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Leon McAuliffe

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Biography

Steel guitarist Leon McAuliffe made his name as a member of Bob Wills' Texas Playboys, ranking as one of the best of his era on his chosen instrument. Born William Leon McAuliffe in Houston in 1917, he started playing both acoustic and steel guitar at 14, and quickly joined the Waikiki Strummers, a Hawaiian-style group, on the latter instrument in 1931. In 1933, he joined the early Western swing band the Light Crust Doughboys, and found a major influence in Milton Brown's steel guitarist Bob Dunn, who taught him how to electrically amplify his instrument. In 1935, he moved on to the Texas Playboys, who would soon become the premier Western swing band in existence. One of their earliest recordings was "Steel Guitar Rag," an instrumental showcase that McAuliffe had adapted from bluesman Sylvester Weaver's "Guitar Rag." The record helped make McAuliffe a star and a standard-setter on his instrument, and Wills' directive of "Take it away, Leon!" became something of a musical catch phrase. McAuliffe remained with the Texas Playboys until being called to serve in World War II in late 1942, during which time he worked as a flight instructor. After the war, McAuliffe decided to form his own big band, which he dubbed the Cimarron Boys. The group played regularly on a Tulsa radio station and soon signed a contract with Columbia, and McAuliffe's instrumental showcase "Panhandle Rag" became a Top Ten hit in 1949. Over the course of the '50s, McAuliffe's band mixed down-home Western tunes with smooth big band jazz, which sometimes brought him fairly close to mainstream swing territory. He recorded for a variety of labels during the '60s, including Dot, Capitol, and Starday, but by this time Western swing was a phenomenon of the past, and he performed mostly on a local basis; he later purchased a radio station in Rogers, AR. He played on a reunion recording with Wills in 1973, and led occasional Texas Playboys reunions following Wills' death a short time later. McAuliffe himself passed away in 1988. ~ Steve Huey
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