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N. D. Giesenschlag

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MCAULIFFE, LEON (1917–1988). Leon McAuliffe, western swing steel guitar player, was born William Leon McAuliffe in Houston on March 1, 1917. He grew up playing both Hawaiian and standard guitar. In 1933 he was hired to play for W. Lee O'Daniel's Light Crust Doughboys. Two years later he signed on with Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys and quickly gained national prominence. McAuliffe's signature song, "Steel Guitar Rag," also introduced the trademark phrase "Take it away, Leon," which Wills called out each time he introduced the song. The song, first recorded in 1936, has been recorded numerous times since and has become something of an anthem for steel guitar players. The addition of guitarist Eldon Shamblin to the Texas Playboys produced a dynamic combination and inspired another classic Wills song, "Twin Guitar Special."

Leon McAuliffe
Leon McAuliffe's Album Cover with the Cimarron Boys, 1974. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.
Leon McAuliffe
Leon McAuliffe Steel Guitar Hall of Fame Plaque, dedicated in 1978. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

McAuliffe joined the military in 1941, as did many of the other Playboys. Upon completion of his service he moved to Tulsa to form his own band, the Cimarron Boys. This group recorded more than 200 songs and was generally recognized as innovative and technically proficient.

By the 1960s western swing had declined in popularity, and many western swing bands had broken up or changed their musical format. The style revived, however, beginning with the 1973 recording of For the Last Time, featuring Merle Haggard, Bob Wills, and most of the old Playboys. Wills, who had recently suffered a stroke, realized he was dying and hoped to complete one more album. Among those who returned for the session was McAuliffe. The album's success encouraged the Playboys to tour again. Following a successful Austin City Limits taping in 1975 and a subsequent appearance at an Austin night spot, the Original Texas Playboys began to tour with McAuliffe at the helm. They did so successfully until the death of pianist Al Stricklin in 1986, at which time they disbanded. McAuliffe moved on to Rogers State College in Claremore, Oklahoma, and taught a course on the music industry which dealt primarily with business and legal issues. The Steel Guitar Hall of Fame honored McAuliffe in 1978, and he was inducted into the Western Swing Society Hall of Fame in 1987 and the Texas Western Swing Hall of Fame in 1991. He died in Tulsa on September 20, 1988.


Jean A. Boyd, The Jazz of the Southwest: An Oral History of Western Swing (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998).

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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, N. D. Giesenschlag, "MCAULIFFE, LEON," accessed July 14, 2020, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fmcdq.

Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Modified on May 18, 2017. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
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