Catfish String Band heard on the radio for the first time

Rachel Whitney
Curator, Historical Museum of Sapulpa

This week in Sapulpa history Jimmie Wilson of Sapulpa and his band Catfish String Band proudly performed on KFRU radio station in Bristow.

The group began in the early 1920s when Jimmie Wilson and his fellow Rotarians from Sapulpan started playing a little tune. Jimmie formed the band, and they began playing with “wit and humor”, similar to Will Rogers’ style. The band, contrary to their name, didn’t actually play strings or catfish, but rather played homemade instruments and knockoffs from dime stores.

Sponsored by:

Jimmie Wilson Band Advertisement for KVOO, circa 1928.

On January 16, 1925, Bristow’s new radio station, KRFU, began broadcasting. The new $30,000 station had 500 watts of power* and dignitaries included Governor Ed Trapp. It was known as the “Voice of Oklahoma” and was sponsored by the Bristow Chamber of Commerce. It was one of the four largest stations in the Southwest, along with Dallas, Fort Worth, and Kansas City. Representatives from nearly every town in Oklahoma, including Jimmie Wilson and the band, were there on opening day.

*Note: $30,000 in 1925 is about $432,000 today; and modern Tulsa stations generate between 50,000 and 100,000 watts of power.

The band performed for the grand opening and had a great time. The reactions from the crowd and local listeners so approved of the band’s performance that the band was asked to do another show.

The first fully loaded broadcast for Jimmie Wilson and the Catfish String Band* aired on January 25, 1925 from 7:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.

*Note: Band members included Jimmie Wilson (performer and manager), Steve Neff (bass), KC Gantz (harp), Leo Cornwell (banjo), Dick Farehawell (mandolin), OT Potter (whistle), Bob Dennis (guitar ), Henry Minski (violin), Speedy Moulder (bass violin) and Charley Potter (bone).

Many Sapulpans, unfortunately, did not have a radio at home to listen to their local singers on the radio. Instead, Broome Electric at 205 E Dewey had a radio set up in front of their store for everyone to hear.

The show was a success. Telegrams were received from all over the country who had appreciated the group. Telegrams and letters were sent to HL “Jimmie” Wilson. All were highly complimentary and said they enjoyed the songs. Many of these letters were displayed in the window of the Wood-Owens Drug Store at 26 E Dewey. The most distant opinions came from New Jersey and Wisconsin.

From there, the group took off like a rocket that year. The Junior Chamber of Commerce of Sapulpa organized a reminder tour. Thirty-five automobiles with more than one hundred and twenty people took part in the tour. The tour left town around 9 a.m. on May 27, 1925, visiting the towns of Kellyville, Slick, and Bristow. The tour was led by Orren Potter’s calliope* with a large banner saying “Sapulpa – Home of the Catfish Band”.

A Calliope Circus, 1927, image found online

*Note: The calliope was an organ-type musical instrument powered by gas, usually steam; most were used by circuses and carnivals.

Additionally, Jimmie Wilson’s band was a big hit at the State Fair held in Oklahoma City. They performed in a studio built by Etherical Radio Company with a large crowd forming around the structure. The crowd was able to watch the band live through the building’s viewing window. Frank Lane, announcer for KFRU, made the announcement and had the crowd laughing with witty stories about the band. Jimmie Wilson was introduced to the crowd as they had never seen him in person. Leo Cornwell and Bob Dennis were also a big hit with their vocals and banjo performance. Steve Neff was asked to play his self-made sewer bass several times.

Within a year, the popular band began a seven to eight week tour of cities in Oklahoma and Texas. First, the band was to play two nights at the Empress Theater, located at 14-16 S Main.

The band were a regular show for KFRU in Bristow; when WG Skelly purchased the station in 1928, he moved it to Tulsa. Skelly renamed the station KVOO and billed herself as the “voice of Oklahoma”.

It has often been said that Jimmie Wilson’s Catfish String Band is credited as the first country music group to play on radio. The group was on the air 10 months before WSM in Nashville launched what became known as the Grand Ole Opry.

Jimmie Wilson’s Catfish String Band at KFRU, 1926

Another story about the band was that they helped another local singer get to Hollywood. A young telegrapher for Frisco Railroad, Gene Autry, sometimes joined the group and they taught him to play the guitar. He was featured as a singer and was billed as the “Yodeling Cowboy of Oklahoma”.

Gene Autry with Jimmie Wilson, circa 1930

Additionally, the group actually broadcast from the Wilsons’ home at 218 S. Poplar in Sapulpa; the house still exists today. Once a week for about twenty years, Wilson began his broadcasts with the famous line: “Here’s Jimmie Wilson broadcasting from the banks of old Polecat Creek.”

Jimmie Wilson’s house, circa 1920

The band would use a 1920 DeForest Oscillion transmitter to send their performances to KVOO in Tulsa for broadcast. The transmitter can be found on display at the Sapulpa Historical Museum in the “Jimmie Wilson and the Catfish String Band” exhibit.

Jimmie Wilson’s DeForest Oscillion Transmitter at the Sapulpa Historical Museum

Their fame spread even further when, in 1930, they toured the Southwest with Will Rogers. Pathe News made a soundtrack of their performances. Similar to Will Rogers, Wilson discovered politics. Jimmie’s popularity, wit and humor even got him elected to the Oklahoma House of Representatives in 1931-33.

Unfortunately, the band broke up in 1938; and Jimmie Wilson died in 1946.

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