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MCBRIDE, LAURA LEE OWENS
Western swing singer Laura Lee McBride enjoyed a long and successful career in country music, including the prestige of being the first woman to sing with Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. Texas Western Swing Hall of Fame, Wittliff Collections, Texas State University.
MCBRIDE, LAURA LEE OWENS (1920–1989). Laura Lee Owens McBride, western swing vocalist, was born on May 16, 1920, in Bridgeport, Oklahoma. She was the daughter of D. H. (Tex) Owens and his wife, Maude. After Tex gave up his job as a mechanic to pursue a career as an entertainer, he landed a radio show in Kansas City and in 1934 wrote his most famous song, the country classic "Cattle Call."
Owens encouraged his daughter to perform. By the age of ten she was singing with her sister on their father's radio program and road shows. She formed her own band, the Prairie Pioneers, after her graduation from high school in Kansas City in 1938. The following year she married her father's guitarist, Herb Kratoska. The band moved to California, where they made thirteen movies with cowboy star Gene Autry.
Shortly thereafter Laura divorced Herb and moved to Tulsa. She went to work with a regrouped Pioneers, known as the Sons of the Range, on Tulsa station KVOO. Her spirited singing style was influenced by the big–band vocalists of the 1930s and by her aunt, Texas Ruby Owens, who sang with Pappy O'Daniel's Hillbilly Boys (see O'DANIEL, WILBERT LEE). Laura's sassy vocalizing caught the attention of western swing giant Bob (James Robert) Wills, who was looking for a girl singer to perform with his Texas Playboys. Wills recruited her as the first woman to sing with the Playboys. She traveled with him to California, where they acted in B–grade Westerns and toured the West Coast. She also married Cameron Hill, a guitar player with the Playboys. In 1943 and 1944 Laura Lee recorded two programs with Wills for the Armed Forces Radio Service. One of the numbers, "I Betcha My Heart I Love You," quickly became her signature song. She more than adequately traded jibes with the unrelenting Wills. During this period she toured briefly with Tex (Woodward Maurice) Ritter.
Laura Lee McBride poses with Bob Wills (center) and fellow Texas Playboys vocalist Tommy Duncan. Texas Western Swing Hall of Fame Collection, Wittliff Collections, Texas State University.
In 1945 Cameron Hill took a job playing with band leader Dickie McBride in Houston. Laura Lee followed her husband to Texas and sang with the McBride organization on KTRH. She divorced Hill and married McBride in 1946. They had a daughter, Sharon. Dickie McBride had celebrity status in East Texas, where he had performed with Cliff Bruner, Floyd Tillman, and Moon (Aubrey Wilson) Mullican. He had formed his own band, Dickie McBride and the Village Boys, in 1939. Several years later he formed the Music Macs. By the late 1940s Dickie and wife Laura Lee had developed a loyal following from Houston to western Louisiana and north to Dallas. In 1950 she returned to the Playboys for a brief time and rerecorded her classic, "I Betcha My Heart I Love You."
During the 1950s she continued to sing with her husband and held various other jobs, including managing a restaurant and selling real estate in Bryan. She also disc-jockeyed for a short period in the 1950s and worked occasionally with Hank Williams. After Dickie died in 1971, Laura Lee returned to singing and toured for eight years with Ernest Tubb. She also participated in numerous Texas Playboy reunions, particularly after Wills's death in 1975, just as the music gained a new appeal. She recorded an album of western swing classics, The Queen of Western Swing, for the Delta label in the 1970s. The album featured music by members of the original Texas Playboys.
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Besides her singing career, Laura McBride managed Walter M. Mischer's resort in Lajitas, Texas, and Grandpa Jones's dinner theater in Mountain View, Arkansas. In 1980 she returned to the airwaves as a disc jockey in Farmington, New Mexico. In the 1980s she received numerous awards, including the title of official Texas State Ambassador and election to the Western Swing Hall of Fame in Sacramento, California. With her happy go lucky vocals Laura Lee McBride won a large following among western swing aficionados. Her performances with Wills in the 1940s opened the doors for women to perform on the road with the western swing bands, one of her major contributions to Texas music. She died of cancer on January 25, 1989, in Bryan. She was an inductee into the Texas Western Swing Hall of Fame in 1989.
Bill C. Malone, Country Music U.S.A. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968). Charles R. Townsend, San Antonio Rose: The Life and Music of Bob Wills (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1976).
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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.Handbook of Texas Online, Kevin S. Fontenot, "MCBRIDE, LAURA LEE OWENS," accessed May 24, 2019, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fmcbv.
Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Modified on October 25, 2015. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.