About the Group
The Sagebrush Serenaders all lived in the city that came to be known as the city of "Water, Wealth, Contentment, Health"
in the central valley of California - Modesto. The group formed around 1942 and first started
entertaining the radio audiences over radio station KWG up in Stockton, California.
The original members included George (Rusty) Bertolero, Mel Morrison, Jack Lloyd, Leroy Luke,
Bill (Shorty) Luke and Ernie Kenoyer. On their show over KWG, they advertised for workers
to come to work at a shipyard in Stockton that was building ships for the war. Jack Lloyd
went on in later years to work with Bob Wills.
One of the band members, Ernie Kenoyer, contacted us and shared some of his memories
of that bygone era and the band. The Sagebrush Serenaders were mainly a dance band,
but they also backed up artists that toured through Modesto, including
such well known acts as Smiley Burnett (Gene Autry`s sidekick),
Tommy Duncan (after he quit Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys), Luke Wills (Bob`s brother) and
Their booking agent was a disc jockey that worked over in the Bay area at KYA in
San Francisco. That connection gave them additional exposure to a broader audience
and got them a recording session for Veltone records in Los Angeles. Veltone
from what we can see in our internet wanderings was a small label based in Oakland,
California owned by Bob Geddins. But this could be a different label as some mentions
indicate this was a blues record label.
Ernie tells us that some of the venues the band would play were places like the California
Ballroom on Saturday nights, the Growers Hall in Stockton on Sunday nights, and a place
in Richmond on Wednesday nights, but the name escapes him for the moment. When the band
knew they were going to be out of town, they recorded a transcription - Ernie describes
it as a 15-inch record - a bit larger than the 33rpm vinyl LPs that were the standard for many
years. We learned from Rusty Bertolero that the group regularly played at the Sylvan Clubhouse
Back in those days, there appeared to be a sense of competition between various venues
to get the popular bands to play there. But before we go into that, Rusty told his son
of the time that the legendary Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys came to the central
valley and were appearing at the Uptown Ballroom. When Rusty heard about Bob Wills appearing
locally, he cancelled the weekend appearance by the Sagebrush Serenaders at the Sylvan
Clubhouse. Instead, most of the Sagebrush Serenaders took their wives and went to
see Bob Wills.
Rusty told his son the Uptown Ballroom was near the old Greyhound Bus Depot in downtown
Modesto, near 10th Street and G Street. It may have been formerly a wine warehouse that
Mel Cardwell converted into a dance hall. That would make sense as one of the world's largest
wineries is located in Modesto.
Rusty enticed a few of the ladies to go up to the stage and request a tune that Rusty
had wrote, "I'm Human Same As You", and had gained some fair amount of local popularity.
But Wills said he didn't know that song and then asked who wrote it. The ladies didn't
waste any time telling Mr. Wills that the songwriter was in the audience. Bob promptly
went to the stage and announced over the microphone that he wanted to me this "Rusty"
and hear about this song.
Rusty while not shy getting the ladies to ask for his tune, now was a little embarrassed
at the turn of events. But, Bob and Rusty eventually got together outside the ballroom
and talked about the song. Bob asked Rusty if he would be interested in selling the song.
Rusty asked Bob, "How much?" Wills replied, "It's like selling a horse, you tell me how much
you want for it."
Rusty thought for a moment, but decided he didn't want to sell the song at the time. But
overnight, he had some second thoughts that maybe he should have made a deal for a percentage
of any royalties.
Later, a member of the Sagebrush Serenaders, Jack Lloyd, joined Bob Wills and his Texas
Playboys as a featured singer. Jack told Mel Morrison who later talked to Rusty that
Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys later recorded "I'm Human Same As You" with Jack
doing the vocals. But the song was put on the flip-side of a record we're still trying
to determine. Our research indicates that the tune was co-written by Foreman Bill McIntosh
and Rusty Jorge (the name Rusty Bertolero was using in his songwriting.) The BMI database
shows that Rusty had also written "Rendezvous Bend" and "Break of Dawn".
In a bit of a twist of things, Rusty notes that he actually had gotten the idea for the
song from a verse on one of Bob's earlier tunes.
As a side note of perhaps the influence of Bob Wills on other groups that wanted to do
western swing, one of their group members, Shorty Luke, took to learning how to play
the drums since the Texas Playboys were the only western swing band at the time
After Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys finished their personal appearances in the area,
a promoter by the name of Mel Cardwell contacted Rusty to see if they were interested
in doing engagements at the California Ballroom. Rusty told Mr. Cardwell that the group
was content with playing at the Sylvan Clubhouse (Rusty recalls this was
near the corner of McHenry and Sylvan Avenues; a bank now occupies that location). But Mr. Cardwell wasn't about to let
the subject drop that easily. He told Rusty that he could book a name act every week
that would compete with the Sagebrush Serenaders. Rusty finally gave in to the persuasions
of Mel and began appearing at the California Ballroom.
Thanks to Rusty's memories, the California Ballroom was located near the south end of Modesto
near Tuolumne Boulevard; at one time it may have been called the Portuguese Hall.
It became a bit of a family experience for Rusty when they began playing at the California
Ballroom. His wife would take the tickets of the patrons as they came in, his daughter
was the hat-check person and Rusty's son, who was all of four or five years old at the time,
would go around the dance hall and find that a lot of folks who had had perhaps a drink or
two more than they should have and get comments like, "So, you're Rusty's son?" Then they
would try to get him to drink whatever it was they were drinking at the time.
The band had a theme song on their radio show; it was written by George (Rusty) Bertolero
and called "Sagebrush Serenade" appropriately, which was played at the beginning and end
of every one of their shows.
Traveling to personal appearances in those days tended to be an experience. Most artists
or groups of that day have their own stories to tell. Ernie mentions they drove an old
Chrysler that he had and a trailer that was painted to look like a covered wagon with the
band's name on it. That carried their sound equipment and instruments.
Central California is notorious for its fog at times in the winter seasons. The Sagebrush
Serenaders had more than their share of it traveling to their personal appearances. Ernie
remembers that one night, traveling back from an appearance in Tracy, California (this
has to be back before the Interstate 205 and 580 were built) on one Thanksgiving eve,
it took them over three hours to get back to Modesto.
While there, the fellows were booked into a "Battle of the Bands" with Tex Williams.
Ernie says that's where he got to know the legendary guitarist, Merle Travis, who in later
years even came by to visit Ernie.
Sunny Ciesla wrote in a 1946 column that she had run into the Sagebrush Serenaders
when they were in Los Angeles to do their recordings for Veltone. She said they
were "talented and nice looking boys" and got an interesting interview from them
and Foreman Bill. We also learn that Hugh Cameron recorded a tune
called "Bless Your Heart" that was written by Harold Hensley and Hank Penny.
Backing Hugh was the Sagebrush Serenaders on the Veltone recording.
She also told the readers in the National Hillbilly News that
the group had a show over KTRB in Modesto at 5:15pm, six days a week.
Ernie told us that the Maddox Brothers and Rose had a show that followed theirs at that time.
Ernie also recalled that they had some troubles traveling down to Los Angeles for the
recording session and nearly missed it.
Initially, we learned from Rusty, KTRB was not interested in booking the Sagebrush
Serenaders. But as the ban grew in popularity, Bill Bates, the main person
at KTRB came to the Sagebrush Serenaders and was not practically begging them to
appear on his station.
During their stint at KTRB, they met up with Roy Acuff, the King of Country Music. Roy
was getting ready to do a tour of the central valley and wanted to tap the local
musicians as a way of getting the word out. He gave Rusty a dub of a song
called "Jole Blon", a tune that many country music fans would recognize instantly when
they hear its distinctive melody. Roy encouraged the band to learn the song
because he felt it was going to be a big hit. But, Rusty notes that the Sagebrush
Serenaders thought the song was a bit too "hillbilly" for their liking; they were
more inclined to the tunes that Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys were doing at the time.
Rusty wrote several of the songs that the group recorded. The one that seemed to gain
the most attention with the audiences was a tune called "Cowboy Bugle Boy" which did
rather well until the Andrews Sisters issued their hit, "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy".
Ms. Ciesla mentioned she saw the group again at the Palace Barn Dance one night
and noted that the folks enjoyed several of their tunes, including one that
got her attention, "Rendezvous Bend", that was written by Rusty.
Mr. Kenoyer recalls that Rusty had written the song at home.
While they were driving up to Los Angeles for their opening dance,
Rusty told us about the tune he had recently written. Ernie stopped the car
and Mel got out and went back to the trailer that they used to haul their equipment with
and got a guitar out and they practiced it on the way and used it for their opening number.
The owner was really surprised and happy about that.
Rusty wrote several other songs among the most notable were — "I`m Human Same as You", and
"Were You Pretending" and both went over fairly well with the audiences.
-a-way. For the best steak and ribs in town, go to Ernie`s !!!
After Jack (Curly) Lloyd left the group to work with Bob Wills, someone introduced Rusty
to a young singer by the name of Del Reeves, who was then stationed at the Castle Air
Force Base and happened to be from Rusty's home town in North Carolina. Del played some
guitar back then, but was mostly known for his vocals. He joined the Sagebrush Serenaders
for several months, sharing lead vocal duties with Rusty.
While they were working at the Riverbank Clubhouse, John MacDonald, a local promoter of country music,
told Del to go to KTRB to make some dubs with the local band. But that session was
going to cost him $2.50, a pricey deal for Del since he was still in the military
service at the time. But, Rusty came through and loaned Del the money. The recording
was sent to Capitol Records where they were interested enough to sign him to a recording
contract. Life went on and Del became a member of the WSM Grand Ole Opry. But he
never repaid that $2.50 loan from Rusty and never saw or spoke to Rusty again.
The Riverbank Clubhouse saw quite a few legends go through its doors and entertain
the country music fans in the central valley. Rusty remembers it was near an overpass,
which may be today's winding road near downtown. Do a search on the venue - you will find
that folks such as Hank Williams, Bill Carter, Rose Maddox came through the area and
After World War II was over, the dance business slowed down. The Sagebrush Serenaders
decided to disband but a couple of them started little groups and were playing in various
night clubs, where most of the dancers had gone.
After Ernie left the Sagebrush Serenaders, he opened a bar and steak house out on McHenry
called Ernie's Hide-a-way that a slogan, "For the best steak and ribs in town, go to Ernie's!!!".
Rusty got a second job as a disc jockey on a local Modesto station, KBOX, that was
located in downtown Modesto near Tenth and L Streets. He used "Rendezvous Bend" as
his theme song. He was known to the listening audience as the Barnyard Philosopher.
He wrote many of the commercials and some he even sang over the air.
As far as Ernie knows, only Rusty Bertolero and himself are still around from that
original band. The Luke brothers went first, then Jack Lloyd, and Mel Morrison went recently.
Timeline and Trivia Notes
Group Members included:
- George (Rusty) Bertolero, vocals, guitar
- Ernie Kenoyer, piano
- Jack Lloyd, bass, vocals
- Bill (Shorty) Luke
- Leroy Luke, steel guitar
- Mel Morrison, fiddle
- Other Members:
- Larry (last name unknown), fiddle
- Grover Jackson, guitar
- Marvin Steenburgh, guitar
Credits & Sources
- Hillbilly-Music.com wishes to thank group member, Ernie Kenoyer,
for contacting us and sharing his memories of the era and the group.
- Hillbilly-Music.com wishes to thank Myron Bertolero, Rusty
Bertolero's son for contacting us and sharing his father's recollections of the group,
their recordings, anecdotes and additional photos.
- National Hillbilly News; January 1947; Poster Show Print Co.;
|Sound Sample(RealAudio Format)