He had music to fall back on
By Keith Purtell
Phoenix Staff Writer
May 07, 2009 09:19 pm
— When Les Gilliam and his Silverlake Band take the stage at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, the sounds of country, Western, and Western swing music will get toes a tappin’ at the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame.
Gilliam, Oklahoma’s official balladeer for 10 years, said the show will be an entertaining mix of music and music history. It has been dubbed Dancin’ in the District.
The life of this cheerful 74-year-old musician started with humble roots.
“My father was killed when I was a baby, leaving my mother with five kids,” he said. “She split the family and three of us went to live on a farm.”
Western music was born in an era before television, and the Gilliam family and countless others gathered around the newest electric gadget to hear the sounds of news and their favorite shows.
“Like so many people in those days, we had a radio,” he said. “One of the greatest pleasures of my life was listening to the ‘Gene Autry Melody Ranch Radio Show.’”
The little town of Burwin where they lived became an exciting place when legendary Western entertainer Gene Autry bought a ranch near Gilliam’s family. The town decided to change its name to Gene Autry. On the day of the event, Gilliam’s mom sold buffalo burgers and his sisters gave out free samples of gum from the radio show sponsors; Wrigley’s Doublemint.
When it came time to enroll in college, Gilliam opted to study something that would be a more reliable source of income than music.
“I worked my way through college in a Western band, got a degree in math, and then spent 38 years working in the computer business,” he said.
Rather than retire, Gilliam started doing music full time with the help of the Oklahoma Arts Council. He and his wife, Martha, travel around the country and overseas promoting Western music.
One of Gilliam’s favorite stories is how he met his wife.
“In September of 1955, I was in Stillwater where I was going to school,” he said. “I stopped in at a local drug store and saw one of my buddies sitting there with two good-looking girls from Kansas. On the table was some Wrigley’s Doublemint gum.”
Gilliam told them how Wrigley’s used to sponsor the Gene Autry radio show and how his sisters gave away free samples to the crowd the day they changed the name of his hometown.
“Martha was sitting there, and she must have thought, ‘This poor man needs someone to take care of him.’ As of now, she has been taking care of me for 52 years.”
Gilliam said people often seek him out to answer an long-standing question about his kind of music.
“At lot of people have asked me about the difference between Western music and country music,” he said. “Western music is about the outdoors; working and living in the great outdoors. Country is indoors; a guy got drunk, his woman left him, and his dog died.”
In 2005, Gilliam received the most prestigious honor in Western music — the Wrangler Award — from the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. In 2006, he received the Oklahoma Governor’s Arts Award.
Jim Blair, a musician and a financial consultant for Muskogee Regional Medical Center, said Gilliam’s show offers music and a colorful history of the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame.
“He’s got a very good band,” he said. “They’re very good at country, and Western swing. He does a lot of the old classic country songs, and they’re also there to preserve the Western style of the 1940s.”
Blair said the years have not diminished Gilliam’s enthusiasm for music or his performing abilities.
“He’s got a lot of energy,” he said. “Number one, the people who go to the show are going to be entertained, because he is a great entertainer. Second, they’ll also get educated about the hall of fame.”
Reach Keith Purtell at 684-2925 or email@example.com.
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