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Jimmy Wakely

by Frank M. Roberts

Howdy, podners - comin'up, another look at another cowboy star of the 30s to 50s era. I'm checking on the good guys and the bad guys. This go-'round, a look at a very good guy who was a singin' cowboy, and a good one - very good, I might add.

I'm talking about Jimmy Wakely, a native of Meneola, Ark. He was born Feb. 16, 1914. He died Sept. 23, 1982. His real name was close enough to his professional name. On the birth certificate it reads James Clarence Wakely. Clarence?? Not a cowboy name.

His initial forays on the silver screen found him supporting almost all the western stars in the 1940s. He finally became the head knocker in 1944 - the name above the title guy. He signed with Monogram, one of those low budget studios but, one of the better ones.

Picture number one was appropriately titled, "Song Of the Range." On screen he was aided and abetted by sidekicks Dennis Moore and Lee "Lasses" White who also appeared in mystery movies. And, he was a songwriter who penned a very bad racial blues song - certainly not something worth remembering.

Getting happily back to Wakely and his vocal career: His first real singing job was for radio station KTOK, chirping for the 'fantastic' sum of $8.50 a week - and that was 'weak'. That was in 1936. A year later he did what many a cowboy singer/actor did in those days. He pitched patent medicines on the radio. Well, the pay was better - the magnificient salary of $14 a week and, I suppose, all the patent medicine he could gulp down.

And, speaking of music, one of his flicks was "Oklahoma Blues." His co-star was one Cannonball Taylor. And, there was a pretty lady. Her name was Virginia Belmont. Who??

Soon afterwards things got quite a bit better. He teamed with another fine cowboy singer - Johnny (not James) Bond. He was signed for a show and backed up Gene Autry who eventually put both Wakely and Bond on his national radio show. Next stop was a series of films from Universal.

Leaving the singing for a spell - let's take a look at another movie with a typical western title - "Gun Law Justice" - gun in one hand, guitar in the other.

Wakely, as noted, worked at Universal Studios, then moved to Columbia. Obviously, he was becoming more and more popular. It was then that he went downhill, but in a nice way. In 1944, he signed a healthy contract with Monogram, and he stayed at that studio for five years - starring in no less than 30 feature westerns.

Another movie he made with "Cannonball" Taylor (this time the first name was in quotation marks). This had an 'espanol' flavor - "Cowboy Cavalier."

Series were the order of the day, and Wakely's first one was released just prior to his 31st birthday. Thirty - yeah - but he still had that youthful appeal and boyish charm. And - importantly - as one writer noted, "he possessed the best singing voice ever to be heard in grade 'B' westerns. Zowie! High praise, indeed.

Now, let's take a look at yet another Wakely flick. It had the unimaginative but appropriate title of, "Saddle Serenade." Once again his co-star was Lee "Lasses" White. A fellow named John James also appeared, as well as one of the great western singing groups - Foy Willing and the "Riders Of the Purple Sage." (And, no, I don't know what a purple sage is).

Things were going 'swimmingly' BUT, a personality argument cropped up. The fight was between Jimmy Wakely, and Scotty Dunlap. The latter was the producer so, he, of course, had the final words. Those words were 'bye-bye Jimmy.' One reason was that his pictures were not the moneymakers expected. Mr. D killed the series by removing all the music from the Wakely films. Put that down as a cruel blow.

One of his latter movies had the powerful title of, "Roaring Westward," once again with "Cannonball" Taylor.

Another movie he made as star was, "Silver Trails," once again with "Cannonball" Taylor. This time, they let him use his first name - Dub. Before he got the heave-ho, Wakely's films had budgets in the $30 to $50 thousand range. That was the range on the range.

We noted above that while the film career was exiting, the music career was a-growin'. To put it mildly, but honestly, it shot to the top.

He had beaucoup number one hits starting with, "Slipping Around," in 1949. And, 'twas said, Jimmy Wakely was glad to be rid of the Westerns. It was goodbye movie career, hello singing career.

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