About The Artist
Harry C. McAuliffe (some records indicate his name may actually be Hamilton Christopher Aliff), best known on stage as Big Slim, the Lone Cowboy, gained his greatest fame from his nearly three decade membership on the World's Original Jamboree at WWVA in Wheeling, West Virginia. Slim was a native of Bluefield in the southern end of the state. Slim was already a veteran entertainer when he came to the Jamboree although many of the details remain somewhat sketchy. Furthermore, his own comments about his life tend to be contradictory.
Slim's parents were John and Minnie McAuliffe. Although he claimed to have been orphaned at age eight (it seems to have been only his mother who died then) as he described his father as "a horse and cattle dealer who owned a 750 acre farm at the foot of East River Mountain." The same song book from 1939 also contained a picture of his father identified as having "worked circus and cowboy shows over the U. S. A." and been "raised and schooled with Tom Mix, our best friend." While some of this may be true, the fact that elder McAuliffe was eleven years older than Mix makes some of this highly unlikely.
According to one story he was a mule driver in World War I and started in radio at KDKA in 1920 (which if true must have been shortly after the station took the air). He also claimed to have started in radio in 1929 which seems more likely. At some point he married Mary Louise Dolby and fathered three children: H. C. Jr. nicknamed Billy (1925), Phyllis (1927), and the youngest Roy. Through a later marriage he had another son Kenneth.
At other times Slim worked as a cattle driver in Wyoming, as a railroader in the west, and as rodeo performer. He also worked as a horse trainer, a profession he continued even after becoming a full-time radio artist. He aspired to get into motion pictures, but was doomed to disappointment.
On April 1, 1931 at 9:00pm, Big Slim and His Lone Star Rangers made their debut over radio station KQV in Pittsburgh, PA. A news brief indicated they would do a half hour of mountaineer and barn dance songs. Jack Deane, a locak caller, was to be the emcee of the show. A couple of weeks later, the Radio Log for KQV was showing "Big Slim and His Lone Star Rangers" in that time slot. By December of 1931, he was also appearing on WWSW as well.
In December 1936 he recorded four songs for Decca, released under the name "Big Slim Aliff", but soon cut up a fellow in a knife fight in some altercation involving his wife. News stories indicate that Slim had his suspicions and when he came home and found man who was a boarder at his home with his wife Martha, he got mad; stabbed him and hit him over the head. He was an auto mechanic during the times he was not performing. This resulted in being sentenced to the Allegheny County Workhouse starting March 19, 1937, perhaps for six months.
Released, he joined Doc Williams' Border Riders at WWVA Wheeling as a temporary replacement for the injured Rawhide Fincher. After the latter's recovery, Slim became a Jamboree and WWVA regular, remaining there for the rest of his life with a few interruptions.
During absences, he took extensive tours through the USA and Canada, and continued as a horse and dog trainer. He also became known for assisting younger aspiring musical figures including Hank Snow, Hawkshaw Hawkins, and Toby Stroud who began his career as a fiddler for Big Slim.
Somewhere in the early 1940s Slim's marriage to Mary Louise terminated and he remarried a blonde-haired singer and equestrian known as "Blue-Eyed Hazel." Based on an old booklet from Big Slim, this appears to be Hazel Hawley who Slim says was their trick and fancy rider, and secretary. Doc Williams' oldest daughter Barbara recalls her as being quite attractive and equally good with horses. However in the midst of a Canadian tour with Hank Snow, this marriage also came to a sudden end and so did the tour.
In 1942, research discovered a review of Big Slim's late night show over WWVA ... "can be caught by the late-hour listener in New York. The review is written perhaps with a disdain towards the type of music, a bit of city slicker snobbery. "The program is conducted by a gentleman styling himself Big Slim, the Lonesome Cowboy, but if he's lonesome it's probably his own fault." The reviewer, Eugene Burr, goes on, "Some of his folksy chatter is so pointlessly and synthetically homespun that even an addict of American folk music (this addict, to be specific) is hard put to it to wait for the next song." Then he gets to what he thought of his singing. "As for the singing, Slim does okay with the aid of his guee-tar, sticking chiefly to the synthetic and new numbers, at least on the program caught." The reviewer did note that one of the staples of the program was handling requests from listeners. He summed up the review, "It sounds a lot better, tho, to a listener who happens to be allergic to most dance bands."
Big Slim stepped away from radio programs for a couple years, doing rodeos throughout the states and Canada. He returned to WWVA in the summer 1944. He had been there two months and managed to win the loving cup that was given in July as the most popular cowboy singer and mail draw. At the same time, Hazel Hawley was said to have given up rodeos for the time being.
This tour may have occurred in the summer of 1946. Billboard reported that Slim had plans on opening a big tent show in Canada in June, July and August of 1946; it would have all of his horses and mules along. Mention is made that after closing the show with Hank SNow, Slim would go back to Ottawa and Montreal for recording and movies.
During research some articles in local newspapers promoting an upcoming appearance by Big Slim and others would offer some hints as to the type of entertainment folks would see. A 1939 article told readers that Big Slim was "...a cowboy who will sing and do tricks with a bull whip such as snapping a cigarette out of a person's mouth." In 1940, we learn that "...all sorts of feats will be performed and Big Slim's trained horses and mules will cavort over the high school stage in special tricks."
In 1945, Billboard reported that Big Slim and Hazel Hawley had been featured for a couple years with their high school horses and mules on the Hollywood Thrill Show. They spent the winter of 1945 at WWVA and as the article went on "...pouring out their cowboy and hillbilly corn, which is drawing a big fan mail."
In 1946, Billboard told readers that Big Slim was handling chores on WWVA's The General Store program and apparently was quite popular. He had a book of his songs that he would give away with one of his sponsor's products. The article went on to state, "...his songs seem to have that 'old-time' touch to them. It mentions his breeding and training horses and pointed out that his favorite was Golden Flash, who had appeared in technicolor films with him.
Big Slim left WWVA in November of 1946. He was going to operate the Circle K Ranch, located near Norristown, PA. He was to have a radio program over the new station there as well as over WDAS in Philadelphia. That 1946 article mentions he had done two movies in Canada. The first one was "The Last Of The Mustangs." The next one, "The Calgary Stampede" featured his horse, Golden Flash.
Slim continued with the Jamboree and about 1947 recorded some numbers for Buddy Starcher's short-lived Dixie label (not the later Starday affiliate). The Dixie label was formed in the summer of 1947. Herb Goddard was president, Buddy Starcher was VP and Isaac Hardesty was secretary-treasurer. The label also signed Dolph Hewitt, Arizona Rusty, Dick Hart, the Franklin Brothers, the Mayse Brothers, Mac and Bob. It was headquartered in Marietta, OH.
On August 30, 1947, the WWVA Jamboreee put on an open air 'rodeo jamboree' on Wheeling Island. A crowd of over 5,000 took in the entertainment. The show featured Big Slim and Golden Flash as well as his clown mule; Curly Miller and his trick horse; Hallie Miller's horse, Danny Boy along with Hawkshaw Hawkins' Palomino horse.
Billboard did a review of two of Slim's Dixie releases (Dixie 113 and 114):
"Big Slim on his first four sides for this new label, gets some first-class Western material and does a topnotch job with it. Currently heard over WWVA, Wheeling, WV, the rustic singer displays a versatile voice in handling a sad ditty, like 'Foggy River', the Fres Rose standard, and coming back on the flipover to do a good comedy job on 'Hannah', a hillbilly take-off on 'Open the Door Richard.' Slim does his best job on 'Billy Venera,' a melody epic, about a cowhand who stopped an Indian raid singlehanded. Tune is a cinch for good consumption, especially in the Southwest. 'What Is Life' is an up tempo and Slim doesn't seem to find this rhythm his best vehicle, with who performance shoddy.
Johnny Sippel in his Billboard "Folk Talent and Tunes" column told readers in late August 1948 that Big Slim had recently married Bebe Bernard, a trick and stunt rider. The mention seems to imply they were married before an audience of 5,800 at Gene Johnson's Golden Oaks Park.
In September of 1948, readers learn that Big Slim had bought another Palomino high school horse, which meant his stable then included three Palominos, a spotted horse and two trained mules.
In 1949, Big Slim also did recordings for the for the Johnstown, Pennsylvania-based Page Records label. These numbers included his best-known song "Sunny Side of the Mountain" that had already been cut by both Hank Snow and Hawkshaw Hawkins. The latter also did Slim's "Moonlight on My Cabin" and the topical "When they Found the Atomic Power." In the 1950's, Big Slim did four sides for the Audiosonic label and an EP of Jimmie Rodgers numbers.
Mary Jean Shurtz wrote of a visit with Big Slim and his group after a personal appearance in Carollton, OH. After the show, the group all went to Mary Jean's home and stayed the night. The next day, Big Slim went out with some coon hounds he was interesting in obtaining. Mary Jean and her husband raised coon hounds and had a reputation for them. Big Slim got one. Mary Jean also tells readers who Big Slim's band was - the Oklahoma Boys. Tony Rowe played the accordion, Dave Day on guitar and Jimmie Grey on fiddle and guitar. Big Slim's wife, Bebe, handled the emcee chores while Big Slim would do his horse riding and other animal tricks. Bebe's horse was named Trigger Gold.
The Liner notes of an album on the Arc Records label indicate the label signed him while he was on a visit to Toronto. An album entitled "Big Slim The Lone Cowboy (ARC 523) was recorded. The band accompanying him on the album was the Golden Valley Boys. The band members included Dick Bradimore on steel guitar; Claude Bradimore on rhythm guitar; Bill Gibbs on bass; and, Don Penny on electric Spanish guitar and fiddle.
In May of 1949, Billboard reported that Big Slim and his wife Bebe Bernard were going to Pittsburgh, PA. He was going to have a show over radio station WPIT and forming a new band that would be called The Oklahoma Boys. There was also mention of a plan to take his troupe on a tour of Canada that summer. Later in the year, readers learned that Salt and Peanuts had joined Big Slim at WPIT along with Jimmie Walker's Western Stars.
In September 1949, "Little Kenny", the then two-year old son of Big Slim and Bebe Bernard (promoted as the "Annie Oakley" of West Virginia) was to make his first appearance on stage at Hillbilly Park.
Big Slim also wrote quite a few songs. One song was one called "Hannah" that he had a hit with.
As noted elsewhere, it was similar to the tune "Open the Door, Richard." During research,
we found he wrote the lyrics for the Great Speckled Bird (No. 4), changing the words from
the familiar tune that Roy Acuff sang. The lyrics were found in a Billie Walker booklet.
The lyrics for those tunes are below:
Other songs that Big Slim is shown as song writer (usually under the name of Harry C. McAuliffe, Big Slim McAulife, Big Slim)
Big Slim continued playing the Jamboree and touring into the middle-sixties although his health was declining as can be seen from the photograph on the cover of his first album on the Canadian label Arc. Nonetheless, he continued to make two more long play albums for that company. He died at the home of friends in Waterloo, New York in October 1966. According to his obituary in the Wheeling Intelligencer, he had been in ill-health for five years, but continued to play as long as conditions permitted. His funeral took place in Wheeling's First Nazarene Church with interment in Greenwood Cemetery.
Big Slim's father, John Washington Aliff, died on March 19, 1946; born on May 22, 1879. Census records from 1910 indicate the family name was Aliff. Hamilton Christopher Aliff was 8 years old on the census records; this is probably Big Slim.
Big Slim married to Martha Dolby. They had three children, Hamilton Aliff, Jr., Phyllis Aliff and Roy Aliff. He was married at one time to Bebe Bernard (The Annie Oakley of West Virginia); they had one son, Kenneth.
Credits & Sources
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