San Antonio Roses

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It was the song that took Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys "from hamburgers to steaks." In 1938, they took a fiddle tune called "Spanish Two Step" and ran the melody backwards; the result was a popular instrumental. ("Jazz violinist Joe Venuti, for example, told Wills and members of the band that he had many requests for it and and that Wills needed to do more with it." -- Charles Townsend, San Antonio Rose, p. 190.)

A year and a half later, Irving Berlin's publishing company expressed interest in the song, but wanted lyrics for the tune. The band quickly put together some lyrics and the resulting "New San Antonio Rose" was recorded in 1940, with the 18-piece Texas Playboys big band -- and not a single fiddle on the recording. The song was a gold record for Bob Wills. Bing Crosby's cover sold even more records.

Someone somewhere wrote that the enduring popularity of the song owes something to San Antonio's role in World War II. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of servicemen passed through the city for initial training before being shipped to the battlefields of Europe and the islands of the Pacific Theater. For many a soldier or airman, the song was no doubt a reminder of his own Rose of San Antone.

Shortly after World War II, the Texas Playboys recorded a special version of San Antonio Rose dedicated to Abner (of the hit radio show Lum & Abner). During the song intro, vocalist Tommy Duncan said that when they worked together on a special Armed Forces Radio program, "[Abner] told me that he wore out 21 records of 'San Antonio Rose'."

Paula Allen, local history columnist for the San Antonio Express-News, devoted a recent column to three World War II airplanes -- a P-51 Mustang and two B-17 Flying Fortresses -- named for the hit song:

Through at least the first half of 1941, Wills' original and Bing Crosby's version were almost inescapable. Fights broke out in honky-tonks between "Rose" lovers and others who couldn't stand to hear it one more time on the jukebox. A man in Big Spring who lived near a fire station called the police on the firefighters for playing the record over and over and over again.

The three aircraft had distinguished war records. For example:

The other "San Antonio Rose" Fortress was piloted by Capt. Larry L. Kerr of this city, and it served him well. Shortly after the bomber "dropped a cargo of high explosives over Nazi installations at Solingen (an industrial city in Germany), a burst of flak hit the plane's No. 2 engine and knocked it out," says the Express, Jan. 27, 1944. "The control mechanism was partially disabled (and the propeller) windmilled violently, causing a leak in the oxygen lines." Fighters escorted the Fortress, still under fire, as its crew jettisoned all loose equipment to maintain altitude. With Kerr at the controls, the plane made it back to home base in England, where more than 300 flak holes were discovered. The pilot, who had flown 25 bombing missions over Europe, received the Distinguished Flying Cross with three oak leaf clusters.

A follow-up column by Allen turned up more San Antonio Roses, including a P-39N-5 Airacobra fighter, piloted by retired USAF Col. Charles W. Borders.

"It was found abandoned years later in a New Guinea jungle junkyard," he says, "and has been repainted and refurbished from pictures I sent in 1962 and now proudly adorns a pedestal at the front gate of the J.K. McCarthy Museum in Goroka, Eastern Highlands Province, Papua New Guinea."

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on April 11, 2011 10:21 PM.

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