Transcript of KTRU interview with Houston musician Leon "Pappy" Selph.
Originally broadcast February 1997.
(Intro: Music) "Give Me My Money" (aka "Gimme My Dime Back") by The Blue Rigde Playboys
(On Air) You're listening to Leon "Pappy" Selph. This is KTRU Public Affairs. As part of a series on Houston's musical heritage, we spoke with the man "Pappy" Selph.
From an interview conducted in the Foley's Department Store in Sharpstown Mall where "Pappy" and his group were making a promotional appearence during the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, February 1997
(Pappy) (I was born) in Houston, in a place called First Ward, Texas. Houston used to be Wards -- First Ward, Second Ward, Third Ward, Fourth Ward, Fifth Ward, Sixth Ward and so on, you know. I was raised in First Ward. That's about Houston Avenue and Crocket Street, if you know about where that's at. I sold papers on the corner of Houston Avenue and Crocket every Saturday Night so I could make a dollar to take my music lesson next week.
(KTRU) Where did you get involved in the music? Was there a lot of that kind of music going on?
(Pappy) Well, My mother played accordian; My father played bass; My uncle played fiddle. And so, I said, "Well, I believe I'd like to play a fiddle like Uncle Willie."
They said, "Well, good." My mother and father said, "let's do it, but if you're going to play the fiddle, we're gonna send you to school. You're gonna learn how to play a fiddle right. You're not gonna be sittin' around here playin' the fiddle and don't know what you're doin'."
So, I went to conservatory. At that time, Columbia had a satellite here and I went to Columbia University here in Houston in the Esperson Building once a week. I had a music lesson once a week by a man named professor Pricerd. And, he taught me and he graduated me, and I went to work for the symphony, playing second chair with the symphony, which was a lot harder than first chair. They put me on second chair because I could read faster than Arnold Caplan who was playing first chair. Arnold Caplan finally became philharmonic master of the Philharmonic in Philidelphia. Anyway, I played the symphony about two years, maybe two and a half years.
I met a fellow named Shelly Lee Alley. They had a cowboy show on the radio and I went up there to see this cowboy show. I liked that music, you know. That was home music to me. My uncle and my mother.... That was home music to me and I went to see this cowboy show. I was standin' out in the thing with my violin. I was comin' back from taking my music lesson and I was standin' out there and Shelly Lee Alley come out to me. He said, "You play a fiddle?"
I said, "Yea, but I play different music."
He said, "What do you play?"
I said, "I play symphony."
"Oh." He said, "Come on in the studio with us."
I said, "Oh, sure enough?"
He said, "Oh yeah, you're a musician. Come on in the studio with us."
He come out and got me and took me in the studio. So when we got through there, why, me and Shelly become pretty close friends. I was going to teach him symphony; he was going to teach me country; and so, we got to be good friends, you know, and everything.
We was at some place. I don't know where it was at anymore, but W. Lee O'Daniel and Bob Wills was there. W. Lee O'Daniel says, "Why, you read music."
I said, "Oh yeah. I play with the symphony."
He said, "Well, you know, I could sure use you in my group."
I said, "I don't know anything about country music."
He said, "No. I wouldn't want you to know about country music. I want you to go on to the library, get a cowboy song, and learn my Light Crust Doughboys one cowboy song every day." He said, "Do you think you can do that?"
I said, "Oh yeah, I can do that. I can go in there and get a cowboy song and play it from the (sheet music)."
He said, "That's all you have to do is play it for 'em and they'll be able to play it."
I said, "Well, if that's so."
I was working for the symphony. It paid $12.50 a week, which at that time was like $300 a week now, you know.
I said, "How much do you pay?"
He said, "Twenty dollars a week."
I said, "When do you want me?"
And so, I went to work with him and I'd been working with him about, oh, I guess three or four months, I guess.
And, here come another guy who says, "Why, you read music."
I said "Yeah." I was in the studio teachin' 'em this cowboy song, you know, and he was in there. And, he saw me readin' the music off there and teachin' 'em their cowboy song.
"You read music."
I said "Yeah."
He said, "I could sure use you in my group."
I said, "Who are you?"
He said, "I'm the, some guy, with the Grand Ole Opry."
I said, "Sure enough?" I said, "I don't know anything about country music."
He said, "Well, no, I'd want you to do the same thing you're doing here."
He says, "The artists come in there, they throw their music down to my people, the names of their songs and the music for 'em and everything." He said, "Boy, you talk about phongraph record playin' and all of that goin' on."
"Boy," he said, "and they gotta try to learn it," you know. He said, "You could set up the music and just play it live for 'em, and they could learn it right off."
I said, "Yeah, I can do that."
He said, "Well, would you like to do that?"
I said, "Well, how much you payin'?"
He said, "Ten dollars a night."
I said, "What night do you want me?"
So, I would drive from Fort Worth to Nashville and drive back to Fort Worth and stay all night in a Y for a quarter. And, I found a place in Nashville (where) I could get breakfast; they had eggs, bacon, ham, or sausage, buttered toast, two slices, butter and jelly for the toast, coffee or water, or if you wanted milk it was five cents extra. And, all that for breakfast was fifteen cents. I bought gasoline for eight or nine cents a gallon. (For) ten cents, you could get ethel.... I could drive to Nashville, drive back to Fort Worth, have breakfast, stay all night and make eight dollars profit.
(KTRU) Where were you playing in Nashville? At the Grand Ole Opry?
(Pappy) No. Well yeah, but I wasn't on stage. I was with the orchestra, with the backup band. So, I'd play the songs for them and then they could play it, you know. Well, things rocked on and one night they said "Leon, could you play about three or four minutes on stage?"
I said, "Yeah, I could play three or four minutes on stage."
He said, "One of the entertainers has come up sick... won't show or ain't gonna show. If you could, play about three or four minutes just to even out the show."
I said, "Okay." I said, "My 'Orange Blossom Special'." And I played it. 1931.
And, Bill Monroe says, "Man, I gotta have that song."
When I got through playin' "The Orange Blossom Special" I had a standing ovation.
Bill Monroe says, "Man, I gotta have that song."
So, I learned it to him, and he made it for Columbia in 1934.
Then Curly.... It didn't maker no money, so Curly Fox says "Pappy," he said, "I'll tell you what, I'll make you some money; I'll show you how to make some money, boy."
He said, "Man, I'll put it on my phonograph record and you'll make some money." So, he made it for Decca.
Too bad, you hnow. It didn't make no money. It didn't hardly make no money at all, you know.
So, Chubby Wise in 19 and... 58 come to me, said, "Well, Pappy..." No, 1952. He said, "Well, Pappy, my phonograph records are selling like hotcakes." (He) says, "You're a good friend. I enjoy playing with you.... I'm gonna make your song." He said, "These other guys, they just butchered it up. I'm gonna make it." And, he said, "I'll make you some money. My records are sellin' like hotcakes. Boy, I just make it and they just sell like crazy."
Flopped again. It flopped again.
But then, Johnny Cash made it and it hit, and it's still hittin'.
(KTRU) When did you really strike out on your own? You talked about how....
Oh well, I rocked along with them. Bob Wills was with the Light Crust Doughboys when I went there. Me and Bob were playin'. Oh, in about 1933 Bob got crossways with W. Lee O'Daniel and he quit, and went down to Waco and started playin' at the VFW for the door. About two weeks (later) he was back up to Fort Worth. He says, "Come on Leon," he says, "I need you."
I said, "Well..." I said, "I hate it but," I said "man, I'm makin' twenty dollars a week here, you know, twenty dollars a week here."
He said. "Pappy," he said, "were makin' thirty and thirty-five."
I said, "Oh, sure Bob, I know you are."
He said, "Sure enough," he said, "and I need you bad."
He said, "You and Jesse Ashlock have played two parts together," he says, "and old Jesse (is a) good second part man."
He said, "Oh, you gotta do this. Come on down there and you and Jesse play and," he say, "give me all the room I want to walk and talk with the people, you know." And, he said, "It'll be just fine."
I said, "Well Bob, alright." I said, "I'll give him (my notice). You had to give a week's notice....
And so, I gave my week's notice and went on down. The first week I worked with Bob I made thirty-five bucks.
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