Lawrence Zwisohn is known worldwide for the superb liner notes he wrote for Bear Family's boxed sets of Sons of the Pioneers recordings. He is quoted widely as an accurate source of information on the group. He knew the original Sons of the Pioneers personally and is a respected researcher and writer. The following quotations are excerpts from his conversations with Elizabeth Drake McDonald.
“During a conversation with Bob we got to talking about Tumbling Tumbleweeds when Bob made an idle comment that his original verse had been replaced when Sam Fox bought the song from Sunset Music. This was the first time I had heard there was an earlier verse. Bob didn’t have a copy of it and so I began a search. It took several years until I got lucky and found a copy.
“With the Sunset edition in hand I called Bob and asked if I could come over to see him (I didn’t mention anything about having found the Sunset sheet music). A few days later I went over to see Bob bringing a Xerox copy of the original sheet music as well as the original copy. When I showed it to Bob he was surprised and really pleased. For the only time while I knew him, Bob went to another room and came back with a guitar. He sat down, strummed the guitar and sang his original verse. At one point he hit a bad chord, looked at the sheet music, played the same bad chord a second time, smiled and said, ‘They've made a mistake here.’ He finished singing the verse, looked at me and said he still didn’t know why they had changed it.
“Before leaving that day I asked Bob to sign the cover of the original version. He wrote something like, ‘My God, even my own original verse. This is really an old one.’ It’s framed and hanging on my wall.” (Laurence Zwisohn to Elizabeth Drake McDonald June 29, 1999)
Quick Links to Mr. Zwisohn's Comments:
The publishing history of Tumbling Tumbleweeds illustrates how many songwriters have been taken advantage of by music publishers due to their lack of business expertise.
The song Tumbling Tumbleweeds began as a poem titled Tumbling Leaves which Bob Nolan wrote on an autumn day in 1932. Around that same time Bob Nolan joined a local Los Angeles area country music group called The Rocky Mountaineers where he sang duets with Roy Rogers (then known by his original name of Len Slye).
Late in 1933 the Pioneer Trio (which became the Sons of the Pioneers) was formed by Roy Rogers, Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer. A short time later they were signed as staff singers on radio station KFWB in Hollywood. By this time Bob Nolan had added music to Tumbling Leaves and the trio began singing the song on some of their radio appearances. The trio’s performances of Tumbling Leaves went over well with their audiences and they began receiving letters asking them to repeat the song. A number of these requests asked for the song about the “tumbling weeds”. Since the Pioneer Trio’s repertoire was primarily built around western songs Bob Nolan saw the logic of making a few changes to his song and turning it into Tumbling Tumbleweeds. The Pioneer Trio’s growing popularity on KFWB led to their being given a program of their own and, to no one’s surprise, they chose Tumbling Tumbleweeds as their theme song.
Sheet music sales had long been an important source of income for both songwriters and music publishers and one of the biggest outlets for sheet music sales was at the 5 & 10 cent chain stores such as Woolworth’s and Newberry’s. The owner of the sheet music concession at Newberry’s in Los Angeles who also operated Sunset Music, a small music publishing company, recognized the growing popularity of Tumbling Tumbleweeds and in May 1934 he obtained the publishing rights to the song from Bob Nolan.
Within six weeks of the time Tumbling Tumbleweeds was published by Sunset Music the company was contacted by the larger Sam Fox Music which purchased the song’s publishing rights with the knowledge and approval of Bob Nolan. Sam Fox Music quickly republished the song but their sheet music edition dropped Bob Nolan’s original opening verse and replaced it with a verse written by one of their staff writers. Apparently the publisher felt the original verse didn't have a strong enough western feel. This change was made without Bob Nolan’s knowledge or permission.
In 1946 Sam Fox Music encountered financial difficulties which led to their selling the publishing rights to the songs Tumbling Tumbleweeds and I’ll Be Seeing You (written by Sammy Fain and Irving Kahal) to Williamson Music which was owned by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II.
Before the formation of BMI (Broadcast Music Inc.) in 1940 music licensing in the United States was dominated by ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers). ASCAP restricted its membership which resulted in few writers of western songs, jazz, blues, hillbilly and other styles of music being allowed to join the society. Although ASCAP membership was restricted ASCAP affiliated music publishers were never reluctant to obtain the rights to any song that was likely to generate sales and revenue. Although they might publish a song by a non-ASCAP member the songwriters themselves weren’t allowed to participate in all the sources of music income that were available to ASCAP members.
In 1959 Bob Nolan asked his attorney to review his finances and the status of his copyrights. This led to the discovery that for many years he had been receiving only a small portion of the income he was entitled to from Tumbling Tumbleweeds. Unable to reach a settlement with Williamson Music a lawsuit was brought against the publisher. The court case, which was upheld on appeal, ruled against Williamson Music. Bob Nolan was awarded a financial settlement going back seven years (the maximum period allowed by the law) however, his request to have the copyright returned to him was denied and the song remained with Williamson Music.
When Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI) was formed in 1940 they took a broad-minded approach which welcomed all songwriters into their organization. Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer were under contract to American Music and they along with American Music were among the earliest to join BMI. As a result all of Bob Nolan’s songs were affiliated with BMI with the exception of Tumbling Tumbleweeds which remained with Williamson Music, an ASCAP affiliate that didn’t even form a BMI publishing company until sometime in the 1990s.
Although there have been many recent changes in the United States copyright law songwriters or their estates are permitted to exercise their right to get back the American publishing rights to a song at the end of the 56th year of a copyright. Bob Nolan’s widow chose to do this by forming Music of the West, a BMI affiliated publishing company. The first of Bob Nolan’s songs to come up for its 56-year renewal was Tumbling Tumbleweeds. As required by law Williamson Music was notified that Mrs. Nolan planned to exercise her right to renew the copyright. By placing the song with Music of the West, a BMI affiliate, it would finally be possible for Bob Nolan’s estate to begin receiving a greater measure of income from Tumbling Tumbleweeds.
BMI pays higher income to those songs that have received over a million performances. Bob Nolan’s song Cool Water had long since qualified as a million performance song and although Tumbling Tumbleweeds had been in an ASCAP company since 1946 there was no question it also belonged in that category. As soon as the song was transferred to Music of the West BMI qualified Tumbling Tumbleweeds as a million-performance song which further increased its earning ability.
There is no way to estimate the amount of income Bob Nolan lost from Tumbling Tumbleweeds over the decades due to accounting practices and to the many years the song remained in an ASCAP catalog while Bob Nolan was a BMI member. (Laurence Zwisohn, October, 2002)
ON BOB NOLAN:
From my limited contact with Bob I never saw him less than polite and thoughtful. However, he wouldn't do things he didn't want to do. If you didn't impose on him he was fine. If you started annoying him he'd have no part of it. If you tried buttering him up you'd really make him uncomfortable. Bob was a genius and that rare breed tend to act a little differently. And, frankly, that doesn't bother me as long as they don't go too far.
Bob always looked good no matter how he was dressed. Even when it was just a T shirt there was just something unique about that mighty man.
I remember Bob mentioning Ernest Hemingway. He said he'd learned that Hemingway was having a session for writers. As I recall, the session was going to be held at a hotel. The cost to attend was $50 and Bob said he really had to dig to come up with the money. Bob said the most important thing he learned from Hemingway was to keep what you write to the point. To keep rereading what you've written and keep editing it down. Bob said he took that to heart and tried to do that with his lyrics. Seems like he succeeded. There's not a superfluous word in Bob's lyrics.
I never asked Bob about the fire
and he never mentioned it. He did say he had an arrangement with his publisher,
Sylvester Cross, at American Music that he'd get a $25 advance for any song he
wrote. It appears the publisher would only copyright the song if it was recorded
(note the copyright date on The Mystery of His Way is 1951 which is the year
Johnnie Ray recorded it.) As to where the American Music files are? Probably
buried in an unknown warehouse.
I once met Marvin Grigsby at Bob's house. I think it had to do with raising funds for the John Edwards Memorial Foundation then located at UCLA (now at the University of North Carolina). I had once mentioned to Ken Griffis that I'd give a lot to have “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” written in Bob's hand. Ken came up with the idea of having Bob write the lyrics on parchment and selling it to the person making the largest donation to JEMF. I think Grigsby donated $1000 and got the parchment copy. I also seem to recall that Bob, who had known Grigsby for some time, gave Grigsby one of his guitars at the same time.
While the Sons of the Pioneers built their reputation around their unique sound, there can be no doubt that the key figure in the group was Bob Nolan. Ruggedly handsome and possessing a distinctive voice (Tim Spencer referred to him as 'our bubbling baritone'), Bob Nolan became the most identifiable member of the Pioneers. But Bob's most lasting impact came from the songs he wrote. Seldom has anyone been better able to describe the beauty, loneliness and adventure of the West. His songs painted images and told stories so perfectly that you could just close your eyes, listen to the Sons of the Pioneers and see those images come to life. Although Bob Nolan is best known for his western songs, he never limited himself to that metier. Let's Pretend displays the tender side of this rugged man both as a singer and a songwriter. Bob Nolan was a quiet, introspective man. It was almost as if he let his songs speak for him. (liner notes for RCA Victor Years, Vol. 1, 1989)
Bob Nolan once said that even though each Pioneer
had true talent, the group as a whole was greater than the sum of its parts.
(liner notes to Bear Family's Wagons West, 1993)
Lloyd filled in for Roy during those six weeks. When the Pioneers returned from the Texas Centennial, Tim was upset that the rest of the group had fired his brother who'd been managing them. Tim quit the group and the guys asked Lloyd to take his place. When Tim returned a year later Lloyd was there to stay. Lloyd was one of the finest gentleman I've ever known and what a remarkable talent.
Lloyd told me that he'd been singing with several groups but when he heard the Pioneers he knew they were clearly the best and he began hanging around the group. Whenever a member of the trio was ill Lloyd filled in. Roy came down with pneumonia (probably early in 1936). For awhile it didn't look like he'd make it (this was before sulfa drugs were available). For six weeks Roy was sick in bed. (During this period Roy wrote “I'll Keep On Singing A Song,” a very upbeat song with a positive outlook, in essence “no matter what goes wrong I'll keep on singing song. Shows what a positive outlook on life Roy always had.)
The proliferation of awards has
gutted them of any real significance. I remember speaking with Lloyd Perryman
about the awards the Pioneers had received so I could mention them in something
I was writing. Lloyd smiled and said that during the group's busiest years there
were very few awards. He told me about a call he'd received from an organization
in Arizona that had selected the Pioneers to receive their annual award and
asked them to attend the presentation. Lloyd checked their schedule and saw the
Pioneers had an engagement elsewhere in the country on that date. "So you can't
make the awards presentation?" "No" responded Lloyd, I'm afraid we can't." There
was a brief pause and then the caller asked if Lloyd thought Rex Allen would
like to receive that year's award.
In the time I knew Lloyd I only had one criticism of him.....I wished he'd have been able to quit smoking. He just couldn't stop and it took his life at much too early an age. I feel that his heart attacks were brought on by his smoking and it was such a waste of a fine guy and such an enormous talent. And what a talent. The guy had it all. He could sing like an angel. His vocal arrangements were so good the group used them for decades. And he loved the Pioneers with all his heart.
The Sons of the Pioneers sang with
the Stafford Sisters on a demo for a radio program and may have occasionally
appeared on the same programs on KHJ radio station. Lloyd Perryman thought the
world of Jo Stafford as a person and as a talent. I once pulled a joke on Lloyd
and his wife Buddie. One of the Jonathan & Darlene Edwards albums was reissued
during the mid 1970's. Nowhere on the album did it indicate they were actually
Jo Stafford and her husband Paul Weston. I gave a copy of the LP to Lloyd and
Buddie saying I thought they'd might enjoy it as well as I was enjoying my copy.
A few weeks later I was back visiting with them and asked if they'd had a chance
to play the album. Lloyd said they'd played the album the day after my previous
visit. He said their initial reaction was "Larry likes this off key singing and
he likes the Pioneers?" But the more he listened the more he could hear that the
singer was just enough off key to be doing it on purpose. The same with Paul's
piano playing. When I asked if he knew who they were Lloyd said the voice was
familiar but he just couldn't place it. When I told him it was Jo Stafford and
Paul Weston he smiled and said, "of course. It would have to be someone with
perfect pitch to be able to miss the note by so little."
ON KEN CARSON:
He was one of the finest and nicest people I’ve ever known. After his time with the Pioneers (whom he was reluctant to join) he worked on the Garry Moore radio show. The success of that show led CBS to transfer the show from Los Angeles to New York and turn it into a 5 day a week morning television show. Ken was the featured male vocalist throughout its long run. Denise Lor was the female vocalist. Howard Smith led the band. While living in New York Ken kept a busy schedule. He recorded for a number of independent labels, wrote some songs and sang on radio commercials (a very lucrative career). He also sang at private parties including singing at Tricia Nixon’s wedding.
He and his wife Gretchen lived in New Rochelle, New York a very nice suburb outside the city. When he and Gretchen retired they moved to Delray Beach, Florida. But Ken never really retired. He loved entertaining so he continued doing country clubs, private parties and related work. He lived about 30 miles from where my mother lived and thanks to Ken Griffis I as able to contact him and ask to meet him on my next trip. He was as nice as possible and we got together each time I visited my mother.
The last time I saw Ken he was
quite ill but they couldn’t diagnose the illness. Finally, if I recall
correctly, he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease and passed away not too
long after the diagnosis. Ken was always in good spirits. He always had a smile
on his face and in his heart. He was warm and friendly. Whenever he called me at
my mother’s place he always took time to have a friendly conversation with her.
The Pioneers have had some remarkably fine gentleman as members over the years.
None were finer than Ken Carson.
Hugh, if I recall, was living in
Wyoming and drove down with two of his neighbors. As gaunt as he was I
recognized him immediately. That evening there was a show honoring the Pioneers
at the Hollywood Palladium. Roy sang with the group and at one point in the show
Lloyd introduced Hugh as one of the original Pioneers who had come back to be a
part of the evening. Frankly, I was worried. I loved Hugh’s fiddling and his
marvelous bass voice and the last thing I wanted was to see this great talent
embarrass himself. Hugh came center stage and put his fiddle under his chin
and……..blew away the entire audience who gave him a prolonged standing ovation
after his number. He was magnificent. As Hugh began to leave the stage Lloyd
stopped him and said the audience wouldn’t let him leave after just one number
so Hugh came back and played another tune and, once again, knocked everyone out.
I couldn’t have been more proud if he was a member of my own family. I think it
was the next night that Ken Griffis had Hugh over to his house and, fortunately,
I was invited. Hugh played and told some stories and I just wish I had an audio
or video tape of that evening. The years just rolled away for Hugh when he
played. Yes, I was there when the photo was taken. One of the most memorable
days of my life.
One amusing story I heard later:
Someone came up to Roy and asked Roy if he remembered him. Roy, who as always
polite, said no he was afraid he didn't. The guy became indignant. Told Roy he
was the pilot who flew him to some military bases during World War II when Roy
was entertaining the troops. He was really ticked off that Roy didn't remember
him from 30 - 35 years earlier. Too bad Roy didn't have his six guns with him