07/24/1911 - 10/09/2001
|SMOKY DACUS was the "godfather" of western swing drummers.
Although his playing career was a short one - effectively just six
years from 1935 to 1941 - he defined his instrument's role not only
within the hillbilly jazz that is today recognised as western swing,
but also within country music in general.
During its formative years, drums had been all but absent from
country music. Rhythm in the early hillbilly string bands was
supplied by the tenor banjo and guitar - even a simple snare drum
was banned from the stage of the famed Grand Ole Opry. In the
mid-1930s, however, the Texan bandleader and fiddle player Bob
Wills was searching for the fresh uninhibited sound that would
eventually see him crowned "The King of Western Swing".
Having decided that the insistent dance beat he was after could best
be supplied via a Dixieland jazz band drummer, he sought out
Dacus, at that time playing behind an undistinguished hotel
orchestra in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Dacus recalled later:
It was unheard of - a fiddle band - that's country music. I said, "What
in the hell do you want with a drummer in a fiddle band?" And Bob
bit his cigar and poked me in the chest. He said, "I want to take your
kind of music, my kind of music, put them together, and make it
Dacus joined the Texas Playboys in January 1935 and became the
focus of a rhythm section that would introduce both the drums and
the Dixieland beat to hundreds of thousands of rural music fans.
William E. Dacus was born in Quinton, Oklahoma, in 1911 and had
been drawn to music as a youngster. Despite the disapproval of a
father who regarded music-making as sinful, he learnt to play first
the banjo, then the guitar and finally the drums. His musical abilities
led to an invitation to attend Tulsa University, where Dacus played
not only in the marching band and orchestra but also in a dance
outfit named the Eight Collegians. Whilst in Tulsa he witnessed a
pair of shows by the Duke Ellington Orchestra and met Ellington's
drummer, Sonny Greer, who became both an important influence
and a good friend.
As a member of the Texas Playboys, Dacus worked alongside some
of the genre's great innovators: the vocalist Tommy Duncan, the
steel guitarist Leon McAuliffe, the rhythm guitarist and arranger
Eldon Shamblin and the pianist Al Stricklin. These last two joined
him in forming what would become perhaps the most influential
rhythm section in country music history. With Wills at the helm, the
band enjoyed an extraordinary level of popularity in the south
western United States and had massive hits with numbers like "Steel
Guitar Rag" and "Right or Wrong" (both 1936) and "New San
Antonio Rose" (1940).
In 1941, however, Dacus abruptly quit the band. Mindful of America's
probable entry into the Second World War, he sold his drums and
worked in aircraft manufacture. His musical career was effectively
over. He worked very briefly with his old bandmate Leon McAuliffe at
the war's end but then spent the years until his retirement working
as a mechanic and pilot in the oil industry.
He returned to the spotlight only once more when, in 1973, Wills
gathered together some of his old sidemen, including Dacus,
McAuliffe, Shamblin and Stricklin, and their longtime fan Merle
Haggard, and cut the seminal album For the Last Time. Although a
stroke curtailed Wills's own contribution to the project, it remains a
fine testament to the ability of a group of virtuoso musicians to pick
up where they had left off so many years before.
W.E. "Smoky" Dacus, 90, of Rogers died Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2001, in
Kellmark Nursing Center in Rogers, Arkansas. Born July 24, 1911, in
Quinton, Okla., he was the son of William Elmer and Hattie Pearl
Hames Dacus. He was a retired musician who had played drums for
Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. He was a member of Immanuel
Baptist Church in Rogers. Survivors include two brothers, Jim
Dacus of Siloam Springs and Tom Dacus of Emporia, Kan. Services
will be at 2 p.m. Thursday at Immanuel Baptist Church in Rogers,
with the Rev. Tom Johnson officiating. Burial will be at Benton
County Memorial Park in Rogers.