teenager. By the time he left home and joined the Air Force it's been stated that he was a skilled player of the steel guitar. While Don Allen was stationed in Newfoundland in the military, he joined a dance band made up of cadets. It was called 'The Stringbusters'. Let's begin our story with excerpts of an account written by one of the members 'Hank Newman'.

"The (Stringbuster) band was formed in Jan. or Feb. 1953 by S/Sgt. Jack Johnson from Indiana. The band originally consisted of Don Allen from Lubbock, Tx. on the steel guitar, Bobby Bailey from Grovetown, Tx. rhythm guitar and vocals. Hubert Parker from Oregon on drums, Hank Newman from Columbus, Ga. on piano,and Jack Johnson on bass. The band was called Jack Johnson's Stringbusters. The band remained intact during1953 and most of 1954 when Jack and Don rotated back to the states. M/Sgt Hank Keomalu from Hawaii replaced Jack on bass and Eugene Davidson from Columbus Miss.replaced Don. This group won the Northeast Air Command's talent contest held at the Harmon theater and got to go to the Tops in Blue talent contest held at Scott AFB in Illinois. We didn't win but were happy to run into Don Allen who was competing with a band from Washington,DC (where he was then stationed)."

" Three of the Stringbusters moved to Lubbock, Tx in 1962 (further research indicates this may have occurred in 1959 or before.) The three old members uniting were Don Allen, Bobby Bailey and Hank Newman. Don hired four more musicians and formed the Sunset Ramblers. We were quite successful playing mostly after rodeo's in West Texas. We played what is called 'battle dances' (one band plays half the job then the other finishes) with Hank Thompson, Bob Wills and Johnnie Lee Wills. We did this until the band broke up in Aug. 1966 when I moved back home to Columbus, Ga". (source: Hank Newman)

After landing a weekly Television show on station KDUB in Lubbock the Rambler band became popular around the South Plains and elsewhere playing dances. Soon they had a big bus to travel in and when they arrived in Matador or Post (among other places) they appeared as celebrities in their fancy western suits and with their flashy logo on the bus stating....'Don Allen and the Sunset Ramblers'! When not playing rodeo dances they appear to have rented local VFW and Legion Halls to hold their own dances. It was all done professionally and the town would be canvased with fancy posters to insure a good crowd would appear the nite of the big shindig. This was during a time when Western Swing was still in vogue and Don Allen always included several of the Playboys steel guitar instrumentals such as 'Panhandle Rag' and 'Steel Guitar Rag'. Bobby Bailey seems to have handled most of the Lead Vocals in the early years and aside from Western Swing he sang 'current Nashville hits' well also. During the Ramblers existence the members would periodically change as someone would drop out and a replacement would be added. In 1959 Hank Newman had lived in Lubbock one year and played piano with the Sunset Ramblers. Then in 1962 Newman came back to Lubbock from the east coast and rejoined his old air force buddy Don Allen in the band. Prior to this, Jimmy Bryant had played piano with the Sunset Ramblers for perhaps a year or two. Being from Pecos, TX Bryant previously had played some with Roy Orbison's western band, the 'Wink Westerners' according to his son. Roy was still an unknown at the time.

Anyway, Newman rejoined the band and played piano for the Sunset Ramblers in 1962 and then moved over to electric bass until the band disbanded. Aside from playing piano he also became the lead singer after Bobby Bailey left. Don Allen then decided to eliminate piano from the band because of so many bad, out-of-tune pianos in the places they played. According to live recordings the Sunset Ramblers played standard Western Swing songs, current country hits, fiddle breakdowns and even played a jazz song the Ventures popularized, 'Walk don't Run'. Proving to be quite versatile, also their drummer John Bird was very talented and could put emphasis and syncopation in the right places! He was not your average local musician nor were any of the other Ramblers.

On one occasion I know the Ramblers used a standup bass & player like the old Swing bands used but the early bassist Harold Geise may have played an electric bass as did Hank Newman, the last bass player. James Baird of Quitaque, TX did play standup bass with the band on the television show that I appeared on in 1959. He might have played as a substitute for the regular player, I don't know? Anyway Baird went on to play a lot of Country & Bluegrass music around Lubbock and was rated high at the Hugo Oklahoma Bluegrass Festival some years later. From photos we also know that the band had at least two different drummers namely Chester Short and John Bird, also of the Lubbock area. They also had a great guitarist named Carl Six, who was living in Lubbock at the time.

Next to Don Allen's steel guitar work, the most revered instrumentalist in the band were probably the fiddle players. Wayne Hill and Denzil Boytner handled the fiddling task playing old Bob Wills instrumentals such as 'Maiden's Prayer' and Westphalia Waltz.' According to former member Hank Newman these two fiddlers played great together but Denzil Boytner was especially skilled.

Another fiddler that played some with the band was Jimmy Mackey of Brownfield. He also had an interest in recording and had released several 45 rpm records on the Texstar label in the early sixties. It is unclear if he had played much with the 'Sunset Ramblers' nevertheless he started a band that included the noted fiddler Curley Lawler and a guitarist-singer named Glen Shreve when the records were made. Bobby Bailey had quit playing with the Ramblers and had joined Mackey's Western All-Stars but whether he appeared on the records, this author is not sure. Lawler at one time had played with the Maines brothers band which also played Western Swing music around Lubbock during this era.

Bobby Bailey has already been mentioned as one of Allen's lead guitarist, but there were at least two more. One named Ray Allison and another one Carl Six who deserved special mention. Six was a really skilled guitarist and some of his leads were fine jazz. He and Boytner the fiddler both played great on some of their instrumental leads. Don Allen could hang in their on Steel guitar and Hank Newman could really play across the ivories when called upon. Mostly through photos we see that this 6-7 piece band had used at least 13 different members during it's existence. Further research may even uncover more Lubbock area musicians who played with Allen's well organized outfit before it disbanded in 1966.

The Walsh Food Show: Around 1959 a food retailer based out of Lubbock (Walsh Food Service) agreed to sponsor what became a 'Talent Showcase' for Panhandle and South Plains talent. This show was televised weekly on KDUB, channel 13 from the Hub City. Don Allen and the Sunset Ramblers were soon hired to be the main featured act and the show was centered around them. Allen also acted as one of the MC's by introducing the new acts that were brought on each week. In some instances the band also provided background music for singers and other acts. The show was a 'live production' and it aired each Sunday afternoon (best I recall). While one act was performing on the main stage, the next act would be setting up on a second, smaller stage. This was how the show could be done live!

To appear on the show an act simply had to write-in with a request to be on the show & perhaps provide a good reference or two. It was just about that simple as an invitation eventually would come through the mail. Then on the day of the show, each act arrived early for a breif rehearsal and barring a catastrophe during practice 'the acts stepped into 'immortality' by appearing on the show with Don Allen & the Sunset Ramblers! At the end of each telecast the band and the current acts would gather around and listen to a 'tape recording' of the audio portion of the show and make a lot of comments in a party atmosphere.

On one particular occasion two teenage trio's from Matador, TX were invited to appear on the show. On the telecast the Sunset Ramblers backed the Sparklettes, a trio of High School girls who sang a couple of current hits. The members were Judy Hobbs, Vada Nichols and Melanie Brown. Later in the show a trio of thirteen year old boys 'The Three notes' played a guitar & drums version of 'San Antonio Rose' to round out the show. This trio consisted of David Rattan on guitar, Robert Brandon on drums and Robin Brown also on guitar. At the end of the show Don Allen and some of the band expressed an interest in hiring the girls to sing regularly, but the girls were barely in High School and Matador was too far from Lubbock for anything to come of it.

The Walsh Food Show probably lasted for only a year or two but it brought a lot of fame to Don Allen and his band along with a lot of bookings. By 1966 a number of the members were thirty and older, married and probably had grown tired of traveling. If the group had signed with Sam Gibbs Agency of Wichita Falls in their heyday they probably could have played in Las Vegas but this didn't happen. They seem to have been satisfied just playing the West Texas region! As stated by Hank Newman, the band broke-up in Aug. 1966 and he returned to Columbus, Georgia but today lives in Florida. In 2014 he reports that only three of the original members are still living, but he hasn't been able to locate some members or their families.


An Essay on Texas Music Labels
by Robin Brown

Since probably the late 1940's there have been countless musicians, bands and studios that have put records out on local labels. This was usually done by musicians & studios that had made recordings (of various quality) but couldn't get big, national labels interested in releasing their songs. So, as a last resort they would have the recordings pressed into a record that bore their own label or the trademark of some local promoter. In the trade, such labels are called 'trash-can labels'! However such a record could still be played on local radio, touted to be a hit and lauded! Such records could also be sold through 'local record shops' and on job locations. Sometimes such records were even picked-up by bigger labels and eventually turned into bonafide hits! In West Texas songs such as 'Party Doll' by Buddy Knox and 'Ooby Dooby' by Roy Orbison had originally been released on such labels. Namely Triple-D and Je-Wel labels but these songs were later picked-up and released on the Roulette & Sun labels to become national 'hits'. Jimmy Bowen's big hit also went through this same process (I'm Stickin with You). Therefore, because of the success of Knox, Bowen & Orbison's songs the West Texas labels (mentioned above) proved not to be producers of trash-can music anyway!

There were other, small Texas labels that should not be called 'trash-can labels' however because they also released songs & recordings that were profitable within a regional market. Major Bill Smith of Ft. Worth established such a label LeCam sometime in the late fities and he scored with at least four national hits before 1965 including: Last Kiss (J. Frank Wilson) , Linda Lu (Ray Sharpe), Hey Baby (Bruce Channel) and Hey Paula (Ray Hildebrand & Jill Jackson). Wilson's hit was picked up by national labels Tamara & Josie before it went to #2 on the charts and 'Hey Paula' was on the Philips label by the time it peaked at #1! Yet they were the exact same recordings that had initially been released on Le Cam. Aside from the record business, Smith seems to have also been an important booking agent and promoter during this era and was perhaps Texas's own version of Colonel Parker!

Louisianna's Huey P. Meaux also established his own Texas studio and label down in Houston in the late fifties. He called it Crazy Cajun and his lineup of hits and stars included Joe Barry (late 1950's), Sir Douglas Quintet (1960's) and Freddy Fender of the seventies. It is stated that Meaux cut so many gems during his heyday that his heirs will make a fortune for decades to come just on re-issues. The only blemish on Meaux's career was a highly publicized scandel that purportedly involved sex and drugs.

Houston businessman Don Robey opened the Bronze Peacock supper club back in 1945. He soon hired some of the biggest black acts to play here, including T-Bone Walker and Louis Jordan. Later Robey got interested in making records so he produced & released some on the Peacock label, which he also established during this era. It appears that another local label (Duke) was giving his label some competition in the race record market until he bought them out. Then the combined labels Duke-Peacock became the nations leading producer of Rhythm & Blues and race music until the rise of Detroit's own Motown label. Since there were few black-owned radio stations at the time, the main market for such records was jukeboxes in night clubs and juke joints.

Charlie Fitch, a record store owner & jukebox operator from Luling, Tx established the Sarg label in 1954. He released both rockabilly & country artist on the label and scored with Doug Sahm's early recordings. Starday records of Houston was founded by H.W. Daily and had so much success with George Jones that it expanded it operations to Nashville and opened a subsidirary label for minor Texas artist, called D records. If a new artist did well on the D label, he or she could look forward to graduating to the main label, Starday!

In El Paso (during the early 1960's) while the Bobby Fuller Four were struggling to become legitimate recording artists Fuller released some songs on his own trash-can labels. He established Eastwood & Exeter (labels) to release recordings his band made in his garage studio. Since his two labels didn't have adequate distribution or promotion the songs initially became at most local hits. After Fuller's move to Los Angeles brought his group night-club fame and hit recordings (I fought the Law and the Law won) this coupled with his mysterious death (July 1966) these almost forgotten recordings today have become important! They have since been re-issued on international labels and Bobby Fuller & his band now have almost a cult following of die-hard fan!.

I should also mention an eastern New Mexico label because a number of early West Texas musicians/singers appeared on the Nor-Va-Jak label. This label was owned by Norman Petty Studio of Clovis, NM and both singles and albums were produced on this label from c.1954-60. Some of the West Texas artist/musicians that appeared on this label include among others Jimmy Dean Self (Childress, Tx), Juanita Jordan (Plainview), the Bowman Brothers & Clyde Hankins Trio from Lubbock, Tx. Then in the mid-sixties Petty also used the Sandoz label to release some recordings that had been produced at his Clovis studio. It is unclear whether this label produced artists & songs that Petty favored or if it was just a vehicle for groups & artists that couldn't get national releases who chose to finance their own releases .

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