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 several others.
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 on weekends.
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 with drums.
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 performed.
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
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Credits & Sources
Sound Sample(YouTube Video Format)
Appearance History This Month
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