It may be that distinctive quick-step of 200 beats-per-minute that earned it fame. Or maybe it’s the unique mix of traditional cowboy, western, Texas, and contemporary popular music that make the Cowboy Band so endearing. Or maybe it’s that crazy Cow Step, as though its members are navigating a minefield of cow patties, which makes it one of the most unforgettable bands in the world.
Whatever the reason, the Hardin-Simmons University “World Famous” Cowboy Band is without a doubt one of the most unique and longest-running bands still putting on shows, marching in parades, and bringing the West alive to many people around the country and the world.
A series of events this weekend will mark this substantial anniversary, most notably a concert Saturday, April 6, 2013, in HSU’s Behrens Auditorium. The 2:30 concert is free and open to everyone.
The band earned the title “World Famous” during a European trip, according to the book The World Famous Cowboy Band 1923-1973. The book, published in 1983 by Dorothy May McClure, wife of the band’s longest-running director, Marion B. McClure, details the history and the travels of the band.
Dorothy adhered to the outline and the style in which her husband had planned to write before his death in 1973. The book contains chapters Marion named such as, “International Recognition, 1929-1934,” “The War Years, 1949-1946,” “The Prosperous Years, 1951-1956,” “The Hard Years, 1956-1961,” and “The Reformative Years, 1961-1966.” McClure, who was an original member of the band when he was an HSU student, directed the band from 1934 to 1973, one year after the realization of his dream of a new band hall.
Simmons College (now HSU) had a concert band as early as 1903, but the Cowboy Band as we know it today began in the spring of 1923. The band, which had been formed a semester earlier, was chosen by the Abilene Chamber of Commerce to travel by train to San Angelo as ambassadors to promote Abilene at the West Texas Chamber of Commerce Convention. Abilene’s municipal band had fallen on hard times financially and disbanded. It was felt that Abilene would be disgraced if it did not show up with a band. Thus, the modern-day version of the Cowboy Band was born.
Prior to the San Angelo performance, the band’s closest thing to a uniform had been a gold sweater, given to each band member by the Abilene Chamber of Commerce a year earlier in appreciation for the band’s performance at the Abilene Chamber banquet.
In preparation for their appearance at the convention, band director D.O. Wiley found a pair of chaps displayed in the window of Over Hardware Store on Pine Street in downtown Abilene. Next door, at Ward’s Men’s Store, some white ten-gallon Stetson hats were on display. Band member Gib Sandefer, the son of Simmons’ president, J.D. Sandefer, modeled the borrowed hat and chaps for Grady Kinsolving of the Abilene Chamber. Kinsolving liked the find so much that he immediately ordered 36 pairs of chaps and hats for the band members to wear at the convention.
Will Rogers, America’s beloved humorist, heard the band and became its friend and biggest promoter and was made an honorary member. He was the first genuine celebrity to perform with the band, followed by Bob Hope, Gene Autry, Bing Crosby, Gary Cooper, Dale Robertson, Maynard Ferguson, and the popular 21st century cowboy singing group, Riders in the Sky.
Over the years, the band has served as both icon and ambassador, marching in parades celebrating gubernatorial inaugurations, and performing for the presidential inaugurations of Herbert Hoover (1929), Franklin D. Roosevelt (1941), Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953), Richard M. Nixon (1969), Jimmy Carter (1977), and most recently in 2001, for the inauguration of George W. Bush.
The band’s popularity even influenced the creation of two other iconic organizations, the HSU Six White Horses and the HSU Cowgirls.
It seems, “Sheriff” Will Watson, a loyal supporter of the university who carried the United States flag during parades, decided to ride his white horse Silver at the head of the “World Famous” Cowboy Band. Attired in full western dress to mirror the image of the western-clad band members, Watson’s ride put into motion another precedent that has survived for almost 80 years.
Watson’s ride proved to be so popular that a decision was made to include all of the other historical flags of Texas to be carried by six students on horseback. The famous Six White Horses parade unit was born.
Another organization, the Cowgirls, came into existence just two years after the creation of the Cowboy Band. Through the years, there was always a friendly rivalry between the Cowgirls, a rope-slinging drill team, and the band. In the fall of 1942 an incident happened that must have strained the relationship a bit.
Both groups had made a trip to the HSU vs. SMU football game in San Antonio, Texas. The next morning after the 7-6 victory, the Cowgirls and the band headed back to Abilene in the cattle trucks both groups used for transportation during the very lean war years. The band stopped in Mason for lunch at a hotel. To their delight, they found a delectable meal already prepared for them. Without bothering to ask questions, band members dived in with gusto. Having finished the meal, they climbed back aboard their truck just as the Cowgirls pulled in looking forward to the luncheon they had had the foresight to order in advance.
The Cowboy Band is one of the most widely traveled bands in the United States, performing in more than 40 states, visiting more than a dozen capital cities of the world, and traveling to a dozen countries, once performing as far north as just 10 miles from the Arctic Circle.
The band repeated a European tour in 1952-53 as members paraded through the continent with a USO tour group. In 1963 the band traveled to Japan with the International Baptist Convention, and in 1979, toured in Montreal, Canada. In 1984 members traveled to England, France, Switzerland, and West Germany under the sponsorship of the Baptist World Alliance. In 1989, the band performed at the Winter Carnival in Nice, then again in Europe during the 1998 New Year’s parade in London, and did a tour of Spain in 2001.
The band has represented the Texas Chapter of Lions International at several conventions, most recently in Boston in 2006.
In May 2011, at the request of Governor Rick Perry, the band represented Texas at the U.S. Travel Association’s “International Pow Wow” in San Francisco, the travel industry’s premier event for tourism marketing.
One of the band’s biggest annual performances is in the Children’s Medical Center Holiday Parade. The band has been the showpiece in this nationally televised Dallas parade since its inception 27 years ago. The band performs live for a third-of-a-million people in downtown Dallas, with the performance broadcast from 350 affiliate television stations across the country.
Early on, the band earned a reputation as one of the top rodeo bands in the country. The Cowboy Band has played for world championship shows in Madison Square Garden and Boston Gardens, and at rodeos in Cheyenne, Colorado Springs, and Phoenix.
Each summer, the band continues to perform in Stamford, Texas, at the Texas Cowboy Reunion Rodeo, the largest amateur rodeo event in North America.
Cowboy Band members also regularly perform in the HSU Concert Band, Orchestra, Jazz Ensemble, and other university ensembles.
For the past 11 years, the band has been led by Dr. Wayne Dorothy, director of bands and professor of music, making him the third longest serving Cowboy Band director behind McClure and Wiley. He is only the eighth person to serve as director of the Cowboy Band and the first to hold an earned doctorate in music. Previous directors, in addition to D.O. Wiley ’27 and Marion McClure ’33, were Lawson Hager ’67, Bill Woods ’54, Merle Evans, Scott Mather, and Don Hanna ’64.
Dorothy takes a great deal of pride in being one of HSU’s most visible musical ambassadors, as do its members and former members. “It even goes way beyond HSU and Abilene. We are the most widely seen and heard musical organization in all of west-central Texas,” he says. “And have been for the past 80 years.”
Some of the band’s performance routines have morphed over the years. The Cow Step is now more of a high cross-kick, and its members get to add a little personal touch to their uniforms by picking their own boots and belts.
The Cowboy Band remains the perennial parade-production-show band of West Texas. So what is it about this band that makes it both enduring and endearing?
Dorothy says it is because, “It is singularly unique in the entire band world. There is just nothing else like it. We are energetic and play music at a high level.”
And, Dorothy believes the key that makes it one-of-a-kind is, “We always try to engage our audience. We play on a very personal level. Band members don’t just walk by in a parade playing their instruments. Members think of it as performing for individuals. What makes it so special is that personal interaction between the members and the people who have come to watch.”
Some up-to-date facts:
Membership ranges from 35-55 members, 40% women
In the fall of 2010 Cowboy Band enrollment reached 55, the largest since before World War II.
In a typical year the band will present between 30 and 40 performances, including:
- 4 rodeos
- 4-6 parades
- 6-8 basketball games
- All home football games
- 6-8 additional HSU campus events
- 6-10 local and regional events
The Cowgirl Band existed from 1938 until the mid-1950s. In addition to being a successful performance organization, they helped to fill the gap during World War II when the Cowboy Band discontinued operations for the duration of the war.
Weekend Highlights Schedule:
Friday, April 5
Golf Scramble, check-in 9 a.m., Diamond Back Golf Course
Cowboy Band Exes Reception, 7:30 – 9:30 p.m., Courtyard by Marriott
Saturday, April 6
Concert, 2:30 p.m., Behrens Auditorium
90th Anniversary Banquet, 6:30 p.m., Johnson Building, HSU campus
For full schedule: