SELLERS, JAMES EARL [J. E., POP]

Mary Lou Cooper
James Earl Sellers
Pioneering sound engineer J. E. Sellers, founder of Sellers Company in Dallas, was affectionately called "Pop" by recording artists who came to his studio. Photo courtesy of Nancy Sellers Cooper.

SELLERS, JAMES EARL [J. E., POP] (1891–1980). James Earl “Pop” Sellers, legendary sound engineer and recording pioneer who was the founder of Sellers Company, the first independent recording studio in the Southwest, was born on October 7, 1891, in Frost, Navarro County, Texas. He was the oldest of two sons of Osey Ramson (sometimes spelled Ransom) Sellers and Frances Elizabeth Rebecca (Perriman) Sellers. He grew up on a farm outside of Midlothian, Texas, and developed a strong work ethic at an early age. Sellers was valedictorian of his high school, where he lettered in four sports. He later went to the University of Texas at Austin where he lettered in baseball and was on the championship teams of 1911 and 1912. He also lettered in football in 1911 and 1912 in the days of leather helmets. In 1911 he played in a historic football game in which the Longhorns defeated the Texas Aggies with a score of 6–0 in one of the roughest games in the history of the rivalry between the two schools. Consequently, UT and A&M were not allowed to play each other again for four years. In 1914 Sellers received his bachelor’s degree in physics at the University of Texas, and then he did post-graduate work in physics. After that, he taught physics and mathematics and was an athletics coach at Baptist Academy (location unknown) and at Burleson College near Greenville, Texas.  J. E. Sellers married Garnie Viola Hammett on June 10, 1915, and they had two children they reared as Methodists—a son, Jack Earl Sellers, and a daughter, Nancy Sellers Cooper. 

In 1924 Sellers opened an electronics store, Sellers Company, where he began selling appliances and radios. Although radios had been greatly increasing in popularity since the early 1920s, he had a difficult start as he faced the era of the Great Depression. As the economy collapsed, customers would often return appliances they could not afford which made it difficult to stay in business. 

In 1935 Sellers relied on his physics background as he began experimenting with electronic sound recording. Using a primitive phonograph he had innovatively made into a recording machine, he was able to produce quality recordings. On January 1, 1936, he recorded a live broadcast transcription of the Rose Bowl game, held in Pasadena, California, between Southern Methodist University and Stanford University. This marked the point at which he started professionally recording and launched the recording business in Dallas. Due to his perseverance and ingenuity, Sellers Company was the first independent sound recording studio in the Southwest. As the industry grew, it ultimately became one of the largest studios in the Southwest.  

Sellers Company Recording Studios.
Sellers Company, founded in Dallas in 1924 by sound engineer J. E. Sellers as an electronics business that transitioned into a recording studio by 1936, was heralded as the first independent sound recording studio in the Southwest. Photo courtesy David Dennard.

While setting the highest standards, Sellers soon used state-of-the art equipment to achieve broadcast-quality recordings. He stayed at the forefront of the industry as he purchased a Universal portable recording machine in 1937 and was the first in the area to own an Ampex tape recorder, a condenser microphone, and a high-speed tape duplicator. During his career, he also oversaw the construction of a 50,000-watt transmitter for Corpus Christi’s KWBU radio station.

Sellers Company had many different locations in Dallas. The first location of the company—as an electronics business—was on Jefferson Avenue. Subsequent locations of the company—as a studio—were in downtown Dallas, including the Southland Annex at Browder Street and Commerce Street, the Melba Theater at 1913 Elm Street, 905 ½ Main Street, the Wholesale Merchants Building at 912 Commerce Street (co-occupied by Carr Collins’s KWBU), and the final location at 2102 Jackson Street, where the studio was located for the longest period.  Gordon McLendon’s Liberty Broadcasting System and its radio station, KLIF, were formerly located at 2102 Jackson Street.

Noted for his calm and kind demeanor, Sellers gained the admiration of others as he provided wise counsel and often sacrificed his personal life to meet tight deadlines. Regulars at his studio affectionately called him “Pop.” Tinker (Cunningham) Rautenberg, of the Moonmaids, described him as “the epitome of a grandfather.”

J. E. Sellers in his studio.
J. E. Sellers instructs singer Mayme Diffey Evans during a studio session. Photo courtesy of Nancy Sellers Cooper.

Many talented locals recorded at Sellers Company, including the Levee Singers, with Ed Bernet, who later owned Sumet-Bernet Sound Studios; the Novas, with David Dennard, who later owned Dragon Street Records; and well-known announcers, such as Harrold Grogan, Ron Chapman, and Johnny Hicks.  Also, the award-winning gospel pianist, Marion Snider, recorded there on the concert grand piano. Actress Linda Darnell, a Dallas native, recorded a voice movie audition at Sellers’s studio. Darnell was discovered by 20th Century Fox and, at the age of fifteen, starred in her first film, Hotel for Women (1939), making her one of the youngest leading actresses in Hollywood.  Also, actress Ann Sheridan made an audition tape at Sellers Company.

During World War II Sellers recorded a war bond rally at the amphitheater at Fair Park in Dallas. Many Hollywood movie stars, including Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, were there to help raise money for the war effort. Sellers’s daughter, Nancy, was allowed to go backstage where she eagerly got numerous stars to sign her autograph book.

Sellers recorded various genres of music ranging from country to classical. Many renowned hall of famers and hit artists recorded there, including rockabilly singers and rock-and-roll pioneers Gene Summers and Gene Vincent. Hank Thompson had his first recording session there and recorded the hits “Whoa Sailor” and “Swing Wide Your Gate of Love.” The legendary gospel group the Stamps Quartet recorded there. Various hillbilly singers who performed at the Big D Jamboree, a barn dance and radio program held in the Sportatorium in Dallas, were recorded by Sellers. Other well-known artists who recorded at the studio include the Light Crust Doughboys and Trini Lopez. 

As Dallas earned the reputation as the “Jingle Capitol of the World,” many rising jingle producers recorded at Sellers Company. Some of these, who later started their own studios, included Bill Meeks of PAMS (short for Production Advertising Merchandising Service), Tom Merriman of TM Productions, and Jim Wells of Futursonic Productions. 

J. E. Sellers receives Betty Award.
J. E. Sellers (right) receives the prestigious Betty Award from the Association of Broadcasting Executives of Texas (ABET) on May 17, 1974. Photo courtesy of Nancy Sellers Cooper.

In 1967 Sellers retired, which enabled him to enjoy traveling overseas with his wife to many different countries.  Although retired, he was still held in high regard in the recording industry.  In 1974, which marked the fiftieth anniversary of Sellers Company, the Association of Broadcasting Executives of Texas (ABET) recognized him for his outstanding achievements as they gave him the distinguished Betty Award, which was given to those who had contributed the utmost to the broadcast industry. The association stated that he had “played an important part in the growth of Dallas as a leading production and agency center” and that he had a “Who’s Who” list of clients from major agencies all over the country.

J. E. “Pop” Sellers died of pneumonia on October 4, 1980, at his Oak Cliff residence in Dallas, Texas, and was buried at Restland Memorial Park in Dallas.

Like his father, Jack Sellers became a sound engineer and worked at Sellers Company. He owned and ran the studio after his father retired and eventually retired, himself, in 1982. He then closed the Sellers Company, which had been in business for almost six decades. Both J. E. Sellers and his son Jack left a lasting legacy and played important roles in the history of the recording industry.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Annual Award Dinner printed program, the Association of Broadcasting Executives of Texas (ABET), May 17, 1974. Kevin Coffey, Liner notes, The Gals of the Big 'D' Jamboree (Dragon Street Records, 2001). Nancy Sellers Cooper, Interview by Mary Lou Cooper, August 4, 2016. Dallas Morning News, October 5, 1980. “J. E. Sellers: A Dallas legend named among Texas music pioneers,” The Park Cities News, May 13, 2004. “The Lost Dallas Sessions (1957–1958),” Gene Vincent, Review, Microsoft.com (https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/store/music/album/gene-vincent/the-lost-dallas-sessions-1957-1958/8d6kgx78j8cm/rovi-review), accessed August 9, 2016. Tinker (Cunningham) Rautenberg, Interview by Mary Lou Cooper, May 4, 2004. Jack Earl Sellers, Interview by Mary Lou Cooper, 2004. “UT–A&M Rivalry Gap Soon to be Longest in History,” HOOK’EM.com, Austin American-Statesman (http://www.hookem.com/story/ut-am-rivalry-gap-soon-to-be-longest-in-history/), accessed August 7, 2016.

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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, Mary Lou Cooper, "SELLERS, JAMES EARL [J. E., POP]," accessed September 21, 2018, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fsell.

Uploaded on November 23, 2016. Modified on August 8, 2017. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

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