Obituary: Pappy Selph

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The Independent Culture
ROGER MILLER once wrote and recorded a song called "Kansas City Star", about a talented individual who never wanted to leave his home town. So it was with Leon "Pappy" Selph - he could have become an important country musician, but he preferred to stay in Houston, maintaining a day job as a fireman. He lived, worked and died in Houston and he would look lovingly at the Houston skyline and proclaim, "That's my town."

Leon Selph was born in 1914, in Houston. As a child, he learnt classical pieces on the violin and after graduation, he played with the Houston Youth Symphony Orchestra. In 1931, when he was 17, he joined Bob Wills and the Light Crust Doughboys, who were sponsored by a flour mill. As with most country bands of the day, the fiddle was a dominant instrument. The other musicians were impressed with Selph's musical knowledge, which he imparted to them.

When Bob Wills moved to Tulsa in 1934 and found national fame, Selph stayed behind and formed the Blue Ridge Playboys. Like Wills's band, they featured western swing, which was country music with jazz overtones.

The Blue Ridge Playboys was Selph's band but it included the steel guitarist Ted Daffan and the singer and pianist Moon Mullican, both of whom went on to carve out substantial careers in country music. Even more significantly, Selph recruited the singer and electric guitarist Floyd Tillman from Mack Clark's dance band. Clark had refused to play Tillman's new composition, "It Makes No Difference Now", and so Selph, who liked the song, invited him to join the Blue Ridge Playboys. Unfortunately, the Playboys' record label, Vocalion, thought the song too slow and would not allow them to record it. "It Makes No Difference Now" became an international success for Bing Crosby in 1941.

The Blue Ridge Playboys' radio programmes were syndicated to many Texas stations. Selph's best-known song, "Give Me My Dime Back", was a regional hit and he also featured the new fiddling classic, "Orange Blossom Special", which remained in his repertoire.

Selph married in 1937 and became a father in 1939, which led to his nickname, "Pappy". He joined the fire service during the Second World War, although he still played music whenever possible. After the war, he stayed a fireman, becoming a captain in 1955 and the vice- president of his local union. He retired from firefighting in 1972 and concentrated on music.

In his sixties, Selph decided to travel. He was invited by the US State Department to perform as a cultural ambassador in the Soviet Union and played before European heads of state.

Back in Houston, he was the leader of the rodeo parade for over 30 years. From the mid-1980s onwards, Selph battled with cancer and heart disease. In 1991, the city of Houston declared a Pappy Selph Appreciation Day and, four years later, he was inducted into the Western Swing Hall of Fame.

Spencer Leigh

Leon "Pappy" Selph, musician: born Houston, Texas 7 April 1914; married (two daughters, one son, and one son deceased); died Houston 8 January 1999.

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