Saturday, February 23, 2008

Pittsburgh's Riders Of The Purple Sage

buck page
Buck Page from Politeo Net

Pittsburgh has regularly produced popular jazz, doo wop, soul, rock, pop and even hip hop sounds. But did you know that it was the home of a country legend? (And we're not talking Poverty Neck Hillbillies or Slim Forsythe, either!)

Born in Pittsburgh on June 18, 1922, Buck Page started playing string bass and rhythm guitar on the radio at 11 with a western band called The Valley Ranch Boys. Cribbing from the title of a Zane Grey novel, he formed the original Riders of the Purple Sage in 1936 when he was 13. It was a house band under contract to KDKA Radio, and they did five hour-long studio shows every week for the next three years.

Page and the Riders moved on to New York City, where they continued their national broadcasts for WOR Radio and became regular performers at a club called the Village Barn. They toured fairly extensively, too. The act, which they had honed in Pittsburgh, was more than country music. They had vaudeville routines, bull whip tricks and sharp shooting exhibitions as part of their repertoire.

During World War II, while Page was in the Navy and his fellow band members were all in the service, singer Foy Willing started a band on the West Coast that he called The Riders of the Purple Sage. Zane Grey must have gotten a chuckle out the ensuing confusion. And The New Riders of the Purple Sage weren't related to either old band.

Willing's group, which was active into the 1950s, is the one that became famous. The band had a string of hit records and appeared in a slew of oater movies. Page wasn't even aware that there was another Riders of the Purple Sage until he moved to the coast in the fifties.

Fortunately, Page's Riders didn't get back together after the war, and most people never knew there were two of them twanging out songs. The Steel City group never recorded, so that simplified matters - there were no royalty checks to fight over. He and Willing eventually ran across one another and the two formed a lifelong friendship. So much for a grudge.

Page, who could play 21 instruments, worked as a session musician in California. He played guitar on the original recording of the theme song for the TV series "Bonanza" and also served as a studio musician for the shows "Wagon Train" and "Laramie." He picked up some bit parts in movies, too.

Page revived his Riders of the Purple Sage in the early 1960s after the second gang had broken up. With a shifting cast of players, they recorded three CDs and performed at clubs and western festivals. Page's first solo recording, "Right Place to Start," was released in December 2005, 72 years after he broke into the business. He was backed by the Daughters of the Purple Sage.

In the 1960s Page also worked for the Baldwin Piano Company and helped their engineers develop the Supersound amp. Over the years, Page owned and trained thoroughbreds and quarter horses as a hobby. What else would a Pittsburgh cowboy do in his spare time?

He was awarded the Country/Western Living Legend Award from the North America Country Music Association in 2001 in recognition of his long career in country music.

His last public concert was held in July 2006 in Scottsdale, Arizona, where he performed before a crowd of several thousand people during the National Day of the Cowboy benefit. Buck Page died in Burbank a month later at the age of 85. He was eulogized as "...the last of the great singing cowboys."

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