Nowadays, Bob Skyles and His Skyrockets are about as obscure as any Western Swing performers that can be named. Until recently only a tiny fraction of their substantial recorded output had been re-released and virtually nothing was available for purchase. Yet, the Skyrockets, who sold a lot of records in their time, were a supremely entertaining group and really should be better known.
The original group exemplified the "family" band, its earliest version, the "Kendrick Komedy Company," having been formed in the 1920's as a "medicine show" group by Brooke Kendrick, his brother, wife, and eldest son, Bob. Bob Kendrick later selected "Bob Skyles" as his performing name and, together with his younger brothers, recorded as the "Skyrockets" that are the subject of this page.
This unusual group came to my attention when I bought a stack of old 78 rpm discs based solely on their age and titles. Among them was the record you see here. The other side has the sensitively titled "She's Built Like a Great Big Fiddle." Western Swing-type bands (and especially these guys) often defy classification. If I was running a record store, which bin would I put this stuff in? Notice that RCA/Bluebird considered each of these tunes to be a "Fox Trot."
Most of my initial information came courtesy of Tony Russell, publisher of "Old Time Music" in Great Britain and author of the liner notes on numerous Western Swing LPs. The next two paragraphs are lifted from those notes.
Bob Skyles and His Skyrockets worked in Texas and also in Oklahoma. It isn't easy to decide where they belong either geographically or stylistically -- there certainly wasn't another band like them in the Southwest. The lineup of several brass and reeds, decorated with oddball instruments like swanee whistle and bazooka, gave them a hokum, "novelty" band quality. A clue to what they saw as their stylistic origins may perhaps be detected in one of the titles they recorded, We're Not the Hoosier Hotshots.
In fact they were a family band from Pecos, Texas, the core members being the brothers Bob, Sanford, and Clifford Kendrick. On the advice of an A&R man Bob Kendrick changed his recording name to Skyles (to go with Skyrockets). Known for their jazzy-looking front line, special-effects percussion and bizarre repertoire, the group was very productive between 1937 and 1941, and made quiet a few recordings.
Indeed, according to the discography compiled by Russell, the boys recorded 70 selections for RCA's Bluebird label during 4 sessions in 1937 and 1938, and another 17 selections for Decca in 1940 and 1941. The personnel for these sessions, as well as a list of the more interesting titles, may be examined on a separate page.
Another primary source is the book "Prairie Nights to Neon Lights," about which, more below. An excerpt from that work gives us some insight into the origin of the group:
After several years of running a traveling medicine show, the Kendricks took a job playing on KNEL radio in Brady, Texas. As a result of these performances they were invited in 1932 [actually 1936?] to play on KIUN in Pecos. They decided to give this offer a try, although they took their medicine show wagons along just in case the radio show did not work out. The radio program was a big success from the beginning, and the Kendricks never opened the medicine show again.
The Skyrockets, and Bob Kendrick in particular, provide an interesting example of West Texas musicians of the 1930s. Whereas ...[other musicians] heard the pop sounds of big bands and emulated them with fiddles and guitars, Kendrick learned to play saxophone and clarinet to duplicate the sound.
As the photo shows, the man in the middle with the clarinet (Bob Skyles) also has a fiddle on his lap. The acoustic guitar player, far right, is father Brooke "Doc" Kendrick. "Curly" Nichols is shown on electric guitar, with a small amplifier at his feet. The gentleman on the left is Sanford Kendrick, playing an instrument that you won't find in many other bands--the "bazooka." Notice that this versatile gentleman has a trumpet and trombone readily available at his feet. That's Clifford Kendrick on drums and Sparky Styles on bass.
Regarding the "bazooka," this unusual instrument was featured on a number of the Skyrockets' recordings, including "The Arkansas Bazooka Swing," "Blue Bazooka Blues," and "Mr. Bazooka and Miss Clarinet."
The bazooka was not the only unusual instrument employed by the Skyrockets. Various of their recordings feature accordions, a tuba, cow bells, vibes, even an ocarina. For "in person" performances, it went a step beyond that. Here we see the dapper Bob Skyles in white dinner jacket and shoes, a boutonniere in his lapel, playing the musical saw in a 1940 photo taken in El Paso.
Along the way Bob Kendrick learned to tune pianos, a skill that came in handy when the group was playing small venues that offered a piano in none too great a shape. In later years he supported himself in part as a piano tuner. As recently as the early 1990s, at eighty years of age, Bob "Skyles" was still applying this skill at the rate of two pianos a day.
Yes, Bob Skyles and His Skyrockets (at least the recording studio version) was a sort of "novelty" group. They did not, however, take things to the extremes of, say, Spike Jones and his City Slickers. Truth be told, the Kendrick boys did not prefer to think of themselves as a "hokum" band. Indeed, they normally played a more standard variety of string-band and jazz fare in public performances. The "novelty" style was dictated by the marketing policy of Bluebird Records. Speaking to Duncan McLean in 1995, Cliff Kendrick recalled:
We thought all that stuff was terrible. Corny as hell. The record company, they wanted a comedy band, see, like Bluebird's answer to the Hoosier Hotshots. We hated it. But we went along with it - fooled around, played that stupid whoopie-whistle. Bob came up with all those dumb songs - we never played them in the clubs, you know; we played straight dance stuff, and jazz, then. But hell, who were we to complain? Those records sold well, earned us a bit of money. And that's what it was all about.
Speaking of which ...
Corny? Jazzy-looking? Bizarre? Dapper? All words that I've already set forth to describe these guys. Let's just say the Skyrockets had sort of a split personality. As a recording studio ensemble, they did as they were told. On the road, they did as they pleased. And they weren't just a run-of-the-mill country dance band. The Skyrockets was a "show" band, capable of performing in whatever manner was appropriate for the occasion.
Here we see (left to right) Sanford Kendrick, Bob Kendrick, Bob Nichols, Dave Hughs (piano), and Clifford Kendrick (drums) in a photo taken in the studio of radio station KIUN in Pecos, Texas. Notice the tuxedos and very stylish mustaches. Horns are at the ready. Notice too that this early shot predates the group's prominent featuring of "Bob Skyles"--they are simply "The Skyrockets."
Another engagement required another approach. In this photo, taken during an appearance at the Tokio Club in Hobbs, New Mexico, circa 1938-39, we see the fellows in cowboy hats, with Dave Hughs and Frank Wilhelm both wielding accordions. The horns have been put aside. Notice the saxophone on the empty chair. Sanford Kendrick has stepped back to take over duties on the string bass.
When the band played a dance venue, they even had a formalized system by which those in attendance could make a special request. In those days, it was common for a song to be "dedicated" to a special listener, whether in person at a dance hall or over the airwaves to a radio listener at home.
During a three-month period in the Summer of 1940, the group included "Moon" Mullican, who would later become a very famous country performer as a pianist and vocalist. For the Skyrockets, however, he was employed on bass, accordion, and vibes, as the piano bench was still being occupied by Max Bennett. This picture shows the rather tall Mullican (far right) with Bob, Max, Clifford, and Sanford, at Bob Davis' Castle Club in El Paso. Regrettably, the band made no recordings during the period when Mullican was a member.
He did, however, find time for a little horseplay (or is it a little donkey play?). This photo shows Moon Mullican and Max Bennett at El Paso in 1940, taking a little break from the rigors of the bandstand. My thanks to Sanford Kendrick, who graciously loaned me this and several other of the photos shown on these pages.
"Wait a minute, Jim," you are probably saying, "these are all nice pictures, but how about the one at the top of the page that you have deliberately made much too small to see?" Oh, that one--did you notice it's an "active" image? Please proceed to take a look at the larger version.
For nearly five years following the first appearance of this page it was next to impossible to put your hands on any recordings by Bob Skyles and his Skyrockets. Only three selections had been released on Western Swing CD compilations. Then, glory be, on February 26, 2002, a CD containing 27 songs by Bob Skyles and his Skyrockets became available in the United States. I invite you to read my review of this most-welcome release. It's a keeper.
Well, pardner, most folks may not be able to hear the Skyrockets, but you shore can.
Those of you with browsers that support certain music players may now click the little black right-pointing arrowhead and listen to Bob Skyles and the Skyrockets performing a few bars of "Turn Loose And Go To Town." That's Bob on vocal and ocarina, with brother Cliff on drums. Some of you heard it when this page first loaded. [27 seconds -- 289K]
BOOKS AND ARTICLES
By far, the most complete source for more information, detailing the career of the Skyrockets, is the very entertaining 1993 illustrated article "Forgotten Novelty: Bob Skyles & His Skyrockets" by Kevin Reed Coffey, which appears in "The Journal of Country Music, Vol. 15, No. 2." A complete discography, compiled by Tony Russell, accompanies the article. Several pictures and a bit of data included in the November 1997 update of this page were appropriated from that article. I am indebted to Sanford Kendrick for making a copy of this magazine available to me. Back issues may still be available from The Journal of Country Music, 4 Music Square East, Nashville, TN 37203. Expect to pay $6 or more. Inquire at 1-800-255-2357.
Happily, I can report that a similarly comprehensive survey is found within the terrific 24-page booklet that accompanies the aforementioned CD.
I enthusiastically commend to you the highly entertaining volume "Lone Star Swing," by Duncan McLean, published by Jonathan Cape, Random House (UK) in 1997. The title refers not only to the music, but also to the 1995 "swing" through Texas that Mr. McLean, a native of Scotland, made by automobile in search of the music he loves. His account of a visit with the late Cliff Kendrick will touch your funny bone and your heartstrings, as well.
I am particularly indebted to Duncan for the invaluable assistance he provided, with respect to the January 22, 1998, update of this page. Do yourself a favor and Buy His Book Right Now through an association between this page and Amazon.com.
Further details regarding the Skyrockets will be found in the aforementioned "Prairie Nights to Neon Lights," by Joe Carr and Alan Munde, published by Texas Tech University Press in 1995. This very informative volume also covers many other groups and aspects of Western Swing.
THE SKYROCKETS TODAY
I am sad to report that Bob Kendrick passed away on or about May 11, 1998, following a long period of poor health living in a retirement home in Texas. His brother Clifford passed away in 1996, at age 77. At last report, Sanford Kendrick was alive and well living near Austin, Texas, but no longer performing.
It's been 60 years since Bob Skyles and His Skyrockets cut their last record. They are now almost completely forgotten, their fans, seemingly few and far apart, patiently awaiting their rediscovery. In the meantime, I can only hope that this page may help to resurrect interest in these charming and unusual performers.
If you would like to support this page and save yourself some money in the process, please consider shopping for your books, CDs, and videos from Amazon.com.
Just click one of these icons and bookmark or make a favorite of the page it takes you to. Thereafter, your purchases from Amazon will produce a small credit to yours truly. The eBay icon takes you to a list of items that my alter ego, Otto, is offering at auction this week.
Donations Are Welcome If you are one of those rare angels who would like to make a modest donation to support my efforts, you may do so by clicking the Pay Pal "Donate" image and filling in the pertinent information that will appear on the next screen. It's fast and easy and your surprising generosity will be greatly appreciated.MORE? Many other areas of the "Popular Culture Excavation Site" await you. Full descriptions are on the main menu or go directly to the area of your choice by clicking one of these seductive little images.
Go back to the Western Swing page.
Return to the main menu.
On May 18, 2002, the 5th anniversary of the creation of the main site, hosting of this page was transferred from Yahoo/GeoCities to an independent server. You are the most recent of the cognoscenti who have ventured to this page since that date.