The sprawling metropolis of 1990s Los Angeles may not be the most obvious candidate for "country music capital of America", but from the late 1930s to the early 1950s it was close to being just that. The Great Depression had seen a huge influx of dispossessed Southerners into California and many brought with them a taste for "hillbilly" music with the inevitable result that dedicated shows dominated local radio programming.
The radio station KFVD's Covered Wagon Jubilee, hosted by Stuart Hamblen, was among the most popular of these and featured a large, bearded banjoist named Herman "The Hermit" Snyder. Snyder had been a musical fixture in the area for nearly two decades and had taught his son Cliffie to play bass guitar. The young Snyder seemed intent on a musical career and while still in his teens joined the cast of the show. Working under the name Cliffie Stonehead - later shortened to Stone - he augmented his bass-playing by serving as announcer, disc jockey and comic and was soon fronting shows of his own.
He also performed in the house band at the Pasadena Community Playhouse and in the hotel dance bands of both Anson Weeks and Freddie Slack. It was whilst with the latter that he made his recording debut in 1942 for the fledgling Capitol Records, a label with whom he would enjoy a fruitful association. He became assistant to Capitol's head producer Lee Gillette and, as the label's "expert" on hillbilly talent, brought a number of important acts onto its roster, including Merle Travis, Tex Williams, Jimmy Wakely and Hank Thompson.
The hits turned out by Stone's stable - including Williams's "Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)" (1947) and Wakely's "One Has My Name (The Other Has My Heart)" (1948) - are credited with keeping Capitol buoyant at a time when it was still struggling to establish itself. As he later recalled: "We kept [Capitol] alive. Nat Cole used to hang around our sessions. He'd show up just amazed. He couldn't believe these guys could just play without any music or anything."
Stone himself recorded several sides, enjoying hits with "Silver Stars, Purple Sage, Eyes of Blue" (1947) and a version of the Wiley Walker/Gene Sullivan standard "When My Blue Moon Turns To Gold Again" (1948). He and Merle Travis also penned three outright classics: "No Vacancy", "Divorce Me C.O.D." and "So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed".
In the meantime, Stone continued to work on radio. During the Second World War, he fronted more than 20 weekly shows and by 1946 was hosting KXLA Pasadena's Dinner Bell Round-Up, which later metamorphoses into the famous Hometown Jamboree. There he met the announcer and sometime singer, Tennessee Ernie Ford. Recognising Ford's talent, Stone became his manager, signed him to Capitol, where he proved hugely successful, and eventually produced the television shows which brought Ford and country music into the living rooms of suburban America.
Hometown Jamboree boasted a formidable cast over the years - Wesley Tuttle, Merle Travis, Joe and Rose Lee Maphis, the child star Dallas Frazier and the instrumental wizards Jimmy Bryant and Speedy West - and all of them naturally gravitated to Capitol. From 1948 the show was broadcast live on television.
By the 1960s, however, changing tastes saw it wind down, leaving Stone to concentrate on his publishing (Central Songs and American Music) and recording (Granite Records) interests. In 1989 he was elected to Nashville's Country Music Hall of Fame. His sons have followed him into the music business: Steve and Jonathan Stone are both involved in music publishing while Curtis plays bass in the band Highway 101.
- Paul Wadey