Bud Kennedy

Before George Strait, there were the Texas Playboys. It all started in Fort Worth

Before George Strait was filling arenas for fiddle music, way back when Fort Worth went out dancing in an old bowling alley named Panther Hall, there were the Texas Playboys.

Back then, Fort Worth’s favorite Leon was not named Bridges.

For 60 years since the 1950s, first on tour and then four times on TV’s “Austin City Limits,” the spirit of Milton Brown and Bob Wills’ Western swing bands has lived on in the voice of Leon Rausch.

When Fort Worth friends said goodbye Wednesday to Rausch, gone at 91, Asleep at the Wheel front man Ray Benson was among those paying tribute to the man with the silky, honky-tonk voice performing the most familiar versions of songs such as “Faded Love” and “[A] Big Ball’s in Cowtown.”

When Strait and his band open Dickies Arena in Fort Worth Nov. 22-23 and play “Milk Cow Blues” or “Right or Wrong,” somebody undoubtedly will remember how Rausch sang the same songs years ago as the last lead singer for the original Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys.

“Losing Leon is a heartbreak for all of us in the country music world,” Strait wrote in a text message read at Rausch’s funeral in a southwest Fort Worth church.

Western swing music was born in Fort Worth 85 years ago.

So it only makes sense that Fort Worth is where the last original vocalist would leave us.

In the late 1920s, fiddle bandleader Milton Brown — not long out of Arlington Heights High School — was first to add jazz piano to a cowboy band and give it a red-hot, Western version of a jazz and blues sound.

Mourners gather in Fort Worth for the funeral of Leon Rausch, the last lead singer hired for Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. Bud Kennedy bud@star-telegram;com

That’s how Western swing was born, at the old Crystal Springs Pavilion. 5653 White Settlement Road. When Brown connected with West Texas fiddler Bob Wills, they formed a radio band that became the Light Crust Doughboys, and Wills eventually broke away to Hollywood stardom.

If Wills made Western swing famous, it has been modern-day bandleader Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel who kept it on contemporary playlists. That is, along with Strait doing “New San Antonio Rose” and “Take Me Back to Tulsa.”

It was Benson, all 6-foot-7 of him, who read Strait’s text message to the mourners Thursday in Christ Church Assembly of God.

“This music is almost 100 years old, and it still resonates,” Benson said.

“This music is timeless.”

Leon Rausch performed four times on the TV show “Austin City Limits.” ACLTV.com

Historian Kevin Coffey, a Fort Worth native, wrote in an online message that Rausch came to Western swing music late — he joined Bob Wills’ band in 1958 — but is remembered as the lead singer on the band’s landmark 1973 “For the Last Time” album and with the Playboys at later appearances, including “Austin City Limits” and the 2008 Black Tie & Boots presidential inaugural ball.

“He always had a great voice — always,” Coffey wrote: “Some would say at his best, he was the best singer the music produced.

“ ... He seemed, unlike most singers, to get better with age. Even into his 80s, he was sounding fantastic.”

At Rausch’s funeral, speakers told the story of his life before becoming a Playboy.

Born in Billings, Mont., he hoped to become a Western singing star like Gene Autry. His real name is Rauch, but he went by “Rausch” because that seemed to stick.

He wound up in Springfield, Mo., working in a glass plant weekdats and driving to Tulsa weekends to sing in Cain’s Ballroom and on local TV.

Bob Wills, old master of Western blues, n.d. [ca. 1940s-1950s] Fort Worth Star-Telegram Collection UT Arlington Special Collections

Benson retold how on the Playboys’ 1930s and ‘40s hits, beginning with 1936’s “Steel Guitar Rag,” Wills would cue steel guitar player Leon McAuliffe by shouting, “Take it away, Leon!”

McAuliffe left to form his own band years before Rausch arrived. But after Wills’ 1975 death, both Leons often performed together and supported groups like Benson’s Asleep at the Wheel.

Rausch “has given to our generation the stories that enabled us to carry on in this wonderful tradition of Western swing music,” Benson told mourners.

“A lot of people who don’t know the history of Western swing think ‘Take it away, Leon!’ was for Leon Rausch — well, we know it was for Leon McAuliffe,” Benson said.

“ ... For all the generations of musicians that will come, it’s ‘Show us the way, Leon.’ “

Columnist Bud Kennedy is a Fort Worth guy who covered high school football at 16 and has moved on to two Super Bowls, seven political conventions and 16 Texas Legislature sessions. First on the scene of a 1988 DFW Airport crash, he interviewed passengers running from the burning plane. He made his first appearance in the paper before he was born: He was sold for $600 in the adoption classifieds.