This Week in Sapulpa History: Catfish String Band Heard on the Radio For the First Time

Rachel Whitney
Curator, Sapulpa Historical Museum

This week in Sapulpa history, Sapulpa’s very own Jimmie Wilson and his band Catfish String Band played proudly on the radio station KFRU in Bristow.

The band began in the early 1920s when Jimmie Wilson and his fellow Sapulpan Rotarians began playing a little tune. Jimmie formed the band, and they began to play with “wit and humor,” similar to the style of Will Rogers. The band, unlike its name, did not truly play with strings or catfish, instead played on homemade instruments, and knock-offs at dime stores.

Sponsored by:
Jimmie Wilson Band Advertisment 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 “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 almost every city in Oklahoma, including Jimmie Wilson and the band, were there on opening day.

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

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

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

*Note: Members of the band included Jimmie Wilson (performer and manager), Steve Neff (pipe bass), K.C. Gantz (harp), Leo Cornwell (banjo), Dick Farehawell (mandolin), O.T. Potter (whistle), Bob Dennis (guitar), Henry Minski (violin), Speedy Moulder (bass violin), and Charley Potter (bones).

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

The show was a hit. Telegrams were received from all over the country that had enjoyed the band. Telegrams and letters were sent to H.L. “Jimmie” Wilson. All were very complimentary and stated they enjoyed the songs. Many of these letters were displayed in the window of Wood-Owens Drug Store at 26 E Dewey. The furthest notices came from New Jersey and Wisconsin.

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

A Circus Calliope, 1927, Image found online

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

Also, Jimmie Wilson’s band was a big success at the State Fair held in Oklahoma City. They played 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 viewing window of the building. Frank Lane, announcer for KFRU, did the announcing and kept 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 singing and banjo performance. Steve Neff was asked to play several times on his sewer pipe bass that he had made himself.

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 Theatre, located at 14-16 S Main.

The band was a regular show for KFRU in Bristow; when W.G. Skelly bought the station in 1928, he moved it to Tulsa. Skelly renamed the Station KVOO and advertised itself as the “Voice of Oklahoma.”

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

Jimmie Wilson’s Catfish String Band at KFRU, 1926

Another tale about the band was that it helped another local singer on his way to Hollywood. A young telegrapher for Frisco Railroad, Gene Autry, would join the band at times and they taught him how to play the guitar. He was featured as a singer and was billed as the “Oklahoma’s Yodeling Cowboy”.

Gene Autry with Jimmie Wilson, circa 1930

Additionally, the band actually broadcasted from the Wilson’s home at 218 S. Poplar in Sapulpa; the home still stands today. Once a week for about twenty years, Wilson would begin his broadcasts with the famous line: “This is Jimmie Wilson broadcasting from down on the banks of old Polecat Creek.” 

Home of Jimmie Wilson, circa 1920

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

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

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

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

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