One of America's original cowboy stars, James "Texas Jim" Lewis, had (as a showbiz veteran) seemingly done it all by the time he moved to Seattle in 1950. Having played live country music over the radio in the 1920s, formed a Western Swing stringband in the 1930s, recorded hits for various major labels into the 1940s, this contemporary of Hollywood movie stars like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers had also appeared in 42 films and even became the very first Country music radio DJ in Los Angeles. But Lewis is perhaps best and most fondly recalled as the cackling host of KING-TV's trail-blazing kiddie show, Sheriff Tex's Safety Junction.
Rodeos & Radios
The Pacific Northwest already had a thriving Country/Western music scene happening in the late 1940s with such notable bands as Seattle's KVI radio's K-VI ("K-six") Wranglers, Tacoma's KMO radio's Cherokee Jack and the Rhythm Ridin' Wranglers, Bremerton's KBRO's Arkie Shibley and the Mountain Dew Boys, and Spokane's Charlie Ryan and Montana Range Riders all playing rodeos and radio shows.
And, certainly, many of those players were characters in their own right, but the region had never seen anything like the force-of-nature known as "Texas" Jim Lewis. "Texas" Jim first toured through the area mid-decade and finally settled here in 1950.
Son of a Sheriff
Born as the namesake son of James Lewis (a U.S. Marshall turned county-sheriff turned moonshiner and old-time fiddler), Lewis (guitar) joined the family band as it played in various venues. Then when his father changed careers once again -- this time becoming a traveling evangelist -- the band spread the Gospel in churches and tent revival shows as it worked its way from Fort Meyers, Florida, to Texas. There Lewis saw new opportunities so when the family moved along towards Detroit he opted to stay. Starting as a farm hand and then as a ice-plant worker, Lewis scuffled for work, taking on gigs with traveling circuses, medicine shows, Chautauquas, and even black-face minstrel troupes. Then in 1929 he took a big step by scoring his first radio job performing music with two fiddlers on an agricultural college station, WTAW.
In time Lewis reunited with the family in Detroit where he and his younger guitar-playing half-brother (Rivers "Tiny" Lewis -- who performed under the stage-name of Jack Rivers) were hired to perform in a basement speakeasy for those notorious Prohibition Era gangsters, the Purple Gang. That lucrative gig ended with the Repeal of Prohibition in 1933 and Lewis returned to Texas where he joined the Swift Jewel Cowboys, who performed weekly on Houston's KBRC. By mid-1934 he had returned to Detroit and fallen in with Jack West and his Circle Star Cowboys, who played on station WJR.
The Big Apple
In October, 1935, "Texas" Jim and the Lone Star Cowboys -- Eugene "Smokey" Rogers (guitar), Andrew "Cactus" Soldi (fiddle), Billy Ulevitch (accordion), and Lewis (doghouse bass) -- hopped into their 1932 Chevrolet and drove straight to New York City. Standing out like sore thumbs in their cowboy attire while riding the Staten Island ferry to Manhattan, they were approached by a curious fellow who ended up advising them to head over to the Brill Building -- the epicenter of the city's "tin pan alley" music biz.
After successfully soliciting an audition with a giant talent management firm, the Irving Mills Agency, the band was, within three days, booked into a major Greenwich Village nightspot, the Village Barn. A literal overnight sensation, the Lone Star Cowboys packed standing-room-only crowds in a 52-week engagement (broadcast over WOR and the Mutual Radio Network) and they were also soon hired as regulars on Fred Allen's wildly popular weekly radio show. By 1936 the band were touring the national Orpheum Theater vaudeville circuit, and they remained regulars at Village Barn for three years.
It was also in 1936 that Lewis's band signed a deal with Vocalion Records and one of the three 78rpm records that they cut for the label -- "Who Broke the Lock on the Henhouse Door?" -- featured the recorded debut of the bandleader's unique musical contraption, the "Hootin'nanny." A crazy assemblage of assorted brass automobile horns, whining hand-crank sirens, percussive clackers, two washboards, a blank-firing gun, et cetera, the "Hootin'nanny" became one of Lewis' enduring trademarks -- especially after it was seen in use in the 1937 Vitaphone movie, Stuck On the West.
The "Hootin'nanny" also appeared in some of the 41 additional films (such as Universal Studios' Swingin' In the Barn) that Lewis made for major movie studios including Republic Pictures, Columbia Pictures, and Warner Brothers. Other films included 1937's Drug Store Follies and All Aboard (and in the 1940s: Carolina Moon, Down Mexico Way, Pardon My Gun, The Old Homestead, The Stranger From Ponca City, Law of the Canyon, Wild and Bully, and My Pal, Ringeye). In 1940 Universal called the band to Hollywood to appear in the classic western, Bad Man From Red Butte and along their way out from New York, the Lone Star Cowboys made their first swing through the Northwest where they encountered enthusiastic audiences at Seattle's grand Orpheum Theatre (506 Stewart Street) and a at few area roadhouses and dancehalls.
Once Lewis's band (which now included Rivers) arrived in Los Angeles, they were signed in August 1940, by Decca Records where they cut a string of records including his million-selling hit, "Seven Beers with the Wrong Woman." In 1942 Lewis was spinning discs as a pioneering Country DJ at Los Angeles' KKJL -- and he'd just signed a big-time contract with Paramount Studios for 16 films -- when he received his draft notice from the U.S. Army. While their star was sidelined serving at Fort Lewis, Washington, Decca moved forward by issuing his "Too Late To Worry, Too Blue To Cry," which became a smash in 1944, reaching the No. 3 slot on the Billboard magazine's hit charts and selling 1,250,000 copies.
After his discharge at the war's end, Lewis jumped right back into the showbiz game: but because his former band (including Jack Rivers) was now being led by his fiddler, Spade Cooley, he started from scratch, regrouping a new California-based Lone Star Cowboys and this ensemble went on to record "Leven Miles from Leavenworth," "Worried Mind," and "Wine, Women and Song" for Decca -- and then additional humorous tunes like "Squaws Along The Yukon" for Coral Records.
This Lone Star Cowboys toured the West Coast annually, and in December, 1950 -- while performing a multi-week engagement at Seattle's Palomar Theater (1300 3rd Avenue) that the management of KIRO-AM radio discovered them and offered up a (Friday night) Rainier Brewing Company-sponsored program, Rainier Ranch. Soon thereafter, the band was poached away by KING-TV who had an even better offer: the band's very own televised Rainier Ranch program on Tuesdays. Times were good and Lewis settled into a nice home on Queen Anne Hill and eventually started a family.
New Sheriff in Town
In 1951 television was still in its infancy (there were an estimated 6,500 TV sets in the entire region), and Seattle's KING-TV was busy casting a wide net seeking talent worthy of being broadcast. At first the (all new, except for Rivers) Lone Star Cowboys simply performed songs, but soon KING execs realized that with Lewis they had a real firecracker onboard. A one-man tornado of rootin' tootin' entertainment -- Lewis could tell jokes (and tall tales), sing songs, demonstrate rope tricks, introduce furry animals, work a puppet, and improvise endless silly skits -- all in all, a natural TV host. And so, by November the station morphed Rainier Ranch into the town's first kiddie TV show, Sheriff Tex's Safety Junction.
Initially broadcast live three days a week, by the second week its popularity caused KING to expand the format to a daily basis. Lewis entertained viewers with his guitar and also brought on other local musical talents including Seattle's legendary bohemian folkie, "Wanderin'" Walt Robertson, and a cute pre-teen barbershop-style vocal group from Renton called the Slick Shavers (who soon became the Eligibles, signed with Capitol Records, scored the 1959 radio hit, "Car Trouble," and also recorded thousands of sessions backing other artists including the rockabilly hero, Gene Vincent).
In June 1954, Lewis was still a big enough star that Newsweek magazine featured a photograph of him demonstrating his "Hootin'nanny" to the famed Boston Pops conductor, Arthur Fiedler, who was in town promoting a series of concerts for the Seattle Symphony. "Sheriff Tex" also won a new recording deal with a major label and Hollywood's Imperial Records issued some of his kid-oriented tunes like "Safety Songs," "The Hootinanny Song," and "Ophelia, The Cow" (which Lewis once recalled cutting at a Seattle radio station studio). In addition Lewis had also hosted KING's Junction Jamboree show live from the Trianon Ballroom (218 Wall Street) for six months until the fabled 1927 hall finally shut its doors in 1956.
Pardon My Guns
By 1957 KING-TV's innocent kiddie programs, KING's Klubhouse (with Stan Boreson) and Wunda Wunda (with Ruth Prins), must have seemed more predictable to the station's management -- for all of his talents, Lewis's fabled Wild West temper, propensity for ribald humor, and habit of blasting his smoky, blank-firing .44 pistol is rumored to have played some role in the decision to retire Safety Junction.
That was when Lewis moved on to Tacoma's KTVW, where he hosted the Sheriff Tex Show for a while and in 1958 relocated the program up to Vancouver B.C., where it aired for several more years and was syndicated for broadcast in five languages. The 1950s also saw Jack Rivers (d. 1989) become a first-call Hollywood player (on such hits as Gene Autry's "Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer"). In addition, Rivers led his own sessions for Capitol, Coral, and numerous other labels and by mid-decade he'd moved back to the Northwest where he ran the J. R. Ranch label, and provided hot electric guitar licks to some of the area's earliest rockabilly records.
Golden Apple / Golden Anniversary
Throughout the 1962 Seattle World's Fair, Lewis (and Jack Rivers) led a country dance-band -- Texas Jim Lewis and the Apple Knockers -- at a downtown nightclub called the Golden Apple Restaurant (906 1st Avenue), and several of his old Decca recordings were surreptitiously reissued (as bootlegs) by the house label, Golden Apple Records. Building that combo up to a full Western Swing band, Lewis continued working area nightclubs up into the 1970s.
From there Lewis' musical career began to wind down, but on April 21, 1985, he was saluted by the Seattle Western Swing Music Society at a big celebration at the Seattle Center Exhibition Hall. That tribute event marked Lewis's 55th year in showbiz and it was a great reunion for many old-time Northwest country musicians and their fans. Meanwhile, that same year saw some distant fans -- way over in Germany -- launch a three-LP series of vintage (but previously unreleased) radio transcription recordings by "Texas" Jim Lewis and the Lone Star Cowboys, which have given a whole new generation the opportunity to hear a great band in their prime.