Wilbert Lee O‘Daniel was a two term Governor of Texas and a U.S. Senator. But before, during and after that, he was a flour salesman on the radio with a hillbilly band.
O‘Daniel ran for Governor as a successful businessman who was sick and tired of professional politicians and fed up with corporate media. The political establishment thought O ‘Daniel was a joke until he beat them – and changed politics in Texas.
Many people are familiar with a portrayal of Pappy O'Daniel played by actor Charles Durning in the 2000 Coen Brothers film, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
While the Hollywood treatment of O‘Daniel is entertaining, it pales in comparison to the historic figure. The real O‘Daniel won the Texas governor’s mansion twice and a seat in the United States senate due to hillbilly music and the power of the radio.
In Depression-era Texas, the only entertainment that many people could enjoy was the radio. Many lived in rural areas; too far from a movie house and even that required money to buy a ticket. During the dust bowl days of the absolute grinding poverty of the 1930s, it was the radio that ruled.
The most popular radio program in Texas aired weekdays at 12:30. It was Pappy O‘Daniel and his Hillbilly Boys. It was said one could walk down the street of almost any town in Texas during lunchtime and hear O‘Daniel mass communicating from every window.
“Pappy O‘Daniel got on the radio in the early 1930s. He was selling flour,” said Bill Crawford. He's the author of the book "Please Pass the Biscuits Pappy" and the co-author of "Border Radio, Quacks, Yodelers, Pitchmen, Psychics and other Amazing Broadcasters of the American Airwaves."
“Nowadays you don’t think much about selling flour, but back then, most women made their own bread. Flour was a huge huge staple commodity and back then Texas was a rural state – a poor state – many people didn’t have electricity until the middle of the 1930s. There wasn’t a lot of industry down there and Pappy emerged as one of the great radio personalities of that era,” said Crawford.
Before he was Pappy O’Daniel he was Wilbert Lee O’Daniel, born March 11, 1890 in Malta, Ohio. His father, who fought for the Union in the Civil War, was killed in a workman’s accident when O’Daniel was a toddler. After the mother remarried the blended family moved to tenement farm near Arlington, Kansas. These early years were ones of hard work and uncertainty.
In 1925 O’Daniel made his way to Texas and went to work for the Burris Mill in Fort Worth. One of his jobs was to be in charge of advertising for the flour manufacture. Radio advertising was still new and unproven but he was pitched a radio show with hillbilly music to help sell flour. If O’Daniel had done nothing else with his life this event would have at least given O’Daniel a footnote in history – Texas music history. Because members of this band included fiddle playing a part-time barber named Bob Wills and singer Milton Brown – with Pappy they became the Light Crust Doughboys. In later years, the group would become stars and the creators of the genre of music known as Western Swing.
“He formed the band with Bob Wills, Milton Brown and Herman Armsbeiger – all the seminal people of Western Swing, the people who invented it. And had them in the band selling flour from the Burris Mill – he also had them loading flour trucks during the day,” said Ray Benson, band leader for Asleep at the Wheel.
“This guy figured out, if I play this hokey music that I really don’t like, they’ll come and buy my flour.”
“Ann Richards told me a great story about listening to the noon broadcasts and they would huddle by the radio and wait for Pappy O’Daniel to come up and she told me 'God I remember sitting around the radio' and she sang the theme song – 'we’re the Light Crust doughboys from the Burris Mill...' and it was just the highlight of their day,” said Benson.
O'Daniel eventually figured out that popular entertainment was a good way to get elected.
In 1938 James Allred was wrapping up his second and final term as Texas governor. Allred was a solid supporter of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal anti-poverty programs and was an opponent of the Ku Klux Klan. Allred, the 33rd governor on Texas had a reputation as a stable serious politician who had worked his way up the Texas ranks – and there were few reasons to suspect that the 34th governor would be any different. That was until O’Daniel’s radio show in late April. O’Daniel told his listeners he had receive a letter from a blind man asking him to run for governor.