A fact that’s been nearly lost to music history in general, and to Southern Californians in particular, is that from the 1940s right through 1960, our part of the state was well known for country music. We had our own unvarnished sound before Buck Owens and Bakersfield rose to prominence in the early 1960s. Merle Travis and Wynn Stewart may be our most famous exports, but be sure to check out Skeets McDonald, Molly Bee, Cliff Crofford and Billy Mize—and they’re just the tip of the iceberg.
The performances of that time have a vitality and authenticity that’s lacking in today’s Nashville product. Once you’ve been introduced to the canon of SoCal country, you’ll be hooked. For this, we can thank the scores of Dust Bowl and southern migrants, who in the 1930s brought their fulsome musical traditions to the Golden State. To accommodate these newcomers and the impulses of those who already lived here, dance halls and honky-tonks blossomed like California poppies.
As we were discussing the genre’s recent past, Americana musician James Intveld, an avid student of the California-roots sound, asked me, “Have you ever written anything about the Riverside Rancho?” It was a simple question that led to the discovery of a wealth of glittering dance palaces and musky clubs that exist now only in memories.
On the Glendale/Los Feliz border, the Riverside Rancho was once the West’s premier dance hall. Other legendary local venues included the 97th Street Corral in L.A., the Jubilee Ballroom in Baldwin Park, the Venice Pier Ballroom, McDonald’s Ballroom in Compton, Pop’s Willow Lake in Sunland, Tex Williams Village in Newhall, the Lighthouse Dancehall in Compton—which became Town Hall Ballroom—and more. During WWII, a few of these palaces stayed open round the clock to meet the demand of swing-shift workers who wanted to cut loose after punching out.
Honky-tonks were everywhere. Along one stretch of the southernmost end of Vermont Avenue, the Band Box, Cowtown and the Saddle Club held sway. There was Hoot Gibson’s Painted Post on Ventura Boulevard, the Hitching Post in Gardena, Henri’s Lariat in Torrance, Maybo’s in Culver City and the B&R Club in East L.A. In North Hollywood, the acclaimed Palomino, once the most famous honky-tonk in the country, stood for decades on a grimy block of Lankershim Boulevard.
Spade Cooley, who during the ’40s and ’50s reigned as bandleader at the Venice Pier Ballroom and then at the Riverside Rancho, is widely credited with inspiring the kind of country music for which Southern California would be known. He worked with talent who came from jazz, country and classical backgrounds. One major coup was his hiring of steel-guitarist Joaquin Murphey, an awe-inspiring innovator of western swing whose signature technique is often imitated.
Other influences could be heard as well. The gaps and hollers of the South brought hillbilly twang, and the West provided lonesome cowboys. Combined with the broad reach of trained studio musicians, the mix created something completely new.
To find musicians from the era, I posted a note on the Steel Guitar Forum, and veteran sideman Billy Tonnesen reached out.
Tonnesen grew up in Huntington Park and Bell. A youthful 82, tall, with a wicked grin and deep, infectious laugh, he has been a professional musician since he was 14. “I was taking Hawaiian guitar lessons,” he says, “and my teacher got a call from a guy looking for a steel player. I talked my folks into taking me down to the Lighthouse. It was mostly sailors and, well, women who liked sailors. I survived the first night. I didn’t know what I was doing, but they asked me back!” Tonnesen would build a career that at its apex included a solo on Frank Sinatra’s country-swing tune “Sunflower.”
His primary gig however, was playing with the Ole Rasmussen Band. While not as well known as Spade Cooley, Rasmussen played constantly. They were the 97th Street Corral house band and also worked out at Harmony Park in Anaheim. When a church ran the band out of 97th Street because of the audience’s unruly postshow behavior, they went to McDonald’s at the corner of Atlantic and Compton boulevards. Tonnesen himself also backed up many touring musicians.
He recalled Wynn Stewart before he made the big time. “I knew him when he was 14 years old,” Tonnesen said with a chuckle. “His mom used to bring him down to squeakin’ Deacon’s Sunday-morning talent show.” Deacon was the West’s most famous country DJ, and the talent show happened to be held at the Riverside Rancho.