Clarence Cagle

Influential western swing pianist
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Clarence Buell Cagle, pianist: born Oklahoma City 19 April 1920; married (one son, one daughter); died Tulsa, Oklahoma 5 October 2003.

Clarence Cagle was among the most influential pianists to play the hillbilly jazz known as western swing. Whilst many of his contemporaries seasoned their playing with heavy doses of the blues or ragtime, his work was noted for its subtle swing and elegance, a sound he later attributed to the lasting influence of a friend from his teenage years, the pioneering jazz guitarist Charlie Christian.

Cagle was briefly a member of Bob Wills's legendary Texas Playboys, but his most important musical association was with Wills's brother, Johnnie Lee, for whom he served as both the anchor of an impressive rhythm section and the creator of characteristic numbers such as the classic "Boogie Woogie Highball".

A native of Oklahoma City, as a child Clarence Cagle played the banjo, alongside his fiddle-playing father and a guitarist brother, in a family band named Uncle Charly and His Boys. This outfit performed on the city's KFXR radio station every day at noon until his father suffered an injury that forced him to withdraw from the music scene. As a result, at the age of 14, Clarence left school and began to work in local night-clubs, eventually adopting the piano as his primary instrument.

It was at this point that he first met Charlie Christian and his pianist brother Eddie. Clarence Cagle later remembered:

For several months Charlie Christian and I played next door to each other. Every time I'd get a break I'd slip over next door and stand at the back of the door and Charlie would pull the microphone down between his knees and play his guitar. He didn't have an electric guitar. He played just through the PA system of the microphone. We really tried to learn from each other.

Segregation limited their association to a series of impromptu jam sessions in the early hours when both had finished their nightly gigs, but Christian's innovations were to remain a defining influence upon his own style.

In 1938 he gained greater exposure when he joined the Swing Billies, house band of the Swing Time Night Club and stars of their own daily radio show, and by 1940 he was playing with Herb Goddard and the Oklahoma Wanderers, a popular band based in Coffeyville, Kansas.

A brief stint with Wills's Texas Playboys was then followed by an enduring partnership with Johnnie Lee Wills. Based in Tulsa, the younger Wills and his band went on to become something of a musical institution across the American South-west, headlining at the legendary Cain's Ballroom, touring incessantly, and cutting over 200 15-minute transcriptions that were broadcast daily on over 175 radio stations.

Bob Wills's return to Tulsa, from California, in 1955 led to a merger of the brothers' bands and saw a superfluous Cagle leave the music industry for four years to run a gravel company. In 1961, however, Johnnie Lee left the Playboys and again recruited his old pianist. Cagle stayed until 1961 when the steel guitarist Leon McAuliffe asked him to join his Cimarron Boys, an accomplished band that met the onslaught of rock'n'roll by offering rural audiences a polished playlist of western swing standards like "Faded Love", "San Antonio Rose" and their leader's famed "Steel Guitar Rag".

By 1963 the demands of a life on the road were taking their toll on Cagle and, at McAuliffe's suggestion, he again left full-time music and, until his retirement, ran a music store in Rogers, Arkansas.

Paul Wadey