“I really believe that playing the accordion is why I’ve lived so long,” says Cleo Raymond at her retirement home in Duncanville, just southwest of Dallas. Vibrant and spry at 99, she arrives at the vaunted century mark on June 9. “Pumping air into those bellows for all those years pumped me up.”
Asked to stroll back through those years, she opens the pages of her vintage scrapbook. The oversized volume has a 1950s look. Its meticulously placed photographs and yellowed clippings track a whirlwind career as a country and western artist in the 1940s, that golden-era decade when the genre’s modern sound was conjured from a peppy brew of hillbilly tunes and cowboy songs. While Raymond only performed full time for a little more than ten years, from 1940 to 1951, she quickly built an impressive resume that sets her apart as a pioneer of Texas music. Then known by her maiden name of Cleo Landolt (often billed as Lando), she squeezed the big box as a member of a semi-rare all-women group, the E. T. Ranch Girls. She yodeled with Gus Foster’s Texas Roundup on Dallas radio station KRLD and toured Montana and Alaska with Patty Lou and the Texas Sweethearts. Dallas-based brothers Bill and Jim Boyd each called on Raymond to add her trademark bright, reedy sound to their respective western bands. Toward the end of the forties, she also toured with Tex Ritter; led her own band, Miss Cleo and the Texas Farm Hands, in a long residency at Dallas’s Southern Mansion; and logged two tours through parts of Asia for the USO. And that’s all before she joined a troupe performing as part of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Senate campaign.
The vagaries of showbiz may not have made Raymond a household name, but hearing her talk about touring Texas and the world in that distant decade, as country and western music was busy discovering itself, is thrilling for those of us who love the opuses of Lefty, Hank, Mother Maybelle, and Ernest Tubb. Raymond and her contemporaries helped define an emerging country and western sound that paved the way for generations to come—and she did it as one of relatively few touring female musicians at the time. “She is one of the last living links to an amazing era,” says independent western swing and country and western researcher Kevin Coffey.
Raymond was born in 1922 in Dallas, the child of Swiss immigrants. She grew up in Old East Dallas near the upper-crust districts of Junius Heights, Munger Place, and Swiss Avenue. Her parents—her father was a jeweler, her mother a homemaker—hoped she would become a classical pianist, and she quickly showed a talent for the instrument, submitting to weekly lessons and four hours of practice a day. Her scrapbook contains a faded recital program from 1933, when she was eleven and already performing works by Beethoven and Paderewski. Around the age of twelve or thirteen, she became a student of C. Boris Grant, former director of the music department at Southern Methodist University. Grant had studied abroad with Russian pianist Josef Lhévinne and at the Virgil Piano Conservatory in New York; impressed by this precocious talent, he agreed to tutor her privately.
There was just one problem, however: Raymond hated playing the piano. “I was more tomboy,” she says. “I wanted to be outside, climbing trees, instead of inside practicing for hours and hours.” In December 1935, when Grant died from a heart attack at age 51, she told her strict Swiss mother that she wanted to quit music.
That lasted about a year, until one day in 1936, when Raymond was fourteen. As she and her mother walked along Dallas’s Elm Street, Raymond’s mother stopped at the window of Whittle Music Company and pointed to an accordion. The pragmatic mama announced that she hadn’t spent all that money on piano lessons for nothing and that her daughter would take up the accordion. “I stomped my feet and screamed in protest,” Raymond recalls. But down the stairs they went into Whittle’s accordion room, where they bought a small squeeze-box. The next week they returned and left with a much larger one, with 120 bass buttons and 41 treble keys, one of the most common accordion setups. Like it or not, Raymond was in “the accordion business.”
It wasn’t long, though, before playing the massive instrument became fun, in spite of the fact that simply lifting the heavy accordion would be a lifelong challenge for the diminutive musician. One of the teenager’s earliest documented performances occurred at Dallas’s Swiss Hall in November 1938. The packed gathering celebrated the anniversary of Swiss independence, and as one report noted, the “charming and talented daughter” of the Landolts received “generous encores” for her “renditions on the concertina.”
After Raymond graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in 1940, her resourceful mother noticed a promising want ad. Lucille Cunningham, an Oak Cliff stand-up bassist and singer, was looking for a few other young women to form a western combo. Raymond auditioned, got the gig, and discovered the world of hillbilly and cowboy music as the E. T. Ranch Girls—six women playing guitar, electric guitar, mandolin, stand-up bass, banjo, and accordion—hit the road. Though the Texas music scene was still very much a man’s world, World War II had provided an opportunity for women: with so many men gone overseas, the number of all-girl groups rose. The first money Raymond earned with the accordion was $2 for a show the Ranch Girls played on the back of a truck in a small country town somewhere near Dallas. “I took that money and bought my mother a little set of glasses at the old W. A. Green department store downtown,” she recalls. “I still have them.”
Soon, Raymond and Ranch Girls singer Ludy Harris were recruited to join Gus Foster’s Texas Roundup, an early-morning radio troupe at KRLD. For $18 a week, they had to be at the studios in the Adolphus Hotel, ready to play, at 5 a.m. at least five days a week. The gang included fiddler Georgia Slim and Bill and Joe Callahan. “We played for an hour,” says Cleo, “then the Stamps-Baxter Quartet sang religious songs for half an hour, then we did another forty-five minutes.” Most days, the group hit the road for live performances but had to be back in the studio the next morning as the roosters crowed. An early 1941 flyer in Cleo’s scrapbook for a Roundup appearance in the Wise County hamlet of Slidell lists eleven performers and credits her with playing “Radio’s Squeakiest Accordion.”
Squeaky or not, after years of radio and nightclub work—and gigs at everything from a coffin maker’s gathering to a butane dealers convention—the cowgirl accordionist embarked on her first USO tour in 1946, followed by a second in 1947. She performed in Tokyo, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Guam, Saipan, and the Philippines. Rowdy crowds of soldiers packed each venue, cheering on the variety show’s dancers, acrobats, virtuosic table-tennis players, and Raymond. “It was a marvelous education,” she recalls. “We went everywhere there were troops. And sometimes I thought everybody there was from Texas! They would whoop and holler when I came onstage in my cowboy boots and cowgirl clothes.”
One of her most unique gigs came later the next year, in the run-up to Texas’s election day. Lyndon B. Johnson’s second campaign for the U. S. Senate needed some showbiz pizzazz. Somehow, oilman Sid Richardson was tapped to assemble talent—some recruited from his favorite nightspot, Abe Weinstein’s Colony Club in Dallas—for the LBJ Musical Bandwagon. Comedian Dink Freeman, to Johnson’s great chagrin (he wasn’t a fan), was hired as emcee. Raymond performed at several rallies, warming up the crowd directly before LBJ took the stage. A review of an Austin appearance credited the accordionist with receiving the most applause of any performer that night. Dink introduced her as “not only a fine little singer but a mean tickler of the old ivories on her ‘ac-cor-deen’ as well.” The last to perform, Raymond made quite an impression. She played and sang as LBJ’s helicopter—dubbed the Johnson City Windmill, it was reportedly the first chopper used in a political campaign—circled and landed and the future president bounded onstage. Watching an LBJ documentary recently, Raymond caught a glimpse of herself in some grainy campaign footage.
The rest of the forties and early fifties brought appearances on such landmark programs as the Big D Jamboree and WFAA’s The Early Birds. But after Raymond married in October 1951 and started a family in San Antonio, showbiz took a back seat. She didn’t give it up entirely, though. Raymond appeared on Red River Dave’s radio show a few times and played sporadically for ladies’ clubs, church groups, community centers, and other gatherings until she was ninety, when the squeeze-box finally became too heavy.
The fancy boots she had custom made in the forties by A. C. Williams on East Grand in Dallas are long gone. But Raymond still has her cowgirl skirts and shirts, neatly arranged on hangers in her closet. And the songs are still there in her memory. She busted out an a capella version of Patsy Montana’s 1936 hit, “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart,” during our interview. And she recalls that she first heard another favorite, “The Letter Edged in Black,” performed by the Carter Family on the radio. “When I would do that song, at the end, I would pull out an actual letter edged in black,” she says. “That was a European thing, to put out a letter edged in black when someone died.” She learned Tex Ritter’s “Boll Weevil” from the cowboy star himself while touring with his band. “Freight Train Boogie” still rolls through her mind, as does “Out on the Texas Plains.” Thousands of songs.
This past April, in Fort Worth’s Stagecoach Ballroom, Raymond played a smaller accordion and sang with 36-year-old accordionist Ginny Mac—who has created a sparkling western swing and country and western career in Fort Worth—as cameras recorded the performance for a short film about her long life. It will be shown at a luncheon in honor of her hundredth birthday at Cowtown’s National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame. “Meeting Cleo was amazing,” says Mac. “When she played, you could see it in her eyes—there was some part of her that the music brought back.”
Miss Cleo says that’s true. “And when I lie down at night,” adds the elegant soon-to-be centenarian, “I think of things I hadn’t thought of in a hundred years.”