Hillbilly-Music.comThe People. The Music. The History.
About The Artist
Albert Edward (Curley) Roberts was the son of Arlon and Pearl (Gibbs) Roberts. He was born in Rector, Arkansas in 1909. His father worked at the saw mill at the time. His parents were married on August 22, 1906. But his parents divorced; his mother married Joseph Meyer on January 2, 1915 in Rector, Arkansas.
Curley's mother married J. B. Meyer on January 2, 1915 in Rector, AR. She was 31 and her husband Joe was 44.
The 1920 census shows that Curley and his brother, Durward, were living his momin Webb City, Missouri. His mom gave birth to Juanita around the time of the census.
Curley's daughter indicated that Arlon played the fiddle and had his own band at one time.
In the "Curley Roberts, The Missouri Rambler" song folio published by Leeds, a short biography of Curley Roberts was found on the inside cover. His father played the fiddle. His morther played the guitar. He never had a lesson in music and could not read a note. He 'played by ear'.
The 1930's — Musical Journey Begins
He went to school, first, in Webb City, then later in St.Louis, Curely became immersed with music. Near the end of his high school days, he formed a group called the "Three Troubadours" that led to their own show over WIL and WEW in St. Louis.
A picture of three young performers, while not titled, seems to be this group. Their names were Monty, Ted and Al (Curley). Ted's last name was not indicated.
In the late 1930s, Curley was part of a group called the "Four Sons of the Prairie" that was being heard over KMOX. The group members were Monty Rhine, Curley Roberts, Frankie Townsend and Smoky. This would be the beginning of a journey that immersed them in the country music history in the St. Louis area. They appeared in various venues around the St. Louis area and worked with some of the legends of St. Louis country music.
Curley married the former Jewell Pearl Nesbit and they had a daughter named Shirley who was born in 1935.
Shirley revealed during a phone call and email exchanges that she was singing onstage with her father when she was just three years old! She said she usually got quite a round of applause as you would expect any youngster being brave enough to sing in front of a live audience.
The fans enjoyed her appearances and when she had grown a few years, one fan made her a fur coat.
Hawaii — E. K. Fernandez Introduces The Hill Billies
The SS Lurline departed Los Angeles on Thursday, September 26, 1940, bound for Honolulu and among the passengers were a group of 'hillbilly entertainers' from the St. Louis, Missouri area. The ship arrived on Wednesday, October 2, 1940. The group left Honolulu on Friday, December 6, 1940 and presumably arrived in Los Angeles on Thursday, December 12, 1940. That group was "Bud Yoder's Hillbilly Jamboree."
In the late 1930s, the boundaries between groups and which radio stations they were on get a bit blurred. We know of the Sons of the Prairie featuring Monty Rhine, Curly Roberts, Frankie Townsend and Smoky Smith. But in the summer of 1940, the group starts working with a fellow named Bud (Harry Herbert) Yoder (Jr). Bud's father owned the Yoder's Nite Club in East Alton, Illinois and it featured a variety of musical entertainment perhaps leaning towards the vaudeville era than towards a particular musical genre. The bar featured 'entertainment'. Bud's father (Harry Herbert Yoder, Sr.) had also owned a small chain of Yoder grocery stores as well. He had retired in 1950. Based on the age shown for Bud on the Hawaii passenger list, the deduction is that it was the Bud, the son of Yoder, Sr. who was the entertainer and on the Hawaii trip.
While the picture promoting the Wentzville Homecoming celebration over Labor Day weekend in 1940 shows a group of eight as part of the group, it appears that two of them did not make the trip. Harry H. (Bud) Yoder, Jr. began to show up as an entertainer in the summer of 1940 as research was being done. Each one of the group in the "Hillbilly Jamboree" photo appeared at one time or another at Yoder's Nite Club.
We examined the souvenir passentger list provided by Monty Rhine's daughter, Donna Sinclair, as well as the Honoluly passenger lists as found on Ancestry.com. Research showed the following made the trips to / from Honoulu in 1940:
Nadine Gardner and Frankie Townsend were not listed on the souvenir passenger list nor in th Ancestry.com records.
The promoter behind Bud and his group going to Honolulu was Eddie (E. K.) Fernandez who was well-known in Hawaii for putting on extravagant shows and circuses. He was known to recruit entertainers each time he went to visit the states. He was known as Hawaii's "Barnum".
The SS Lurline contained a 'large contingent of mainland performers', including the Palkenberg bears. The initial stop would be the 23rd annual Maui County Fair. Another group on the trip were twelve collies that were trained by Jack Joyce. However, Hawaii had strict quarantine rules for bringing in outside dogs and they did not perform and remained in quarantine. Mr. Joyce was not idle however, as he was also the trainer for a performing elephant. Another animal trainer, Bert Nelson would direct his group of lions and tigers. There would also be high wire acts such as the Great Gretonas, from Europe - they rode bikes on the high wire while blindfolded. Another group was the flying Behrs, who did acrobatics on the trapezes, the Three Valentines who were slack wire artists and barrel jumpers, Donahue and La Salle.
Then there was to be "Mountain Music." An article highlighting the events told readers that the "joy zone" features promised by Mr. Fernandez are the "Follies of 1940" that would feature a dozen or more vaudeville acts, featuring "Bud Yoder's Ozark champion Hill Billys playing mountain music rural fashion." That 'joy zone' would also include Ripley's Believe it Or Not, composed of well 'people' of all sorts.
Mr. Fernandez also indicated that Japan's sacred long tailed chickens with tales 24 feet long would be there after trying for four years. And direct from the New York World's Fair would be Miss Lucille Anderson, a high diving champion, who would dive from a 100 foot platform into a six foot tank of water.
One article at the end of the Maui Fair gave an indication as to the attendance - 13,000 paid customers on the last day of the fair on October 13.
After the Maui County Fair, the Fernandez troupe of performers, entertainers and animals would then move to Honolulu, where under sponsorship of the Latter Day Saints Church (net pcrocees would go toward the building of a new LDS tabernacle), a similar circus type of enterainment would take place at Beretania and Makiki Streets.
The newspapers promoted the musical aspects that Fernandez's show was bringing to Honolulu. "For the first time hill billies with their homemade mountain music from the Ozark ranges will appear in the islands with their mirth provoking antics and catch tunes." The group also took part in a large parade through downtown Honolulu to promote the circus shows which were to run from October 17 through October 26. The full page ad highlighted the "Hill Billies" as one of the new and big acts for the 1940 event. "Fresh from the Ozark rangers with their 'rootin-tootin' home-made 'Mountain Music.' First Hill Billie band of entertainers ever brought to Hawaiian Islands." The picture above from the Wentzville Homecoming in August 1940 ran also in the Honolulu Advertiser on October 19, 1940. The caption included a comment, "They sing Hawaiian music Ozark style." It also stated that the eight-piece band has played on the radio eight years and that there was "one woman in the band." We mention the one woman as this tends to confirm the fact that Nadine Gardner did not make the trip.
The reader might wonder about the emphasis on the "hill billy" music for the circus. At the same time, Bob Burns had a movie showing in Honolulu, "Comin' Around The Mountain" and teasing readers with "hit the road with those hillbilly howlers." The local radio station, KGU, featured a program called "Home Folks Frolic" that was on each Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings that featured the music of the "Mountains and Rangelands" played and sung by "famous Hill-Billy entertainers" such as Carson Robison, The Ranch Boys, Beverly Hill-Billies. Thus, Mr. Fernandez perhaps tried to ride the wave of the popularity of the music.
Biographical Details of Bud Yoder's Hillbilly Jamboree:
On October 26, 1940, Curley filled out his draft card in Honolulu, HI. At the time he listed his employer as E. K. Fernandez's Circus. His wife, Jewel Pauline Roberts was living in St. Louis, Missouri.
January 1941 saw a new group on the radio over WEW in St. Louis. It was Frankie Townsend's Hillbillies. One might assume it was the same four that made up the "Four Sons of the Prairie."
Roy Rogers Appearance in St. Louis in 1943 with Ozark Ramblers
In November of 1943, Curley, Monty and the rest of the Ozark Ramblers were part of a big event. The King of the Cowboys, Roy Rogers, was going to make his first appearance in St. Louis. He was going to appear at the Fox Theater along with Ambrose Haley and his Ozark Ramblers group of KXOK. During his visit in St. Louis, he also appeared on the radio show Ambrose had on KXOK at the time. On the screen, Roy's movie, "Man From Music Mountain" was being shown during his appearances.
During his visit to St. Louis, Roy held a party at the Coronado Hotel just for kids. While the kids were disappointed that Trigger was not there (his trailer had a mishap in Ohio and was delayed), they did enjoy Roy's entertainment. Roy, accompanied by the Ozark Ramblers, sang, "Home On The Range" and "Rhythm On The Range." Ambrose Haley was the master of ceremonies for the party. The Miccolis Sisters (the article spells their name as "Nicholas Sisters") also sang a tune. Joe Ross serenaded the kids with a tune on his accordion. The kids who attended the party were selected by the Board of Education. The students had led their groups in sales of war bonds and stamps. Trigger did arrive that night and Roy began a week long engagement at the Fox Theater that was to run through November 10, 1943.
Ozark Ramblers Entertain 24,631 at StL Browns Baseball Game
In July of 1944, Ambrose Haley and his Ozark Ramblers, then with a radio show over KXOK, played before one of their largest crowds. The Ramblers were part of the pre-game entertainment between the St. Louis Browns and the Philadelphia Athletics at Sportsman's Park. The newspaper caption with the photo seen here reported that 24,631 folks saw the group's performance. It was part of an effort to raise funds for the National War Relief and Service Fund. Donald H. Drels wrote in his recap of the game that it was the largest crowd for the Browns since 1940. A similar game the year previous only drew 5,600 fans.
The game was unique in that everyone in attendance had to pay for their ticket. Not only did the spectators pay, but also players, officials, radio and news reporters also paid - no passes were given out. Service men who attended had their tickets paid for by others.
Mr. Drels summed up what he saw:
"The crowd assembled early and apparently enjoyed the most unusual and varied entertainment program ever presented on a baseball program here—but they went away talking mostly about the main event, another Browns victory, and how it was achieved."
The entertainment was scheduled to begin at 7:00pm on July 26, 1944 and was to run over 90 minutes. The game was scheduled to start at 8:45pm. Acts such as the Walter Seims' band (who were in the bleachers), the Coast Guard Band with Chief Ratchofd directing, Post Office Drum and Bugle corps parading around the field were on the lineup. The manager for the Athletics, Connie Mack, was also saluted before the game to honor his 50th year as a manager.
The "Hillbilly Festival" as it was termed was to be at 8:00pm and go until 8:10pm. Pappy Cheshire and his Gang, The Shady Valley Folks and the Ozark Ramblers of KXOK were on this portion of the program. A half-hour program called "Bandwagon Revue" was to conclude the entertainment for 30 minutes.
It included Sid Tomack as emcee, Police Quartet, Betty Nord, soloist accompanied by Eileen Brown; Johnny Kaahlue on the Hawaiian guitar; Peter Higgins, Irish tenor; and, Smoothies, a vocal trio.
The event was a friendly rivalry with the cross-town Cardinals who had drawn a crowd of 24,781 for a recent similar game for the fund.
In writing of the game's entertainment the day before, Ray A. Nelson wrote:
"The Citizen's Commitee for the game left no stone unturned in digging up all manner of musical organizations to make the evening interesting. ... But before the game gets underway, three 'hill-billy' bands will have uncorked their "corn," the police quartette will have chimed in with some old fashioned 'barger shop' ditties and the Coast Guard band will have cut loose with some of that 'I want to be a soldier' martial music."
The Missouri Rambler Moves To California
His songwriting with Monty Rhine had gotten the attention of a publisher and resulted in published folio of songs. Curley had received an invitation to go to Hollywood for a screen test or audition. By August 1944, he was not being mentioned with a show that Grandpappy Jones and the Carson Cowboys were doing in Washtington, MO. KXOK ran a promotional ad for Ambrose Haley and his Ozark Ramblers in August 17 that included Curley's picture. But that was the last mention seen of him in Missouri.
While growing up in St. Louis, his daughter would sometimes make appearances on stage with her father. She has mentioned singing at the age of three! When they moved to Fresno, she continued to sing occasionally with her dad and was even promoted in some of the ads for his appearances. One year, she was honored as Rodeo Queen.
She says her father always encouraged her to pursue her musical endeavors. But Shirley said she had other ideas and her educational efforts led to a non-musical path.
Further evidence that Curley was staying on the west coast was seen in a brief news tidbit announcing that the Ozark Ramblers were back on the Blue Network on KXOK. That article stated that the Ozark Ramblers at that time included Ambrose Haley, The Miccolis Sisters (Ruth and Mary), John E. Buffington, Steve Allen and Don (Monty) Rhine.
He must have liked what he saw, for he went to Fresno and found a disc jockey position with radio station KMJ. Radio logs in Fresno in late 1944 were calling him the "Missouri Rambler." This nickname would carry forward to 1946 when Leeds published a song folio.
One of the first shows he did in the area was with Rose Maddox. At the time, he was part of the "Texas Tornadoes." It was in October 1944 and they were appearing at the Tulare Fairgounds. Bill Edwards was also on the list of performers with his "trick fiddle."
In 1945, promotional ads were seen for Curley's sponsor - Dr. Tyner's Diagnostic Offices for his twice-a-day shows over KMJ.
Ads promoting his appearances in the Fresno and Bakersfield area give one an idea of where folks could find country music. In 1945, he was playing the Marigold Ballroom, then just off Hedges at Blackstone. His daugther was also billed as part of the entertainment. The ad also told readers his band was called "The Missouri Ramblers."
During the following years, a virtual who's who of country music would pass through Fresno and work with Curley.
Curley regularly did appearances at "The Barn" in Fresno. One of the first ads promoting Curley's appearance at The Barn (located four miles west of Hwy 99 on Shields Avenue) was in December of 1945. The guest artists were to be Cannon Ball Taylor and Wesley Tuttle. Three days after that December 22 date, Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys were appearing on Christmas night. This time, Curley was billed as working with the Texas Rangers. That same week, Floyd Hodges and his Texas Tornadoes (a group Curley had initially worked with) were at the Rose Room on 928 Broadway in Fresno. That New Year's Eve, Curley was again at The Barn with the Texas Rangers; the ad said he was directing the group. Curley's ten year old daughter was also performing that same night.
Early 1946 saw Curley working with Lucky Daniels, Morris Dykes and Harley Huggins, who was once with Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. Bob Wills was back at The Barn towards the end of January 1946. March 1946 saw another familiar name join with Curley - Les 'Carrot Top' Anderson. Curley's band the Texas Rangers was now being promoted as a ten piece band.
Not all of Curley's appearances were promoted via the ads one saw in the entertainment section of the local newspapers. One sponsor, Nikkel Motor Sales ("World's Highest Trader") in Tulare used a classified ad to draw prospective customers and audience to see a free show that featured Curley Roberts along with Little Shirley. Bill Mounce was to be there, the Saddle Pals, the Hungry Three and Nikkel's own announcer, Milt Cook. Mac, the Wild Irishman was to be on hand to greet folks.
February 1947 saw one of most famous cowboy singers come to town and work with Curley and appear on his KMJ radio show — Tex Ritter. Another night spot seen on Curley's appearances was the Pine Burr Dance Hall - the old Boxing arena off Hwy 99 in Goshen, CA.
One of the more interesting events seen in other research was the annual gatherings of former residents of another state that had migrated to California. In September 1947, a gathering of former Missouri residents was held at the Umbrella Grove of Roeding Park in Fresno. Coffee and tea were offered as free refreshments; Curley Roberts and his Texas Rangers were to provide the entertainment. One remote gig in 1947 took Curley and the Rangers to Taft, CA - a town due southwest of Bakersfield and beyond today's I-5 on Rte 33 at the Derby Acres Ballroom.
Curley and his band did a gig in Bakersfield at their "Barn" which was on Stein Road. At that time, Curley's Texas Rangers included some former Texas Playboy members — Alex Braschear (trumpet), Junior Barnard (guitar), Gene Barnard (guitar) and Harley Huggins on vocals.
The beginning of 1948 saw Curley doing a New Yaar's appearance at the Pine Burr Hall in Goshen. It also saw Luke Wills and his Rhythm Busters appearing at The Barn in Fresno; Luke had a show over KMJ at the time. But by February 27, ads where telling fans that Luke was leaving and was turning over his band to Harley T. Huggins. About a week later, Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys were at The Barn along with Harley T. Huggins and 'the Barn Dance Gang' that featured Curley Roberts and the Ranger Trio. In the spring of 1948, the performers with Curley and the Ranger Trio at The Barn in Bakersfield were including the Twin Fiddles of Bob Bruce and Bill Sobko. They were also featuring Alex Braschear on the trumpet, Les Anderson on the guitar and Slim Andrews, a famous Hollywood comedian. Not all guest performers were musicians. Saturday night, March 26, 1948 featured Edda Mussolini — The Trick Donkey.
A Christmas Day ad in 1948 touted the fact that over 100,000 patrons had paid to see Curley and his band play at The Barn on Shields Avenue, four miles west of Hwy 99.
His daughter Shirley told of her times on the radio over KMJ with her father. She was on the 4:00pm to 4:15pm show each Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Shirley always did a solo number, then she and her dad would do a duet. The rest of the show was Curley and his guitar. When she was in the fifth and sixth grade, she rode with her dad to the station. But when she later attended Roosevelt Junior and Senior High School, she took the bus to downtown Freseno where the station was located. That bus ride became a drag for her.
But when Shirley was about to turn 16 in 1951, her parents had divorced. She got on a Greyhound bus and traveled by herself from Fresno to Webb City, Missouri; she was going to live with her only living grandparent - Grandma Meyer (Curley's mom who had married J. B. Meyer).
The newspaper archives do not include any local Fresno newspapers for most of 1950 and 1951, thus, the trail runs a bit cold.
As 1952 comes into focus, it finds Curley is now running the Mecca Cafe on Tulare in Fresno. it is basically a billiards hall. The Fresno newspaper would report on results of the local "Fresno Billiards League" where mataches were held at the Mecca. In the fall of 1952, matches were held each Wednesday night.
Following the trail of promotional ads for personal appearances is akin to taking a historical tour of Fresno night spots and the country music performers who Curley worked with. In 1952, he appeared at the Frank Meadow's Tick Tock at 1218 Blackstone (Blackstone and Olive) with Gene Barnard and Richard Prine.
Artists / Performers who appeared with Curley Roberts as part of his band / trio or on the same billing during his time in Fresno:
Scattered throughout this biography are mentions of where Curley and his group would appear in the Fresno, Bakersfield and along the Highway 99 corridor in the Central Valley of California. This listing shows the many places fans were able to enjoy and dance to the music of Curley and other performers he shared the stage with. Unless otherwise listed, all venues were in Fresno, California.
On August 16, 1958, Curley married the former Marie Sewell in Carthage, Missouri.
On January 1, 1966, Curley married the former Dorothy Ruckman in Fresno, California.
In the 1970s, he was part of the opening act in Las Vegas for Frank Sinatra; a member of a three person combo.
Eventually, Curley retired from the scene. Sometime in the 1980s, a fire broke out at Curley's home. His daughter remembers the firemen had to carry him out of the house. But sadly, most of his possessions and memorabilia were lost in the tragedy.
Curley died in 1988. He was married to Dorothy at the time of his death. She died on May 4, 1991.
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