Stuart Hamblen, a singing cowboy star in an era when there were but a few of them riding the range, died Wednesday at St. John’s Hospital and Health Center in Santa Monica.
Hamblen was a recovered alcoholic who abandoned booze but not broadcasting after a tent-show conversion by evangelist Billy Graham. He was 80, and had lapsed into a coma after surgery Feb. 28 to remove a malignant brain tumor, said Armen Markarian, a spokesman for the hospital.
Hamblen has arguably been credited with being radio’s first singing cowboy. But if he wasn’t its first, he certainly was its most colorful.
He was as well known for his tall stories as he was his songs (“This Old House,” “It Is No Secret What God Can Do” and “Remember Me, I’m the One Who Loves You.”)
Years after he had abandoned the wild life of his earlier years in which he once flushed an escaped black panther out of Thousand Oaks with his prized hounds, he still loved to tell about such times as when a bucking bronco he once was riding in a rodeo fled to a nearby peach orchard “and started to prune the trees with my poor, bruised body.”
That was a time in which he also was credited with being one of the West’s best teller of tales since Will Rogers, although a friend noted quietly that “Stuart has never been guilty of understatement in his life. He’s the man who sold ice to the man who sold ice to the Eskimos.”
He also was one of those old cowboys who remembered just enough of the days of the Old West to miss them.
The son of a Methodist minister, Hamblen was born in Kellyville, Tex., on Oct. 26, 1908. He began his career when he was 18 after winning a talent contest in Dallas. With the $50 prize, he headed for Camden, N.J., where he recorded for the forerunner of RCA Victor Recording.
He arrived in Hollywood in 1928 and for the next 22 years was at the top of the country-western field, first as “Cowboy Joe,” then as a member of the original Beverly Hillbillies, radio’s first Western singing group, and later as host of such programs as “Covered Wagon Jubilee,” “King Cowboy and his Woolly West Review” and “Stuart Hamblen and His Lucky Stars.”
Hamblen was a prolific songwriter, often turning out a tune in a few minutes.
“I always wanted to write music,” he said in a 1976 interview with The Times. “And for me, it could be anywhere. I can be up in the mountains, by a stream, and all of a sudden a tune will come into my head and I’ll start writin’ lyrics for it.
“I wrote ‘This Old House’ that way. I was in the mountains and found this old prospector dead in his cabin. I saw curtains, so that meant a woman had been there. I saw kids’ things lyin’ around. And they were all gone now. . . .”
Ain’t a gonna leave this house no longer,
I’m gettin’ ready to meet the saints.
Rosemary Clooney’s recording of “This Old House” became a million-seller.
During the 1930s and 1940s, Hamblen appeared in a number of low budget Westerns, usually as the villain, with John Wayne, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Bob Steele and other cowboy stars.
Newspaper clippings also reflect other “credits,” arrests for speeding, resisting arrest, ignoring traffic tickets--even pleading no contest to drunk driving in 1965, 13 years after he ran as a Prohibition Party candidate for President.
(He lost, of course, to Dwight D. Eisenhower, but later couldn’t resist noting that he had been defeated by “a mere 25 million votes. But I sure got more votes than Jerry Brown"--when the California governor ran for President in 1976 and 1980.)
He also loved horse racing and owned one of the leading stables in the West. Two of his horses, El Lobo and Reveille won big stakes races.
He had first tried to put all the mischief of his early years behind him when he attended a Billy Graham revival in 1949.
“I’d always been a rough man,” Hamblen said years later, “but my big problem was not being able to leave the booze alone. My daddy was a Methodist minister and I guess I was the original juvenile delinquent. I just loved to fight too, and I suppose I did get thrown into jail a few times.”
Two years after his conversion, Hamblen retired from radio and films and with his wife, Suzy, spent the next 20 years traveling across the country speaking before youth organizations and prison inmates.
Having been convinced by KLAC General Manager Bill Ward that the airwaves offered a more sweeping pulpit, he returned to that medium in 1971 with his nationally syndicated “Cowboy Church of the Air,” an hourlong show of religious songs mixed in with stories, always with a message.
“The one thing I want to make clear is that I’m no preacher,” he said. “We tell stories instead of sermons.
“And we don’t accept any donations even though some people, bless ‘em, choose to send money.”
What he tried to get across, said the old cowboy who was inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1976, is that “I’ve accepted the Lord Jesus Christ, and what a difference Christianity can make in a man’s life.”
He is survived by his wife of 56 years and three daughters.