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O'Daniel Where Art Thou? The Radio Flour Salesman


This is part one of a five-part series broadcasting on Texas Standard. The series tells the strange story of W. Lee O'Daniel who in 1938 went from being a flour salesman on the radio to Governor of Texas and then U.S. Senator.  O'Daniel is considered one of the most amazing politicians in Texas history who accomplished virtually nothing.

In the 1930s every weekday at 12:30 in the afternoon there was one radio program that dominated the airwaves across Texas. W. Lee “Pass The Biscuits Pappy” O'Daniel and his Hillbilly Boys were on the air and selling flour. O'Daniel didn’t sing or play an instrument but he talked to his listeners like they were beloved members of his own family. He read poems that he wrote about God and country. And he told everyone to be good to their mother.

This sold a lot of flour and it made O'Daniel the most popular radio personality in Texas. He rode that popularity to become one of the most astonishing and powerful politicians in Texas.

It was said that O'Daniel’s radio show was so popular that one could walk down the street of most any Texas town around lunchtime and hear Pappy mass communicating from every house.

Many people are familiar with a portrayal of Pappy O'Daniel played by actor Charles Durning in the blockbuster Coen Brothers film, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

Durning played a bumbling, corrupt Mississippi governor running for reelection who uses radio and popular singing to win the votes of an easily deceivable public.     

“Ladies and Gentlemen, here and listening at home - the great state of Mississippi – Pappy O'Daniel Governor - wants to thank the Soggy Bottom Boys for that wonderful performance!” he said during a climactic scene.

The Hollywood treatment of O'Daniel is entertaining and there are similarities to the Texas Governor O'Daniel. It pales in comparison to the actual historic figure.

The real McCoy O'Daniel won the Texas Governor’s mansion twice and a seat in the United States Senate with the help of hillbilly music and the power of the radio, said Bill Crawford, 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 so flour was a 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.

Born March 11, 1890, in Malta Ohio, O’Daniel’s was a toddler when his father was killed in a workman’s accident. After his mother remarried, the blended family moved to work a tenement farm near Arlington, Kansas. These early years were ones of hard work and uncertainty.

Eventually 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. He was pitched a sponsorship for a new and unproven gizmo – radio.

If O'Daniel had done nothing else with his life this event would have at least given him a footnote in history; Texas music history.

Because members of this band included a fiddle-playing part-time barber named Bob Wills and singer Milton Brown – with Pappy they became the Light Crust Doughboys. But in later years would become stars and the creators of the genre of music known as Western Swing.

Ray Benson, the band leader for Asleep At the Wheel, said O’Daniel may have helped create Western Swing but he hated the music himself.

“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 Burrus Mill. He also had them loading flour trucks during the day,” said Benson

“This guy figured out if I play this hokey music that I really don’t like. but they’ll come and buy my flour,” he said.

“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 Burrus Mill,' and it was just the highlight of their day.”

O'Daniel did not like Wills and Brown and the feeling was mutual. They eventually went their separate ways. Brown formed his own band and then later Wills formed the Texas Playboys but was forced to flee to Oklahoma because O'Daniel sued him.

But, O'Daniel was bitten by the radio bug and he soon formed a new band of his own. And again he ran crosswise with the owner of Burrus Mills and was fired. Unbowed O'Daniel established his own brand – Hillbilly Flour and kept broadcasting.

That would have been the end of the story, except that O'Daniel cooked up a stunt to boost his flour sales – he would run for Texas governor.

The problem is – he won.

David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi