Monday, March 11, 2019

The Purple Sage Riders

Harry Fletcher's Purple Sage Riders
(Left to right) Rusty McGee, Deuce Spriggins, Don Winston, Speed Bastien, Hank Caldwell, Skeeter Bill, Spike Watson, Baby Doll (horse), and Texas Tommy. 
No date noted (possibly 1935). Not pictured: Si Westbrook
(Photo courtesy of Kevin Coffey, who obtained it from a relative of Speed Bastien)

Included in this massive stack of KOA radio photographs, I posted last week, I found several incredible pictures of a group calling themselves the Purple Sage Riders, which included KOA Denver cowboy singer and radio actor, Si Westbrook. I knew of the Foy Willing and Buck Page (Donald Duffy) groups, both called Riders of the Purple Sage (and later, the 1969-formed New Riders of the Purple Sage - best known for "Panama Red"), but was unfamiliar with this earlier 1930s group.

According to a quick Internet search, the exact history of who was the "first" to use the band name Riders of the Purple Sage, is open to scrutiny: The first "original" Riders of the Purple Sage was allegedly formed in in 1932, by Jack Dalton, and was disbanded after a couple of years. When Buck Page's group appeared at the Village Barn in New York, they were advertised as the "Sons of the Purple Sage." According to Sharon Lee Willing, Foy Willing's widow, and author of No One to Cry To, his biography, Foy and Buck Page never met. Although Foy disbanded his group in 1952 it was temporary; he never relinquished the name and periodically reorganized and recorded his Riders of the Purple Sage until his death, July 24, 1978.

As previously posted, I found a 1934 Montana newspaper article, which indicates the Purple Sage Riders are "an aggregation of well known radio performers."

June 24, 1934
Great Falls Montana newspaper

The Purple Sage Riders group had several rotating members - included fiddle player "Dynamite" (Leonard Dossey), formerly of the Arizona Wranglers; The Lonesome Cowboy (Roy Faulkner), formerly of XER (Mexico/Del Rio, TX radio station); "Freckles" from the Happy-Go-Lucky Hour at KHJ, in California; the Lone Ace and Aaron "Shug" Fisher, who starred in the early cowboy band, "Beverly Hill Billies;" and the Arizona Kid, who was a trick roper. The group also included Texas Tommy, who appeared in several early movies with Tom Mix and Ken Maynard. Si Westbrook ("formerly of KOA") is noted as the master of ceremonies, but he also appears in the band photos.

According to music archivist/historian Kevin Coffey, who contacted me, after reading the first post, "It sounds like the stuff you have is possibly mostly from the 1934 tour. Speed Bastien and Hank Caldwell joined the group in 1935, so did "Ace" Spriggins' brother "Deuce" Spriggins. Spade Cooley was in the group for a while, too. I believe Shug Fisher left the group before the end of 1934, to join Hugh Cross in Ohio/West Va, where he stayed for the next eight years. Len Dossey went back to LA and joined Stuart Hamblen's group."

May 4, 1934
Woodland Daily Democrat - Woodland, California

The original Purple Sage Riders-related pictures I obtained are incredible. Take a look (all are watermarked):

Pictured: Unidentified, Arkansas Johnny Luther, Texas Tommy, Baby Doll (horse), Si Westbrook, Len Dossey, and (possibly) Rusty McGee 
(thanks to Kevin Coffey for IDs)
The group was calling itself the Riders of the Purple Sage. According to Coffey, "I think Zane Grey, or his estate, complained about them using the name of his novel, and they changed it to Purple Sage Riders. For some reason, when Foy Willing formed his Riders of the Purple Sage, there was no objection."

Harry Fletcher's Purple Sage Riders 
(NOTE: photo notes it's outside a Denver theatre, but doesn't specify which one). 
 Pictured: (possibly) Rusty McGee, unidentified, Bud Durfee, Si Westbrook, (possibly) "Pop Hemingway, Texas Tommy, "Baby Doll" (horse), (possibly) Skeeter Bill Schwendt, Spade Cooley, and Chuck Woods
(thanks to Kevin Coffey, for the IDs)

Interesting photo showing Si Westbrook (middle, with banjo), at KDKA, in Pittsburgh. According to more Internet digging, Buck Page formed a staff band for Pittsburgh radio station KDKA, that he named Riders of the Purple Sage. The band performed five, one hour-long shows a week, on KDKA, from 1936–1938.  So is this the Purple Sage Riders, or the Riders of the Purple Sage radio band? Yeah, it is pretty confusing! (NOTE: According to Kevin Coffey, this KDKA picture appears to have no relation to any of the "Purple Sage" groups)

This photo was autographed to Si and his wife, from "Jimmie Barrum" (sp?), as noted on the back, but according to Chuck Anderson, who is the mastermind behind the fantastic The Old Corral, "That's Arizona Wranglers member Shorty Wells. Look real close, at his left shoulder, and you'll see the beginnings of his nickname SH..."

The Lone Ace - Hollywood Hill Billies and Purple Sage Riders
NOTE: Kevin Coffey says his real name was Ace Spriggins / Carl Braunsdorf.

Deuce (spelled Duce in the picture) Spriggins (Ace's Brother)
- Beverly Hillbillies and Purple Sage Riders

Skeeter Bill - Purple Sage Riders

Texas Tommy - Purple Sage Riders


  1. Nice Post - Latter day Riders for a time included Denver Soul Survivors the late Alan Kemp and Patrick Shanahan - both also Stone Canyon Band

  2. Spade Cooley is the fiddler second from right in the photo in front of the theatre, rather than in the previous band shot. He is not in the other photo.

  3. my Grandfather was Rusty McGee of the Purple Sage Riders. He died before I was born. The pictures you have posted are the only pictures I have of him. I'm hoping to find a clearer picture if you could give me some direction I would be very thankful ...his grandson Don.

  4. My dad is on the right side of the stand up bass. Austin “Bud” Durfee. He and Spade Cooley were good friends.