Around 1923, a group of musicians in Stillwater, Oklahoma, began playing as the Billy McGinty Cowboy Band. William McGinty, an old-time cowboy who had ridden with Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, formed the band to preserve the music of the Old West and hired Otto Gray (b. 2 March 1884, Ponca, on the Ponca Indian Reservation, in Indian Territory, Oklahoma, USA, d. 8 November 1967) as the band’s manager. Little is known of Gray’s early years but at the time McGinty hired him, he was a successful rancher. An adept promoter, he soon found the band work, only to discover that the original members would not tour.
A talented fiddle player, Gray formed his own Oklahoma Cowboys, which included his wife (Mommie) as the featured vocalist and his son Owen, by recruiting genuine cowboy musicians working on Oklahoma ranches. They first broadcast in 1924 on KFRU Bristow, but later played on KVOO Tulsa and KFJF Oklahoma City and went on to play countless radio stations all over the USA. With shrewd organization, Gray assembled a show that featured, in addition to the music, himself and Mommie doing trick roping and whip cracking, a trained dog and speciality musical items. He publicized the show by advertising in national magazines such as Billboard, sending publicity men ahead to forthcoming venues and by using booking agencies in Chicago and New York to co-ordinate the band’s appearances on various entertainment circuits. At one time their show was carried by over a 100 radio stations. Very likely the first touring cowboy stage show to perform genuine cowboy songs, they were also probably the first ever group to use custom-made cars to transport them on tour. Gray’s personal vehicle, a $20, 000 Cadillac, was even equipped for radio transmissions.
By the time Gray finally disbanded the group (and disappeared into obscurity) in 1936, he had inspired other country groups to dress as cowboys, he had popularized ‘western’ music and he may even have been a candidate for the title of the first singing cowboy. It is probable that Gray’s Cowboys were an inspiration to Bob Wills, who moved to Tulsa to organize his Texas Playboys. Gray was the first western star to have his photograph on the cover of Billboard magazine. Two of his Cowboys, Zeke Clements and ‘Whitey’ Ford (Duke Of Paducah), went on to successful solo careers.