The announcers over WLS would introduce him as "...here
comes six feet one of Smilin' Cowboy." And fans knew that meant
it was time for Cowboy Bill Newcomb. He was one of the stars
on the WLS National Barn Dance back in the late 1930s. But it almost
didn't come to be. When he was about 19 years old, the 1938 WLS Stand-By
magazine tells us, a tragedy occurred in his life. The family lived
just outside of Caladonia, Missouri and neighbors recalled seeing
Bill ride a horse at full speed, bare-backed to try and get to the
farm house that was on fire in the distance. He desperately wanted
to get back there and get the one possesion he treasured the most at the time - his guitar.
But by the time he got there, the fire had just about gotten everything.
All that was left of that prized guitar was a "...few blackened metal
Bill had taken a liking to music, so much so that it gave him
hope and dreams for the future. The only other musician in the family
was his dad who played the fiddle a bit.
We learned in that 1938 article that Bill's family decided to settle
in the Ozark country of Missouri. Bill's father was a blacksmith
and so was his grandfather and great-grandfather as well, a trade
that was passed down through the generations. Bill began to learn
the trade himself as soon as he was old enough to wield the heavy
tools it required and he found it good for toning up his body at the
It seems he began entertaining audiences at a very early age. His early
years included attending a one-room school house where he would often
be called upon to be in front of the class, sometimes reciting various
poems or other pieces and sometimes singing for them.
But you might imagine a younger person of that day being around the horses
and shoeing them. He longed to ride the horses as well, not just
work on them. He came to enjoy the experience almost from that very first
time he got on a horse for his first ride at his grandfather's ranch.
On occasion, he would ride the horse with the hounds on a fox chase
through the Ozark country. Or on a starry moonlit night, he would
just take a slow ride along the banks of the Big River until he
would find a restful spot and sleep under a starry blanket. Sometimes
his brother Lawrence would accompany him on those rides.
Bill recalled in a 1939 article written by Marjorie Gibson that during
the winters they would do a lot of ice skating. The summer meant swimming
in the river just about every day. Then there was time for hunting
and trapping. On one such occasion, he related that he shot a bobcat off of
a high limb on a tree. When it fell down and among the dogs, it almost
got back at the dogs and started to tear at them before deciding instead
to make a hasty retreat.
That 1939 article also tells us that he went to live in Spavanah, Oklahoma
and that's where he began to learn to play the guitar to accompany his
dad on the fiddle as well as himself when he would sing. Other folks
would join in as they went along and before you know it, they were
entertaining folks around the area where they lived.
During those years, he would go on trips with his father in the Southwest
where they would break in the horses for other farmers. In fact,
he saw his career at that point revolving around horses in many different
ways, blacksmithing, horse breaking, breeding, the leisurely rides. But
he still had that itch to try his hand at singing.
Like many kids of his generation, he grew up idolizing the legendary
Blue Yodeler himself, Jimmie Rodgers. He would work and toil until
he could put together whatever it would take to get to buy a new Jimmie
Rodgers record. Then he would listen to it over and over, studying Jimmie's
style, practicing the yodel. His father saw that love for the music and
gave him that first guitar he treasured so much. But the fire may have
took that guitar, but it didn't put out the fire and desire Bill had
If anything, the fire gave him more determination and resolve to try
his luck at the music trade. He organized a small group that became
known for mountain, old time and western songs. The group traveled
all around many smaller Missouri towns and were known as "Mystical
Billy and his Musical Billys".
Bill and his band got their first radio job at radio station WMBH
in Joplin, Missouri. The band grew in popularity and found themselves
later in St. Louis where they worked over several other stations.
Amateur contests were popular back then and when he was in St. Louis,
he must have been doing something right for he entered 15 contests
and came in first place in 12 of them. The first contest he won
was in Webb City, Missouri; that got him an all-expenses paid trip
to Springfield, Missouri. He won another contest and that led
him to a guest appearance over radio station KMOX in St. Louis. Which
then led to those amateur contest wins.
His musical journey kept him moving to and eventually led him to
a station at South Bend, Indiana where fate led him to become
a part of the WLS family and the National Barn Dance.
The lady who was the director of the "Home Talent Show" in Mishawaka,
Indiana, Miss Frances Allan had heard Cowboy Bill sing and made a recommendation
that he be on of the 30 contestants from the Home Talent Shows that were to
compete in a ten week long "Fireside Party Contest" on the air. The winner
of that contest was to win a prized four week engagement on the famed
WLS National Barn Dance show.
By now you probably have figured out that Bill won that contest. And indeed he did.
After his four week stint, the listening audience had responded to his talents
and wrote the station requesting that he continue to entertain them. And WLS
was smart enough to listen to what their audiences were telling them.
Was said to be the real McCoy - could do all the cowboy
things - broncbustin', rope-twirlin'. Sang at the Rodeo
in Chicago in October (1938?) and that same month, was
said to have rode into the Palmer House on a big bay horse
into the middle of the State Street Seniors dinner being held there.
Was always happy and had a "naturally rich, strong voice." And had
a "slow, drawiling speaking voice that was as Western as Bill was."
On WLS, he appeared on such shows as the "HOmemakers Hour"
or "Pat's Afternoon Special" (presumably Pat Buttram's show)
and on the Pinex show at 8:00am each morning.
Bill married the former Florence Bond in 1931, who was from Bill's old
home town of Caladonia, Missouri. Back in 1938, the family lived
in South Bend and commuted to Chicago on Saturday mornings. His wife, Florence
and Bill, Jr., their son would then watch Bill entertain the fans
at the famed Eighth Street Theater that was home to the Barn Dance.
Credits & Sources
- Stand By; April 30, 1938; Prairie Farmer Publishing Co.;
- Rural Radio; February 1939; Rural Radio, Inc.;